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Mother testifies in trial of ex-teacher accused of sex abuse

LARGO — The woman came looking for her daughter one day in the spring of 2008.

Months earlier, she had signed over temporary guardianship to the girl's fifth-grade teacher, Michael Lander. Her daughter, then 12, had been home-schooled for most of her life. She was behind in school and had behavioral problems. Lander had told the woman that he could help. He had convinced her that the girl should move in with his family so he could tutor her.

But something, the woman told a jury on Wednesday evening, prompted her to want the girl back, so she showed up to Lander's Dunedin home unannounced.

He was shocked to see her, she said. The woman told him she wanted her daughter back.

"Absolutely not," she recalled him saying. "No, you're not taking her. … I'll call the police."

But the woman talked her way inside. She asked Lander if she and her child could go to Taco Bell and talk. He consented.

She and her daughter didn't come back.

Lander has been charged with four sex crimes against the girl and is facing possible life in prison. The Tampa Bay Times isn't naming the girl or her mother because of the nature of the charges.

The trial began Wednesday, and the woman was the first witness.

She first met Lander at a parent-teacher conference. He seemed nice, and she appreciated his interest in her daughter.

The girl's home life, she told the court, wasn't ideal. The family had been homeless at least twice. Their water and power had recently been shut off. The woman didn't have a job.

So when Lander, who had a 13-year-old stepdaughter, offered to let the girl move in with him — to give her the education she so badly needed — the woman didn't hesitate. She signed paperwork that gave guardianship to Lander and his wife, Jennifer.

"I was overwhelmed," she said, "but excited."

Soon, though, Lander had quit his job at Schrader Elementary in Port Richey and the girl had been withdrawn so he could home school her full time. The woman didn't remember who had chosen to take her out of school.

He also talked of moving his family to South Carolina, and he told the woman he wanted her daughter to go with them.

That never happened. She took her daughter back.

But, she said, Lander was persistent. He emailed her new paperwork at least twice, asking that she sign it and bring the girl back. She refused.

Weeks later, she testified, a family member found sexually explicit emails between Lander and the girl. A detective interviewed her daughter, but nothing came of it. The girl denied that anything inappropriate had happened.

Years later, though, the girl came forward with a different story. Lander was charged in 2012.

Assistant State Attorney Christopher Klemawesch told jurors that the abuse had gone on for months. The two first had sexual intercourse, the prosecutor said, on the girl's 13th birthday, while his wife was at work and his two children were in another part of the home.

Lander, 40, showed no emotion Wednesday. Wearing thick glasses, a light blue shirt and a dark tie, he jotted notes and occasionally whispered to his attorney. His attorney, Andres Sanchez, offered few specifics in his opening statement, but he implored the jury of six women to pay careful attention to the witnesses. He said there would be discrepancies in their testimony — enough to raise reasonable doubt.

Earlier, Sanchez had tried to explain why the jury contained all women — seemingly a disadvantage for the defense — to a pair of Lander's family members sitting on the third row.

He told them not to worry.

"That doesn't necessarily mean," he said, "they're going to believe this girl."

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

Mother testifies in trial of ex-teacher accused of sex abuse 10/02/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 3, 2013 12:55pm]

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