NEW PORT RICHEY — Lisa Marinelli was seeking potential suitors for her teenage daughter, authorities say, when she informed one 16-year-old boy that he had made the list.
But they say Marinelli, a substitute teacher at Mitchell High School, soon developed her own relationship with the boy and had sex with him on multiple occasions.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office arrested Marinelli, a 40-year-old married mother of two, on Monday and charged her with unlawful sex with a minor.
But Marinelli's friends and relatives say authorities got it wrong. They say Marinelli did not have a sexual relationship with the boy but did have a motherly one: She helped out the teen, who was a friend of her daughter's, when he was struggling with problems at home. They say he is telling detectives things that aren't true.
"Lisa felt sorry for him," said Marinelli's mother-in-law, Madeline Marinelli, "and she treated him like one of her own."
Family friend Deborah Marsh said the boy "seemed like he was a needy kid."
"It's not the boy that's the victim," she said. "It's Lisa Marinelli."
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Pasco detectives say they've got a good case, built on strong circumstantial evidence, including text messages and cell phone records. Here's their version of events:
The boy's father contacted the Sheriff's Office on Feb. 28. He told authorities that he had gone to his son's workplace the day before and saw Marinelli and his son getting out of the backseat of her vehicle. His son was pulling his pants into place. "He had previously been wearing a belt," Detective Michelle March said.
The boy told detectives that he and Marinelli had been seeing each other for two to three months. After she told him he was "on the list" of potential suitors for her 15-year-old daughter, Marinelli and the boy began spending time with each other. "Mutual flirting occurred," the affidavit says.
He was invited to her home on multiple occasions. At one point, according to the affidavit, they drove to a location in the nearby Longleaf subdivision and made out. During this encounter, which lasted less than 30 minutes, Marinelli said several times, "This is bad" and that she should not be doing it, the report says.
After that, the pair saw each other regularly. Sometime in early January, authorities say, Marinelli and the student had sex at her home. Authorities say the two had sex about 10 more times after that.
Investigators say the relationship is documented in suggestive text messages. On Feb. 27, they say, Marinelli sent the teen a message that says, "U can meet me at home at 3. Real men only need 20 min!"
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No one answered the door at Marinelli's residence Tuesday, and she did not return phone messages. While her friends and relatives could not explain everything contained in the sheriff's report, they say they don't believe it's true.
And they say there may be some explanations. For instance, Marsh, the family friend, said Marinelli's daughter may have sent text messages to the boy from her mother's phone.
Madeline Marinelli said her daughter-in-law told her on the phone Monday that she had been a friendly acquaintance of the boy's parents at one time. She said Lisa Marinelli told her that the boy's father might have misinterpreted something though she wasn't sure how or why.
Marsh said the crisis had brought the Marinelli family closer together, and that Marinelli's husband is standing by her.
"It's totally out of character," Marsh said of the allegations against her friend of 15 years. "She has no interest in being with teenage boys. She's got a husband that loves her."
Madeline Marinelli said Lisa has volunteered in the schools since her children were young. Lisa's husband, Brian, is in the car sales business, she said, and with the downturn in the economy, the family needed another income. That was when Lisa decided to pick up a job as a substitute teacher.
(Marinelli is not a certified teacher. She has only a high school diploma, according to the school district.)
Madeline Marinelli said she was devastated to see her daughter-in-law's mug shot on the television news Monday night.
"Before she goes to court, she is already considered guilty," said Madeline Marinelli. "And that's terrible."
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Marinelli has been a substitute teacher at Mitchell since last fall. Her background check turned up no criminal record. She also attended two days of substitute training in August. That training included a review of the Instructional Substitute Teacher Handbook, which covers such subjects as maintaining professional relationships with students.
Once the school district learned that the Sheriff's Office was investigating Marinelli, it removed her from its substitute list.
Before that time, she had worked 113 days as a substitute, mostly at Mitchell High but also a few days at Seven Springs Middle.
"We do what we can, and as soon as we realize that a police investigation is going on, we take swift action," assistant superintendent Renalia DuBose said.
Early Tuesday, Mitchell principal Ric Mellin held a staff meeting to explain what was going on. He sent a letter about the case home to parents and addressed the student body, too, letting them know what details he could release and telling them counseling is available if needed.
Marinelli's daughter, who attends Mitchell, went to school on Tuesday. Student services director Lizette Alexander said the teaching staff was alerted to make sure the daughter, like all students, got appropriate help if needed.
"We have got to be in a preventive mode," Alexander said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614.