Thursday, January 18, 2018
Public safety

Wife of former Pasco elementary teacher accused of sex with student shares story of lies, manipulation

Michael Lander came home from work one day in 2008 with a story.

Then a teacher at Schrader Elementary in Port Richey, Lander often shared tales of his students over dinner. This one was different.

A 12-year-old girl, about the same age as his stepdaughter, had been placed in his fifth-grade class. Her mother, he told his wife, Jennifer, was a drug addict who had homeschooled her for years. When he asked students in the class what they wanted to be when they grew up, the girl said this: "I'll end up swinging around a pole like my mother."

Time passed and the stories worsened.

The girl's mom, he said, didn't want her. She needed a place to stay, to be loved. He suggested she move in with them.

The timing was bad. After six miscarriages and a stillborn, Jennifer was pregnant with the son they so desperately wanted. The couple had two girls already. Money was tight, but he wanted to help. It was the girl's only chance, he said, the right thing to do.

His wife believed him.

• • •

Jennifer will soon offer that same memory in court. Her husband, facing possible life in prison, is charged with four sex crimes, including lewd and lascivious battery. The Times isn't naming the girl because of the nature of the charges. The trial starts Tuesday.

A few days ago, from a dim living room in her Land O'Lakes home, Jennifer shared her family's story — and all that she somehow missed as it unraveled.

Her husband's attorney, citing the case, declined comment.

The couple met in their early 20s. He had dimples and a dry humor. She was pretty and petite, with a bright face that could have belonged to a teenager.

Jennifer had a 5-month-old girl, Autumn, and he embraced her, his "kiddo." He changed diapers and watched Disney movies. She wore "Daddy's Girl" shirts.

On a visit to his father's condo in New York, Autumn toddled up to Jennifer with a box in hand. Michael dropped to one knee.

Those years were good. Nights searching the sky for the brightest light. "Our star," Lander called it. Weekends by the pool, his wife pruning the roses he had planted for her one Valentine's Day.

"Like, dreamy," Jennifer said. "Who wouldn't want that?"

• • •

Lander and his wife signed the temporary custody paperwork at an Amscot around March 2008. The girl's mother didn't say much. No one did. It almost seemed too simple.

What Jennifer didn't know was that a month before, the principal at her husband's school had filed a letter that said the girl "seemed unusually enamored" with him. Staff members saw her run her finger down his arm and whisper in his ear.

A year earlier, school officials had questioned his judgment after he won a radio station's "Homeroom Hottie" contest. They worried students might have voted.

It was harmless, he insisted.

• • •

To Autumn, the girl was a new playmate. They shared a room and stayed up late. They painted their nails, talked about crushes.

"We were best friends, seriously," said Autumn, now 19. "I kind of showed her how not to be so grownup. She wore lots of makeup … skimpy clothes."

Life deteriorated for Jennifer. The girls fought with her. Lander seemed disinterested in the pregnancy. He wouldn't kiss or hold her hand in front of the girl. Seeing affection, he said, made her uncomfortable.

On March 10, 2008, the principal filed a letter of reprimand, repeating previous concerns.

Lander resigned four days later, saying the family was moving to South Carolina, something they had considered. But he told Jennifer he quit because a vindictive assistant principal wanted him fired over a menial mistake during a Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

His wife believed him.

Soon after, Lander planned a trip to South Carolina to look for a new teaching job. Because Jennifer worked days as a bartender, he intended to take Autumn and their houseguest. At the last minute, Autumn couldn't go.

Jennifer allowed him to travel alone with the girl. When they returned, his wife found thigh-high stockings. Incensed, she called the police.

The girl, he said, was a cutter. She wore the stockings to cover her scars. He scolded Jennifer for embarrassing the girl.

The police left.

His wife believed him.

• • •

In May 2008, Jennifer found porn on his computer. She had caught him with similar material before, sometimes labeled "barely legal," but he said she was overreacting.

Jennifer walked to the kitchen, pulled his lasagna from the oven and smashed it. The girl mentioned the outburst to her mom, who then moved her back home.

With the girl gone, Autumn, for reasons she can't explain, became her stepfather's confidante. Lander, she said, told her that he had kissed the girl, that he was in love with her, that he intended to run away with her.

He continued seeing the girl as her tutor, normally while Autumn was at school and Jennifer was at work.

One night, Jennifer thought the girl and Autumn were on the phone together, so she picked up another line to tell them a joke.

Instead, she heard the girl ask her husband if they could start their next session early.

"We actually need to get some tutoring done," he said.

"Yeah, then we can play?"

Jennifer interrupted

"Play what?" she said. "Like, Monopoly," the girl responded.

Jennifer ripped the phone line out of the wall. She told Lander the girl wasn't welcome at their home anymore. Later, he showed her an email in which he told the girl the comment was inappropriate. He accused Jennifer of overreacting again.

His wife believed him.

• • •

On the day of his son's birth, Lander seemed himself again. He coached his wife through labor. He cradled his boy. He sent pictures to relatives.

That evening, he left the hospital to take his daughters home. On the way, he picked up the girl.

They all watched a movie, then the girls went to bed. The next morning, Autumn saw the girl, wearing pajamas, come out of the master bedroom.

"She told me she wants me to be her first," she recalled Lander saying later. "I told her no."

Weeks later, as Jennifer shopped for a rocking chair at a Babies "R" Us with her mother-in-law, the cellphone rang.

The girl's mom told Jennifer she had found sexually explicit emails. Jennifer sped home to confront her husband.

Lander collapsed to his knees — but still denied it.

Blackmail, he said. The girl and her mother were after money.

The girl had come that night because Autumn begged him, he said. His daughter didn't deny it. He had asked her to lie for him.

Lander, Jennifer said, convinced her that the girl might have put something incriminating on his computer. Together, the couple drove the streets of Brooksville, tossing broken computer parts out the window.

Because his wife believed him.

• • •

Months passed. Life improved. But the past nagged her. Jennifer asked him on New Year's Eve 2008 if he had made a mistake. She said he told her the girl had grabbed his crotch once in their kitchen, and it "partially aroused" him. Jennifer vomited.

It was just once, he said. She came onto him, he said.

His wife believed him.

In a fateful, unrelated twist, however, the law still intervened.

Lander and his wife began flipping appliances to make money after he quit teaching. Once, they walked into an unlocked, foreclosed house. No one would miss those appliances, the couple decided, so they took them.

The thefts continued until 2010 when they were caught by Hernando County deputies. Lander, now 40, took a seven-year plea to protect his wife. She got probation.

But with her stepfather gone, Autumn's secrets spilled out.

The girl went to authorities around the same time.

Jennifer stopped believing her husband. She knows she was naive — blind even. She struggles to say what she wants done to him. She suspects he's mentally ill.

Jennifer has filed for divorce but has not had him served the papers. She can't explain why.

In March, she visited him in prison. Jennifer shared photos of their children, even forgave him. She just couldn't hate her husband anymore.

"You," she told him, "still have my soul."

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Tony Marrero and researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

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