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Ex-music teacher asked about abuse

A former band director invokes the Fifth in a civil lawsuit alleging molestation.

Nearly two years after a molestation lawsuit was filed, former music teacher Oeida Hatcher was sworn in earlier this month, and asked to respond to allegations that she molested female students years ago.

The deposition shed no new light on the case.

Hatcher, the former Northside Christian band director, declined to answer most of the questions, opting instead to invoke her Fifth Amendment right to avoid incrimination.

"I wouldn't attach a lot of significance to that," said Walter Smith, one of Hatcher's attorneys. "It's more of a strategic move to prevent the plaintiff from asking questions the court still needs to rule on."

The plaintiffs, however, interpreted Hatcher's silence as casting a large shadow over her previous denials.

"I read a lot of significance into it," said the plaintiffs' attorney Thomas McGowan, whose law firm also represents the St. Petersburg Times in First Amendment cases. "One of the things she took the Fifth on was a sworn statement from two years ago in which she denied the allegations.

"She won't answer a question about whether that sworn statement was truthful? I think that's significant."

The lack of progress in the deposition changed little in the case, which remains at a standstill.

Hatcher's lawyers continue to argue that the allegations are untrue. Even if they were true, they say, they happened so long ago (11 to 22 years ago) the statute of limitations would render them legally moot. They're hoping the judge will agree with them _ soon.

On the other side, McGowan and the alleged victims _ now grown women _ still hope to hold Hatcher and the school accountable for things they say happened so many years ago.

Criminal investigation

Not long after she left her position at Northside Christian, Hatcher left town. Now, 52, she lives in a small town in Virginia where she has an unlisted phone number. She is pursuing a doctorate.

Hatcher left behind quite a legacy. She was the heart and soul of the top-notch Northside Christian music program. During her 25 years at the school, Hatcher's band students performed around the nation, collecting countless awards along the way.

In late 1997, that legacy was tarnished by shocking allegations from six of her former students.

Five of them wrote letters to the school, explaining what they say happened to them when they were students. The allegations dated to 1977 and as recently as 1989, and included everything from inappropriate comments to fondling and molestation.

The school immediately placed Hatcher on leave and passed the allegations on to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Soon she was back in the classroom, though the school required an escort with her at all times.

A sheriff's detective investigated the accusations and concluded that Hatcher could not be charged _ not because he didn't believe the accusers, but because the incidents allegedly happened so long ago.

Hatcher and the school still face civil lawsuits filed by the accusers and their parents, who sued the school for breach of contract for failing to protect their daughters. Though the judge dismissed several counts last year, the matter still is far from resolved. The case could turn on the question of the statute of limitations, the issue that ended the criminal investigation.

"We believe the court will dismiss the claims," Smith said. Much of the defense thus far has centered on the incidents allegedly having happened a decade or two ago. That's why Hatcher's lawyers advised her not to even answer questions about what happened.

"If you don't get by the technical defenses," Smith said, "you don't even get to the substantive issues."

But McGowan and the plaintiffs still hope to prove their claims in court, even if some of the depositions yield no new information.