RIVERVIEW — Joe Zuniga figures he was the right person to tell the story of an attempt at a new life by Debra Jean Beasley Lafave — the blonde, blue-eyed, middle-school teacher who had sex with a 14-year-old student in 2004.
Zuniga, 41, runs a marketing and a fashion company and has achieved success as a writer and performer of Latin music. He is scheduled to appear at 7 p.m. Sunday during the Florida State Fair in Tampa.
But he started out working with his Mexican family on Florida's farms and fields and spent five years in prison for drug trafficking.
He believes in second chances.
Debra Lafave: A Crown of Beauty for Ashes is Zuniga's first book, born of the acquaintance he struck up with Lafave a decade ago through his sister, Cris, 45, when the two worked at a local clinic. Zuniga also attended Ruskin Elementary School with Lafave's older sister, who later died in a crash caused by a drunk driver.
Zuniga, who lives in Riverview, said he got Lafave's okay to write the book and she provided him information for it. But she does not want to read it or do media interviews, he said, because she wishes to maintain her privacy.
His intention in writing the book was not to subject Lafave to more attention and criticism but to expand his audience's knowledge about the rest of her life now that she has grown emotionally and spiritually.
"She is very good-hearted, and she does a lot for other people," Zuniga said.
He said a portion of the proceeds from book sales will go to the nonprofit Ruskin Community Development Foundation.
The 112-page book is at least the third arising from Lafave's tawdry tale. One was Gorgeous Disaster: The Tragic Story of Debra Lafave, written by ex-husband Owen Lafave and published in 2006. The other, published in 2014, was Tampa, the first novel by Alissa Nutting of Ohio, who attended Bloomingdale High School in Valrico with Lafave.
The title of Zuniga's book was inspired by Isaiah 61:3 in the Bible, which encourages comforting others. The whole passage reads, "and provide for those who grieve in Zion — to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair."
The cover of the new book features an image of Lafave, now 36, and a butterfly, symbolizing the transformation toward happiness she has undergone since she remarried and had twins. She lives in Ruskin, helping out her parents at a small business — and breeding butterflies.
Lafave was timid in childhood, according to the book. Throughout her later childhood and adolescence, she experienced trauma including phobias, alimentary disorder and depression. She was raped at 13 and has been treated for bipolar disorder, according to the book.
She always wanted to be a teacher. She taught reading to her Barbie dolls. She graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in English literature and went into teaching.
She met her 14-year-old victim at Greco Middle School.
The boy later told investigators he had sex with Lafave on a number of occasions in June 2004, according to court documents. One time, they were in a car as his cousin drove them around, he told investigators.
After her arrest, Lafave lost her teaching certification and her marriage to Owen Lafave. She could have gone to prison for 30 years but the victim's mother did not want to subject the boy to the national news coverage a trial promised to generate.
Lafave entered a plea deal and was sentenced to house arrest, probation and treatment as a sex offender. A judge ended her probation four years early, in 2014.
"She clearly is sorry for what happened," Zuniga said. "She has remorse for the damage she did to the young man, his family and her family as well, because they also suffered."
Zuniga divides his time between Tampa and Monterrey, Mexico. He grew up listening to music genres such as Tejano, country, R&B, hip hop, merengue, salsa and bachata. Now, he is focused on creating a new grupero style.
He has performed with several Florida bands as a keyboard player and back-up vocalist, and recently recorded his first single, Atado A Tu Amor — Tied to Your Love. He received a Tejano Globe Award for the song.
Zuniga's success traces to turning his life around after prison.
"I was a little boy and I had no experience, especially in the courts, and I was very ignorant of the law and my rights," he recalled.
He apologized at the time to his mother, Maria, and promised her that when he finally was free he would work to become the son she deserved.
"My mom told me that I did not have to apologize for anything — that I have always been a good son to her, that I had made a mistake and nobody is perfect. She was proud of me."
His mother died in January 2015. He graduated in May from the University of South Florida with degrees in economics and political science.
Zuniga identifies with Lafave, he said, because he also made wrong decisions in life. In her case, though, she must continue living with them — checking in with authorities every month as a sex offender and enduring scorn in public from people who still recognize her.
"A lot of people think that they are already free of everything, but to her everything that happened still affects her," he said. "There are always people who make ugly faces."
"For me," he added, "judging is for God."
Contact Daysi Amaya-Danker at [email protected]