He was often the first to arrive and the last to leave. He led students on class trips to exotic places, treating them to cookies and milk at bedtime.
That was the public persona of William Vahey, carefully crafted over four decades until a maid cleaning his home in Nicaragua stole a 16gb memory drive. There, in photograph after photograph, was evidence the teacher had molested scores of boys in a career spanning 10 schools on four continents.
The discovery of a man the FBI regards as a most prolific paedophile has set off a crisis in the closeknit community of international schools, where horrified parents are being told their children may have been victims, and administrators are scurrying to close teacher-vetting loopholes revealed by Vahey’s abuses.
“With the sheer volume, the sheer number of incidents in which this man molested, it surprises me that somehow this was not picked up by someone,” said John Magagna, the founding director of Search Associates, the world’s largest international school recruiting firm. “I don’t know what went wrong.”
Apparently, not even Vahey’s victims knew they had been molested. The Oreos that he handed out at bedtime on the overnight trips were laced with sleeping pills — enough to leave the boys unconscious as he touched them, and posed them for lewd photographs.
Vahey, a 64-year-old native of West Point, New York, attempted suicide in Nicaragua after his maid stole the drive. He survived, but took his life on a second try, stabbing himself to death in Minnesota on March 21 and leaving hundreds of former students wondering if they were abused.
There were decades of missed opportunities to expose Vahey. An early California sex-abuse conviction didn’t prevent him taking a series of jobs working with children. Colleagues and supervisors failed to question why he was so often with boys overnight. And at least twice, boys fell mysteriously ill while under his care and there was no investigation into Vahey’s role.
In 1969, Vahey, the son of a decorated Second World War pilot, was arrested on child sexual abuse charges after police said he pinched the penises of eight boys, ages 7 to 9, at an Orange County high school where he gave swimming lessons.
Vahey, then 20, told authorities he had started touching boys without their consent at age 14, when he fondled a sleeping teen on a Boy Scout camping trip. He said he touched sleeping boys four more times before the arrest.
The psychiatrist diagnosed Vahey with an “inadequate personality”, but added that the disorder did not predispose him to sexual offences dangerous to others. The court even allowed Vahey to start work as a public school teacher’s aide after his arrest.
Vahey pleaded guilty to a single charge of lewd and lascivious behaviour. He received a 90-day jail sentence and five years’ probation, with a condition that he should be supervised in the company of males younger than 16 during that time. After two years on probation, he was allowed to leave the country unsupervised.
Vahey began his international teaching career with a year at the American School in Tehran in the run-up to Iran’s oil boom, the first in a series of stays around the Middle East and Europe. He taught in Lebanon, Spain, Iran again, Greece, and then Saudi Arabia.
By the time he arrived in Saudi Arabia, Vahey was married and had two sons with Jean Vahey, a woman who became a widely respected administrator in international education.
In the meantime, one of the men molested by Vahey in the Westminster, California, swimming pool as a 9-year-old boy said that learning what had happened since then revived terrible memories.
“It certainly bothers me that a person like that would be left unsupervised and obviously not tracked over the last 45 years now,” the man said. “I find it troubling. I guess the question is: How can the system allow that to happen?”