SIERRA VISTA — Recently released disciplinary files of two Buena High teachers who were accused of uttering sexually inappropriate remarks to female students at the school show that one of the instructors was under investigation by state education officials and the other — who committed suicide in September — had complaints about his behavior materialize as far back as 2008.
The records, released to the Herald/Review last week — the newspaper requested the documents on Sept. 22 — by an attorney representing the Sierra Vista Unified School District, are the disciplinary files of former Buena High teachers Louis F. Espinosa and Timothy Wells. Wells committed suicide on Sept. 9 after a woman went on social media on Sept. 7 and posed the question, “Anyone else been sexually assaulted by the teacher Timothy Wells?”
That query set off consternation not only at the school, but within the community as a handful of women who once had Wells as a teacher began telling their stories of being the object of Wells’ attention in and outside the classroom.
Six women who are now between the ages of 20 and 28 and who attended the school between 2012 and 2020 told the Herald/Review about being sexually harassed by Wells. One of the women, the 20-year-old, recounted the jarring details of her experience with Espinosa when she was 14.
The disciplinary records received by the Herald/Review show that Espinosa was under investigation by the state’s Department of Education in May 2017 after the agency’s investigative unit learned of Espinosa’s lewd comments toward the 14-year-old girl, as well as other activities he had been involved in when he ran the high school’s bookstore.
Wells’ disciplinary file shows an instance in September 2008 when he was sent a letter ordering him to “suspend your class MySpace page until further investigation and assurances that the necessary safety for students and teacher protection is in place. The last thing we want to accrue is for random pages like the one we visited in our meeting on Friday Aug. 29, 2008, to reoccur where students would have the opportunity to view. This could be very damaging to you personally and professionally.”
The next disciplinary move was a letter sent to Wells in May 2013 titled “Letter of Direction and Imposition of Discipline” regarding Wells braiding the hair of a female student in class, and then on another occasion hugging the teenager in the hallway when she confided she was upset because she failed to be chosen for the school choir, the letter says.
“I find these two situations to illustrate a lack of sound judgement on your part with regard to appropriate interaction between teachers and their students, specifically between you, a male teacher, and a female student,” said Kriss A. Hagerl, associate superintendent of the Sierra Vista School District at the time. “Your actions fueled the already-present rumor mill regarding your perceived inappropriate behavior with students, both present and past.”
Espinosa resigned from Buena in August 2017, records show. At the time, Principal Dawn Maddock wanted to fire him, but the Sierra Vista Unified School District Governing Board declined to take action against him at a special meeting in late July 2017, records show. As a result, Maddock ordered Espinosa to stay home with pay and to not contact any of his former students or their parents. A former Army captain who at one time was stationed at Fort Huachuca, Espinosa resigned soon thereafter, documents show.
The girl who complained against him, only 14 and a freshman at Buena when her experiences with Espinosa happened, told the Herald/Review — she also documented it for school officials — that Espinosa invited her to his house for a pool party and told the teenager that he wouldn’t mind seeing her walk naked around his residence, documents show.
During another incident, Espinosa reportedly told the girl that the best way to relieve stress was by having an orgasm.
Even though her encounters with Espinosa occurred five years ago, the woman, in a telephone interview with the Herald/Review earlier this year, sounded shaky, stopping a couple of times to regain her composure during the conversation.
“This is still hard for me to talk about,” she said.
She said she had obtained a harassment injunction against Espinosa in Cochise County Superior Court Division IV in June 2017, records show. That was after the state began investigating Espinosa. In her request for the injunction, the teenager recounted each instance Espinosa said something inappropriate that made her feel embarrassed and confused, the report shows.
“It was so odd that he would say things like that,” the woman said to the Herald/Review in her phone interview. “He also started telling me about his sex life and how he had caught his wife being unfaithful to him. He told me that he had asked his wife if she would let him join in (having sex).
“He told me he could teach me a lot of things,” the woman recalled. “He said he could teach me how to give (oral sex).”
The woman reported Espinosa’s comments to Sierra Vista Police.
In the state Department of Education’s letter to the Sierra Vista Unified School District, investigator Donna Logan said: “The investigative unit of the Arizona Department of Education is currently investigating Louis F. Espinosa Jr. as the result of an allegation of unprofessional conduct. It is alleged that Louis F. Espinosa Jr. is violating staff ethics by gifts to and solicitations by staff member and staff conduct with students.”
Wells, 46, shot himself in the head on Sept. 9, his body found face-down at Miller Canyon along one of the most highly-traversed trails. Other teachers named by some of the women according to social media chatter still remain at Buena. The Herald/Review is not naming those teachers, but did ask for their disciplinary files and was told there were none.
The social media post that may have fueled Wells’ death has since been taken down. But the former students who told their stories to the Herald/Review regarding the remarks Wells had made toward them — one of the women said she had two sexual trysts with the teacher — were almost identical even though the women, having graduated in different years, did not know each other.
At the time of his death, the school district confirmed that an investigation into Wells’ continued actions with female students had been started before his demise. No information about that probe could be obtained for this article because the district and the schools are on Thanksgiving break this week.
While the first claims of sexual harassment by Wells were taken to Sierra Vista Police in 2011, the parent of one girl at the high school told the newspaper she had complained about him in 2010.
Even though he was suspended at one point for a day because of his behavior, Wells remained employed as a teacher at Buena High School until his death.
Records provided by the school district’s attorney titled, “Staff Termination Personnel Action Request for Wells, Timothy D,” and dated Sept. 13, shows that Wells was terminated and the reason was “deceased.” The paperwork also shows that Wells was not eligible to be rehired.
Sierra Vista Police Chief Adam Thrasher said the agency had received three reports over the years about Wells and other teachers’ inappropriate comments and behavior, but the department could not file charges because none of the claims were criminal offenses.
Tuesday morning, Thrasher confirmed the police investigation remains open. Thrasher said recently it would remain open to allow former students or current ones to come forward with complaints. If any of those claims are criminal in nature, charges could be filed.
One of the parents who contacted the Herald/Review recently said her complaint was made in 2010 when her daughter — a sophomore at the time — was a student in a social studies class taught by Wells. The mother was a teacher at Joyce Clark Middle School in Sierra Vista and she told other teachers, as well as the administration at Buena, what had happened to her child.
The parent said her daughter told her Wells would force her and other female students to stand in front of the class so that he could determine if their shorts were too long or too short.
“I told the administration and they said they would just remove her from his class,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous so her daughter would not be identified. “They would just respond with, ‘Oh that’s just him,’ but nothing was ever done. They would move the kids around, but they never removed him.”
The parent said she also spoke to Jacqui Clay, now superintendent of schools in Cochise County. Clay was working at Buena at the time.
Clay recently told the Herald/Review the situation with Wells and other teachers who are not being named by the newspaper is out of her realm. She said it should be dealt with at the district level.
Jacqueline Moran, a parent whose daughter still goes to Buena attended a Sierra Vista Unified School District board meeting to air her complaints about the inappropriate remarks Wells had made to her daughter three days before Wells took his life.
According to another Herald/Review reporter, Moran was the only person who showed up at the board meeting to express concern about the situation with Wells and other instructors at the high school.
Moran said her daughter, who had just turned 18, was told by Wells in front of other students that this was the age where she lost all innocence. The daughter also said Wells would “look her up and down” and made inappropriate remarks about her relationship with her boyfriend.
Unsatisfied with the reception she received at the board meeting, Moran began sending emails to Sierra Vista Unified School Superintendent Eric Holmes. Moran wanted a face-to-face session with Holmes. After her second request, she received a response from a district employee who said she could meet with Holmes for 30 minutes.
“I am pleased and satisfied with the outcome,” Moran said in a telephone interview several weeks ago.
At a meeting in October, Holmes told the Sierra Vista Unified School District governing board that the district had appointed two Title IX sexual harassment coordinators to oversee all sexual harassment claims.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a comprehensive federal law that prohibits sex discrimination (including pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity) in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
Additionally, Holmes said that “decision-makers” determining sexual harassment claims will come from an outside third-party agency in an effort to maintain transparency.
He also said he has started the process of implementing a “working group” at Buena and Joyce Clark Middle School that would include administrators, social workers, counselors and student government leadership that would educate students about recognizing and reporting sexual harassment incidents.