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Dirty Secrets: 13 years after abuse, victim helps put teacher in jail

Monday, November 01, 1999

By Jane Elizabeth Zemel, Post-Gazette Education Writer

ST. LOUIS -- When "Oprah" ended and the 5 o'clock news began, Marianne Mudd-Meeker tuned out the television -- until the phone rang. "Turn on the TV," said her ex-husband, calling from his home in a nearby town. His tone was urgent; she hung up the phone and turned up the volume.

The news announcer was saying that a music teacher at nearby Rolla High School had just been arrested for molesting his students.

That teacher was John Christopher Lizotte. At one time, hearing his name would have made her cry. Not this time. Mudd-Meeker picked up the phone and called police.

Chris Lizotte, she told them, had molested her when she was his 13-year-old music student.

"He thought I would keep quiet, but it was always my mission to catch him," said Mudd-Meeker, now 26. With his arrest, now maybe someone would believe her. "My word and my word alone never would have held up."

At age 13, Marianne Hutsell's parents were divorced and her father was remarried. Fueled by her mother's anger, she decided she hated her stepmother. With typical adolescent drama, she ran away from home. Her refusal to live with either of her parents began a tumultuous, three-year succession of foster homes.

  Marianne Mudd-Meeker sits on a trampoline in her back yard in Hollister, Mo., surrounded by newspaper stories about the music teacher who molested her when she was 13 years old. (John Stewart/Ozark (Mo.) Stock)

The turmoil also made her a ripe victim for a 24-year-old music teacher who liked to have sex with young girls.

When she ran away, Marianne missed a few days of classes at Mountain Grove (Mo.) High School before being placed in a foster home. Nervous about falling behind in her favorite subject, she explained her absence to her new band teacher, Chris Lizotte.

Lizotte told her, "I have a good listening ear, anytime you want to talk about it," she recalled.

Marianne was pleased that the talented, charismatic teacher seemed interested in her problems. "I was so flattered by that," she recalled.

A music fanatic and dedicated trombone player, Marianne began staying after school to make up for the instruction she missed. Lizotte was attentive and friendly. "He was interested in anything and everything in my life," she said.

One day, alone in his office, he asked Marianne to give him a neck rub. She did.

Soon it became back rubs. Then a light kiss. Marianne, who had never even had a date, wasn't sure what she was feeling, "but I was pretty sure it was a romantic kiss."

The next kiss lasted 10 minutes.

On Valentine's Day weekend 1987, Lizotte's wife was out of town. He took Marianne to his apartment, where she lost her virginity to one of the most popular teachers in school.

She was 13. She thought they were in love.

With Marianne's placement in foster homes came mandated therapy sessions. Not once did she mention to a therapist that a teacher was having sex with her. Not once did she tell anyone that she kept leaving foster homes because the foster parents didn't allow her the freedom to see Lizotte whenever he beckoned.

For instance, he would call her in the evening and ask her to meet him at the school. He'd tell his wife he was going for a jog, then run to the school and unlock the door that led to the band room. He propped open the door with a rolled-up rug so that Marianne could get in, and she would lock the door behind her.

Other times, they would leave school at sixth period -- her study hall, his free period -- go to his apartment, and return to school in time for seventh period.

Their intimate relationship continued while Marianne turned 14, then 15. Not well-versed in birth control, she trusted Lizotte when he told her the withdrawal method would work. She believed him when he complimented her on her musical talent. She sat first chair in the trombone section. She qualified for state competitions.

She called him Chris when they were alone; Mr. Lizotte when they weren't. When she acted up in music class, he never reprimanded her.

In the meantime, her caseworker decided that Marianne would be better off in a residential school rather than constantly changing foster homes.

Against her will, Marianne entered a residential school in Joplin, a 2 1/2-hour drive from Mountain Grove. On her best behavior, Marianne stayed only six months and returned to Mountain Grove, eager to see Lizotte.

But he no longer seemed interested. She believed he had another "girlfriend." When he demoted her to third-chair trombone, she realized that "all he wanted me for was sex. I hated him. I felt used and manipulated."

Angry and hurt, Marianne confided in a school friend, and both girls went to the principal to report Lizotte. When nothing happened, she and another friend went to the vice principal's office and complained.

Still, Lizotte remained at the school. At one point, he told Marianne that no one would believe her story because of her troubled past.

Two months before her 16th birthday, Marianne dropped out of Mountain Grove High School.

After Marianne left the school, her life was riddled with mistakes and poor choices. She purposely became pregnant at 16 and entered into a bad marriage at 17. She left her husband, Dondie Mudd, after about three years of marriage and supported herself and her baby son, Tristen, by working as a waitress and clerk in Branson. During the off-season at the entertainment resort, she drew unemployment benefits.

And she thought constantly about Lizotte, who was still the band director at Mountain Grove. A few times, she drove to his home with Tristen and a tape recorder in tow, planning to get some sort of confession from him on the hidden tape.

"I chickened out each time," she said. "I thought he would touch me and find the tape recorder."

Lizotte moved to Rolla, Mo., in 1990, to take a job as band director. (Later, Lizotte would say in a sworn statement that he had been encouraged to take the job by the principal at Mountain Grove, after Marianne reported that Lizotte had molested her.)

Around the same time, Marianne Mudd began dating Russell Meeker, the manager of the restaurant where she worked.

She married him when she was 20; he was 39.

In 1993, the couple moved to Hollister, Mo., near Branson, and later had a baby girl, Kylie, now 19 months old. While her husband goes to work as a manager for Cracker Barrel restaurants and 9-year-old Tristen goes off to school, Mudd-Meeker runs a small day-care center in her home.

She had told both of her husbands about Chris Lizotte. But the two men never encountered Lizotte because he had moved to Rolla.

It was football night in the fall of 1994 at Rolla High School. Just before the band was about to begin playing, a teen-age boy walked up to band director Chris Lizotte.

He screamed at Lizotte to stay away from his girlfriend.

Parents and students in the stands overheard the confrontation. Not only did a parent report the incident to school officials, four girls came forward with accusations against Lizotte.

One of the girls looked just like Marianne Hutsell -- long chestnut hair and brown eyes. Another girl told school officials how Lizotte would prop the band room door open for her with a rolled-up rug.

And each girl had believed she was the only one.

Lizotte was arrested in November 1994, and eventually faced 129 sex-related charges.

The case dragged on for 12 months. After Mudd-Meeker called police to report Lizotte's actions at Mountain Grove seven years earlier, investigators, prosecutors and Lizotte's accusers had to travel between Rolla and Mountain Grove. A change of venue was granted after one judge called Lizotte a "scumbag," while hundreds of Lizotte's supporters held fund-raisers for his legal defense.

Every step of the way, Lizotte professed his innocence.

But the day before Thanksgiving 1995, Lizotte's attorney said the teacher would plead guilty.

A plea bargain reached by Lizotte, his victims, and their attorneys allowed him to plead guilty to a total of 17 counts of deviant sexual assault. The younger girls, Mudd-Meeker said, couldn't handle any more of the publicity and the legal proceedings. After watching the teen-agers undergo questioning by Lizotte's lawyers -- an experience she described as "horrible" -- Mudd-Meeker had "pretty much decided that any jail time was good enough for me."

Lizotte was sentenced to two 20-year sentences, to run concurrently, at Eastern Missouri Correctional Center in Pacific, Mo. His wife left him and took their young child. He will be eligible for parole in 2004, but Mudd-Meeker, the other victims, and their parents plan to appear at every parole hearing.

"I guarantee you that I will track him for the rest of my life," said Mudd-Meeker.

At Lizotte's sentencing in November 1995, Mudd-Meeker read a statement:

"I deserved a high school diploma," she said, "but not wanting to deal with you led me to drop out of school.

"I will never have the memory of ever going to a high school prom with a real teen-age date. Instead, my memories of my youth will be how you took advantage of me."

Later this month, Mudd-Meeker has a hearing scheduled in a civil lawsuit she filed in 1996 against Mountain Grove officials and Lizotte. Even though two former students testified that they were with Mudd-Meeker when she reported Lizotte, Mountain Grove school officials so far have continued to deny any knowledge of Lizotte's behavior. Last month, two of Lizotte's other victims settled their lawsuit for $150,000 each.

Rolla school officials also are suing Mountain Grove, saying the school should have told them about the allegations against Lizotte.

"If the school had done something, I would have had a different band teacher, I would have gotten scholarships, I would have had a career in music," said Mudd-Meeker.

Instead, she fights depression and panic attacks, and can hardly bear to hear the marching band practice at the high school near her home. She thinks about getting a high school diploma, but can't convince herself to go back into a classroom.

"I have had a lot of hostility and anger," she said. "It's so easy for people to say, 'Oh, get over it.' But it's not resolved yet, and it won't be over until it's resolved."

She and her husband live comfortably and don't need the money from the lawsuits, she said. But winning the civil suit would help bring closure for her, she said, and a large award should catch the attention of school officials across the country.

If she is awarded any money, she said she plans to use it to help educate parents, students and teachers about abuse; and donate funds to S.E.S.A.M.E. Inc. (Survivors of Educator Sexual Abuse and Misconduct Emerge), a non-profit, New York-based organization formed to support victims.

Mudd-Meeker wrote to the 13 school districts in her area, volunteering to speak to board members and administrators about what happened to her -- and how it might have been prevented. She included her home phone and cell phone numbers, her mailing address and her e-mail address.

No one called.

"People just don't want to admit it's a problem," she said.

She also hopes the publicity will convince young girls who are being seduced by a teacher that the relationship isn't love -- it's wrong.

"I know how they're dying inside."

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