Everything about the case against former teacher Vanessa Baker has been messy, emotionally charged and out-of-the-ordinary. It was no surprise then that her sentencing Friday for sexual crimes against a 15-year-old girl was unusual and dramatic, as well.
Not only did the victim testify on Baker's behalf but — right as the judge began to pronounce sentence — the Reston schoolgirl burst into tears and began crying loudly and hysterically and had to be removed from the court by the bailiffs. The judge then sentenced Baker, 27, of Centreville, to 10 months in jail for crimes against nature — consensual sodomy.
In doing so, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Arthur Vierreg Jr. exceeded the state sentencing guidelines which — because Baker had no prior criminal record — came out to probation. But he could not ignore the gravity of her offense, and he explained to her his reasons for the punishment.
"You took advantage of a position of trust with a child in the school system," he said. "You had influence over her life ... and perpetrated on her a crime that irreparably affected her and her family — perhaps more than she realizes at this time."
Baker, of 6103 Montjoy Court in the Sunset Ridge community, taught two years in the county school system. She was in her second year of teaching physical education at Langston Hughes Middle School and was the freshman girls basketball coach at South Lakes High when police arrested her, June 12. She both coached and taught the victim.
Charged with statutory rape and custodial indecent liberties, she was released on $10,000 bond. She was also suspended from her jobs without pay and was later fired. At her preliminary hearing, July 26, in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, her charges were amended to two counts of carnal knowledge of a female child, and the grand jury later indicted her on both counts.
ABOUT TO STAND TRIAL on those charges, Jan. 27, Baker instead pleaded guilty in Circuit Court to an amended charge of crimes against nature — consensual sodomy. But her downward spiral to a jail cell began sometime during the 2001-02 school year when she first became involved with the girl — then 14 and a freshman at South Lakes. (Centre View is not identifying her because she's a minor and a victim).
The teen-ager was on her school's freshman basketball team, and the affair had started while she was an eighth-grader at Langston Hughes. According to defense attorney William Tabot, in spring 2002, the student "bragged to a friend about the special relationship that she had" with an older woman, and her confidant reported it to the school's police officer.
The information then went to the police department's Criminal Investigation Bureau, and Det. Daniel Bibeault began surveillance of Baker. He watched as Baker dropped the girl off at her Reston home and, once, he saw the girl hug and appear to kiss the Centreville woman. On June 7, 2002, the girl spent the night at Baker's home.
Bibeault talked to the teen's parents, a few days later and, on June 11, he and Det. Sean Perkins confronted Baker — who's married and has a daughter, 7 — outside her home.
She then admitted that the relationship had become sexual during Christmas break 2001 at her home, while her husband and child were out of town and she and the girl were watching a romantic movie together in her home. Kissing and fondling led to oral sex, at least once a month, in both Baker's home and the teen's home. Their last time was June 7.
In court in January, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Katie Swart said Baker contended that she wasn't homosexual or bisexual. "She said she knew it was wrong and shouldn't have happened," said Swart. "She said she tried to end the relationship several times, but [the victim] didn't want to." Tabot said the girl had personal problems about her sexuality and Baker had advised her to talk to her parents about it.
In court Friday, the teen-ager testified on Baker's behalf. "I know that what happened was against the law," she said. "I want the court to know it was consensual. Vanessa Baker gave me lots of positive support and helped me go through [some tough times]. I'm sorry for what happened and, if she gets probation, I promise I won't go near her."
But Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Ben'Ary called it a serious case aggravated by several factors which warranted Baker being sentenced above the guidelines. He, too, stressed that Baker was a school-system employee in a position of trust and authority over the community's children "at a susceptible age."
"THE VICTIM IS A CHILD; the defendant is an adult — and she betrayed that trust in an inexcusable way," said Ben'Ary. "The responsibility in this case lies with the defendant. It was her responsibility to avoid improper and illegal conduct."
He also noted that, although the conditions of Baker's bond prior to sentencing required her to have no contact with the victim, when the girl went to Baker's home on April 10 to talk to her one more time, Baker allowed her to come inside.
"There's no adequate safeguard that can be imposed to [protect] the community," said Ben'Ary. "The court can't control the actions of the victim, but [it can do something about Baker's]." He then asked Vierreg to impose a jail sentence because "the community had expectations of her, and she abused [that faith placed in her]."
Even defense attorney Tabot acknowledged that "this was a serious breach of societal norms." But he asked the judge to take into consideration Baker's spotless past and the positive impact she's had on other students.
The girl sat in the courtroom's front row and leaned forward with her head on her hands as Tabot recounted many of the kind things written to Vierreg about Baker by her former students and classmates. One wrote how Baker supported her through a difficult time; another called her "the best role model [she] ever had."
Tabot also quoted from the victim-impact statement in which the girl admitted that she initiated the relationship and knows how to get her way when she wants to. "I'm not going to tell you that was OK," he said. "Mrs. Baker takes full responsibility ... and she has shown considerable remorse and contrition."
"She has already lost her career, her marriage and — as a convicted felon — ordinary civil liberties, such as the right to vote, that we take for granted," he continued. "She will never teach again, or coach — all of that is lost."
Tabot noted, too, that Baker has a 7-year-old daughter who depends on her so, if the judge decided to incarcerate Baker, he suggested electronic monitoring at home. Then, as the victim sobbed silently, Baker stood and apologized. "I took for granted what I had," she said. "I'm very sorry for everyone I've hurt."
Vierreg said that, while Baker has many positive things on one side of her ledger, her offense deserved serious treatment. He then sentenced her to five years in prison but, before listening to the rest of his words — in which he suspended all but 10 months of that time — the victim began crying uncontrollably and the judge ordered her removed from the courtroom.
HE ALSO PLACED BAKER on five years probation and forbid her to have further contact with the victim. He ordered her to receive sex-abuse counseling and polygraph testing and, within 10 days of her release from jail, to register with the police department as a sex offender for placement into the Crimes Against Minors registry. She'll also be fingerprinted for that list and must re-register with the state police, as necessary.
Afterward, Ben'Ary said the judge was justified in exceeding the guidelines and he was pleased that Vierreg recognized the aggravating circumstances. "It's definitely a sad case, and I hope [the girl] and her family will be able to bounce back from it," he said. "I think the judge made the right decision."
Tabot, too, said it was a fair sentence. "Once you get yourself in a situation like this — no matter how much the juvenile party professes how aggressive she was — no one buys it because the adult is the responsible party," he explained. "Considering that the charge started as statutory rape — for which Mrs. Baker could have gotten 20 years — and then became nonforcible [consensual] sodomy, punishable by one to five years, I think she did well."