About to stand trial Monday on two charges of carnal knowledge of a female child, Centreville's Vanessa Baker, 27, pleaded guilty, instead, to an amended charge of crimes against nature — consensual sodomy.
Doing so spared the now-15-year-old victim the ordeal of a trial, pretty well sealed Baker's fate as a teacher and coach in two Reston schools and enabled her to avoid the scrutiny of a jury that may well have included some parents.
Her attorney, William Tabot, said afterward that Baker chose to enter a plea rather than have a trial because "we believe there's substantial evidence that may go against her if a jury heard it." She will be sentenced in April.
Baker, of 6103 Montjoy Court in the Sunset Ridge community, taught two years in Fairfax County's 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.
Charged with statutory rape and custodial indecent liberties, she was later released on $10,000 bond. She was also suspended from her jobs without pay. At her preliminary hearing, July 26, in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, her charges were amended to two counts of carnal knowledge, and the grand jury later indicted her on both counts.
Monday morning in Circuit Court, in exchange for Baker's guilty plea, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Katie Swart amended one charge and agreed to drop the other. Baker actually entered an Alford plea of guilt, meaning she doesn't admit any guilt, but acknowledges that enough evidence exists to convict her of the crime of which she was accused.
"Are you entering [that] plea freely and voluntarily?" asked Judge Arthur Vierreg Jr. "Yes," she replied. Swart then presented details of the case against her. She said, sometime last spring, the girl — then 14 and a freshman at South Lakes — told her school's police officer that she was dating an older woman.
"She said the woman wanted to end the affair, but she didn't," said Swart. "She said the woman told her it would be OK once she was 18. [The girl] was on the freshman basketball team at South Lakes, and the affair had started while she was in the eighth grade at Langston Hughes."
The school resource officer reported the case to the police department's Criminal Investigation Bureau, and Det. Daniel Bibeault began surveillance of Baker. "He saw the defendant drop [the girl] off at [the girl's] house," said Swart. "One time, he saw [the girl] lean into [Baker's] car window and hug and appear to kiss the defendant."
Swart said the girl — who Centre View is not identifying because she's a minor and a victim — spent the night of June 7, 2002 at Baker's home. Bibeault talked to the teen's parents, a few days later, but the girl wouldn't talk to him. Then on June 11, he and Det. Sean Perkins spoke with Baker — who's married and has a daughter, 7 — outside her Centreville home.
"The defendant said she was [the victim's] basketball coach and her teacher, the prior year, and denied that it was more of a relationship than that," said Swart. "[Baker] said she was only mentoring her." Bibeault then told Baker the teen had told others she'd been to Baker's house and had sexual relations with her. He also revealed his surveillance of the teacher/coach.
"[Baker] then admitted the relationship had become sexual during Christmas break  at her home," said Swart. "Her husband and child were out of town, and she was all alone. [The girl] had come over to watch a movie with her and, during a love scene, [the girl] asked if she could kiss [Baker] and Baker gave in."
Swart said the woman fondled the teen's breasts and they then disrobed and engaged in oral sex. "The defendant told the detective she did it first to [the girl]," said the prosecutor. "She told him they did it at least once a month, since December, usually at her home — but twice at [the girl's] home."
The last time was June 7, said Swart, when the victim's sister dropped her off at Baker's house — believing it was a girlfriend's home. "The defendant said she wasn't homosexual or bisexual," said Swart. "[She] said she knew it was wrong and shouldn't have happened. She said she tried to end the relationship several times, but [the victim] didn't want to." And until recently, added Swart, the teen maintained that nothing had happened: "She said she still cared for the defendant."
Judge Vierreg then accepted Baker's plea, saying, "I find there's substantial evidence of guilt." He also advised her that she could be incarcerated for one to five years. Swart said no agreement was made as to sentencing, but she wouldn't move to revoke Baker's bond at this time. It means the Centreville woman will be free until April 11 when she's sentenced. However, as a condition of her bond, she's not allowed to have any contact with the victim.
Afterward, Baker's attorney, Tabot, called it "unfortunate" that his client finds herself in these circumstances. "In a statutory charge, you don't have to be the initiator [of a crime] because it involves a minor," he explained. "And there's no doubt that Mrs. Baker should have used better judgment not to put herself in such a situation."
Tabot said the girl had personal problems about her sexuality and Baker was mentoring her and advising her to talk to her parents about it. "All along, the juvenile had been denying that anything had happened," he said. "But then she started talking to prosecutors."
Regarding Baker's status in the county schools, spokesman Paul Regnier said Monday he can't speak about specific personnel matters. But, he added, "In general, conviction of a crime is one of the reasons why a school-system employee may be terminated."