Nebraska teacher Kelsey Peterson thought that one day she'd have her perfect life: husband, kids, white picket fence. But instead, a judge sentenced her Monday to six years in federal prison.
That's because last October Peterson was on the run to Mexico with one of her former students, whom authorities said was 13 years old at the time of their relationship.
"If I could go back and be that person that I was supposed to be, I would do it in a second," Peterson said in an exclusive jailhouse interview with ABC News.
The person she was supposed to be, in her words, is "that teacher that got married, had a family and, you know, that normal, white picket fence, small town all-American girl. That's the life I wanted. That's all I wanted."
The sixth-grade schoolteacher comes from a stable family. "My parents were high school sweethearts; they grew up in small-town Nebraska," said Peterson.
"That's the life I'm used to. Nobody in my family is divorced, no one drinks, no one smokes. I mean, I grew up in this really Christian we-don't-do-things-wrong kind of family, and that's all I wanted.
"And yet, I made choice after choice after choice that didn't allow that to happen, and I have to pay those consequences, and I understand that," she said.
The choices Peterson made started when she began a sexual relationship with then 12-year-old Fernando Rodriguez, a sexually-active sixth-grade student with a crush on her.
"I remember him specifically asking me in the middle of class one day if I would marry him," she recalled. "And I can remember really being caught off-guard and laughing about it and saying, 'look me up when you're 18.'"
Trusted by Students
Peterson was living with her family and teaching middle school math in Lexington, Neb., a town of 12,000 in the heart of the Cornhusker State.
Less than 10 years before, she was a student there herself. Returning to Lexington after college in nearby Kearney, she quickly became one of the school's most popular teachers. Students began to recognize her as someone who understood their problems.
"A lot of them, if they find someone they trust, they want to hang out with you or talk to you. And I had a lot of kids that knew they could trust me and held a lot of confidence in me," she said.
In Rodriguez, Peterson saw a student with promise, but also signs he was a gang member.
"Something drew me to him. I think more than anything it was, 'I can change this guy. I can make this person a better person.'"
But Peterson's lawyer said Rodriguez had something else in mind.
"From the beginning, he was trying to entice her. There's no question about that," James Martin Davis said. "He would try to kiss her, he would grab her, he would do these things. She didn't initiate this relationship. That young man did."
ABC News' Andrea Canning interviewed Rodriguez last summer. He was in the United States illegally during his school years in Lexington and during his sexual relationship with Peterson. Since his former teacher's arrest, Rodriguez has returned to the United States on a special visa for crime victims.
But his attorney, Amy Peck, had a different take on the situation. "It's not normal for a 26-year-old to have sex with a 12-year-old," she told ABC News as part of that report. "It's pedophilia, plain and simple."
'Whoa, This Isn't Right.'
Peterson said she initially rejected advances from Rodriguez.
"I said no to the whole situation numerous times. That's what makes me think, 'Why did I ever give in?'" Peterson told ABC News.
She described the first time she said Rodriguez kissed her, in the kitchen of her house.
"I was shocked, I was totally shocked," she said. "I can remember thinking, 'Whoa, this isn't right.'"
She admitted she was aware of his age at the time but said he didn't seem that young.
"I got to the point where I didn't see him as some 13-year-old boy," she said. "He stood taller than I am and probably a good 30 pounds heavier than I am. He's a good 5-8 and a good 170 pounds. So I didn't look at him like he was some little boy."
But in the eyes of the law, Rodriguez was only a boy, a minor.
"In some ways, I think I lowered my age and he raised his and we met somewhere in the middle. Because I wasn't acting the way I would normally have acted as a 24-year-old woman. I wasn't thinking the way a normal 24-year-old would be thinking at that moment, but he also wasn't some 13-year-old little boy either."
"That left, it wasn't there anymore. He wasn't just a kid. He was a man. And he was the man in my life," she said.
When school started in September 2007, Rodriguez was in seventh grade -- and sleeping most nights at Peterson's house. She is a single mom, but her 5-year-old daughter spent weeknights with Peterson's parents in a nearby town.
Peterson was living a double life, and becoming increasingly isolated and withdrawn. She said no one close to her knew what was really going on, though she claimed Rodriguez' parents knew about and approved of their relationship, something the Rodriguez family denies.
She said, "I thought I was doing this really great job of living this undercurrent life and making it all nice and pretty on top." They used residential streets as they drove across the town in her Pontiac and hid their relationship from her family and friends.
"I thought I was doing a good job of covering it all up."
Her lawyer said Rodriguez dominated the relationship.
"He used to tell her what she could wear. And whether she could wear makeup and the length of her skirts in terms of where they were gonna go and what they were gonna do," Davis said. "He had a very, very strong influence over her in terms of controlling her behavior."
"I just know I got to the point where I didn't think I could live without him, and he always told me he didn't think he could live without me, and this is the life I'm in and I don't know how to get out anymore," Peterson recalled. "I honestly didn't know how to get out anymore."
"It got to the point where I didn't care anymore," she added. "I quit caring about anything. I quit caring about money. My bills were late for the first time since I had a steady job. My house was dirty because I didn't take the time to clean it. I just quit caring about things, and I didn't know how this happened to me. But it did."
Like a Disease
Peterson compared her feelings for Rodriguez to those of others who are in prison on drug charges.
"I was sick on him. It's like a disease. I listen to the girls in here [jail] talk about their disease and their drug use and sometimes I think that's like my life with him. It was that sick. I was that addicted, or thought I was trapped by him, I thought I needed him."
And she said the behavior was atypical for her and she rejected the notion that she was a sexual predator.
"It's not like I chase little boys or like younger men or anything like that. It was him -- in general. I loved him, or thought I loved him or thought I needed him, and he was that drug to me. And it spiraled my life so far out of control I couldn't find my way out anymore."
But it's hard to keep a secret in a small town.
The situation came to a head when her principal asked for her laptop. According to court records, the computer contained love letters between teacher and student.
School officials confronted Peterson, and placed her on paid administrative leave. The news sent her into a panic.
"I got into my car and I think I was in so much shock, so much disbelief that I couldn't seriously believe this was happening," she said.
A Run for the Border
"How am I going to get out of this? What am I gonna do?" She said it was Rodriguez' idea to flee to Mexico, where he had relatives.
"And then he says to me, we'll be back by Christmas. I promise we'll be back by Christmas. We'll leave and it will just all go away. And that is what I honestly thought would happen," she said. They left Lexington in her car, heading west.
"I thought if we just get out of here, his parents don't care, they're not going to go to the police. You know, school is already going to fire me, so I'll leave and they'll refill my position. And it will just go away."
Peterson said she was "just bawling" as the pair headed down the highway and it sunk in that she had left her family and her daughter behind. "She's better off with my parents, look what I'm doing," Peterson said she told herself. She said Rodriguez soothed her anxieties.
"I remember him saying to me, 'It's kind of like our honeymoon. We'll just get married and we'll live in Mexico,'" she said.
Law enforcement officials and the FBI tracked Peterson and Rodriguez to Mexico after her white Pontiac was photographed at a border crossing south of San Diego.
The pair had no idea the law was closing in until Rodriguez received a series of text messages on his cell phone. Peterson said she saw the messages from his friends, which said the media had been following their disappearance and that the FBI was after her.
The fact that she was a wanted woman came as a surprise. "All I could think, What are we gonna do? What am I gonna do?"
The hunt ended in Mexicali, Mexico, where authorities caught up with the pair.
"Sometimes it still feels crazy, like I could leave and go back to the life I had," a normal life where she was a teacher and mother. And Peterson said she still felt like a "normal, everyday girl" and it's hard for her to imagine that she was at the center of a case that made national headlines.
Reconnecting With Family
Admitting she'll never be "normal" again, she said, "I have to do this, and get past this jail time and try to reconnect with my daughter, who I talk to daily still. I'm still mom."
"My little girl said, 'Nana -- that's my mom -- I haven't touched my Mom for almost a year ...' when you think about that, she was my life. ... I gave up a normal senior year of high school and a normal four years of college to be a mom. And that's what I did, and I was pretty good at it. And I had raised a pretty good little girl."
Peterson said her daughter will be about 13 when she gets out of prison. Because the judge credited her for the year she'd already served, Peterson is slated to spend the next five years behind bars.
And parenting from prison won't be easy.
"It's just unreal that I'm not there. My mom will write me letters and say, 'I'm sitting at her softball game and all I can think about is you're supposed to be here.'"
But she's not.
"I lost track of the values and the morals, and the things I held dearest," she said. "It's easy to fall into the world and the things of the world and I messed up, I fell into love -- if that's what you call it -- and I let it destroy me."
Peterson, now a convicted sex offender, will never teach again. But she has some advice for others.
"You can't be friends with teenage boys," she warned. It's all right to be their teacher, but nothing more, Peterson said, "because the boys automatically take it as something different," as "interest."
When Peterson gets out of prison, Rodriguez will be an adult. She said her greatest fear now is that he could try to contact her or she would see him again.
"I pray that doesn't happen. Because granted, there's no closure here. There's no closure.
"I know I did something wrong," Peterson admitted. "And I know I deserve a punishment for what I did wrong. I don't believe that I am innocent by any means as far as the law goes."
"I'm sorry. I'm truly sorry. I'm sorry to so many people. ... I hurt people, and the ripple effect is huge. And I'm sorry for that. There are so many sorrys, I won't even be able to tell them all."