Falsely Accused, Sean Lanigan Attempts to Reclaim His Life

Still struggling nearly one year after acquittal on molestation charges.

May 16, 2011, 4:51 PM

May 17, 2011— -- After being exonerated of molestation charges last year, Virginia teacher Sean Lanigan said he felt "like someone lifted an elephant right off my back."

The courtroom erupted in cheers, and several people began to cry, including himself.

"I don't cry very often and I can say I shed a few tears in that moment when I was able to embrace my life," said Lanigan. "I thought, 'Ok, finally some justice was done, and I'm gonna get my life back.'"

But what seemed like the end was only another beginning.

Nearly a year after he was acquitted, the 43-year-old physical education teacher is still struggling to reclaim his reputation and repay 90 percent of his legal bills, especially now that he no longer has a fulltime job.

Last spring, Lanigan was in a different frame of mind, trying to find a way to explain to his children what he was going through.

In 2010, a 12-year-old female student falsely accused Lanigan of allegedly trying to lay on top of her in an equipment room.

One of Lanigan's three children is the same age as his accuser, and another is a year younger.

"If you had asked me last May would I be standing in my shoes right now, still stressed out, seeing a therapist, worried about the situation, I would have said you're crazy," said Lanigan, who lives in Centreville, Va.

'I'm Going to Make Him Pay'

Prior to being charged with two felonies, Lanigan had a sterling reputation at Centre Ridge Elementary School, where he worked for 13 years teaching elementary school P.E. He also coached a high school boys' soccer team and various club teams in the area.

Then in December 2009, after giving a verbal warning to a 12-year-old girl after she misbehaved on a school bus, the girl reportedly told her friends, "Mr. Lanigan's a jerk," according to court records reported by The Washington Post.

Then she said, "I'm going to make him pay."

The girl had been part of the Centre Ridge safety patrol team, a group of about 80 fifth and sixth graders whose job it is to make sure the other kids on the school bus are behaving.

As head of the safety patrols, Lanigan received an email from a worried parent saying the girl was bullying kids and using inappropriate language. Lanigan warned the girl that her behavior was inappropriate.

Ten days later he says the girl's behavior continued, and another teacher spoke to her.

Then, in mid-January, the girl and a friend of hers began telling people that Lanigan had tried to lay on top of her in the equipment room, on a stack of blue tumbling mats, saying he would "treat her like a queen."

The friend claimed to have witnessed the whole thing.

The accuser's name is not being used by the media because she is a minor.

Soon, Lanigan would face 40 years in prison.

Called To The Principal's Office

After the school principal found out about the accusations, the police were called in.

And on Jan. 20 of last year Lanigan was pulled out of class, brought to the principal's office and subsequently interrogated for two hours. For the first half hour, however, he wasn't even aware as to why he was there.

"Half hour into it [detective] Nicole Christian said, 'You have no idea why you're here do you?'" Lanigan recalled. "I said 'No I don't. Please explain to me. What is going on here?'"

That's when he says they told him what he was being accused of.

He says the conversation ended when they asked him to take a polygraph test at which point he said he would willingly take one, but he also wanted to see a lawyer.

"They said if I didn't do anything I shouldn't need to talk to a lawyer," he said.

Shortly afterward, they took his keys and his school badge.

On Jan. 29, he was charged with abduction and aggravated sexual battery and he went to jail where he stayed for four days until he was released on $50,000 bail.

Sean Lanigan Falsely Accused: Community Outrage

When Lanigan was in jail, police released his booking photograph, age and home address.

"It is usual protocol, but was it necessary?" asked Bill Cummings, a close friend of Lanigan's who has known him for 14 years.

That's the question that many are asking now that Lanigan's name and image has been tarnished.

"I'm doing whatever I can to help him with this intolerable situation. It's disgraceful how he's been treated by Fairfax county schools," Cummings said.

The first few weeks Lanigan was out of jail the community showered him and his family with support -- they brought over dinners, gift cards and even volunteered to watch the kids so he and his wife could have a date night.

Lanigan was well-known in his housing development, a community called Virginia Run.

For several years he dressed up as Santa Claus during the holidays, and showed up at the community center on a flatbed driven by draft horses.

Neighbors would stuff pillows in his Santa suit to camouflage his fit physique. He even played the roles of Great Pumpkin and Easter bunny.

When people heard about the charges against him, they began writing and calling Fairfax, Va. state delegate Tim Hugo.

"I had mothers calling me who said, 'We trust this guy,'" Hugo said, who was amazed at the community's passionate response. "There's not a person who has a bad thing to say."

So many people contacted Hugo that he, in turn, contacted the Fairfax County School District, but he says they told him it was an internal matter and they would not discuss it.

"I think what they've done to Sean Lanigan is unconscionable," said Hugo, who worries other male teachers in the school district feel wary, even paranoid. "The guy's been railroaded."

The school district is currently embroiled in another controversy regarding the closure of Clifton Elementary School.

A Clifton resident recently accused the school board of using email to secretly ask one another whether or not they would vote to close the elementary school, allegedly violating the state's Open Meetings laws.

"Fairfax can never admit they're wrong," Hugo said.

Paul Regnier, the Fairfax schools spokesman, did not respond to an interview request made Monday by ABCNews.com.

The school did, however, issue a statement to The Washington Post on Monday evening. They said the decision to transfer Lanigan to another school was standard practice in "any case involving a serious disciplinary proceeding," and he could "seek reimbursement of his legal fees from his teachers association."

Regnier didn't give any specifics about that reimbursement other than to say the teachers association insures members for up to $35,000.

Lanigan Case Goes to Grand Jury

During the probable cause hearing, the accuser actually admitted that Lanigan never actually laid on top of her. But the case still went to a grand jury.

"Nobody wanted to be attached to dismissing a charge against someone who was alleged to have molested a child," said Cummings.

The accuser reportedly said during the trial that she had always hated Lanigan, according to The Post. She also admitted to a Facebook posting where she called it all "a joke."

Although Lanigan's trial lasted only four days in May and the jury only deliberated for about 10 minutes before deciding he wasn't guilty, Lanigan wasn't allowed to return to Centre Ridge.

Instead, he was transferred to South Lakes High School in Reston, Va., where he was paid a fulltime salary to work five days out of 10.

The decision to go to South Lakes wasn't his, he said, it was a "take it or leave it" situation.

As the months passed, he put up a strong front for himself, and his family.

"I don't talk very often -- I don't chat, I have thick skin," he explained. "There's a lot of people who don't realize how emotionally torn up I've been."

After the trial, "Everyone I talked to said 'I'm so happy your life is back to normal.' My life is not normal."

One of the first Google search results under Lanigan's name pulls up the website badbadteacher.com.

Lanigan says kids still run up to him, saying they miss him.

"Sometimes it brings me to tears," he said.

Financial Problems Follow False Allegation

Then, to his dismay, in March the school district notified Lanigan they would only pay for $60,000 of his legal fees -- he incurred more than $120,000.

And last month, he was destaffed from South Lakes -- a decision based on seniority and enrollment numbers.

The school simply didn't have the enrollment to staff nine P.E. teachers.

His wife Karin is working part-time in order to help take care of their children who range in ages from 8 to 14. She left her fulltime position when Lanigan was transferred to Reston.

Moving Forward

Despite all of these hardships, the Lanigan family doesn't plan on leaving the area -- both Lanigan and his wife were born and raised in Northern Virginia and their parents are still there too.

Uprooting, he says, would be a major disruption.

Until The Washington Post's Saturday article highlighting Lanigan's present-day difficulties, several families in their housing development had assumed the Lanigan family was doing O.K.

But Beth Tweddle, 50, a neighbor who has known the Lanigans for more than 10 years, said his inner circle knew better.

The pain of being falsely accused hadn't diminished: she watched as Lanigan lost weight, his trademark "booming" laugh fading away.

"After the exoneration we heard that laugh again," said Tweddle. "It was so great a year ago for it to come back again. But it's been diminished."

When asked if he would consider suing the accuser's family, Lanigan said, "I just don't know."

Right now, he says, his focus is on trying to get his money back and securing a job.

The Lanigan family has taken out loans to make ends meet, so they've set up a fund to help pay off the legal bills.

Lanigan is also picking up work as a soccer trainer at a soccer club.

"Hopefully," Tweddle said, "Sean's laugh will be back soon."

For now, Lanigan and his wife are staying strong. They celebrated their 16th anniversary last Friday, and Lanigan says they're closer than ever: "one strong, unified mind."

"We've always taught our kids right and wrong, and … there are people out there that are trying to make this thing right," he said.

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