June 22, 2012

Irvine pair charged in framing case aren't the usual suspects

Lawyer couple face charges of framing a volunteer at their son's school, Irvine's Plaza Vista, over a two-year dispute.

The tip was an unusual one, especially in a city often ranked as the safest in the nation.

The caller, who identified himself as a concerned parent, told an Irvine police dispatcher that he had seen a woman driving erratically, parking at Plaza Vista School, and hiding drugs in her car's back seat.

He had more help to offer: He knew the culprit's name. And he had a license plate.

Based on that call on the afternoon of Feb. 16, 2011, Irvine police pulled school volunteer Kelli Peters from the elementary school classroom where she was working and searched her car. They found a bag with marijuana, Percocet and Vicodin. She insisted the drugs were not hers, and had no idea how they got there.

When detectives tried to trace the call, authorities say, they found that it had come from the business center of a Newport Beach hotel. Police say surveillance video revealed the tipster to be Kent Easter, 38, a parent at Plaza Vista and a lawyer.

This week, Easter and his wife, Jill, also a 38-year-old attorney, were accused of trying to frame Peters, currently the school's PTA president, in retaliation for what they alleged was her ill treatment of their young son at the school.

The Easters face felony charges of conspiracy to procure false arrest, false imprisonment, and conspiracy to falsely report a crime, charges that could bring three years in prison if they are convicted.

The case is the talk of the town in affluent, master-planned Irvine.

"I've seen some bizarre stuff," Irvine Police Lt. Julia Engen said. "I'm not going to say it's the weirdest thing I've ever seen, but it's definitely a unique situation I've never seen before."

The roots of the conflict appear to date back two years.

In March 2010, Kent Easter filed a civil complaint in Orange County Superior Court alleging that his son, then a first-grader, had been in an after-school tennis class the month before when Peters locked the child out of the school for about 19 minutes. A tennis instructor said he had found the child "crying and alone" and trying to open the door to the building, according to Easter's complaint.

When Jill Easter asked Peters why she had left the child outside, the complaint alleged, Peters said the child "takes too long to line up with the other children after class and it is too hard to wait for him."

Jill Easter then contacted a director of the after-school program and was asked not to call the police, the complaint said. The civil case was dismissed.

Around the same time, Jill Easter filed a request for a restraining order against Peters, alleging that the school volunteer was "harassing and stalking" her and her son, and that she had "threatened to kill me."

"She will stop at nothing in her attempts to silence myself and my son," Easter alleged. She also complained that Peters had been telling parents at her son's school that she was "psychotic" and "unstable."

"She is stalking me and attempting to intimidate me at my son's school and while I run errands in Irvine," Jill Easter alleged.

The request for the restraining order was dismissed.

Calls to Kent Easter's law office were not returned. The couple has not entered a plea in court.

Farrah Emami, a spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney's office, said investigators had no indication that other parents were upset with the volunteer, whom she described as "completely professional."

"This was obviously something [the Easters] had sought out and planned with the intent of having her arrested," Emami said.

Prosecutors said that about 12:30 a.m. on Feb. 16, 2011, Kent Easter drove to Peters' home and planted the drugs, along with a used marijuana pipe, in her unlocked car. Prosecutors said Kent Easter later drove to the public phone to report Peters.

Prosecutors said Kent Easter was in cellphone and text message contact with his wife around the times he planted the drugs and called in the tip.

After the call led police to Peters' car, authorities said, police detained her for about two hours. She let police search her home, but they found no evidence that she was a drug user.

Engen of the Irvine Police Department said the officer who responded to the tip interviewed witnesses at the school who confirmed that Peters had been in the classroom at the time the caller said he saw her driving.

Also suspicious, Engen said, were the facts that the call had come from a public phone and that the caller had left a fake name and phone number.

She said the investigation was "complicated and detailed," and the fact that the defendants were attorneys added a "delicate" component to the case.

"These are very savvy people. They work in the system, and we don't want to make an arrest and have to release people," Engen said. "We wanted to make sure everything had been pursued and investigated to its fullest."

Peters declined requests from The Times for an interview. But in an interview with KTLA-TV Channel 5, she said she was shocked when police confronted her at the school. "I lost my breath; I thought I was on a joke show, like somebody was playing a joke on me," Peters told the station.

"They tried to make me look like the worst person you could be when you're involved with a school. I wouldn't have seen my daughter again, I think.... Those are the nightmares I had, like why would someone do that to another human being? I don't even really know the reason. I just don't understand it."

The Easters, who are free on $20,000 bail each, are scheduled to be arraigned next month in Orange County Superior Court.

Ian Hanigan, a spokesman for the Irvine Unified School District, said: "This is obviously a sad and unfortunate incident involving members of our community." He did not want to say much more, but added: "The allegation is a new one for me.

By Kate Mather, Nicole Santa Cruz and Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times
June 20, 2012, 7:55 p.m.

http://www.latimes.com/

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