OMAHA, Neb. – The attorney for a Nebraska middle school teacher who fled to Mexico with a student who was an illegal immigrant said Monday that the woman could be guilty of nothing except poor judgment.
James Martin Davis said that a kidnapping charge against Kelsey Peterson should be dropped because the boy went with her willingly, and that the boy shares more responsibility for their relationship and flight than authorities allege.
Peterson, 25, fled Lexington with the boy, a former student of hers, on Oct. 26. They were found in a mall parking lot in the border town of Mexicali, Mexico, on Nov. 2.
"It's my understanding he was grooming her and she wasn't grooming him," Davis said.
"I see true victims every day," he added. "This young man is no victim."
Davis also suggested that the boy — who authorities say is 13 — may actually be 16 or older — too old for a state statutory rape count to apply.
"The information I have is that he might be older," said Davis, declining to elaborate. "The kid is sophisticated. He shaves, he has a mustache. I'll be requesting his original birth certificate from the Mexican consulate. I think he had one here, but I don't know if anyone vouched for its authenticity."
A prosecutor and a relative of the boy rejected Davis' claims.
"Mr. Davis can allege what he wants. I've seen the birth certificate, and he's 13," Dawson County Attorney Elizabeth Waterman said.
"He'll be 14 in January," Laura Rodriguez, the boy's aunt, said in a phone interview. The birth certificate was issued in Mexico, she said.
As for the boy not being the victim, Rodriguez said of Peterson, "She started up with him when he was 12. She was 24. How could that happen?"
Peterson faces a federal charge of crossing state lines to have sex with a minor, which is punishable by 10 years to life in prison and a $250,000 fine. A judge denied bail for her last week.
She also has been charged in Dawson County with felony counts of kidnapping and child abuse and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Peterson was recently moved from a federal detention center in El Centro, Calif., to one in San Diego and will be returned to Nebraska in seven to 21 days, Davis said.
"She understands what she did, and that she didn't exercise the best judgment in leaving," Davis said. "I'm not trying to exonerate Kelsey. I want to make sure she's treated fairly."
Davis declined to say whether Peterson told him she and the boy had sex. The boy, in an interview with The Associated Press last week, said they had sex twice.
The boy also said that it was Peterson's idea to go to Mexico, but that he went along with it to see relatives and to get away from his problems.
The boy remains in Mexico because of his immigration status but might be able to return to Nebraska, at least temporarily, if he is granted a "U" visa. The visas are used to encourage illegal immigrants to report crimes against them.
"To prove their case, they have to have him come back here," Davis said. "They're going to have to cut him some deal to have him testify. In exchange for the promise of bringing him into the country, he may be anxious to please them and do what they say."
Davis said the federal charge against Peterson shouldn't stand because she fled to Mexico not to have sex, but "to flee what was happening in Lexington." Shortly before Peterson and the boy left, she had been put on paid leave while school officials investigated complaints about their relationship.