Neal Willetts, recent graduate of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and former social studies teacher at Western Albemarle High School, is facing federal charges of sexual enticement and exploitation of minors. Initial proceedings April 4 resulted in a ruling by Judge B. Waugh Crigler that Willetts, 26, should remain in custody until the case goes to trial.
The news comes as a surprise to those who knew and worked with Willetts. Fran Smith, graphic designer and director of summer programs at Charlottesville’s Tandem Friends School, saw nothing but potential in the young instructor who led drama workshops under her supervision during summer 2006.
“He was never out of line,” Smith says. “He was impeccable, almost too formal. I had to remind him that he didn’t need to have them call him ‘Mr. Willets,’ that it was ‘Neal’ in the summer.”
Smith says she was shocked to hear about the charges. “My mouth fell open. He was an absolutely wonderful teacher.”
According to RateMyTeachers.com, a popular Internet website, Willetts was well liked among his pupils as well. Students from Western Albemarle and Punahou High School in Hawaii, where Willetts taught drama from 2003 to 2004, praise the young teacher for his spunk and personable nature on the site: “One of the few teachers I actually call friends,” says one June 2006 post from Western Albemarle.
Despite these rave reviews, prosecutors say the charges are valid and should be taken seriously. According to Assistant U.S. Attorney William Gould, during an FBI interview in New York Willetts confirmed encounters with eight victims, two of whom were from Western Albemarle and one from Fluvanna High School. Gould says some of these encounters involved completed sex acts, while others were solicitations.
No trial date has been set at this time.
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