Something was off.
The classroom at Rosemead High School should have been empty on a hot July day. When the security guard swung open the door to let the students in, the lights on the motion-sensor lights did not turn on. A man's voice called out from the darkness, "Oh, I was just looking for some books."
The guard recognized the teacher kneeling on the floor. She made out a young girl's outline as she adjusted her eyes from the sun.
The guard took the students out of the room and reported what she saw to the principal. She didn't understand the line about books. Why would a teacher who taught advanced English and journalism need books from a classroom used for kids learning English as a second language?
He told Bristol that he had been rearranging furniture with his daughter. That was also a lie.
The truth is that he was on the floor with an 18-year-old girl who had been his student. I later learned that the guard walked in on them having sex. At the time, he was 46 years old.
The security guard told Bristol not to worry. He said that Burgess had explained himself. The shifting story was all that was needed for Burgess to return to the classroom.
After graduating from college, Burgess joined the English department at Rosemead High and became known as the "Golden Boy" because of his antics in the hallway. He hung out with his students after school.
I should know. I was one of them.
My introduction to journalism was the class I took as a senior. He was an adult version of a class clown and eager to have fun. He acted as both teacher and counselor when helping students with their personal struggles.
As the #MeToo movement took root, I found myself pondering this side of Burgess. Benefit of the Doubt is a story about a high school teacher who made sexual advances to his students for years but kept his job while school officials failed to take action. When I was in school, there were questions about whether or not he had a child with a former student, and it was an open secret. I wondered if he had been given the benefit of the doubt.
I used the reporting skills I learned in his class to interview more than 40 current and former teachers and students, review hundreds of emails and internal documents, and look into hundreds of complaints. The female students were groomed for sex. Two women said they had intimate relationships with him that became sexual soon after they graduated, while a third said it happened while she was still a student.
Despite numerous red flags, school and district officials missed opportunities to put a stop to the behavior. The adults failed to investigate disturbing stories and reports of sexual abuse that occurred throughout his career. School officials won't say whether they ever notified law enforcement of his relationships with teenage girls.
Edward Zuniga refused to answer a detailed list of questions for this story, telling me in a written statement that he couldn't comment on personnel matters.
It's partly a reflection of how well-liked he was by administrators and students that he was able to groom teenage girls for sex over two decades in the classroom. When I was in Rosemead, the campus culture was not as strict as it is today, with most of us content to look the other way. I had a nagging feeling of guilt as I pondered if I had been a part of a community that allowed troubling behavior to go undetected.
When I was a student, why didn't I ask more questions? Would the teenage version of me know what to do with the answers?
The suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley are served by Rosemead High, a large public school. Kids smoke weed on picnic tables at the park next to the campus. The students are mostly Asian and Latino. Many of the children of immigrants are from working class families. They are a mix of academic high-fliers, jocks, nerds, and underachievers.
I had questions about several teachers, one of which was Burgess. A list of half a dozen men took shape as I called old classmates. District officials allowed the teachers to return to the classroom after they were reprimanded for inappropriate behavior.
Take Dwain Crum, a former history teacher who was suspended at least three times during his career and once grabbed a student by the neck and said, "I'm going to kill you" Rai told the principal that he had been misinterpreted, but later told me that he had messed up. Arevalo told me he wasn't allowed to discuss what happened.
I asked Diane Bladen, the principal at Rosemead High until 2007, about the teachers who invited cheerleaders to sit on their lap between classes and the ones who reserved the front row for girls wearing skirts. The failure to remove these men from the classroom was not due to lack of trying by administrators, but due to lack of cooperation from students.
He had kids wrapped around his finger, and it was the same with Eric.
It was "almost impossible" to fire a tenured teacher in California, Bladen told me. A former school union representative told me that there tends to be a lack of investigation into problem teachers.
While my reporting uncovered piles of documents about other teachers, school officials kept denying my requests for information. After receiving several of the two dozen requests I submitted while reporting this story, an assistant superintendent told me he was surprised to find that the personnel file was clean.
It became clear to me that school officials wouldn't give any answers. The more I talked to people, the more I realized that he was the story.
There are some things you need to know about Eric, an employee at Rosemead told me.
The very picture of SoCal cool, with a shock of bleach-blond hair, was the one that Burgess graduated from. In the fall of 1996 he returned to campus to fill a position in the English department after struggling in college.
Dozens of teachers and students told me that Burgess embraced a carefree attitude from the beginning. His reputation as a rule breaker made him a favorite among kids like me. His favorite jokes began with his mom. He would take his students to the movies for all day long, sneaking into one film after another.
One Rosemead alum who worked as a teacher's aide to Burgess said that he was a big kid in a teacher role. We remembered how Burgess carried himself with the swagger of a kid who had left school for the first time.
He documented his antics online. A parent complained to administrators about a video in which a man sings shirtless in the shower and walks along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He used a student's cell phone to send a text to a friend. When he went to school as a kid, he wore shorts and a crop top with the words "twetch it!" written on his chest.
I asked Bladen how many times he talked to him about that.
He made kids feel comfortable. I knew I could tell him the truth when I got a job at McDonald's and had to leave his class early to save money for my first car. When a dream opportunity came up to interview Rod Marinelli, a Rosemead alum who was the head coach of the Detroit Lions, Burgess cleared the way for me to skip school and fly to Detroit. His belief in me led to a front-page story in the student newspaper at Rosemead High, the Panther's Tale.
My family was influenced by Burgess as well. He helped my brother when he was a student. The scholarship my family set up in honor of my brother was highlighted in the student newspaper after he died. The type of trusted adult my mom and dad hoped their child would find at school was made an impression on them by Burgess.
The photo-negative version of the Burgess I knew was the one who pursued relationships with teenage girls. Child abuse researchers and attorneys told me that child groomers excelled at ingratiating themselves in their community before exploiting it, first gaining the trust of those around them.
Daniel Pollack is a social-work professor who frequently serves as an expert witness in child-welfare cases. Pollack likened teachers to chameleons.
Some adults saw through the behavior that went undetected among my classmates. I received a memo in my inbox in the spring of last year. The document was written by a campus staffer and detailed sexual relationships with students. It showed how school officials were made aware of inappropriate behavior through complaints from parents.
The memo alert officials to a series of sexually explicit messages that had been exchanged with a student who had graduated the year before, which had become gossip fodder on campus. It was not clear if the girl was still a student when the messages were sent.
I felt compelled to expose this information because I don't want to hear of one more student that Burgess is allowed to take advantage of or one more time that he's allowed to get away with such reprehensible behavior.
The document gave administrators a clear path to follow if they wanted to learn the truth. The alarm bell went unheeded as administrators sat on the information for more than a year.
I heard that I was asking my own questions. I could offer him and remind him of our relationship after he reached out to me on Facebook.
It is disappointing that we are communicating under these conditions, considering what you and your family have meant to me over the years.
The students were the same. Three women who had sexual relationships with him told me they were struggling at home when they met him. A person had a baby at 15. One was sexually abused. The father abandoned the other.
Two of the women think they were sexually abused. Mia Nakao was married to Burgess for several years and raised a child with him. Nakao told me that the penchant for developing intimate relationships with students, both sexual and platonic, often crossed the line.
Nakao said that the after-school trips to local amusement parks and the beach that Burgess took her and classmates on was highly inappropriate.
Nakao raised her children in a suburb not far from where she lived when she was a student at Rosemead High. He asked his summer school class if anyone had an older sibling who needed a place to live. He said his housemate had moved out and he was looking for a new place to live.
Nakao asked if she could move in with him after class. Nakao's mother kicked her out of the house after she gave birth to her first child, and the rented room she shared with her son was overrun with roaches. She spent nights with her baby in a booth at a Denny's because it was so bad.
Nakao was allowed to move into the apartment that she spent most of her senior year in. Two people who spent time at the apartment told me that Nakao lived there.
Lois Heilemann, a former English teacher and mentor to Burgess, said she knew that Nakao was struggling at the time navigating a custody battle with the infant's father. I was told by Heilemann that Nakao was a student at the time.
Heilemann thought he was just trying to comfort her, make her feel better and encourage her in her pursuit of keeping the child.
Nakao told me that they started dating after she graduated from Rosemead High. They had a son. Administrators became aware of the relationship after teachers in the English department organized a baby shower for a young couple.
Larry Callaham, an assistant principal at the time, told me that he and Bladen felt the relationship was inappropriate and confronted Burgess about it. When Nakao was a student at Rosemead, he claimed he hadn't met her yet. She said the story made her suspicious, but she didn't investigate it further.
I was told by Bladen that she briefly suspended Burgess after she received a tip that he was dating another student. Bladen said that she was unable to reach the young woman, who was in college, because her friends insisted that the relationship was not sexual. She told me that she had no choice but to allow Burgess back into the classroom. I was unable to locate the young woman.
Bladen said no one would cooperate.
Everyone I spoke with had an explanation for it. Most of my classmates were fond of Burgess, and couldn't imagine Rosemead High without him. Several school employees who flagged the behavior to administrators said they did not buy it.
The employee who kept a thank you note for Nakao after the baby shower said that the kids aren't coming forward because they were dismissed in the past.
The culture began to gnaw at me the more I reported. When another former student of hers came forward with allegations of inappropriate behavior in 2001, nothing changed.
I will call her Catherine because it took me months to reach her. She told me that she reported the sexual relationship she had with Burgess to Bladen. Catherine said she was part of a group of kids who used to hang out at the apartment. She said that the summer before her junior year, she was kissed and fondled on multiple occasions by Burgess. She was 16 years old at the time. molesting a child is a criminal offense in California.
Catherine told me that their relationship took root in the classroom. During her sophomore year, there was a lot of attention on her schoolwork. She would take lunch breaks in his room. Catherine told him that he would be a great mentor for her brother. My dad left a long time ago.
Catherine would skateboard from her mother's house to the apartment of her friend, where they would discuss books she was reading. They would go to Tower Records to buy CDs. She had a birthday party when she was 16.
Catherine told me that he filled a gap in her life.
Catherine knew that the relationship had become inappropriate.
The urge to get out became too great to ignore as she was being driven to school. As she opened the door, Catherine asked to stop the car.
She said that she doesn't think she can do this anymore. When Catherine brought up their relationship, she was told that it was important that no one found out about it or he would get into trouble.
I spoke with other former students who contacted Catherine after learning I was reporting the story, but she declined. She said that the guilt worked then.
Two of Catherine's friends confirmed that she had a relationship with Burgess and that she initially refused to report him to school officials. She shared what happened with the teacher she trusted. After starting college, Catherine decided to come forward and tell Bladen that she had heard that Burgess was getting close to another student. Catherine was assured by Bladen that she would investigate her story and be in touch.
She never received a call from Bladen.
Callaham, the former assistant principal, told me that Bladen took the lead on investigating the situation. Bladen, who was later promoted to a job at the school district and has since retired, didn't refute Catherine's account, telling me she couldn't recall specifics of their conversation.
Catherine said that she was asked to share her experience, but that wasn't enough.
Once again, he returned to the classroom.
Over the next decade, the stature on campus grew. He was a faculty advisor for the student newspaper and the academic-decathlon team while teaching advanced English. He married a woman who taught at Rosemead High in 2004. The couple had a daughter together before they divorced, and the girl was with the man who claimed he was rearranging furniture in the classroom.
During his summer break, Burgess spent his time with a colleague. Partway through their vacation, Burgess confessed that he was going to return to Rosemead High and be a God.
In the spring of 2019, the impunity had begun to disappear. The same sexually explicit messages he exchanged with a former student were posted to social media, causing a wave of harassment against the young woman.
The teachers reported the messages to Brian Bristol. He took action this time. The district hired an outside investigator to find the girl.
I had spent weeks combing through old photos and social media posts to find the same thing. Sarah ignored my messages when I finally found her. I found out that I had a mutual connection with a fellow alum who was a teacher's assistant in one of Sarah's classes. I told him that I needed his help. He was going to vouch for me.
Sarah was afraid of what would happen if she spoke. She met me at a Starbucks. She spent more than a year covering for him and was wrestling with whether to come clean to district investigators. She wanted to know what I knew about our teacher.
I told her about the complaints from parents and faculty, the lies to school administrators and the girls who came before her. She was shocked.
Sarah, who didn't want to use her real name because she was afraid of reprisal, said she was hoping you would say it was just her.
Sarah finally opened up about her relationship with Burgess. She came to see the little brother she befriended as a little brother. She didn't know that the mother of the boy was a student of hers.
When I told her the truth, she said she didn't know what to say.
Sarah showed me how they developed their relationship in his classroom. She said that he designed her to have at least one class with him each of the last three years. She was asked to join the student newspaper by the man who filled out her schedule.
Her mother didn't believe her when she told her that she had been raped by her husband. Sarah was warned by the school psychologist about getting too close to Burgess after a suicidal episode. Sarah told me that sheidolized him and brushed the concerns aside.
Sarah said that he was the closest person to a father figure.
The message he wrote in Sarah's senior high school book was not a cover for his feelings for her.
You are a kind and generous person, the kind of spirit people try to take advantage of. Every man that enters your life must prove his worthiness through acts of kindness, generosity and honesty. That is when you will give yourself, body, mind and soul.
Sarah told me that she and Burgess started having sex a few weeks after she graduated. She continued to see him on weekends after she left college.
She asked him what he wanted for Christmas in November.
You! Nothing else. He replied that it was seriously.
Their relationship became fodder for high school gossip when their sexually explicit text messages first traded hands among students. Sarah said she felt as if he cared more about covering up their relationship than she did. He was texting Sarah that he was seeing someone his age. He told her that he had been seeing Bristol for a year and that he was trying to hide their relationship.
The directives to Sarah became more dire when Bristol suspended Burgess. He had heard that I was asking questions as well. He wanted to cover his tracks.
He told Sarah to lie if she were questioned about their relationship. You were already 18.
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In the weeks that followed, Sarah was told to obstruct my reporting and the investigation. While district officials looked into his relationship with Sarah, he called her from a cellphone that belonged to his teenage son, who was the child he had with Nakao.
Sarah told me that she was asked to review the written statement. Sarah was working two jobs to support herself after dropping out of college. She said that she couldn't get out of bed because of her depression. But he wouldn't let her go alone.
At this point, I don't know when you and I will be able to talk, but you know, I mean, everything is falling apart in my life.
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He left her another message four days later. He took a deep breath and said that his life was collapsing.
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After we met at Starbucks, Sarah decided she was done lying.
She contacted the district's outside investigator who told her she was the girl the campus security guard caught with Burgess on the floor of that darkened classroom. They were having sex. She handed over the phone numbers of the two of them together, intimate photos of the two of them together, and receipts from the rides she took home after late-night visits to the house, where they had been careful not to wake his son in the next.
The district's investigation appeared to have stopped after Sarah's cooperation. Before she came forward, the journalism class schedule still listed her as the teacher. School staff wondered if he would return to the classroom after evading consequences. He did not this time.
I stuck with the script for a long time. Sarah told me that it felt like she was being forced to say what he wanted her to say. What is wrong with that?
It was the efforts to cover up his relationship with Sarah that cost him his job.
Felipe Ibarra, who oversaw the investigation, told me in an email that his interference with the investigation and other unacceptable actions on his part led to his firing.
The rest of the voicemails were left by Burgess.
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The public's interest is furthered by keeping the records confidential, argued attorneys for the school district. Two years after I began my own, the district concluded its investigation, which included the resignation of Burgess.
I have been trying to locate him ever since, hoping that he would agree to an interview once the investigation was over. He never did. When we spoke over the phone, he told me that he wasn't calling to plead my case, but to distract me from his relationships with former students.
We had a relationship that is over now. It is different, according to Burgess.
People on the campus misinterpreted his behavior. He refused to talk about the girls he dated. He told me about a boy he taught as a sophomore who couldn't afford basketball shoes and how he helped him by buying him a pair of sneakers and recruiting him to the school newspaper.
When I sat down to write this story, Burgess urged me to humanize it.
The young women he groomed for sex stayed quiet because he tried to charm his way out of trouble. They fear that no one will believe them. People will dismiss their stories as gossip. Whatever explanation is given, it will be believed.
Sarah doesn't have friends anymore. She changed her phone number because of the harassment from her former classmates. She received a text message from the woman who was his high school sweetheart. I hope you suffer in your life. You deserve it.
Over the past two years, Sarah has worked hard to move beyond it. She is back in college, she has a new job and she trusts her boyfriend. I was struck by how far she had come since we met at Starbucks.
I feel a lot better about this now. Sarah said before she could talk about it without crying. I never wanted to protect him.
I was asked what I thought of our teacher. She wanted to know what I had learned from my reporting on him, which changed her understanding of their relationship. She wanted to know if the four years I spent talking with other people who knew the same thing had made a difference.
It had. I told her about my memories of Rosemead. The strain this story has had on my family. I get a sinking feeling when I look at the dead ends scattered throughout my notes and see if there are other girls like her. I didn't know what our teacher was capable of when I told this story.
Under the terms of his separation, Burgess was allowed to resign without admitting to any wrongdoing and continued to receive his salary for another six months. The agreement bars him from working at Rosemead High again, but it doesn't prevent him from teaching elsewhere. He will be able to apply for reinstatement in August after the state agency that credentials teachers revoked his credentials.
As part of the settlement, school- district officials agreed that if a prospective employer asked for a reference, they would only offer the salary and years of his employment.
The district would keep the reason why he lost his job a secret.
Amy Julia Harris is a reporter.
Matt Drange can be reached at mdrange[at]insider[dot]com or by phone.
The original article is on Business Insider.