- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2000

The last of seven middle school girls from Germantown, Md., has been convicted of falsely accusing a physical education instructor of sexual misconduct, allegations that ruined his long teaching career.

The 12-year-old girl in court yesterday teared up as a judge read the verdict, just as several of the other girls did during their trials. The child's parents held each other as her mother cried.

"She clearly was lying," said juvenile court Judge Dennis M. McHugh.

Montgomery County's judges have had stern words for the girls as each was found "involved," or guilty. The judges backed up their words with sentences that ranged from reading books about lying to spending an hour or more in lockup.

The final two sentencings are scheduled for Nov. 20 and 21. Charges against the girls have included making a false police report and conspiracy to file a false report. The teens are not being identified because they are juveniles.

The exonerated teacher, Ronald Heller, left the courthouse without comment yesterday. This particular girl who accused him didn't even know him, he testified.

With each new trial or hearing, Mr. Heller endured long days in court and several trips to the witness stand to explain his innocence.

"The kids lied. All seven of them lied, including your client," Mr. Heller told defense attorney Neil Jacobs.

Mr. Jacobs later said, "It was a horrible, horrible thing that no one should have to go through."

He insisted there was no intent by the sixth-graders to get Mr. Heller in trouble with the law, just a lie that grew into more lies as the girls continued the ruse.

The plot against the teacher revenge for being disciplined was hatched in February at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown. The girls accused Mr. Heller of such things as following them into the locker room, giving them group hugs and inapproprivate touching.

"We said that he did something against the law," one of the nervous girls said on the witness stand yesterday.

Mr. Heller was suspended and placed under a "cloud of suspicion" by police, according to Assistant State's Attorney George Simms, who handled the seven cases.

After weeks of lying to administrators, parents and police, a boy in on the scheme confessed it was all a lie, and the girls began recanting their stories.

"It didn't happen," school investigator Miles Alban quoted one girl as telling him. "Please don't tell my father."

Police nearly charged Mr. Heller with sex offenses and child abuse, felonies that could have resulted in jail time, prosecutors said. Although cleared of any wrongdoing, Mr. Heller resigned his post.

"None of us know what he underwent during those days, weeks … as he saw a 32-year career in jeopardy." Mr. Simms said.

Earlier this year, Judge Joanne T. Wills ordered two of the girls shackled and imprisoned for four hours after they admitted their guilt.

At their sentencing, the judge told the girls to write a letter of apology to Mr. Heller and to read two novels, "The Crucible" and "The Oxbow Incident," which deal with the consequences of lying.

Judge Katherine Savage likewise sent a set of identical twins to sit in jail to show them what it is like to be arrested.

Other punishments have included hundreds of hours of community service and probation. All of the girls have been transferred to different schools.

"We were looking to show that the accusations against Mr. Heller were false. That has been proven," Mr. Simms said in summation. "We were looking for accountability for these young ladies and that has begun to occur."

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