Investigators from the Department of Homeland Security have arrested a teacher working at La Tierra Montessori School on charges of possessing child pornography.
Rodymar Lelis had worked as the School’s 5th/6th grade teacher before being arrested Nov. 5 at his Española home, following a two-month investigation.
School interim head learner Robert Abney sent a letter to parents and families the next day, in which he wrote that there is no evidence Lelis committed any crimes against La Tierra students.
“Obviously, this news is of great concern to us, and we felt it important to provide clear and correct information as soon as we were able,” he wrote.
Homeland Security officials first became aware of Lelis’s activities when Facebook alerted authorities Sept. 9 that child pornography was being distributed on its platform. The tip revealed the device used to store the pornography was connected to the WiFi at the Baymont by Windham Albuquerque Airport Hotel, according to the criminal complaint.
The Facebook account used to store the pornographic videos was eventually tied to Lelis, who used a fake name on the account.
When officers arrested Lelis at his home, they checked through his cell phone and found even more images and videos of children performing sexually-explicit acts.
Lelis began working at the School later that month, having arrived in the U.S. from the Philippines on a J-1 visa, which allows people to temporarily work in the country on a cultural exchange.
In his email to parents, Abney wrote that all teachers working at La Tierra must first pass a background check conducted by the Public Education Department (PED).
In April 2018, a little over a year before arriving in the U.S., Lelis was arrested in the Philippines on charges of molesting a 14-year-old athlete at a dance competition, according to several Filipino news outlets.
Lelis was reportedly working as a special education teacher and followed the school’s dance team to a competition on his own, offering a student money in exchange for sex. Another student also accused him of molestation.
The arrest was discussed widely, receiving coverage in mainstream outlets such as ESPN. The Philippines’ national education secretary released a statement on the matter. His mugshot from the incident is also available online.
None of the outlets covering the arrest in the Philippines explain what became of Lelis after he was charged.
Public Education Department spokesperson Connor Boyle confirmed Lelis did receive a background check prior to starting work at La Tierra. Department Education Quality Director Seana Flanagan said it is against policy to disclose specific details about an employee’s background check.
“The PED finds the report of misconduct by Rodymar Lelis extremely troubling and is opening an investigation,” Boyle wrote in a prepared statement.
Boyle did not respond when asked what was meant by the word “misconduct.”
Abney said in a Nov. 7 phone interview that he does not know why officials did not find out about Lelis’s prior charges.
“I don’t know why that didn’t get caught in the background check,” he said. “That was my question.”
When asked if parents had ever complained about Lelis’s behavior, Abney said he could not disclose that information, as it was a “personnel issue.”
Lelis was placed in custody of the U.S. Marshal Service, with Judge John Robbenhaar citing Lelis’ prior criminal history as a main reason for detaining him. He could face up to 20 years in federal prison, and could be deported upon his release.
All this comes weeks after the Española School District settled with victims of Gary Gregor, who abused multiple children while teaching at Fairview Elementary. Settlements have now totaled more than $20 million. Gregor was also sentenced to 108 years in prison for his crimes.