For more than 40 years, William James Vahey drugged and abused hundreds of pupils at international schools around the world. A Guardian investigation reveals that, despite numerous opportunities to stop him, nothing was done
On 21 March 2014, a 64-year-old teacher named William James Vahey checked into a cheap hotel in the tiny Minnesota town of Luverne. Vahey had spent the previous four decades teaching at international schools, from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia, but he had decided to spend his final moments near his elderly mother and his brother, Chris, who both lived in Luverne.
The reservation was a decoy. At 5.20pm, Vahey crossed the road and checked in at a second hotel, a Quality Inn. He paid in cash for his room, telling the receptionist he didn’t have a credit card because he had just filed for bankruptcy. Upstairs in room 201, he undressed to his boxer shorts, folded his clothes neatly on to the coffee table and lowered himself into the bath tub, tucking a pillow behind his back.
A thousand miles south, special agents at the FBI office in Houston were waiting for a search warrant that would allow them to open a 16 gigabyte flashdrive that had recently arrived from the US embassy in Nicaragua. For the previous seven months, Vahey had been teaching history at the American Nicaraguan School, one of 193 schools around the world supported by the US government to promote US-style education. On 11 March, his housekeeper had shown up at the school gates, and handed the flashdrive in. It was part of a haul of computer kit that she had allegedly stolen from Vahey’s villa a few months earlier.
It later transpired that the drive contained photographs of at least 90 unconscious adolescent boys, naked and partially dressed. The images of abuse, which dated from 2008 to 2013, were neatly arranged into digital folders with titles such as “Panama Trip”, “Costa Rica Trip” and “Basketball Trip”. Vahey had led these field excursions while teaching at two other private international schools in Caracas and London.
The head of the American Nicaraguan School, Dr Gloria Doll, immediately confronted Vahey with the cache of images. He confessed that he had spent a lifetime drugging his pupils and abusing them. “I was molested as a boy, that is why I do this,” he told Doll, according to an FBI affidavit. “I have been doing this my whole life.” The full scale of his crimes would only emerge in the coming months: four decades of abuse at 10 international schools in eight countries from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia, and from Venezuela to the UK. The FBI declared him one of the most prolific paedophiles it has ever seen. It seemed inexplicable that nothing had been done to stop him.
Now a five-month investigation by this newspaper has revealed that red flags were, in fact, repeatedly raised about Vahey. Colleagues, parents and superiors all came across evidence that, if properly explored, would have pointed towards him drugging and abusing children. Yet almost nothing was done to stop him. More than two years since Vahey was first exposed, teachers and administrators who worked with him are only now opening up about what they knew.
Vahey was not arrested after his confession in Nicaragua. Instead, Doll fired him and reported the crime to the US authorities, via the embassy in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital. The next day, Vahey boarded American Airlines flight 344 to Miami. The FBI had an agent ready to speak to him when he transferred through Miami to Atlanta – but again Vahey was not detained. It was not yet clear whether the material on the flashdrive had been created by Vahey or simply obtained from the internet. “There was no arrest warrant or search warrant for his residence because these cases take a while,” FBI special agent Carlos Barrón told a reporter from Univision, a Spanish-language TV station based in the US.
From Atlanta, Vahey could have gone to the family beach house at Hilton Head Island, a picturesque stretch of Atlantic coastline in South Carolina. Vahey shared the house with his wife Jean, with whom he had two children, and who was at that time working in London as the head of the European Council of International Schools. Instead, he headed north to Minnesota, where his mother was staying in a nursing home.
The morning after Vahey had checked in, the front-desk manager at the Quality Inn could get no response from Vahey’s room. He went to the door and opened it with a master key. Vahey lay dead in the bath, stiff from rigor mortis, his torso smeared with blood. On the floor lay an eight-inch kitchen knife. Bottles of medicine were scattered across the room, along with a suicide note to his family.
The Rock County deputy coroner, Dr Richard Morgan, recorded that there was no sign of struggle. Morgan pushed his finger easily into a deep wound in Vahey’s chest and concluded: “cause of death: self-inflicted knife wound to the chest”. Vahey’s short torment since being exposed was over. That of his victims, their families, his colleagues and superiors around the globe, was about to begin.
Southbank is owned by Cognita, a private company that owns a further 67 schools across Europe, Latin America and south-east Asia. But it remains part of a much larger global community of international schools, defined by internationally recognised curriculums, taught in English, to cosmopolitan student bodies. It was a familiar world for Vahey, the son of a US air force pilot, who as a child attended international schools and US Defense Department schools in England and Japan.
Vahey taught at Southbank until 2013, and was so admired by parents that they voted him the second-most-popular teacher in a school survey. In fact, Vahey had abused at least 54 of their children, aged 11 to 16, on long-distance school trips. When Vahey’s death was announced, news of his crimes had not become public. (At the time, the school said Vahey had died of a heart attack.) In London, staff cried and opened a condolences book. In Jakarta, where Vahey had taught for a decade, the headmaster Tim Carr urged staff to remember a “vivacious community member”.
Three weeks later, on 22 April 2014, the FBI made a shocking announcement. They were launching an “international sex crimes investigation” into Vahey’s 42-year teaching career in Nicaragua, the UK, Venezuela, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Iran, Spain and Lebanon. “I have never seen another case where an individual may have molested this many children over such a long period of time,” special agent Patrick Fransen told the media.
Vahey claimed he “never hurt any of the boys”, according to an FBI affadavit. “They did not know what had happened to them,” he said. “They were completely asleep.” That was not entirely true – in the morning, some woke with suspicions about what had happened to them. But it is true that the majority of Vahey’s victims did not know they had been attacked. Parents now found themselves wrestling with an awful dilemma: would finding out if their child was in Vahey’s photo files trigger trauma where there was none before?
ncredibly, as Vahey moved from school to school during his four-decade career, it never came to light that he was already a convicted paedophile. In 1969, while working as a teacher’s aide in Long Beach, California, he had been charged with “lewd and lascivious behaviour” for fondling the penises of boys as young as seven while teaching them to swim.
He pleaded guilty, told his probation officer he was “repelled and humiliated” by his actions and admitted he had started touching boys when he was 14. The officer predicted that the plans of this “mentally disordered sex offender” for a career in education had “probably been shattered by his conviction”. Far from it.
In 1970, aged 20, Vahey walked free from a California jail after serving a 90-day sentence for child molestation. He was placed on the sex offenders register, which required him to tell authorities when he changed address. However, it seems that he did not do so, and the authorities failed to keep tabs on him. (According to the Canadian newspaper, the National Post, when the California state register was put online in 2004, Vahey’s name wasn’t included because he was no longer living in the state.)
He took a BA in political science from California State University and in 1972, after two years of probation, he travelled to Iran to teach at the American School in Tehran, followed by short stints at US schools in Beirut, Madrid and Athens. In 1980, he moved to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia to teach the children of US workers at the giant oil company Saudi Aramco. By now, Vahey was married to Jean, and in 1981 the couple had a son, who was joined by a brother, two years later.
In 1992, the Vaheys moved to Jakarta International School (JIS) in Indonesia, which is overseen, in part, by the embassies of Australia, the United Kingdom and US. Within three years, Jean had been promoted to deputy head and Vahey was teaching world history to students in middle school.
After a while, his affinity with the boys he was teaching began to seem odd to a number of colleagues. Senior teachers at JIS have told the Guardian they received multiple suspicious reports: Vahey sleeping with boys in tents on hiking trips; taking boys who had fallen ill on excursion into his room overnight; his demands to lead an all-boy group on an outward-bound adventure.
In May 1996, Vahey took charge of a trip for around 90 pupils aged around 14: five days of hiking, rock climbing, rafting, near the Jatiluhur dam in a tropical region 70km east of Jakarta. When they arrived, Vahey divided the pupils into groups of around a dozen girls and boys. Vahey insisted on sleeping in the same tent as his group, even though teachers were provided with their own tents.
uring their time in Indonesia, the Vaheys lived at Countrywoods, an expat gated community in south Jakarta with open grounds for their two boys to play. The Vaheys regularly invited their sons’ friends to sleepovers at their home, which had a pool table, the best video games and the latest movies. Vahey used these sleepovers as an opportunity to target young boys.
One of the adolescent guests, whom we will call John, has agreed to speak out for the first time about what happened. He is now an adult. One night, when he was about 14, he and several friends settled down to watch a movie in Vahey’s lounge, but found themselves suddenly feeling sleepy and nodding off. John was the first to wake the next day and remembered feeling dazed. Looking around the room he noticed he was wearing a different pair of shorts, while his friend was wearing his shorts. Then his friend realised his underwear was missing too.
Despite their suspicions, John said that the boys did not feel confident about making accusations against Vahey. The community was close-knit and they could not easily avoid going to the house for sleepovers.
Scotland Yard detectives eventually established that 53 boys, aged 11 to 16, from Southbank International school appeared unconscious in the digital photo archive that was discovered in Nicaragua. They contacted the families of all the boys who had been on Vahey’s trips and posed an awful question: do you want to know if your child was among the victims?
inally, in summer 2013, Vahey was headed for retirement. His last posting was to be at the American School in Nicaragua. When he arrived alone in the country in August, Vahey installed himself in a fully furnished three-bedroom villa, seven minutes’ walk from the school.
Then, in late November 2013, came the theft of his computer equipment. Suddenly, a mountain of digital evidence detailing his many abuses was out of his hands.
The news of Vahey’s crimes would not become public for another few weeks. Donations, Jean said, should go to the Children of Haiti project, which teaches and feeds children in one of the world’s poorest countries.
“We fully expect everyone coming to bring their bourbon and diet coke, wild travel story and favourite ‘Vahey joke’,” Jean added. By the Atlantic shore, they would “toast a man that lived a life that made a difference”.