Uploaded on Oct 1, 2008
Nebraska teacher Kelsey Peterson thought that one day she'd have her perfect life: husband, kids, white picket fence. But instead, a judge sentenced her Monday to six years in federal prison.
That's because last October Peterson was on the run to Mexico with one of her former students, whom authorities said was 13 years old at the time of their relationship.
"If I could go back and be that person that I was supposed to be, I would do it in a second," Peterson said in an exclusive jailhouse interview with ABC News.
The person she was supposed to be, in her words, is "that teacher that got married, had a family and, you know, that normal, white picket fence, small town all-American girl. That's the life I wanted. That's all I wanted."
The sixth-grade schoolteacher comes from a stable family. "My parents were high school sweethearts; they grew up in small-town Nebraska," said Peterson.
"That's the life I'm used to. Nobody in my family is divorced, no one drinks, no one smokes. I mean, I grew up in this really Christian we-don't-do-things-wrong kind of family, and that's all I wanted.
"And yet, I made choice after choice after choice that didn't allow that to happen, and I have to pay those consequences, and I understand that," she said.
The choices Peterson made started when she began a sexual relationship with then 12-year-old Fernando Rodriguez, a sexually-active sixth-grade student with a crush on her.
"I remember him specifically asking me in the middle of class one day if I would marry him," she recalled. "And I can remember really being caught off-guard and laughing about it and saying, 'look me up when you're 18.'"
In Rodriguez, Peterson saw a student with promise, but also signs he was a gang member.
"Something drew me to him. I think more than anything it was, 'I can change this guy. I can make this person a better person.'"
Peterson said she initially rejected advances from Rodriguez.
"I said no to the whole situation numerous times. That's what makes me think, 'Why did I ever give in?'" Peterson told ABC News.
She described the first time she said Rodriguez kissed her, in the kitchen of her house.
"I was shocked, I was totally shocked," she said. "I can remember thinking, 'Whoa, this isn't right.'"
She admitted she was aware of his age at the time but said he didn't seem that young.
"I got to the point where I didn't see him as some 13-year-old boy," she said. "He stood taller than I am and probably a good 30 pounds heavier than I am. He's a good 5-8 and a good 170 pounds. So I didn't look at him like he was some little boy."
But in the eyes of the law, Rodriguez was only a boy, a minor.
"In some ways, I think I lowered my age and he raised his and we met somewhere in the middle. Because I wasn't acting the way I would normally have acted as a 24-year-old woman. I wasn't thinking the way a normal 24-year-old would be thinking at that moment, but he also wasn't some 13-year-old little boy either."
Her lawyer said Rodriguez dominated the relationship.
"He used to tell her what she could wear. And whether she could wear makeup and the length of her skirts in terms of where they were gonna go and what they were gonna do," Davis said. "He had a very, very strong influence over her in terms of controlling her behavior."
"I just know I got to the point where I didn't think I could live without him, and he always told me he didn't think he could live without me, and this is the life I'm in and I don't know how to get out anymore," Peterson recalled. "I honestly didn't know how to get out anymore."
"It got to the point where I didn't care anymore," she added. "I quit caring about anything. I quit caring about money. My bills were late for the first time since I had a steady job. My house was dirty because I didn't take the time to clean it. I just quit caring about things, and I didn't know how this happened to me. But it did."
Peterson compared her feelings for Rodriguez to those of others who are in prison on drug charges.
"I was sick on him. It's like a disease. I listen to the girls in here [jail] talk about their disease and their drug use and sometimes I think that's like my life with him. It was that sick. I was that addicted, or thought I was trapped by him, I thought I needed him."
And she said the behavior was atypical for her and she rejected the notion that she was a sexual predator.
"It's not like I chase little boys or like younger men or anything like that. It was him -- in general. I loved him, or thought I loved him or thought I needed him, and he was that drug to me. And it spiraled my life so far out of control I couldn't find my way out anymore."
But it's hard to keep a secret in a small town.
School officials confronted Peterson, and placed her on paid administrative leave. The news sent her into a panic.