Helms describes affair with former teacher in court

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Holly Fesperman Lee

Salisbury Post

Tony Helms spoke clearly on the witness stand Thursday as he answered questions from his attorney about his work and education history.

But as questions turned to his feelings about his affair with Laurie Mendiola, his voice started to shake.

“Did you have an affair with Laurie Mendiola?” Todd Paris, Helms’ attorney asked.

“Yes, I did,” he replied.

“I made a grievous mistake by having an affair with Laurie Mendiola.”

Helms’ face got red and his voice started to crack and shake as he told the jury he dishonored his wife, children, grandchildren and school employees who trusted him.

Paris asked if Helms lied to some of those people.

Helms confirmed that he did and said, “You can’t take that back; all you can do is ask for forgiveness.”

The attorney asked if Helms had one previous affair before this one.

“Yes, I did,” Helms replied.

Mendiola, a former teacher, is suing Helms and the school board, saying Helms forced her to have an affair with him while he was principal at West Rowan Middle School. She also says school officials knew about the relationship and didn’t investigate.

Helms quickly regained his composure and answered questions about the first time he met Mendiola.

He said he met her while her oldest daughter was a student at Knox Middle School and he was her principal.

Also, while Mendiola was a special education teacher at Salisbury High School, she came to Knox Middle for meetings about transitioning special education middle school students to high school, he testified.

He said the two didn’t have any personal conversations at the time and he didn’t have any particular impression of her.

Another teacher at Knox approached Helms before the 2003-2004 school year started and told him her friend, Mendiola, was looking for a job teaching students with disabilities.

The teacher knew there was a position available at Knox, Helms said.

He testified he told the teacher he’d meet with Mendiola and she came to Knox for an interview.

Helms said Mendiola decided not to take the position because it involved teaching mentally disabled students and was more restrictive. She wanted something teaching a resource class, he said.

At that time, Helms said he didn’t know he would be moving to West Rowan Middle.

He testified that Dr. Alan King and then-Superintendent Dr. Wiley Doby told him that West Middle’s principal Rick Hampton was retiring and he would be moving there.

“Had you requested a transfer?” Paris asked Helms.

“Yes,” he replied.

He said he didn’t hire Mendiola at West Middle — Hampton did before he left.

The next time he saw Mendiola was during the pre-employment meetings he arranged the summer before school started, he said.

Helms said Mendiola and two other teachers were present during the meeting and he told the group about his philosophy of education. The teachers then gave their input about what their needs were and what they felt priorities should be for the school year, he said.

Helms said all teachers were called in for these meetings.

Paris asked Helms if there was anything unusual or remarkable about the meeting.

“No,” he said.

Helms reported that he next saw Mendiola at a meeting for school system employees at Catawba College.

When he arrived, he said he saw the teacher who suggested Mendiola for the job at Knox Middle School. She and Mendiola were standing together, he said.

Helms said he greeted the two and talked to Mendiola’s friend for a few minutes.

The teacher asked him if he wanted to sit with her group, and Helms said Mendiola took him by the arm and said, “No, he’s mine.” She then escorted him to another seat, he said.

After school workdays started before children came back to school for the 2003-2004 school year, Helms said he saw Mendiola in the front office hall making her coffee.

He was in his office and she stopped in and said hello, he testified.

Paris asked Helms if he invited her in or if she walked in on her own.

“My door was open, she walked in,” he said.

Were there any discussions of non-school matters at that time, Paris asked.

“None at that time,” he said.

The next morning, or a morning in the next few days, Helms said the two met in his office again with “about the same scenario.”

Conversation again stayed on school matters, Helms testified.

Paris asked Helms about his impression of Mendiola.

Helms replied that she seemed to be very smart, confident and very charming.

Paris asked Helms about other events during his life at this time.

“My wife had been very ill … for about two years,” he said.

“What happened next, Tony?” Paris asked.

Helms testified that Mendiola was acting “a little flirty” and she gave him compliments like, “Well, I like that tie; you look very nice this morning.”

Helms said he didn’t think anything about the comments at first but after they continued, “I was becoming infatuated with her at that time,” because of her charm and wit.

Paris asked if there was a time things became more physical between he and Mendiola.

“Yes,” he replied.

During the first week of school, when students had returned to classes, the two were in his office again.

Mendiola got up to leave, Helms said.

“I put my hand on her arm and at that time I kissed her, and she kissed me back,” Helms testified.

He said Mendiola asked him what made him think he could do that and he jokingly replied that he had a fifty-fifty chance — either she’d like it or she’d say he sexually harassed her.

“…We chuckled and she left the office,” Helms said.

“Tony, what made you think that you could kiss her,” Paris asked.

Her demeanor and comments, Helms said. “I felt that she was making advances in the way she was speaking to me,” he said.

The next day, Helms said, he and Mendiola said good morning as usual.

Helms testified that he would see Mendiola almost every day at school but the next time the two talked at length was one afternoon after school.

He said she pulled out of the school onto the highway in front of him and the two ended up beside each other at a stop light.

“I said, ‘Follow me to McDonald’s,’ ” Helms testified.

After they got to McDonald’s, Helms said he told her he knew a place they could go and talk.

Paris asked why he couldn’t talk with Mendiola at McDonald’s.

Helms replied that McDonald’s was too open a place for him to talk with her.

Mendiola followed Helms less than a mile to a house that was for sale on U.S. 70, he said.

When they stopped in the driveway, Helms said she asked him what they were doing there.

He testified that he told her he wanted to show her this house for sale and the two walked to the home’s back patio.

They talked for a few minutes and “after that we began to hug and kiss,” Helms testified.

Helms said as they were about to leave, he asked if he could come and see her.

“She said she would let me know,” he said.

Did Ms. Mendiola ever say anything negative about what he’d done, Paris asked.

“No. None whatsoever,” Helms replied.

“When you kissed her did she kiss you back?” Paris asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

When Helms saw Mendiola at school the next day, he said he asked her again if he could come and see her.

He said he suggested Thursday but she said she wouldn’t be home that night; she would be home on Friday.

Helms testified that on Friday he called and told Mendiola he was coming over.

Paris asked him what she said.

Helms testified that she didn’t say anything other than an inquiry about what time he would arrive.

He told her 7 p.m., he said.

Paris asked him why Friday night was a good night to go to her apartment.

“Well, this is where I get into the deception with my wife,” he said.

He testified that his wife, Judy, always went to play bingo on Friday nights and he usually went to a football game.

This particular Friday night he went to Mendiola’s apartment, he testified.

“She let me in. We talked,” he said.

He and Mendiola just talked and nothing physical happened, he said — the two just go to know each other.

“It was more like going on your first date,” he said.

Paris asked him if he and Mendiola had sex, if he requested sex, demanded sex or said anything about being her boss.

Helms said no to each question.

Helms is set to continue his testimony at 9:30 a.m. today. After Paris is finished with his direct questions, Mendiola’s attorney and the school board attorneys will have an opportunity to cross-examine him.

Contact Holly Lee at 704-797-7683 or hlee@salisburypost.com