Jury finds Helms not liable

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Holly Fesperman Lee

Salisbury Post

A Rowan County jury took less than 10 minutes Monday to decide that Tony Helms did not mistreat Laurie Mendiola.

As individual jurors were polled on their verdict, Mendiola stood and exited the courtroom in tears. She could be heard through a closed door crying in the hallway outside.

Since the jury found that Helms did not assault, batter, or intentionally inflict emotional distress on Mendiola, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education could not be held liable.

Mendiola, a former teacher, alleged in May of 2005 that Helms, former West Rowan Middle School principal, forced her into an affair and told her she could lose her job if she didn’t comply.

She also alleged that the school board knew about the affair and didn’t investigate.

Mendiola was asking for actual and punitive damages, claiming that she had to quit her job because of injuries Helms’ inflicted. She also said that she now suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and requires weekly counseling sessions.

After listening to a week and half of testimony and closing arguments from all sides, jurors didn’t buy those claims.

Mendiola’s attorney, B. Ervin Brown, told jurors they were the sole judges of witness credibility.

“Only you can make the determination about who is credible in this case,” he said.

He also urged jurors to consider the demeanor of Mendiola and Helms.

“I suggest to you there was a marked difference,” Brown told jurors.

Several times in the courtroom, Mendiola was tearful and distressed while Helms only appeared to get emotional at one point on the witness stand, he said.

He also talked about Helms’ credibility saying he hadn’t always been forthright with his wife about at least one prior affair and he wasn’t truthful with school personnel about his affair with Mendiola.

“He has a little credibility baggage when he walks in here,” Brown said.

He also addressed the credibility of several other witnesses including Dr. Barbara Thomas, Tom Gillespie, and Dr. Arne Newman.

As Brown detailed the injuries Mendiola said she incurred from her ordeal with Helms, he talked about assessing damages in the case.

“What is it worth to get your life back from that kind of nightmare?” he asked the jury.

Brown talked about the school board’s responsibility in the matter and told jurors it ought to offend every woman in the world that school officials only took the male point of view.

He explained how former Superintendent Dr. Wiley Doby and former Associate Superintendent Dr. Robert Heffern testified that no one ever called Mendiola to inquire about the affair rumors.

Brown suggested that $1 million was not enough to restore Mendiola’s life and make up for what suffered at the hands of “this predator.”

“I think you ought to send a message to Mr. Helms and others like him” that this county is concerned about this kind of activity going on in its public schools, Brown said.

He suggested the jury make an example out of Helms to deter him and others from future behavior. He suggested an award of $3 million.

When he talked about Mendiola’s allegations against the school system, he suggested how much the school board should have to pay and said, “It’s their fault it didn’t stop.”

Ken Soo, attorney for the school board, argued that “Laurie Mendiola and Tony Helms both hid their relationship from the board of education.”

Soo told jurors that Mendiola was asking them to hold the school board responsible for the injuries she says she suffered.

Mendiola testified that she was terrified of Helms and disgusted by him.

Soo asked jurors if those statements are true or if it was true that Mendiola consented to the relationship, took advantage of her special relationship with the principal and then things didn’t work out well.

Soo talked about Davina Stewart’s testimony.

Stewart, another teacher at West Rowan Middle School, testified that Mendiola told her, “I can do what I want around here.”

Stewart also testified that she saw Mendiola take change out of Helms’ desk when he wasn’t in the office.

“Actions speak louder than words … is that somebody who is terrified and disgusted?” Soo asked the jury.

Several school employees also testified to seeing Mendiola with her feet up on Helms desk and even sitting on his desk.

Soo asked if those actions said Mendiola was terrified of Helms.

“No, it says I’m comfortable …” he said.

Soo suggested to jurors that no one ever reported the affair to school officials because it was consensual.

Tony Helms shouldn’t have opened the door, but after he opened the door, she walked through it, Soo told jurors.

He urged jurors to consider “unguarded” moments when Mendiola talked about Helms with her hair stylist, her friend Gillespie and a co-worker, Nancy Brawley.

Soo argued that Doby wanted every person in school to know their rights.

The school system has a sexual harassment form that every employee signs. Soo said it tells employees they can complain to Doby or the school board if they are being sexually harassed or they see someone else being mistreated.

Soo talked about the many opportunities Mendiola had to report the alleged harassment and “never once did she step forward,” he said.

Todd Paris, Helms’ attorney, started his closing argument by telling the jury he wasn’t going to go back over everything that Soo just told them.

He talked about the end of testimony when Brown put up Dr. Jerry Noble as his rebuttal witness.

He told the jury that Noble was called to give reasons why other witness testimony wasn’t true. Noble testified about Dr. Arne Newman’s findings on Mendiola’s court-ordered psychological testing. He said her scores were elevated, but her exaggeration was likely a cry for help, not malingering as Newman concluded.

Paris pointed out that Mendiola never took the stand again to rebut anything other witnesses said — not Gillespie or school employees.

He also addressed Brown’s comments to the jury about Mendiola and Helms emotional states in the courtroom.

“Cases are not determined by who cries the loudest,” he said.

Paris told jurors he was going to go over three pieces of evidence that he felt were “rosetta stones” in the case.

The first was a therapy note from Dr. Barbara Thomas when Mendiola was a patient at her practice, Salisbury Psychiatric Associates.

One of Thomas’ therapists, Cynthia Baubach, testified earlier in the trial that Mendiola attempted to form a more personal relationship with her and demanded to know what feelings she had for her.

After that incident, Thomas wrote that after Baubach resisted Mendiola’s advances she “began crying victim, harassment, abuse just as she did with Mr. Helms.”

The second “rosetta stone” Paris talked about was also a note from one of Mendiola’s therapy sessions with Baubach.

The note said Mendiola told Baubach she was angry with her attorney, Mr. Brown, because he hadn’t returned her phone calls in over a week. “Patient stated she thought about going up to Winston and having sex with him to get him to help her and like her and get him motivated to work on her case,” Paris read from the note.

He made it clear to jurors that he would never suggest Brown and Mendiola actually had sex but her comments showed a pattern.

She wanted something from Brown and her solution was to seduce him, Paris said.

She wanted to have the power and influence over Baubach so she tried to seduce her, he said.

“This is just like the Tony Helms case,” Paris told the jury.

Mendiola wanted to get smoke breaks and leave early so she got into a relationship with Helms, her principal, he said.

“Laurie does what Laurie needs to get what Laurie wants,” he said.

The last “rosetta stone” was in December of 2003 when she first went to see Brown.

During this time, Mendiola found out she was pregnant and Helms was on leave to be with his wife who was very sick, Paris said.

He also asked jurors to consider that Mendiola’s friend, Becky Carli, never heard anything about forced sex until after she knew she was pregnant.

Paris asked jurors what happened and he said, “She came up pregnant and Tony didn’t immediately leave his wife and marry her.”

She told Carli and Gillespie that Helms was forcing her to have sex with him to build witnesses for a later civil trial.

“She’s hedging her bets,” he said.

“There’s no evidence of any forced anything in this,” Paris said.

He suggested that Mendiola wanted Helms to take care of her and she was disappointed she didn’t get what she wanted.

“She couldn’t get it by marriage and she shouldn’t get it from you,” Paris told the jury.

After the verdict was read and Mendiola was out of the courtroom, Brown told a Post reporter “We’re disappointed in the verdict and your newspaper. We think your newspaper is extremely one-sided.”

When asked if Mendiola planned to appeal the case, Brown said, “I have no idea.”

On the school board’s side, Soo said, “Obviously, we’re happy with the verdict.”

Soo said that while this was not a good situation for anybody, he found it important for the school system to be able to show that they’re very concerned and responsive to reports of any concern at school.

He also said that he hoped going forward, everyone would understand that message — if anyone knows of anything going on they should let the school system know.

Dr. Alan King, assistant superintendent for administration, said the board of education and school system administration has a policy in place to deal with sexual harassment.

“We don’t allow it at any level,” he said. The school system also does not condone inappropriate relationships, he said.

“I just hope this trial can serve as an example” that all employees should display moral and ethical conduct at all times, King said.

“We should be role models for our children,” he said.

King said he thought Soo gave excellent representation to the school system and conducted the trial very professionally.

Paris, Helms’ attorney, said he wouldn’t be able to comment on the trial since he and his associate, James Hoffman, are involved in the pending alienation of affection case Judy Helms filed against Mendiola.

Helms, however, did want to comment. He called the Post after court Monday.

Helms said he was very happy with the verdict and, “Again, I want to apologize to my fellow principals.” He said when one principal is caught up in something like the current trial, it reflects badly on everyone.

Helms said he also wanted to apologize to all other school system personnel including teachers “and the parents at West that believed in me. You know I let them down,” he said.

Helms thanked his family for their support. Some of his children, his sister, his wife and other family members have been in the courtroom for most of the trial.

“They stood by me,” he said.

Helms told a Post reporter that he didn’t have anything else to say except, “I wanted to again apologize to the Rowan-Salisbury School System.”

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