In 2004 Julie Amero was a 37-year-old substitute teacher who looked forward to the impending birth of her first child and enjoyed educating students.
But her life took a drastic turn on Oct. 19 of that year and now, four years later, Amero has a scarred reputation and said she has suffered emotional distress after facing serious pornography charges that destroyed her teaching career.
“Everybody out there should be afraid,” the now 42-year-old Amero said on “Good Morning America” today. “If it can happen to me it can certainly happen to you.”
The Back Story: Spyware Cause Porn Popups on Teacher’s Computer
Amero started that fateful school day at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, Conn., by checking her personal e-mail and then she stepped out of the classroom to use the bathroom. While she was away from her desk, the computer began displaying a flurry of pornographic images.
She returned to find two students giggling at the computer screen. Amero said she tried to close the inappropriate images, but to no avail.
“The pop-ups never went away. It was one after another. They were continuous. Every time I clicked the box in the corner, the red box, the red X, more were generated,” she said according to a court transcript.
For several hours she says she tried to get the images of “women in lingerie, bathing suits” and more to stop. What Amero didn’t do, though, was shut down the computer.
“I didn’t even know where the button was,” she said, “never been shown, never been told.”
Amero said she wasn’t computer savvy and had limited knowledge of how to use the device.
“[My husband] had just taught me recently how to do the computer,” Amero said.
She alerted the school’s vice principal about the incident on her break and the administrator initially told her not to worry.
But then several angry parents who learned of the incident from their children called the school to complain.
“I knew there was a problem the third day at the end of that school day,” Amero said.
“At the time no big deal was made of it. Then kids went home, told their parents and it exploded from there,” said Hartford Courant newspaper columnist Rick Green, who has followed the case.
The school notified police and told Amero she could never work as a substitute teacher again. Shortly afterward she was arrested on 10 counts of risk of injury to a minor.
A Wrongful Guilty Verdict
Eventually, authorities dropped six of the counts, but Amero still faced four and a total of 40 years in prison.
“It’s a fascinating glimpse into what can happen to you if you are arrested in a wrongful situation,” Green said.
Prosecutors claimed that Amero had been surfing pornography Web sites in the seventh-grade classroom.
They offered her a deal that would have expunged the charges from her record after two years of good behavior. Amero refused the deal and maintained her innocence.
In the 2007 trial, Amero was convicted, but computer experts following the case disagreed with the verdict.
After their outcry, prosecutors sent the computer’s hard drive to state police forensics laboratory where analysis found evidence that contradicted the state’s expert witness.
“This Web page that she had allegedly clicked on, which had been presented at the trial as evidence, clear evidence by the prosecution, everything indicated to the exact contrary that she had not clicked on that link,” said Sunbelt Software CEO Alex Eckelberry, who came to Amero’s aid after reading about her case in the newspaper.
Combatting the Conviction
The bevy of computer experts that came to Amero’s aid proved that the true culprit of the pornographic pop-ups was a malicious spyware program.
The evidence was so compelling that a judge overturned Amero’s conviction, saying the prosecution’s star witness, a computer forensics expert, had given false testimony.
But for 18 months prosecutors pondered whether they should retry the former educator. They dropped the felony charges, but in November 2008 Amero pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. She can never work in a classroom again.
She said the plea bargain was the result of not wanting to spend more time in a courtroom because the entire ordeal had taken a serious toll on her health.
“They got a pound of flesh,” said Amero, who remains unemployed and says she’s unable to get work thanks to the ordeal. “The doctors all agreed that I would not make it through another trial.”
Amero said the stress of the trial caused a miscarriage and prompted breathing troubles.
Her husband, 57-year-old Wes Vello, said he sees the plea agreement as the state’s way of being inflexible.
“They were unwilling to admit they’d made a mistake,” said Vello, who works seven days a week as a shipbuilder. “In my opinion it was just a saving face for the state.”