When Michael Eugene Speich took his life June 27 at the edge of a pasture on his Westel Loop farm, it ended his criminal prosecution for sexual misconduct involving past and present students. It did not end the story for countless others.
Speich, 55, a Cumberland County teacher for 29 years, county commissioner and high school cross country coach, was indicted on June 24 on one count of sexual battery by an authority figure.
District Attorney Bryant Dunaway expressed concern last week that victims of the actions for which Speich is accused were denied their day in court. The concern is lack of closure.
State prosecutors said more evidence was going to be presented to the grand jury in August. Those charges included rape and/or additional sexual misconduct charges.
“When the story broke about the grand jury indictment and arrest in June, our phones immediately started ringing and did not stop,” Dunaway said last Friday. “When he died, we had three cases prepared for presentation to the grand jury and were preparing two additional cases.”
With so many calls coming in, Dunaway and his chief investigator, Randal Slayton, believe more prosecutions from additional victims were likely. For one month, Slayton did nothing but investigate the tips that poured into the DA’s office.
Both Dunaway and Slayton agree the case was as much about power and control as it was sexual assaults and rapes.
They said unspeakable acts took place, but the sex acts were tools used by Speich to gain power and control over the teens.
Slayton best described it like this: “Power and control was his ‘drug.’ The sexual aspect, the grooming of potential victims, the tickling, the restraints, the farm and working on the farm for pay were the tools he used to get the gratification he sought.”
The two believe Speich was driven by having power and control which caused him excitement and was the motive for his actions.
It was an elaborate system, Slayton continued. Speich used his teaching position to hand-pick his tar.gets, gained the trust of the student and, often, the parents to groom potential victims. He would send letters home to parents, or talk to them, suggesting that farm work would be good for their children.
Nearly all those targeted were males, which fits into the farm and farm work scenario and would not attract the attention of others.
There is also the intimidation factor, prosecutors said. On one hand there was a teacher, an elected public official and coach. On the other hand, there were teenagers. Victims felt they would not be taken seriously, or believed if they complained, because of his perceived influence in the community.
When interviewed following his arrest, Speich admitted to much of this and told investigators he saw nothing wrong with tickling students who were partially clothed, and having them tickle him. Speich called it “horse play.”
“Speich stopped short in admitting the sex,” Slayton said.
Speich also admitted to providing moonshine to the one student.
This is what Dunaway and Slayton shared with the Chronicle last week:
•The investigation was launched when a father reported to the principal at Stone Memorial High School Speich had given their son moonshine during the Christmas break. The principal advised Central Office at the Board of Education, which resulted in the District Attorney’s Office being notified. Later, Speich admitted giving the student alcohol.
•Slayton was assigned to investigate the alcohol allegation and while he was suspicious as to why a teacher would provide alcohol for a minor, he went into the investigation believing it would be a short and simple misdemeanor charge.
When Slayton was advised of the sexual misconduct, the investigation rapidly expanded.
•Of the three cases being prepared for grand jury presentation, at least one dated back to 1997. Officials believe the incidents may go back as far as 1993.
•Though Speich taught at the elementary school level, elementary aged children were not involved in the sexual allegations. It was at the elementary school level the grooming and selection of targeted children started, Dunaway and Slayton said. Tickling of feet was part of the early stage of grooming.
•Once trust was gained through special classroom attention, outside-the-classroom activities, earning the trust of parents, tickling, offering transportation to sporting events, using the farm, working on the farm and payment for some students, activities escalated into the darker side.
•Nearly all questioned were male, with the exception of one female. The case involving the female was one being prepared for the August grand jury.
•There was at least one incident in which it was told two students and Speich were involved in bondage and sexual activities.
•Nearly all incidents of sexual battery involved digital penetration on the teens by Speich. There were reports of rape.
•Locations where incidents took place and are known to investigators are the Westel Loop farm, Speich’s vehicle and the greenhouse at Stone Elementary School.
•All known incidents except one occurred in Cumberland County. Investigators believe one took place in Putnam County.
•Search warrants were executed for Speich’s home on Westel Rd., the farm on Westel Loop and a storage unit off Hwy. 68. Investigators did find cords still tied to each of the bed posts in one bedroom in the farm house. The room was exactly as that described by several of the victims.
A cellphone described by victims as being used to take photos during the incidents was recovered. Dunaway said the phone was an older model that required an SD card. No photos were found on the phone and investigators believe that Speich removed or destroyed that evidence when the moonshine probe began.
•Victims and suspected victims all shared common details despite not knowing each other and having never talked with each other.
Both men agree that at the time of Speich’s death, they did not, and still do not, know the depth of the case against Speich.
The final thing Dunaway told the Chronicle is that he hopes the community will respect the privacy of Speich’s family.
“They have been devastated by the news,” Dunaway said. “They were shocked. You can imagine it was overwhelming for them.”
He added that there is no evidence to suggest family members were aware of what Speich was doing prior to his arrest. “They had absolutely no control over this and they are left grieving over the loss of their loved one and with what he has been accused.”
Dunaway urges victims and those who may have suffered mental trauma because of what happened to them or by what they witnessed to seek help from a mental health professional.
“Those who feel they need someone to talk to, or are having trouble dealing with what happened, can be assured their identities will be protected and kept confidential,” he said.
Those who feel they need help can contact the victim/witness coordinator at the District Attorney’s Office or counselors at their schools.
Funding is available to help pay for counseling through a state fund for those who qualify.
Persons who believe they have been a victim of similar crimes may confidentially report that to the Department of Children’s Services, the District Attorney’s Office or any law enforcement agency.