The discovery was as shocking as it was horrific: a camera with explicit photos of a child who attended Washington National Cathedral’s exclusive Beauvoir elementary school, which caters to some of the area’s most powerful families.
The camera was assigned to third-grade teacher Eric Justin Toth. School head Paula Carreiro quickly summoned Toth that day in June 2008 and confronted him. She then had him escorted to the end of the cathedral driveway, ordering him away.
With that, she gave Toth a critical jump on police, unwittingly helping a man alleged to have a history of making child pornography. He is now one of the country’s most notorious fugitives — last month, the FBI put him on its Ten Most Wanted list, filling a spot left empty by Osama bin Laden’s death.
Toth’s face is plastered on bus stops and billboards nationwide, including in Manhattan’s Times Square. Over the past few weeks, agents have run down hundreds of tips, leading them as far as South America.
The FBI describes Toth as a crafty fugitive and child predator who will not stop until he is arrested. They call his methods typical for a pedophile: He worked where he had access to kids, ingratiated himself with families and got extended alone time with their children, sometimes as a tutor. Then he allegedly exploited children and took pictures of them for gratification.
Details of how he escaped authorities are now clearer.
Carreiro called 911 the same afternoon that she had Toth removed from campus, but within 24 hours, he was 700 miles from the District, beginning a run for his life that has included aliases, a sham suicide note and a stint at an Arizona homeless shelter.
Carreiro, who plans to retire from the school in June 2013, declined to comment for this article. People close to her said she wanted to get Toth off campus quickly and thought police would later handle the criminal aspect.
Nobody knew at the time that he had allegedly installed a video camera in his third-grade class bathroom and used it to record images of his students.
Ronald Hosko, special agent in charge of the criminal division at the FBI’s Washington Field Office, said the Toth case illustrates the challenge schools have in trying to protect children.
Toth, now 30, arrived at Beauvoir in 2005 with good recommendations and no known criminal history, according to several people affiliated with the school. He lived in the District and worked at Beauvoir for three years.
“Eric Toth doesn’t have an on-off switch,” Hosko said. “His discovery here in D.C. isn’t going to turn him off. Our belief and fear is he’s looking for victims right now.”
Toth moved from job to job every few years — and just before he went on the run, he was in talks with another exclusive D.C. area private school about a teaching job.
Beauvoir did not know about Toth’s past. Around 2001 and 2002, parents in Indiana were concerned that he was too close to children while volunteering at an elementary school there, according to the FBI. And years later, police found evidence of child pornography that Toth may have made while working as a counselor at an all-boys summer camp in Wisconsin from 2004 through 2006.
At Beauvoir, the education is elite and expensive. Parents include U.S. senators, White House staff members, State Department officials, World Bank employees, and a cross section of Washington lawyers and entrepreneurs.
Parents and administrators are fiercely protective of the school and its reputation. Many said they felt torn talking about Toth.
While at Beauvoir, Toth charmed adults and children alike. But looking back, parents say, there were signs that something was wrong: The teacher sometimes spent nights in his classroom closet, slept at students’ houses and lavished attention on select 8- and 9-year-old boys, sometimes holding them on his lap.
Officials at Beauvoir, which has about 390 students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, declined to comment for this article, but the school released a statement: “Beauvoir’s first priority has been and remains the safety of children. Since this incident came to light four years ago, Beauvoir has closely cooperated with investigating authorities to provide any information that may lead to Mr. Toth’s apprehension.”
People familiar with the school’s governing board say members thought school leaders responded appropriately to the discovery by increasing training and awareness of child sex abuse for staff members and parents. Some parents interviewed for this article praised the school’s handling of the Toth matter. Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth served on the school’s governing board after Toth left.