Married couple busted for planting drugs in PTA president's car
04/19/2016 5:01 pm PDT
A PTA president and classroom volunteer busted with drugs in her car, fired from her job, disgraced in her city. However, just when police believed the case was closed, there came a twist that no one saw coming.
"I've never seen a case where people intentionally went after someone to such a degree in such a vicious attack on someone's character," said Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Chris Duff.
Kent and Jill Easter were living the California dream.
"They had everything. Kent was working at a big law firm making a lot of money, Stanford-educated," said Chris Duff. "Jill went to Boalt Law School. Not practicing at the time."
Kelli Peters, a middle-class wife and mother, practically a second mom to the grade-schoolers at Plaza Vista Elementary in upscale Irvine, California.
Peters prided herself on her after-school arts and enrichment program. At the end of the day, Peters made sure the kids were back in the hands of their parents waiting outside.
"What I do is match them up with their parents so when I have an extra child, I stand there and wait for the parent to show up," said Peters.
One February afternoon in 2010, Peters was informed a parent was outside waiting to speak with her. That parent was Jill Easter, and she was irate, accusing Peters of neglecting her 6-year-old son. He had apparently lagged behind inside the school and missed the afterschool lineup.
"I don't know why he didn't line up. Maybe he was walking slower than the rest of the kids," said Peters.
"The Easters' child went missing for approximately six to eight minutes. [Peters] didn't even realize because it's not her job to round up every kid," said Duff. "Jill Easter was really angry and concerned about her child, that something happened to her child, when nothing had."
Then came the heated exchange that would launch all-out war.
"Kelli mentioned that the Easters' child was slow, meaning usually slow getting in line," said Duff. "I think Jill Easter interpreted that as being slow mentally."
Hell hath no fury like a mother's wrath
"She yelled, 'I will get you,' and she yelled 'How do you sleep at night? I will get you,'" said Peters. "It was so upsetting to me. The whole thing was so crazy and her eyes were so not normal. I mean she was scary."
A calculated campaign of character assassination began. A friend warned Peters that Jill Easter was passing out fliers at school. She wants Kelli Peters fired.
"I said, 'What did it say?' 'She said that you were dangerous, you couldn't be trusted with kids,'" said Peters.
When the school determines that Peters has done nothing wrong, Jill Easter's mission escalates. She wants legal action against Peters, and enlists her husband, Kent, to help. An email details her demands: Do a background check on Kelli Peters, file a lawsuit against her personally, even get a restraining order against the PTA mom.
"She told a judge I tried to kill her and that I was stalking her and harassing her," said Peters. "I mean, everything she was doing to me was actually what she said I was doing to her! My state of mind was frantic, I was terrified of her at this point."
After months of harassing Kelli Peters, things seemed to calm down. Perhaps the Easters had worn themselves out.
But what happens next to Kelli Peters is a journey of the surreal: It began with a phone call to the Irvine Police Department. The man on the other end of the line names Kelli Peters as an alleged driver under the influence.
Irvine Police are dispatched to Plaza Vista Elementary.
"The administrator came out and told me the police are here for you," said Peters. "And I was like, my heart just jumped."
An officer escorted Peters out to her car and asked her to unlock the door.
"I looked at him and said 'Is there a dead body in my car?' I kind of joked about it. He said not, but somebody said they saw you putting drugs in your car," said Peters. "I could see from the back window of my car. I could see the drugs as big as day. I literally was 'What's going on, really?' I said 'Am I being "punked?" I thought, 'I'm really into reality TV.'"
On the back seat of Peters's car: a bag of marijuana, a pipe, and the illegal controlled substances Percocet and Vicodin.
"I was just non-stop, 'Please, this is not me. You've got to listen to me,'" said Peters. "He started pulling the drugs out and putting it on top of the police car. I could see kids were getting out of the classes that I was supposed to be helping volunteering and parents were picking up their kids. Everybody was staring at me."
Kelli Peters was stunned and scared. The beloved wife, mom and PTA president facing drug-possession charges?
"I started calling everybody and telling them 'If I go to jail, you know, I am going to need you to do this and need you to do this,'" said Peters. "I started making arrangements and I was preparing for it."
Kelli Peters and her family were living an endless psychodrama.
"I would crawl under a blanket and I would curl up in a ball and I would stay there for sometimes hours," said Peters. "My daughter ultimately lost all her friends and I had to move her to another school because it got so hard on her."
The astute Irvine police officer smelled a rat.
"He starts to at least have suspicions that these are not Kelli's drugs based on the fact that she's not under the influence of anything," said prosecutor Chris Duff. "The bag is so openly displayed, which no one would do on school grounds."
Police trace the call back to a Newport Beach hotel -- and guess who's seen on surveillance footage right before and after the call? Police were able to identify Kent Easter was the person using the phone at that time.
Next, it's the couple's cellphones that give investigators a road map to the scene of the crime.
"Based on cellphone information we have, the Easters were out in front of Kelli's house between the hours of approximately 2 and 4 in the morning," said Duff. "It would appear that while one of them is planting the drugs, the other was circling the neighborhood as a lookout."
And then the Holy Grail of evidence for police and prosecutors:
"By the time I receive the case we have Kent Easter's DNA on some of the drugs and marijuana pipe, Jill Easter's DNA on some of the drugs and on the marijuana pipe," said Duff. "The evidence was overwhelming. In my opinion there was little doubt in Irvine PD's mind or my mind who committed the crime."
"The day I got the phone call they had been arrested was a great day," said Kelli Peters. "I remember that day like it was yesterday."
Both the Easters are charged. Jill takes a plea deal. Kent went to trial. Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Christopher Duff prosecuted the case.
By the time Kent's trial begins, he's estranged from Jill. Turns out she had been having an affair. Kent tried to blame the terrorization of Kelli Peters on his former partner in life and crime.
Ultimately, both Easters pay the price for causing an innocent family so much harm. Jill Easter gets 120 days behind bars; Kent gets 180 days. And both of them are placed on three years' formal probation.
"They lost everything over this innocuous incident," said Duff. "Kent Easter lost his job, his bar license suspended. Jill Easter was disbarred."
Kelli Peters won a $5 million judgment against the Easters in a civil suit. But money doesn't heal all wounds.
"Truly it's bullying as an adult -- using your power and your wealth to step on people you feel aren't worth anything," said Peters. "It was so evil. I will never, ever, ever forgive them."