In an episode straight from a potboiler, a Nebraska school teacher and a 13-year-old student are believed to have eloped and the police are looking for them all over for nearly a week now.
She was a sixth-grade math teacher, following in the footsteps of her father, Tim, a teacher at nearby Gothenburg. Her career path had been set as a member of the Future Educators of America while a student at Lexington High.
But leaving her career plans in a wreck, the 25-year-student Kelsey Peterson has fled with the 13-year-old Fernando Rodriguez. School officials had recently learned of a suspected "intimate relationship'' between them.
They notified police when they found several letters and e-mails written by Peterson, a single parent, to the boy, stating that she loved him and that he was "the only person'' that she would ever love again.
The teacher and the boy apparently fled in Peterson's white Pontiac.
They reportedly were spotted Friday night at a Denver convenience store and then at an undisclosed location in Ogallala, Nebraska.
Peterson was being sought on charges of kidnapping and child abuse, both felonies, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor.
Around Lexington, a meatpacking town of 11,500 that is majority Hispanic, people expressed shock that a popular teacher would go on the run with a student almost half her age.
"I graduated in 1974, and you never thought of your teacher like that,'' said Deb Herbert, a Lexington woman who works at a Cozad factory. "It's kind of sad -- you wonder what goes through your head (to do that).''
Lexington schools Superintendent Todd Chessmore called the incident shocking -- something he had never encountered before in 25 years as an educator.
"I just think Lexington is a model community and school,'' said Chessmore. "This could happen anywhere, and unfortunately it's happening way too often nationally.''
He declined to comment on whether the school district had begun the process of firing Peterson, who began teaching at Lexington in the fall of 2004, shortly after graduating from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Even if she is not convicted of a crime, Peterson still could lose her certificate to teach in Nebraska due to a violation of the ethical standards of state teachers, said Brian Halstead, legal counsel for the Nebraska Department of Education.
Students and a former coworker described Peterson as outgoing, popular and "cool.''
Yearbooks showed that Peterson, who graduated from Lexington High in 2000, was a member of the National Honor Society, the Future Educators of America and the girls volleyball and basketball teams. She had a child while in high school, residents said.
A group of junior high students, interviewed after they left school Wednesday, said there had been a lot of talk around school about "dating'' between Peterson and the boy before the pair disappeared.
Marcos Fregoso, a seventhgrader, said Fernando, an eighthgrader, was a frequent visitor to Peterson's sixth-grade classroom over the past year.
Another student said Fernando once slapped Peterson on the rear when she bent over in the classroom.
Peterson lived in a fairly new duplex on the west edge of town. Halloween decorations and a "Lexington Coaching Staff'' yard sign framed the front door of the residence. Her elementary-age child reportedly was with a relative and not with Peterson.
Court documents indicate that Peterson and Fernando had exchanged several letters over the past year, including some to the Nebraska Boys Ranch in Alliance, where the boy was sent in December after a Dawson County judge deemed the boy an "uncontrollable'' juvenile.
A neighbor of Fernando's, who asked to be unnamed for fear of the youth, said the boy had returned to Lexington about a month ago and had joined a local gang, the 13th Street gang, since his return.
One of the letters Fernando sent to the teacher, according to court documents, stated that he still loved his "Baby Girl'' and that their relationship was "just not about the sex but that it was pretty good.''
The document said Fernando had contacted his family via phone and text messages, telling them he was OK and was with Peterson. In one phone call, he asked an aunt if a visa or passport was needed to enter Mexico, the homeland of his family.
Lexington Clipper-Herald, a local newspaper quoted Paul Schwarz, a police investigator, as saying that being placed on administrative leave had perhaps "goaded'' Peterson and the boy into fleeing Lexington, but there was no way to know where they might be now.