Texts, photos didn’t keep molestation suspect in custody before suicide

Freedom Middle School
Freedom Middle School

DeKalb County School District police interviewed Zachary Meadors the day allegations surfaced that he was having an inappropriate relationship with one of his Freedom Middle School students.

On Oct. 12, Meadors told investigators he had spent time with the boy outside of the school, at his home and public parks. Officials also discovered explicit text messages and photos in a text string on Meadors' and the boy's cell phones, sent from Meadors to the boy.

Then, police let Meadors go.

Instead of being detained, investigators said the 28-year-old spent the weekend creating a video and crafting notes to several people, including his parents, apologizing for "all the chaos he caused." He was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a vehicle in Gwinnett County on Oct. 17.

Police officers are allowed to take a person into custody if there is probable cause to suspect the person has committed a crime. An arrest warrant was issued three days after Meadors was interviewed by police — on charges of child molestation and enticing a child for indecent purposes — and on the same day his family reported him missing. But why was Zachary Meadors not immediately arrested?

“I don’t know,” Superintendent Steve Green said.

When the Meadors investigation was brought to Green’s attention, he said there seemed to be enough evidence for a job termination and an arrest.

That was not the case when Meadors was sent home Friday after questioning, DeKalb County School District police Chief Bradley Gober said.

Gober said Meadors was not immediately arrested because he was not caught in the act of committing a crime. He said an arrest warrant was requested after investigators felt they discovered enough evidence to charge Meadors with a crime.

“We want to be sure we give everybody their due process as far as allegations go,” Gober said. “During the interview process, he gave some things that gave us cause, but it’s not like he confessed to any crimes. Before we place anybody in custody and rob them of their freedom, we wanted to make sure we have enough evidence.

“At that time, it was still an allegation.”

Freedom Middle School students attending a sex-trafficking seminar on Oct. 12 were asked if they knew anyone engaged in an inappropriate relationship. According to an arrest warrant for Meadors, a girl turned in the name of a 12-year-old boy. Meadors also admitted to meeting with the boy away from school, including public parks and at Meadors’ home. Investigators later found explicit text messages on the boy’s cellphone, then matched them with messages found on Meadors’ cell. Meadors’ parents reported him missing after he dropped off the video, on an iPad, and letters addressed to his parents, siblings and two unidentified people, which offered apologies and instructions for dividing any money he left.

Gober said Meadors was interviewed after 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 12 about the allegations against him. He willingly released his cellphone, laptop and iPad to investigators before being sent home.

It took three days to get the warrant because the allegations were first learned on a Friday, and Meadors was accused of a crime while performing his duties as a teacher. According to state law, an arrest warrant for a teacher may only be issued by a superior court, state court or probate court judge.

While a school district police department is employed by the district, the district’s rules take a backseat when sworn officials begin a criminal investigation, said Shannon Flounnory, Fulton County Schools’ executive director of safety and security.

“You will normally find concurrent investigations,” he said. “Something could be a violation of school district policy that might not necessarily be worth criminal charges.”

Meadors was allowed to go home on Oct. 12, but he was pulled from his classroom and told to report to the school district’s headquarters on Oct. 15.

Edward Mamet, a retired New York Police Department captain who once ran a sex-crimes unit during his 40-year career, said investigators often send home a potential crime suspect while building their best case.

“It’a not unusual, where the suspect is known and can be found, to not make a summary arrest,” said Mamet, who does work as an expert witness on police practices and procedures. “That’s done all the time. He’s a school teacher. They’ve taken his fingerprints. They know all about him.”

ExploreNo other students have been identified as potentially having an improper relationship with Meadors, Gober said.

Vasanne Tinsley, the district’s deputy superintendent for student support and intervention, said counseling and other crisis wraparound services have been offered to students and staff at Freedom Middle School, given Meadors’ death and the ongoing investigation.

“A lot of students were impacted by knowing him,” she said. “And we keep an eye on the (alleged victim) … to make sure that student is safe.”