Rachel Gandee was a band nerd in high school.
She didn’t drink. She didn’t smoke. Her grades were solid. The 16-year-old had just finished 10th grade and was, by her mother’s judgment, a good girl.
Then she fell in with Ray McBerry, a married history teacher and member of her small storefront church in McDonough. When their relationship began, McBerry was still four years away from his first Republican run for governor in 2006. He’s trying again this year.
Last month, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission released a summary of its investigation into McBerry, who resigned his position at Patrick Henry High School in Stockbridge in January 2003, shortly after Rachel’s mother filed a complaint.
Eventually, in 2004, the GPSC would suspend his teaching certificate for five days for abuse of a student, lying to administrators and violation of the commission’s standard of conduct for teachers.
The only person identified in that state report was McBerry. The identities of Rachel Gandee — her married name — and her parents were protected.
But at some point, anonymity becomes a form of paralysis. The facts belong to those willing to discuss them in the open.
Over the past few weeks, Rachel Gandee has eased herself onto the public stage, starting with a detailed account of her relationship with McBerry on SWGAPolitics.com, a southwest Georgia political blog run by Jeff Sexton. “The truth getting told,” she wrote, “might help me get over all this.”
McBerry calls himself the only states’ rights candidate in the 2010 race for governor. He has little chance of winning, but drew nearly 12 percent of the vote in the ’06 primary.
In a phone interview shortly after he qualified for the governor’s race on Wednesday, McBerry maintained that his relationship with the high school student was professional and proper.
But last week, the four adults who sat around a kitchen table in McDonough described a romance that was both obsessive and harmful.
Rachel Gandee, now 24, is a medical assistant. Ronnie Pittman, her 47-year-old stepfather and the man who raised her, is a plumber by trade. Her mother, Linda Pittman, 54, wore an off-white turban that hid the effects of chemotherapy. Rachel Gandee works for her mother’s surgeon.
Chris Gandee, 23, an emergency medical technician, sat next to his new bride, who fidgeted and sometimes trembled — but never cried — as the story worked its way out:
In 2002, the family attended the same small church as McBerry and his wife, who acted as youth ministers. The members of Faith Independent Baptist Church took their religion seriously. Women and girls wore dresses, or at minimum, culottes. Disputes were settled biblically.
Rachel and the high school teacher, then 34, shared an interest in history — the Civil War in particular. That summer, she went to him for advice about a boyfriend. “I could have gone to his wife. But I went to him because we were close. And I had that childish crush on him,” Rachel Gandee said.
McBerry urged her to cut ties with her high school sweetheart. And McBerry then began the process of replacing him, Rachel Gandee said. He gave her a cellphone that allowed the two to talk without parental tracking. The loan of the phone is beyond dispute – McBerry admits to it.
Once school started, she spent the hours between the afternoon bell and evening band practices with McBerry. She said the future candidate for governor would leave his job at Patrick Henry High and drive 10 miles to pick her up at Henry County High School, where she was now a junior.
McBerry and his wife separated, then divorced.
“At first, when he was still married, we went to the graveyard and we would just talk,” Rachel Gandee remembered. “Once his wife left, we’d go back to his house.”
On Wednesday, McBerry repeated what he told investigators in 2003: He acted only as the young girl’s counselor, and that the relationship never went beyond platonic hugs.
“There was no inappropriate contact with her, period, whatsoever,” McBerry said. “I was not alone with her, period, whatsoever, in my home, at all, for any reason.”
Rachel Gandee remembers it differently. “It got physical. It wasn’t at first. But yeah, it did get physical,” she said. In later interviews, although she initially denied that the relationship went that far, Rachel Gandee said she and McBerry had sex that fall, at his house.
Her parents — and their church — quickly became involved. That September, McBerry was summoned to a meeting with the pastor, a deacon and Ronnie Pittman.
“We told him to leave her alone. She was a child. Leave her alone. And those meetings went on an hour, or maybe an hour and a half. Each one,” the stepfather said. “After the first one, he didn’t get it, so we called him in again.”
“And then I caught him at a football game here in town,” Ronnie Pittman said. His stepdaughter, of course, was in the band. “I got on him pretty hard up there, ’cause it was just me and him.”
Linda Pittman came across two compact disks loaded with spyware that, her daughter later said, came from McBerry. Rachel used the programs to hide the messages she sent to the teacher on the family computer.
Finally, in December 2002, a couple from church caught the pair together on a dirt road — McBerry and Rachel had arrived at the rendezvous in separate cars. Linda Pittman went to the Henry County school board. McBerry abandoned his teaching job.
On Jan. 17, 2003, the mother brought McBerry before Henry County Magistrate Wesley J. Shannon, on charges of interference with custody, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
McBerry had an attorney. The Pittmans didn’t. Examining his files this week, Shannon said the parents didn’t present enough evidence for an arrest warrant. But they raised enough suspicions, the judge said, that he signed an order requiring McBerry to stay away from their daughter for six months.
“If I was to take an educated guess as to what I was doing at the time,” the judge said, “I was putting the ball in his court — saying, ‘Do you want to go to jail? Leave the girl alone.’ ”
No one showed up at a July 17, 2003, follow-up hearing. Without the Pittmans to press any accusations, the judge had no choice but to dismiss the charges. The couple now say they regret not following up with the court action — because McBerry remained a shadow in their lives.
Rachel Gandee said her feelings for McBerry changed the day they were caught on that dirt road. Confronted, the high school teacher began pounding his car in a rage, she said. After the incident, her stepfather persuaded her that she was not safe.
At one point, McBerry returned to the church — from which he’d already been ousted — and was asked to leave, Ronnie Pittman said. His stepdaughter hid inside. On weekdays, at the wheel of her car, Rachel Gandee remembers seeing McBerry along her route to school. She began taking the bus.
Even as an adult, she still is reluctant to go into town alone, out of fear that she might see him. “I don’t want to break down in the middle of the Wal-Mart by myself,” Rachel Gandee said.
Of the Pittmans and their daughter, McBerry said their story has changed several times. He declined to cite specifics, but said he was contemplating court action.
Georgia has sent mixed messages when it comes to sexual ties between teachers and students. HB 571, a bill approved by the General Assembly on Tuesday, forbids relationships between students and teachers in the same schools.
But not, as Rachel Gandee says happened with McBerry, teachers and students from different schools. The measure also creates an exception for teachers and students who marry.
Yet consider this: On Monday, the Georgia Republican Party turned away Ray Boyd, a real estate executive with $2 million, as a candidate for governor because he refused to sign a loyalty oath of sorts.
But GOP officials say state law prevents the party of family values from blocking the candidacy of a former teacher accused of preying upon a young girl. Republicans will cash McBerry’s $4,180.18 qualifying check.
Other GOP candidates must be thrilled.
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