Sex with young students, shocking suicide cast scrutiny on foreign-exchange programs

Dale Leary and Marta San Jose, his former exchange student, then wife, are shown on her public Facebook page. They were accused of molesting her sister; now he's been found dead.
Dale Leary and Marta San Jose, his former exchange student, then wife, are shown on her public Facebook page. They were accused of molesting her sister; now he's been found dead. Facebook

Dale Leary died of apparent suicide this week as investigators widened a probe into the middle-aged marketing and tech executive’s relations with a string of young female foreign-exchange students he hosted in his Cutler Bay home.

He had married one student from Spain just after she turned 18 then, detectives believe, coaxed his new wife into luring her even younger teenage relative across the Atlantic into a web of sex acts and porn. It all happened while his longtime first wife, a Miami-Dade schools administrator, remained living in the home.

One of many questions following his arrest and shocking death: If, and how many, other vulnerable young exchange students — kids not yet old enough for college — might have fallen prey to an American family who was supposed to offer them shelter and guidance. Detectives believe there might be numerous victims and are asking them to come forward.

The Leary case also adds to a list of similar cases that raise concerns about companies that arrange such trips, with the blessing of the U.S. government, and whether they do enough to vet the background and suitability of host families. Although the vast majority of foreign exchange students have good experiences, authorities have documented numerous examples of hosts abusing international students in Florida and across the country.

“Unfortunately, this is a very unregulated, unmonitored industry,” said Danielle Grijalva, the director of the California-based nonprofit Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students. “It happens more times than the public is aware of. Abuse of foreign exchange students is rampant in the United States.”

Detectives are now trying to figure out whether Leary’s ex-wife, Miami-Dade schools administrator Claudia Leary, 47, participated in or aided in the sexual abuse of any students.

They say she tried killing herself alongside 50-year-old Dale last week and remains hospitalized. The Spanish student Leary married, Marta San Jose, who is now 21, also remains jailed and faces several felony charges.

Dale Leary
Dale Leary was found dead after being accused of molesting the younger sister of an exchange student he hosted and later married.

The Miami Herald has learned that the investigation has also turned to Chicago-based CCI Greenheart, a nonprofit that cleared students to live with the Learys — even though Dale Leary had a felony conviction for sexually assaulting a woman in Coral Gables in 1985. So far, authorities in Miami-Dade have not gotten a response from a subpoena sent for records from CCI, but the company issued a statement to the Herald.

“Because this is a legal matter, it would be inappropriate to provide details on the circumstances of this situation. We are, however, taking this matter very, very seriously,” said Megan McGaughey, CCI’s vice president over high school programs. “We will conduct a thorough assessment both of this matter and of our screening procedures to ensure we are doing all we can to best keep our students safe.”

From all appearances, Dale and Claudia Leary seemed the ideal hosts for international exchange students.

She was a longtime Miami-Dade schools administrator, he an advertising and tech consultant claiming Fortune 500 companies as clients. Together, they lived in a large four-bedroom house with a manicured lawn in a leafy Cutler Bay neighborhood.

They began hosting Marta San Jose when she was a 16-year-old high school student. She attended Palmetto High. Miami-Dade Police said that after San Jose completed her junior year of high school in 2013, she and Leary flew to Spain to ask her parents to allow her to stay in Miami for her senior year. They agreed.

Paramedics responded Tuesday morning to the home of Dale Leary, 50, who was awaiting trial after police said he and his second wife molested an underage student.

Before San Jose’s senior year was done, records show, Leary divorced Claudia and married the teen — just days after she turned 18.

Not long after, San Jose began coming to Leary’s office every day purporting to be an intern, while Claudia remained in their lives, one former co-worker told the Herald. He said no one knew the two had divorced or that Leary had married his visiting student.

Back in Spain, police said, San Jose’s parents had no clue the two had become lovers. The couple later persuaded the parents to allow her sister, 14 at the time, to come visit Miami, too. The younger girl did not come to the U.S. as part of a CCI Greenheart program, the company said.

Leary and San Jose began “manipulating” the underage girl into believing she had been sexually abused by her parents, something that hadn’t actually happened.

San Jose’s relative, now 16, told police the two began to have sex in front of her and asked her to let Leary perform sex acts on her, saying it would help her deal with being a sex-abuse victim. They convinced her to join them in sex acts more than seven times. Another time, the sister told police, they plied her with alcohol before shooting photos of her only in high heels.

The girl later returned to Spain and repeated the abuse allegations against her own parents to authorities there, leading to their arrest. The charges were unfounded and dropped.

Marta San Jose
Marta San Jose was a foreign exchange student from Spain who stayed in Dale Leary’s house.

Miami-Dade detectives last month arrested San Jose and Leary on charges of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under 16, possession of child pornography, engaging in a sexual act with a familial child and contributing to the delinquency of a child. Detectives seized an array of computers, hard drives, iPhones, cameras, two journals and 11 documents and five folders pertaining to the foreign-exchange students and programs, according to search warrants filed in court.

San Jose remains jailed, in part because she is unable to post bail because she has nowhere to stay. “We’re looking into all aspects of this case, and showing prosecutors that she may be a victim as well,” said Jorge Viera, her defense lawyer.

Leary posted bail. But on July 4, a family friend called 911 after finding Leary’s running car in the back of his Cutler Bay house, a hose running from the muffler to the window, sealed with duct taped. Inside the rear passenger area was Dale and Claudia Leary.

Paramedics could not save Dale, while Claudia was rushed to Jackson South Hospital. She remains hospitalized and is expected to survive. Suicide notes were found in the car and house.

With Dale Leary dead, the criminal investigation has shifted to Claudia, an administrator based at the J.R.E. Lee Education Center in South Miami. “In light of the very serious allegations that have been raised in this case, the employee has been placed on alternate assignment with no student contact until further notice,” the school district said in a statement.

Foreign exchange groups and companies stress that the vast majority of high school students have a safe, enjoyable experience in the United States.

“Student exchange is a valuable experience for everyone involved,” said Christopher Page, the executive director of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, an association for foreign exchange programs.

Last year, nearly 24,000 high school students came to the United States to study, according to data provided by the U.S. State Department, which monitors some exchange programs and provides visas. In 2016, 500 high school students were hosted in Florida. The Department of Homeland Security oversees exchange programs involving another type of visa but did not respond to questions about the programs.

Still, over the past decades, there have been persistent reports of students being physically or sexually abused by their host parents, hosted in filthy homes or malnourished. They’ve been troubling enough that in 2009, the State Department created a hotline for exchange students and members of the public to report abuse.

Most recently, an Orlando “host father” named Joshua Perez, 28, was arrested in January for having sex with a minor, according to police. He sported over a dozen arrests on his criminal history, yet he and his girlfriend were hosting students.

One underage student from Vietnam told police she was coerced into sex numerous times. The victim did not tell “anyone what happened but arranged to move to Philadelphia to stay with another host family.” Another student placed with Perez told police he exposed himself and masturbated in front of her in the kitchen.

He is awaiting trial. What host agency placed the girls with Perez could not immediately be determined.

118foreign exchange students may have been the victims of sexual abuse or harassment in the U.S. between January 2010 and October 2011

If one federal report is any measure, there are easily dozens of problem cases every year. Between January 2010 and October 2011, the State Department received reports that 118 exchange students had been the victims of sexual abuse or harassment, according to a 2012 report from the department’s Inspector General, the most recent data publicly available.

Exchange students are a particularly vulnerable group, said Grijalva, director of the nonprofit watchdog group. “They’re between the ages of 15 and 18 and they come over often times for the very first time arriving in America and they’re new to our culture,” she said. “They sometimes come over just speaking a handful of words.”

The Inspector General has pushed, with limited success, to improve background checks for potential hosts.

Leary’s public record, it seems, would have raised an immediate red flag. He was convicted in 1986 of breaking into a home and tying up a woman, sexually assaulting her at gunpoint. Records of his conviction are easily accessible through a $24 Florida Department of Law Enforcement criminal-background search and via Miami-Dade online court records.

CCI Greenheart said hosts get in-person, in-home visits from program coordinators who “regularly communicate with our students to ensure their experience is consistent with our standards.” The hosts are also subjected to “independent third-party background checks.” CCI Greenheart would not identify the company it uses to do background checks.

The Inspector General’s report found some companies — with a glut of students and a dearth of hosts — sometimes failed to properly vet host families, placing teens in homes with sex offenders and other felons. The probe said regulations don’t require specific background checks, so some organizations rely on third-party databases that might be incomplete.

An FBI-based fingerprint search would certainly be more thorough. But the State Department abandoned a plan to require FBI-based fingerprint searches for people hosting foreign exchange students in 2011, according to The Associated Press.

A photo of Claudia Leary from her public Facebook page. Facebook

Contacted on Thursday, the State Department said it needed more time to answer questions about requiring FBI-based fingerprint searches for host families. A spokesman said in an email that the department monitors exchange programs to ensure they follow existing federal regulations.

Even an FBI-based search would include some loopholes. It might not catch people who have no criminal convictions on file.

Shernon James, of Naples, was arrested for downloading child porn over a decade ago in Southwest Florida. He admitted it to detectives, but he was acquitted at trial — and he had his state record expunged.

In 2009, a 15-year-old Ukrainian foreign exchange student was placed in James’ home. James molested the exchange student and was later convicted and sentenced to probation — which he promptly violated by getting arrested and convicted for an unrelated sex assault in Orange County. He’s now doing 15 years in prison.

In another Florida case, an elderly man named Lloyd Lindquist was sentenced to five years of probation after setting up a hidden camera to record illicit images of a teen boy staying in his home. CCI Greenheart was one of the companies that placed students with Lindquist, who had no criminal record in Florida before his arrest.

Some industry groups have made an effort to bolster screening. The Council on Standards for International Educational Travel has criminal background check standards for its member organizations, including requiring national criminal background checks based on a Social Security number, said executive director Page.

But CSIET does not include fingerprinting as part of its required screening. “While CSIET remains open to at some point integrating mandatory fingerprinting into its standards, we believe more research should be done to demonstrate the potential benefits before accepting it into our standards,” Page said.

Grijalva disagrees, saying Leary likely would have been caught had he been fingerprinted.

“What happened to that young girl could have been prevented, should have been prevented, but wasn’t,” she said.