Crime

How a Miami tech whiz groomed and molested exchange students — and evaded cops for years

New details in exchange student abuse scandal

New details have emerged in the case of Dale Leary, the tech whiz accused of abusing foreign-exchange students over years in South Miami-Dade.
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New details have emerged in the case of Dale Leary, the tech whiz accused of abusing foreign-exchange students over years in South Miami-Dade.

On paper, Dale and Claudia Leary seemed the ideal couple to host foreign-exchange students.

He was a charismatic tech genius, she a longtime elementary school teacher turned administrator. They lived in manicured 4-bedroom Cutler Bay house. In applying to host their eighth student in 2012, they promised family dinners by the pool, trips to the mall and occasional visits to Disney World.

“Claudia and I feel that we have a lot to teach and enjoy showing students our cultural differences and encouraging them to try new things,” Dale Leary wrote in his application. “One of the greatest things we like to share with our students of American life is openness.”

But behind the wholesome facade lay a den of perversion. By the time Leary, 50, swallowed a lethal dose of pills in a suicide in July 2017, he had left behind a trail of shattered lives:

Two teenaged Spanish sisters, both brainwashed and talked into sexual acts — one of them forced, on camera, to have sex with dozens of men at a South Florida swingers hotel over many months. A naive teenage relative plied with alcohol, lectured on the Bible and coerced into sex. Leary’s own wife, who helped him seduce students, all while being browbeaten by her dominating husband.

Along the way, there were plenty of red flags about Leary.

He was cleared to become a foreign-exchange host, despite a conviction for kidnapping and sexually attacking a woman. As far back as 2006, the FBI received a cyber tip about risque photos of child models on Leary’s website. An acquaintance reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that Leary seemed “to be intimate” with numerous foreign exchange students — but a Miami-Dade police investigation in 2013 found no evidence of criminal activity.

It’s been more than a year since Leary killed himself, days after he was finally arrested for sexually molesting the underage sister of a former-exchange student. Some of his story has been told — but the full extent of his abusive behavior is chronicled in newly released law-enforcement documents, civil court records and interviews with people who knew and investigated him.

“Mr. Leary was a sexual predator without a doubt,” said Amy Swan, a forensic psychologist who reviewed witness statements and court documents for the Herald and was not involved in the case. “He had a perfect scheme for obtaining victims by presenting himself and his wife as benevolent sponsors for foreign exchange students.”

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Dale Leary in an undated photo posted on his Facebook page. - Facebook

The criminal case against Leary dissolved when he killed himself. Prosecutors also dropped the case against Marta San Jose, his former Spanish exchange student who was accused of helping Leary molest her own underage sister. The larger investigation into Leary’s production and dissemination of child pornography — and possible human trafficking — fizzled because his hard drives, computers and phones were encrypted and could not be accessed by law enforcement.

But the legal fights over Leary are not over. San Jose is suing Claudia Leary and CCI Greenheart, the Chicago-based foreign exchange placement company that allowed him to host students from overseas.

Greenheart, its coordinators and Claudia Leary claimed the lawsuit is invalid because the 4-year statute of limitations has expired. San Jose’s lawyers insist that the young woman, now 22, was under Leary’s control and had no way to report the abuse.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Barbara Areces has so far declined to dismiss the case, and depositions will begin in February.

Neither Claudia Leary nor her lawyer responded to requests for comment from the Herald. CCI Greenheart declined to comment.

“Greenheart miserably failed our client, just as they failed many other exchange students who were entrusted in Leary’s care, by their negligent and careless attitude towards Leary’s criminal history,” San Jose’s lawyers, Jorge Viera, Timothy Barket and Karina Miralda, said in a statement. “Our client will have to live with these terrible memories for the rest of her life, but our hope is to bring her some peace at the resolution of this case.”

Details of Leary’s early life still remain unclear. He told friends he was adopted and was mostly raised in South Miami-Dade, graduating from Southridge High. Family members, reached by the Miami Herald, declined to speak about Leary.

His first brush with the law came in October 1985, when he was 18 years old. Leary and a friend used a buck knife to break into a University Avenue house in Coral Gables. While ransacking the house, a man and woman came home and surprised the intruders.

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Marta San José and Dale Leary. Miami-Dade Police

Armed with a gun, Leary forced the woman into a bedroom, where he tied her up, fondled her and then masturbated atop her, according to the court file. He wound up pleading guilty to several felonies, including armed burglary, armed robbery and lewd and lascivious behavior.

Sentencing guidelines called for a term of at least 12 years in prison. But because of his age, Leary was instead sentenced to a “youthful offender” program and got 60 days in jail, plus nine years of probation. Despite the nature of his crime, he was not placed on any sex-offender registry — none existed in 1985.

He went on to a successful career working in tech-oriented marketing and advertising, touting successful campaigns for companies such as Coca Cola, Siemens and Hilton. One of his claims to fame: In the late 1990s, he helped develop an early online adventure video game for Coca-Cola Cherry called “The Lost Island of Alanna,” a bid to market to young people just learning to use the fledgling internet.

“He had a brilliant mind,” said one former associate who asked not to be named. “He would take an idea and make a brand around it.”

Leary also fancied himself a photographer — he claimed he helped start up and run One Model Place, a website that showcases images of models. The website still thrives today, although requests for comment went unanswered.

Slender and tall, Leary studied martial arts, had a collection of Japanese swords around his house and enjoyed a nightly glass of Scotch. He married his wife, school teacher Claudia Leary, in 1993. They purchased their Cutler Bay house a decade later.

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Dale and Claudia Leary in an undated photo posted on his Facebook page. - Facebook

Claudia later told people that she and Leary could not have children, so getting foreign exchange students “was their alternative.”

They signed up with CCI Greenheart, a well-known player among companies that arrange foreign-exchange programs in the United States. Founded in 1985, the company claims it has placed nearly 300,000 participants from over 60 countries with more than 12,000 host families in the United States.

The company says 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 has refused to identify the company that did the background search on Leary, or if it turned up Leary’s conviction, which was readily accessible online through Miami-Dade court clerk records.

“We are fully committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of all participants in our programs,” a spokeswoman said in a statement to the Herald. “Due to the pending litigation in this matter, we are cooperating in the judicial process and are not able to provide additional details.”

The company’s application did not explicitly ask if Leary — who also identified himself as “Dalton Leary” — had been convicted of a crime. To the question about whether anyone in the applicant’s family had been convicted of a crime, Leary checked “No.”

The Learys hosted at least eight exchange students over the years, and their presence did not go unnoticed by others in the couple’s orbit. One relative later told police that the exchange students “would be running around in bikinis in the house” and that every year, candidates would come to the house “for a big party.”

“They, like, picked from there, which is kind of creepy to me, [like] a beauty pageant,” the relative told investigators.

Sometimes, the relative told police, the girls would sit on Leary’s lap on the couch, snuggling with him while watching television and eating ice cream. Leary frequently held another girl’s hand, even crossing the street in public.

In one photo album, later seized by police, Leary kept photos of one Danish student and Claudia, both in lingerie, sitting on his lap.

Leary also gave the girls journals — several reviewed by detectives revealed they gushed about Leary’s romance and the attention he lavished on them.

A Police Probe

His unusual relationship with the girls raised alarms for one female acquittance of the Learys. In 2012, she reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that Leary “seems to be intimate” with many of the exchange students. He also posted sexually suggestive photos on his Facebook page, and had a book filled with similar photos of children inside his house.

The NCMEC forwarded the tip to Miami-Dade Police’s special victims unit, which in early 2013 began to look into Leary.

It wasn’t the first time the NCMEC had gotten a tip about Leary. In October 2006, a parent came across One Model Place and saw his “provocative” photos of child models — she researched Leary online and found he was a convicted felon. The center reviewed the images and found “no blatant child exploitation,” but nonetheless forwarded the case to the FBI.

The FBI, however, apparently found nothing conclusive, according to a Miami-Dade police report. An FBI agent researched the 7-year-old tip and found “there are no notes as to the findings or outcome,” according to the county police report.

Eventually, Miami-Dade Detective David Invernizzi and two other investigators knocked on Leary’s door.

Leary was quick to flaunt his credentials. He told the cops that his company, Prodigy Advertising, was “nationally recognized” and he consulted for “Fortune [500] companies.” He swore his photos on One Model Place were “in good taste,” and any nude images were only of women over 18. Leary also blamed a “falling out” with ex-business associates for the allegations against him, according to a police report.

As for the exchange students, Leary explained he was the “local coordinator” for CCI Greenheart and had hosted several students over the years. He also touted his wife’s credentials. “Mr. Leary explained to me that he resides with his wife, Claudia Leary, who is a prominent administrator with the Miami-Dade School Board,” the detective wrote in his report.

Leary “vehemently denied any wrongdoing.” With no probable cause to search his house or arrest him, Miami-Dade police closed the case.

Noted in the final report was that Leary, at the time, was hosting an exchange student from Spain. She was Marta San Jose and what the detectives did not know was that Leary had already turned her life upside down.

Marta’s ordeal

San Jose was just 16 when she arrived at the Leary home through CCI Greenheart. It was August 2012.

Within days, the husband and wife immediately began giving San Jose liquor, according to her lawsuit. Soon, Leary “started flirting” with her. Kisses soon led to sex, the suit says, all “with the knowledge and or in the presence” of Claudia.

Leary also began working to convince San Jose that her own parents had sexually abused her, even though she did not remember it. Only he could protect her, Leary said.

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Marta San Jose, a former Miami foreign exchange, pictured here during a 2017 court hearing. She was accused of helping her former host molest her younger sister. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

(San Jose later told her legal team that Claudia did not join them in the bedroom, but did engage in sex acts with Leary and two other students who would return to visit).

That’s not all. Leary began taking San Jose to the Rooftop Resort, a Hollywood hotel that caters to nudists and swingers. Over at least two years, Leary made her have sex with “multiple men at once” while he filmed, and sometimes joined in. On other occasions, according to San Jose’s legal team, he would take the teen cruising through South Miami-Dade businesses to find sexual partners.

San Jose’s mother, Olga San Jose, noticed the change in her daughter. From afar, their relationship became more tense, phone calls and video chats less frequent.

After her first year in the United States, Leary and Claudia accompanied the teen back to Spain with an offer: He would sponsor her unofficially — and even pay the expenses — for another year in South Florida. San Jose’s mother agreed, with some reservation.

She noticed her daughter would not let them speak to Leary alone. “She had to be close ... she had to be everywhere he went,” her mother later told detectives. San Jose’s father noticed Leary would “grab her and touch her around the hip and waist” and often have private conversations with his daughter.

Another victim

Back in South Florida in the spring of 2013, as San Jose was in her final year at Palmetto High, Leary victimized someone else — his own relative.

The teenage girl had visited South Florida several times, and noticed the strange dynamic between Leary and the exchange students, particularly San Jose. Leary was quick to berate Claudia — for gaining weight, or messing up dinner — “always in an affectionate-sounding way, so he would use like a baby voice with her.”

“Dale was extremely charismatic, hyper masculine, very controlling,” the girl later told police. “He would order everyone’s food. They weren’t allowed to order their own food. He would tell everyone where to sit.”

There was another odd twist: Leary had all the interior doors removed from the house, which gave the girls little privacy.

Leary targeted his relative away from the house. In a hotel room, Leary plied the girl with vodka — the first time she had ever drank liquor — then began creepily clipping her toenails. Then, he forced himself on her.

Later that night, after she threw up, he lectured “for ever on the Book of Leviticus.” The Bible, he told her, said “it was OK” for them to be together, even though they were family.

Throughout the week, he continually kept groping her, whispering sexual vulgarities to her whenever they were briefly alone. At one point in his house, he whispered about his desire to have sex with her and even tried sticking his finger underneath her shorts, she told police.

On another occasion that week, when Claudia was at work and Marta was at school, he exposed himself and masturbated in front of her — saying he was “educating” her.

“It was a combination of disbelief that my favorite family member would do that me and anger both at myself, because I felt like it was my fault,” the young woman later told police; the Herald is not identifying her or her exact relationship with Leary.

She and her family later cut off ties with Leary, but did no report the abuse until years later. He soon set eyes on a new victim: San Jose’s 14-year-old sister.

By the spring of 2014, Leary had quietly divorced Claudia in Lee County and married San Jose, just days after the teenager turned 18. It was a way for San Jose to legally remain in the United States after her graduation, and the three lived together in the Cutler Bay house —with Leary counting both as his lovers.

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Dale Leary - Facebook

Leary sent word to Spain with another offer: How about the girl’s 14-year-old sister, R.S., come to visit for her sister’s graduation? The San Joses agreed because Leary offered to pay for the entire 25-day trip.

When R.S. landed in Miami, Leary began grooming her the same way he had her older sister —only San Jose was now enlisted to sway the younger girl.

San Jose began telling R.S. that her parents had sexually abused her as a child. She didn’t remember that. Leary, she told her sister, could check her virginity by inserting his finger into her vagina — he did and pronounced she had indeed been abused.

“Mr. Leary used Marta to normalize the behavior for R.S. Since her sister told her that it was all right, it must be all right,” said Swan, the psychologist who reviewed police documents.

Soon, they were engaging in costumed photo shoots that gradually turned more and more explicit. Then, there was strip poker. They all ended up nude.

“This was a way to convince R.S. to get naked in an innocent manner — it was just a game, when in fact it was a ploy so that she would be comfortable being naked around him so that he could take pictures and sexually abuse her,” Swan said.

Finally, he used San Jose to entice R.S. into sex acts, under the ruse that “she wouldn’t be able to have sexual relations later on” unless Leary showed her how.

Leary’s plan went further. He convinced the two sisters to write an affidavit falsely claiming they had been abused and forced into making pornographic videos by their parents — R.S. gave it to police when she returned upon landing in Madrid. Spanish authorities immediately arrested Olga San Jose and her husband, launching a year-long investigation and removing her other children from the parents.

But the case was dropped when Spanish police found no evidence of any videos or abuse. R.S. eventually confided to a psychologist that Leary had convinced her to make the allegation and abused her, sparking a new investigation by Miami-Dade’s special victims unit in early 2017.

By then, the walls were caving in on Leary. Business with his marketing agency was drying up. Another project, a company that aimed to sell battlefield wireless technology to the federal government, had also fallen apart.

In March of that year, he filed for federal bankruptcy.

The Arrest

Miami-Dade Detective Paul España and his squad arrived to arrest him at his home on June 23, 2017. They also arrested San Jose, charging them both with lewd and lascivious conduct on a child.

Leary posted bond a few days later and immediately borrowed a computer to make a will. He and Claudia cleaned the house, folded some of the laundry — and left notes around the house for Marta, believing she would soon be home. He also penned several letters, including one entitled “Confession.”

Leary only admitted to giving liquor to R.S. and her sister. “I told her we wouldn’t take actual pictures so it would be fine. I gave her enough alcohol to impair her judgment and did the same to my wife, Marta San Jose, telling both the camera shoot was fake, that there ‘wasn’t even a memory card in the camera’ and that ‘we were just having fun posing, let’s just have fun.”

But he swore he never touched the girls. In fact, he blamed R.S., insisting she was falsely accusing him the same way she did her own father.

Early in the morning on July 4, 2017, he connected a hose to the tailpipe of his Acura, started the engine and climbed in with Claudia. Just past sunrise, a friend discovered the car parked behind the house and rescued Claudia, who was still alive. Leary died, not of carbon monoxide poisoning, but of a drug overdose, the medical examiner ruled.

The aftermath of Leary’s arrest and suicide rocked everyone around him..

Claudia survived, but her life was no longer the same. Without cooperation from other foreign-exchange students, prosecutors could not prove she did anything more than give liquor to underage girls. She resigned her schools job rather than be terminated. While she retains ownership of the Cutler Bay house, San Jose — who is Leary’s legal widow — has now filed a claim on the property.

“She lost everything, all due to a person that was evil and manipulative,” said Leary’s former associate. “It’s a tragedy. He left her to pick up this terrible mess. She deserves better.”

San Jose spent weeks in jail before she was released on bond. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office ultimately dropped the criminal charges against her when her sister in Spain declined to cooperate. She is now trying to rebuild her life and reestablish a relationship with her parents.

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