The family of a teenage student at a boarding school in St. Louis, Missouri alleges when it discovered a staff member had allegedly had sex with her more than 40 times—including orgies and sadomasochism—the elite institution tried to tie the girl’s hands.
Phoebe McVey, a former teacher at The Principia School school, is suing for wrongful termination after she said she was fired for reporting Zachary Retzlaff, 30, a computer network administrator, to police for having sex with her 16-year-old daughter. The school said she was laid off due to “exceptionally low enrollment.”
Not only did Principia terminate McVey, the son of the school’s legal counsel became the girl’s lawyer.
Warren Popp was retained by the teen and they filed a protection order against her parents, according to the teen’s current attorney, Rebecca Grosser. Popp also filed an affidavit with the girl where she retracted previous statements given to police that she was sexually abused and swearing she would not testify against Retzlaff, Grosser confirmed.
“It was done with the previous attorney and that was clearly not in my client’s best interest,” Grosser told The Daily Beast, adding she “never would have filed that.”
The McVeys filed a civil lawsuit against the school in October 2015 on behalf of their daughter, alleging that Principia “induced her to sign an affidavit replete with factual omissions for [Principia’s] benefit.” (The lawsuit was withdrawn when the girl turned 18 in February.)
Popp disputed that in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“I was very cautious with my client and took all the steps necessary to ensure there was no actual conflict of interest in representing my client with the appropriate amount of loyalty and advocacy she deserves,” he said.
While Principia refused to respond to any specific allegation, a spokeswoman in a statement to The Daily Beast claimed the prep school will defend itself “against these baseless allegations” in court.
Retzlaff told The Daily Beast the allegations against him are overblown.
“From my perspective it’s not accurate,” he said.
Retzlaff is awaiting trial for statutory rape and has been free on bail since August.
The McVeys refused requests for interviews, but the sexual abuse lawsuit and the wrongful termination lawsuit say a lot more about what they claim happened to the daughter and her mother at the hands of Retzlaff and Principia.
It took one text message allegedly from Retzlaff to upend McVey’s family.
“I didn’t want you to find out like this. I wanted to tell you when she was 18,” Retzlaff said, according to Phoebe McVey’s sister Crystal Mueller.
The economics teacher was chaperoning a class trip in New Hampshire on May 21, 2015 when Retzlaff, then 30, allegedly confessed to sex with her underage daughter, who was 16 at the time.
McVey says she called police the next day and alerted Principia’s administrators, with whom she originally seemed satisfied based off their initial response.
“She told me, ‘The school is contacting me and letting me know they’re going to investigate it so I will finish my duties here,’” Mueller, said.
The school said it supported McVey going to the cops. “Principia’s Dean of Students encouraged the girl’s parents to also contact and work with law enforcement,” the school said in a statement.
Four days later, McVey drove her daughter to a St. Louis police station where she gave details of the year-long alleged sex abuse.
According to the withdrawn sex abuse lawsuit against the school, Retzlaff became friendly with the McVeys after his wife Juliana died on Feb. 1, 2014. The widower and father “utilized the girl’s help with his children” including cleaning the house “after the children had gone to sleep,” according to the lawsuit.
“At some point during this time period is when [Retzlaff] began sexually assaulting Ms. [Jane] Doe,” the lawsuit continued.
Retzlaff “did not merely sexually assault a minor child more than 40 times; he introduced her to and practiced S&M on her,” the lawsuit claimed. Retzlaff preferred to “inflict pain” on the 16-year-old girl and “during several of the sexual assaults [Retzlaff] choked Ms. Doe with his hands until she lost consciousness.”
Once the girl was incapacitated, the lawsuit claimed Retzlaff “would begin engaging in vaginal intercourse with her while she was passed out so that when she awoke, his penis was already inside her.”
Retzlaff even “invited other minors to join him in ‘group sex’ with Ms. Doe,” according to the lawsuit.
But the attempt at some sort of underage bacchanal backfired.
“On several occasions, these minors chose to flee the group sex session because the sexual acts [Retzlaff] was performing on Ms. Doe became so extreme,” according to the lawsuit.
The school counters, in their statement, that whatever happened between the teen and their employee, they are in the clear.
“Nothing improper occurred at Principia or during school hours… She first met Retzlaff at a friend’s home, not at Principia. Principia had no control of the girl’s out-of-school time or activities.”
But Retzlaff shouldn’t have even been working there in the first place, the lawsuit claimed, because he had been allegedly pulled out of working at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois where it was “common knowledge” he was drinking and having sex with at least two students. Principia “knew [Retzlaff] was engaging in these inappropriate sexual acts” and was “turning a blind eye” to his behavior, the McVeys’ complaint claimed.
Meanwhile, the teen “has since run away from home and alienated her entire family” to try to be with Retzlaff and raise his children, the lawsuit said.
The girl even considered dropping out to “complete her senior year of high school online” to achieve her new “goal” to “finish high school as quickly as possible so she could marry [Retzlaff], abandon her education and care for his three sons,” the lawsuit said.
Before she was allegedly victimized, the girl was a promising student who planned to take her 4.0 GPA to nearby Webster University and become an elementary school teacher, the lawsuit continued. Instead, her grades dived, she avoided her mom, ditched her friends, and even stopped spending much time with her sister with whom she would “do everything.”
On July 22, 2015, Retzlaff was indicted by a grand jury for statutory rape, and two days later Principia terminated McVey, citing “low enrollment,” and evicted the family from campus, according to the wrongful-termination lawsuit.
The pink slip came just months after after Principia’s president Dr. Jonathan Palmer said how “grateful” he was for McVey’s “faithful and loyal service on behalf of our students” in a Feb. 6 contract renewal letter, which was an exhibit in the wrongful termination lawsuit. And just two months prior to McVey’s firing, Palmer in a separate letter attached to the lawsuit promised a pay raise worth just over $1,200 “in recognition of your contribution to Principia’s overall progress.”
“Principia comes out of this Christian Science religion and yet I’ve never seen people act dirtier than they did,” said one source close to the family.
After the girl filed a protection order against her parents with the son of the school’s legal counsel, she moved in with the family of her friend whose father is Principia creative writing teacher Ridley Pearson. (Pearson, a published author, boasts on his bio of being “a silent contributor to an FBI task force charged with the manhunt for the Washington, D.C. sniper.”)
“When she was a minor she never lived with us,” Pearson’s wife, Marcelle, said. “I know her parents thought she did, but we kept telling them she didn’t.”
According to the protection order, seen in court documents, the girl’s residence was listed as Retzlaff’s home address.
The St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office said that even if the central witness absconds, the criminal case against Retzlaff can still remain viable.
“It doesn’t make a difference if the victim doesn’t want to testify, the prosecutor can still decide to proceed with the case,” spokesman Edward Magee said.
Retzlaff swatted the attempts by the McVeys to attack his character and suggested that it is Phoebe and her husband Michael who should be scrutinized.
“There is a lot I could tell you about the McVey parents,” he said, without elaborating. “There were many reasons why they should have been removed from campus.”
Retzlaff may be pointing to the school’s motion to dismiss the McVey’s original lawsuit filed back on Oct. 16, 2015, which marred the parents as miffed and money-hungry, hoping “to extort money from [Principia].”
Counter to the damning claims Principia accused the McVeys of trying to “settle this case for over $9,000,000.00” without their daughter’s consent and pointed to “disturbing Face Book [sic] postings made by Jane Doe regarding her parents and their treatment of her” soon after she filed for an order of protection.
Not only did the school act quickly (Retzlaff was terminated once the school investigated the alleged sex assaults, they say), McVey was laid off “due to particularly low enrollment in the home-economics classes she was scheduled to teach in the fall, it became clear in July 2015 that Principia had no choice but to cancel her classes, resulting in the elimination of her position.”
The statement went on to paint McVey as a lawsuit-happy, disgruntled teacher hoping to cash in.
“Principia believes the former employee is continuing to attempt to benefit from her daughter’s after-school, off-campus relationship with Zachary Retzlaff...”
Either way, the McVeys have lost their daughter.
“Phoebe and her family get evicted and they land all over the country,” Mueller, the girl’s aunt, said. “It’s very difficult to watch her come here and cry everyday over the loss of her child.”
Indeed, the McVeys are coming to grips to talking about their daughter in the past tense.
“My sister and I talk about at some point giving up hope,” Mueller said. “Part of me doesn’t want her to hang on to the hope that she will come back. It’s paralyzing to some extent because you can’t go forwards or backwards.”
If the estranged teen ever returns home, she will return to unconditioned love.
“I would tell her, ‘I want what’s best for you. I’m not going to judge you. I will always welcome you with open arms and I understand how it all came about and how you fell into this zone, but there is so much more to life.’”