The detailed cheating scheme that resulted in the suspension of roughly a dozen Corona del Mar High School students probably began in April 2013, court documents show.
The students are accused of attaching a keylogger — a small device that can be placed in the back of a computer to monitor keystrokes — to several teachers' computers to swipe logins and passwords, allegedly with the help of a private tutor.
With the recorded data, the students allegedly altered grades and accessed English, science and history exams, some at the honors and Advanced Placement levels.
The scandal became public Dec. 17 when the Newport-Mesa Unified School District issued a news release detailing a cheating incident at the high school.
The next day, Newport Beach detectives searched the Irvine home of Timothy Lance Lai, 28, the private tutor accused of providing the students with the keyloggers and instructing them on how to use the devices to access password-protected accounts.
The 16-page search warrant and affidavit by Det. David Syvock details how Newport Beach police and school officials began investigating the alleged cheating incident in June 2013.
The warrant allowed police to search Lai's two-story home on East Yale Loop in Irvine and his vehicle, a 2001 Toyota.
Authorities seized four USB thumb drives, several electronic devices, a cell phone, a notepad bearing student names, a notebook containing multiple tests with a female student's name written on it, schoolwork, routers, an algebra quiz, a math problem packet, a pre-calculus test and a pre-algebra assignment, according to the property report.
Two students and a nameless tutor
Many in the CdM community have asked how the issue came to light, and the search warrant and affidavit, both on file in Orange County Superior Court, provide some insight into the case.
On June 18, 2013, a science teacher notified CdM administrators that she suspected someone had accessed her computer and changed students' grades, according to the affidavit.
In addition, also according to the affidavit, it was determined that the grades were altered from a remote computer four days earlier.
During an internal review, Vladimir Anderson, the school's resource officer, and school administrators identified two female students who they believed had their grades changed.
One of the two students allegedly told Anderson that her friend installed on the back of a teacher's computer a device that she later removed after attaining the information needed to remotely access the school's grading database.
About a week after the student's final exam of the semester, the student checked her grade and saw that it was changed from a C to a B, the affidavit said.
When the cheating had been uncovered by school officials, the student allegedly responsible for placing the keylogging device instructed her friend to take the blame for the incident, according to the affidavit.
She also stated, according to the court papers, that her friend had told her she received a call from her tutor instructing the girls not to identify him.
When Anderson attempted to obtain the tutor's name from the female student, the girl's mother informed him that they had retained an attorney and declined to make a statement, the papers say.
The girls were suspended from CdM and the tutor was never identified. It is unclear whether the students were punished further after the suspension.
"Due to the lack of information to identify the tutor, the criminal investigation was closed," Syvok wrote in the affidavit.
An 'elaborate scheme'
More information surfaced six months later when an assistant principal contacted Anderson about an 11th-grade student who had information about the alleged cheating.
The male student said that during the middle of his sophomore year, Lai asked him to place a keylogger on the computers of several CdM teachers, according to the affidavit.
The student initially declined to help, but as the year progressed, he was called upon again to place keyloggers on three science, Spanish and English teacher's computers, the court papers say.
He finally agreed to place the keylogger on a history teacher's computer, according to the court papers.
The student said that when he returned the device to Lai, he was given a copy of an upcoming history test, the affidavit asserts.
During the interview with Anderson, the student allegedly identified 11 other students who were involved in the apparent cheating and detailed an early morning in April 2013 when he and Lai allegedly went to CdM to install a keylogging device on a computer.
"[He] described how they went to the school during the early morning hours and Lai used an electronic lock-picking device in attempt to gain access to [the teacher's] classroom," Syvok, the detective, wrote. "[He] recalled that the device did not work as planned, and Lai manually gained entry to the classroom."
The student allowed Anderson to search his cell phone, which he used to communicate with Lai, according to the court records.
Conversations included information about meetings for tutoring, pictures of high school tests and discussions about the cheating.
"It was clear from the content that Lai and [the student] were using text messaging to discuss strategies on how to continue this elaborate scheme," Syvok wrote.
On Dec. 18, the day after news broke about the cheating, the male student met with Syvok and Anderson in the Newport Beach Police Department interview room and called Lai, the papers say.
Police recorded the conversation, in which Lai made statements implicating himself in the cheating scheme. He also identified other CdM students who were allegedly involved in the cheating and used a derogatory word to describe the grimness of the situation, the affidavit states.
Based on the evidence collected by police, Syvok wrote that he believes Lai committed a felony crime for unlawfully accessing computer data.
Lai is wanted by police for questioning but has not been located, department officials said.
District's next steps
Punishment for the students accused of cheating continues to be shrouded in mystery.
CdM Principal Kathy Scott recommended earlier this month that the district begin the expulsion process, said district spokeswoman Laura Boss.
However, the students could also face stipulated expulsion, which allows them to transfer to another high school in the district and seals their disciplinary records, preventing college officials from seeing them.
Newport-Mesa Unified trustees will be tasked with deciding the fate of the students at an upcoming board meeting. The date of the meeting has not been determined.
While the students could face criminal charges for their actions, none has been filed.
[For the record, 11:25 a.m. Jan. 22: The detailed cheating scheme that resulted in the suspension of roughly a dozen Corona del Mar High School students began in April 2013, according to Jennifer Manzella, spokeswoman for the Newport Beach Police Department. Court documents inaccurately stated that it began in April 2012.]