When the mother of a top Corona del Mar High School student answered her phone Dec. 17, she had no idea why school officials were calling to tell her that she needed to come and pick up her son.
For what? She didn't have a clue.
He was a senior honors student who had never been in trouble.
"I thought maybe he'd gotten pulled in for fighting," she said. "But he wasn't a fighter, so that didn't make sense. I didn't know what to think."
When she arrived, she was questioned about Timothy Lance Lai. She knew him. He had tutored her son. In fact, he had been to her house the week before. There they had exchanged a few words and she had offered him tea.
"I had a bad feeling about the guy from the beginning," she said. "I never bothered to get to know him. It never occurred to me at the time that I should."
That bad feeling proved prophetic.
Lai, 28, of Irvine, would become the center of the CdM cheating scandal that involved the mother's son and at least 11 other students. Eleven students ultimately were expelled.
The tutor allegedly provided students with keyloggers and instructed them how to use the devices to access teacher logins and passwords, change their grades and access test questions. Lai, who cannot be located, continues to be a person of interest in the case and is wanted by police for questioning.
But of those involved in the case who can be located, the expelled students and their families, one mother agreed to talk to the Daily Pilot about the CdM cheating scandal. The newspaper granted her request for anonymity in order to protect her son's identity.
Learning the bad news
Back on that first difficult day, when the mom finally saw her son in an assistant principal's office at the high school, he was ashen and had been crying.
She remembered that he would often come home from tutoring sessions with Lai, bragging about the tutor's intelligence and supposedly well-financed lifestyle.
"He would talk about him like he was one of the guys," she said. "I never understood why that annoyed me so much."
Still, she paid Lai $45 per hour to tutor her son in Advanced Placement Calculus.
Lai allegedly provided students with questions that would appear on upcoming exams during the tutoring sessions.
Receiving those test questions was her son's only offense, she said.
"I was appalled that he would participate in that," she said. "It shows a lack of integrity."
The senior swore to his mom that he never participated in the keylogging, but he did have knowledge of it.