Seventh Grade Surprise

Twelve-year-old Casey Price did his best to fit in as his grandfather and uncle spent the past 18 months bouncing around Arizona. In tiny Payson, Casey invited boys at the local skate park to join a skateboard team he said he'd founded called Plan Z. In Surprise, he donned his charter school's polo-shirt-and-khakis uniform and played with a Sony PSP. And last month, on his first day at Mingus Springs Charter School in Chino Valley, Casey stepped into a football game at recess as quarterback, impressing new schoolmates with a powerful throwing arm.

But the seventh grader had made a different impression in the front office at Mingus Springs that morning. From the moment his grandfather brought him in to enroll the afternoon before, staffers thought something was odd. To them, Casey looked older than his years--he looked, they thought, at least 15. They scrutinized his paperwork. A German birth certificate listed his weight in pounds, not kilograms; California guardianship papers showed two different spellings for his first name, two different birth dates and listed the attorney general of Oklahoma as his family's custody lawyer. When the school nurse steadied Casey's chin during a vision exam, she noticed makeup on her fingers. "We thought we must have a child that's been abducted," says principal Dawn Gonzales. She called the Yavapai County sheriff.

What detectives discovered when they arrived at the family's mobile home was even more disturbing. "Casey" was actually Neil Rodreick, a 29-year-old convicted Oklahoma sex offender who'd shaved his body hair and wore makeup to hide his facial hair. His "uncle" and "grandfather" were two California men he'd met on the Internet and was now allegedly having sex with: Robert Snow, 43, a convicted sex offender, and Lonnie Stiffler, 61, who had no previous convictions. Rodreick had fooled the pair into believing he really was 12, according to court records. When investigators told them his real age, the men got angry. They'd been "scammed"--and objected to any suggestion that they were homosexuals, says a law-enforcement source who didn't want to be named discussing their statements. A fourth man living in the trailer posing as Casey's "cousin" admitted that he was Brian Jay Nellis, 34, another sex offender and Rodreick's Oklahoma prison cellmate. Indicted on 30 counts including fraud and possession of child pornography, the four men are now being held on $1 million bond at the county jail.

Rodreick's court-appointed attorney, Steve August, says his client will plead not guilty to the charges later this month. He says Rodreick is "confused" by the allegations, and the lawyer has petitioned a judge to order a "pre-screening" psychological exam. "I think it's called for, given the nature of the charges," August tells NEWSWEEK. (Names of the other defendants' attorneys haven't yet been made public.)

The question now is whether Rodreick or his "family" abused any local boys. Investigators found at least one video depicting Rodreick having sex with an underaged male, say two law-enforcement officials who requested anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. It's unclear, however, whether the alleged victim lives in Arizona. (August would not comment.) So far, detectives and school officials say they haven't uncovered any cases of abuse in the towns where Rodreick lived. Payson police Det. Sgt. Tom Tieman has interviewed a dozen boys Rodreick tried to interest in Plan Z: "They all said nothing happened that was inappropriate."

Still, the revelations have left the communities shuddering. "Our staff feels violated," says principal Cynthia Juarez of the Imagine Charter School in Surprise, which Rodreick attended last fall for three months--by far the longest stint at any of the four schools he's known to have attended. Angry parents have demanded to know how he gained admission. Guilt-racked teachers are wondering what signs they missed. But Juarez insists that "Casey" seemed ordinary. "There was nothing about his performance or his appearance that stood out," says Juarez, who sometimes helped him into the family car in the pickup line after school. "He blended in." But thankfully, not to everyone.