e cop wanted her car keys. Kelli Peters handed them over. She told herself she had nothing to fear, that all he’d find inside her PT Cruiser was beach sand, dog hair, maybe one of her daughter’s toys.“I was calling because, uh, my daughter’s a student at Plaza Vista Elementary School,” said the caller. “And uh, I’m concerned one of the parent volunteers there may be under, uh, under the influence or, uh, using drugs. I was, I just had to go over to the school and, uh, I was, I saw a car driving very erratically.”
The caller said he had seen drugs in the car. He knew the name of the driver — Kelli. He knew the type of car — a PT Cruiser. He even knew the license plate, and
They were outside Plaza Vista peddling loans, which she had come to associate with the burn of acid reflux.
No matter how frenetic the pace became at school, the worst day was better than that, and often afternoons ended with a rush of kids throwing their arms around her. At 5 feet tall, she watched many of them outgrow her.
Peters had spent her childhood in horse country at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. She tossed pizzas, turned a wrench in a skate shop, flew to Hawaii on impulse and stayed for two years. She mixed mai tais at a Newport Beach rib joint. She waited tables at a rock-n-roll-themed pasta house. A married lawyer — one of the regulars — grew infatuated with her and showed up at her house one night. He went away, but a sense of vulnerability lingered.
In her mid-30s she married Bill, a towering, soft-spoken blues musician and restaurateur who made her feel calm. She spent years trying to get pregnant, and when it happened her priorities narrowed.
“I became afraid of spontaneity and surprises,” she said. “I just wanted to be safe.”
In Irvine, she found a master-planned city where bars and liquor stores, pawnshops and homeless shelters had been methodically purged, where neighborhoods were regulated by noise ordinances, lawn-length requirements and mailbox-uniformity rules. For its size, Irvine consistently ranked as America’s safest city. It waSchool in Irvine, where she had watched her daughter go from kindergarten to fifth grade, where any minute now the girl would be getting out of class to look for her. Parents had entrusted their own kids to Peters for years; she was the school’s PTA president and the heart of its after-school program.Peters had been doing what she always did on a Wednesday afternoon, trying to stay on top of a hundred small emergencies.
She was 49, with short blond hair and a slightly bohemian air. As the volunteer director of the Afterschool Classroom Enrichment program at Plaza Vista, she was a constant presence on campus, whirling down the halls in flip-flops an
Now she watched as her ruin seemed to unfold before her. Watched as the cop emerged from her car holding a Ziploc bag of marijuana, 17 grams worth, plus a ceramic pot pipe, plus two smaller EZY Dose Pill Pouch baggies, one with 11 Percocet pills, another with 29 Vicodin. It was enough to send her to jail, and more than enough to destroy her name.
Her legs buckled and she was on her knees, shaking violently and sobbing and insisting the drugs were not hers.
The cop, a 22-year veteran, had found drugs on many people, in many settings. When caught, they always lied.or all that outsiders mocked Irvine as a place of sterile uniformity, she had become comfortable in its embrace. She had been beguiled by the reputation of the schools, which boasted a 97% college-admission rate.
The muted beige strip malls teemed with tutoring centers. If neighboring Newport Beach had more conspicuous flourishes of wealth, like mega-yachts and ocean-cliff mansions, the status competition in Irvine — where so many of the big houses looked pretty much alike — centered on education.
Plaza Vista was a year-round public school in a coveted neighborhood, and after six years she knew the layout as well as her own kitchen. The trim campus buildings, painted to harmonize with the neighborhood earth tones, suggested a medical office-park; out back were an organic garden, a climbing wall and a well-kept athletic field fringed by big peach-colored homes.Around campus, she was the mom everyone knew. She had a natural rapport with children. She could double them over with her impression of Applejack, the plucky country gal from the “My Little Pony” TV series. She would wait with them until their parents came to pick them up from the after-school program, but she couldn’t bring herself to enforce the dollar-a-minute late fines.
The school had given her a desk at the front office, which provided an up-close view of countless parental melodramas. The moms who wanted the 7th-grade math teacher fired because their kids got Bs. Or the mom who demanded a network of giant umbrellas and awnings to shield her kids from the playground sun