Textbook Love Affair
Monday, Dec. 10, 2001, started off badly for math professor Steve Zicree. He was moving through the faculty office at Orange Coast College when, at about 9 a.m., his cell phone rang. It was Detective Vic Ray of the Irvine Police Department.
"Why's this guy Jerry Hasson bugging me all the time?" the detective asked. "What's this all about?"
Steve wasn't surprised to hear Hasson's name.
"I'm going to have to call you back after I teach this class," Steve told the detective. Phone in hand, he walked down the hall, looking for a pencil. A colleague approached.
"What the hell's going on with you?" he hissed.
Steve gestured that he was on the phone. He took down Ray's number and ended the call.
"I got this crazy e-mail this morning from this Jerry Hasson guy," the colleague told him. "He says you're fucking his 17-year-old daughter!"
Steve was shocked. He and Hasson's stepdaughter Sarah Jansen were friends, and yes, there was some romantic interest there, and yes, they'd gotten coffee a few times after the last semester ended. But, he told his colleague, they weren't sleeping together. And why had Jerry Hasson sent an e-mail about it to this guy?
"Dude, he didn't just send it to me," Steve's colleague told him. "He sent it to everybody. The president of the school got it, all the administrators—everybody. It's long, too, like 10 pages long."
"Can you forward it to me?" Zicree asked. His colleague nodded and said, "This is going to cause you some trouble."
"I know," said Steve. "I know."
That morning, Steve examined his students for signs they were looking at him strangely. Did they know? Had Jerry sent the e-mail to them, too?
When class ended, Steve raced home and turned on his computer. There it was, an e-mail that appeared to have been sent to several local newspapers and copied to dozens of college faculty, staff and administrators:
Hello. It was a pleasure speaking with you today, and I appreciate your willingness to consider this matter as a possible news item regarding the public safety of underaged children. As we discussed, this involves Steven Zicree, a professor at both Irvine Valley College and Orange Coast College, and his powerful influence over and involvement with our underaged daughter, Sarah Jansen.
The e-mail went on to detail the relationship (including e-mails between Zicree and the Hassons along with extensive outlines from both Jerry Hasson and Sallie Hasson), saying that "the most remarkable aspect in all this is that the senior administrators of IVC have, for the past two months, refused to take any action." The e-mail was 14 pages long.
Near the end, there was this: "Outline of events involving Sarah Jansen as described by Sallie Hasson (Sarah's mother)."
"I do not know a great deal about Steve," it read. "I know their [sic] were problems in his family and his mother committed suicide."
The e-mail was made to look as if Jerry had already contacted the media. This was merely "a ploy," Jerry later admitted, "to get the attention of the administration."
Steve's phone rang.
"Hi, Steve, this is Glenn Roquemore," Steve remembers the voice on the other end saying. Roquemore was vice president of instruction at Irvine Valley College. "I'm calling to let you know that we won't have a contract for you."
"But I already signed it," said Steve.
"Yes," said Roquemore, who's now the president of IVC. "It's being revoked."
"Anything more you want to say?" Steve asked.
"Not at this time, no," Roquemore said before hanging up.
In the summer of 2001, while Sallie and Jerry were in the Virgin Islands, Sarah enrolled in a precalculus class at Irvine Valley College. She was an otherwise straight-A student but had received a bad mark in math and was under the impression that a community college class might offer an easy A.
She noticed Steve Zicree right away. He had short, dark hair; a tanned, athletic build; a chiseled jaw; and a tattoo of a rosebush circling his left wrist. (One of his mother's hobbies had been tending roses.) Sarah assumed he was a student until he sat down at the desk in the front of the room.
Steve noticed Sarah Jansen right away. It was hard not to: she was the kind of kid who sat in the front row and had an answer to every question. She was a bit like Max Fisher, he thought, the overachiever from Wes Anderson's Rushmore.There was an intensity about her that he was drawn to. And he couldn't help but notice that where most of the students sat in their chairs before class playing GameBoy, Sarah always had her nose in a book, and not just pulp fiction. At the time, she was reading Atlas Shrugged.
As the class wore on, it became clear the two had some common interests. They both played guitar, they both played chess, they both drank coffee, they both knitted. These came to light when Steve would mention one of his hobbies in terms of a math problem—guitar, for example, was used to illustrate simple harmonic oscillations—and Sarah would shoot her hand up in the air and comment on it.
Steve says he was troubled by his growing attraction to Sarah. On the last day of class when Sarah turned in her final exam, he followed her out of the classroom.
"How do you think you did?" he asked her in the hall. He told her that he'd enjoyed having her in the class and he wished her the best. She said the same. And then, suddenly, as he said in an e-mail to the Hassons, he "panicked at the thought of someone so special just walking away."
"I know I'm like a hundred years old," he said, "but if you'd like to get coffee and play chess sometime, let me know."
Sarah told him that she'd like to, but she was grounded for the time and then she was going to Arizona for a month to visit her dad. But maybe when she got back?
They exchanged e-mail addresses.
Sarah e-mailed first, a few days later. "I don't know, I guess I missed him, too," she says. They kept in touch via e-mail. Steve sent her a math problem.
Sometime in August, they planned to meet for coffee at a Starbucks in Irvine.
On the last day of summer school, she'd told her mother that he had asked her to coffee. Sallie called Sarah's father in Tucson and discussed the matter. They permitted one meeting in a public place. Sallie says she figured Steve was "in his late 20s or early 30s." (Sarah says her mother thought Steve was 34.)
Before Sarah left the house, she went into Sallie and Jerry's bedroom to say goodbye.
"Jerry has a question for you before you go," Sarah remembers Sallie telling her.
"So, Sarah," he asked, "has Steve asked you yet if you're a virgin?"
As she often did when she was uncomfortable, Sarah just started laughing. (Jerry agrees this exchange took place but says it happened after he'd met with Steve.)
When Sarah and Steve met at the coffeehouse, they played chess. They talked about age differences—not between the two of them, but in general. And then Steve told her that he was feeling confused because he was attracted to her and didn't know what to do. Sarah grew quiet. Steve regretted saying anything.
Shortly after the coffee date, Sarah e-mailed Steve and let him know that she, too, was attracted to him. The next time they met—again at a coffeehouse—Sarah told Steve that when Sallie and Jerry had found out that Steve was 39, they had forbidden the relationship.
Steve sat for at least 10 minutes without speaking. "It's up to you," he finally said.
"I've already made my decision," she said. "I came here tonight even though I wasn't supposed to."
That night, Steve kissed Sarah. "You know," he says, "I've kissed a handful of girls in my life, I suppose, and a lot of times you don't feel anything. This wasn't like that. I felt something."
Sallie suspected the two were meeting. She and Jerry caught Sarah lying. Sarah was argumentative and condescending. Sarah was breaking house rules. They took away her car and put her on what they called "house arrest," but Sarah didn't seem to care. They told her they were going to "deport" her to Arizona. They told her they would no longer support her. They wouldn't send her to Europe as they'd promised. They made her sign a contract. They threatened to take her to a doctor to see if she was still a virgin and have her checked for STDs.
Sarah told them they were being ridiculous. She told her mother that she no longer respected her. The next day, they told her she was being sent to Arizona to live with her father.
In the early '90s, Sallie Hasson was, according to Sarah, "the perfect single mom." Attentive, intelligent and responsible, she raised Sarah and her younger sister Danielle while ascending the ranks of corporate America. She traveled a lot for business, but, according to Sarah, "she was there when she could be."
Sometime later, Sallie met Jerry David Hasson, who was going through a divorce. The two were soon married, and Jerry moved into Sallie's Irvine home.
Around the house, Sarah bristled over Jerry's rules, his labeling his sodas and food, the way he intimidated the girls' friends. He had a locked office that the girls were forbidden to enter; he'd lock the door, hide the key and put a piece of clear tape on the door so he'd know if someone had tried to enter.
Jerry once showed the kids plans he'd drafted, costing upward of $25,000, of his dream home—ornate, with waterfalls coming down the staircase. He'd made a table-sized model of the design, but his ex-wife smashed it in a fit of rage.
Sallie told the story to the kids to illustrate what a horrible woman his ex-wife had been, but Sarah says she understood why the woman would do such a thing.
When Sarah was 12, she and a friend sneaked out of the house and toilet-papered another classmate's house. They did this three nights in a row. The family whose house had been toilet-papered called the police. Sarah says she remembers Jerry telling the cops to let Sarah spend a night in jail. (Jerry says he doesn't recall the event.) Sallie told Sarah that she understood, that Sarah was just lashing out at the popular kids because she was jealous.
This was young Sarah's only trouble. Sallie liked to brag to her friends that Sarah was the "easiest teenager"—and that her teenage years ended when she was 13.
And by all accounts, Sarah was a good kid. She planned to go to a good college and major in English or journalism. While the other high school kids were partying, she stayed at home and read or played guitar. She was also quick to cast judgment on her peers in the pointed editorials she wrote for her high school paper, where she was opinion editor. At times, she was incredibly opinionated and outspoken; at others, she was shy, withdrawn and sullen. Her friends would tell her it was as if she had two sides.
When Jerry moved into Sallie's house, he was "blindsided," he says. He had already raised two grown daughters who were "loving and sweet and never argumentative or defiant." He "assumed all childrearing was the same." He initially adored Sarah and Danielle but soon came to disagree with the way Sallie was raising them.
"Like many single parents, Sallie spoiled the girls," he says. "She gave them unlimited money. They were running the house. They made every decision."
Jerry had trouble adjusting. "I was used to having a family with some controls," he says.
Particularly troublesome for Jerry was the way Sarah and Danielle would take things without returning them. "Suddenly I'm reaching for my tape dispenser or my stapler or glue, and it's not there, and I find it in their room. They had their own stapler and glue, but it was easier for them to take our things because they knew precisely where on our desk our things were."
Hence the locked office and the clear tape on the door.
"If Sarah's lying, I want to know," he says. "You know, Sarah's an interesting young woman. On some level, I love Sarah, but it's really more because she's my stepdaughter and I'm supposed to love her. If she doesn't like me, I'm going to keep on living."
Mostly, though, Sarah was upset with her mother. They'd been close once. But now the things her mother said made her feel like her mom didn't even know her. Sarah wasn't some idiot who was going to sleep with the first guy who came along. Yet her mom said things indicating that she thought Sarah had already slept with Steve. Her mom wanted it both ways—she wanted Sarah to be responsible and take care of herself while she and Jerry sailed around the world, and now, on a whim, she wanted to treat Sarah like a child.
On Sept. 26, as Steve walked out of a class on the IVC campus, he heard someone call his name. He looked around but didn't recognize anyone, so he kept walking. He was in a rush to get home and shower and change before Sarah came over. A man approached him and said he was Sarah's stepfather. Steve told the man that he had been expecting to hear from Sarah's parents sooner or later, and he'd be more than happy to talk, but he was short on time and could they get together the next day?
Jerry told Steve they needed to talk and it had to be now. The pair sat on a bench, but after one of Steve's female friends ran up and gave him a hug, Jerry decided that they needed to go somewhere else and that they would be taking Steve's car.
"All of a sudden it was like The Sopranos," Steve said. They got in Steve's car, and Jerry started in on what Steve called "the honesty routine." If the meeting was not going to turn adversarial, it was absolutely necessary that they have complete honesty and trust. "You have an awful lot to lose here if you don't handle this in exactly the right way," Steve says Jerry told him. Steve told Jerry that it sounded like he was being threatened. Jerry repeated that it was absolutely necessary that they have perfect honesty and perfect trust.
"You know, Steve," said Jerry, "I'm going to tell you a little something about myself so you know where I'm coming from."
Steve says Jerry then recounted a relationship he'd had with a 20-year-old. When she dumped him, he was devastated. Clearly, he explained, Steve and Sarah's relationship was going to end just as badly for Steve. The best thing would be to get out now. Steve felt there could be more discussion about it, more options, but Jerry wasn't having it. The only option was no contact.
"You know, Jerry, Sarah's going to be 18 soon. What are you going to do then?" Steve said.
"Sarah's mom and I are going to keep Sarah as a minor for a few more years," Jerry said. "We're paying for her college, and we'll expect her to do as we wish so long as we're paying."
"You're not going to be able to pull that off, Jerry," Steve said. "I work with people this age every day. They've got minds of their own."
Jerry asked Steve if he and Sarah had a sexual relationship. Steve told Jerry they didn't. Jerry seemed very agitated. At some point Steve said, "You know, Jerry, she's probably had sex with someone by now."
Steve remembers Jerry becoming extremely flustered. "What are you talking about? What do you mean? Has she told you this?" Jerry asked. He told Steve that he and Sarah's mother "strongly believe she's still a virgin." Jerry "kept pressing the sex thing," repeatedly asking Steve whether the two were sleeping together.
Jerry remembers it quite differently. He remembers saying that if Steve and Sarah would wait until Sarah was 18 and out of the house, he would be an "advocate" for the relationship. He also remembers Steve flippantly saying, "You don't think she's still a virgin, do you?" Jerry says he was alarmed by Steve's "cavalier" attitude about Sarah's sexuality and denies that he pressed the topic.
"I didn't dwell on her sexual experiences," he says.
That night, Sarah told her parents she was going to study with friends at the library. Instead, she went over to Steve's house. This was the second time she had been there. The last time, they had made plans to watch a movie but instead just lay on his bed talking and listening to music. They kissed a bit. Early on, Steve said, he decided he didn't want sex to become a part of this. He didn't know Sarah's experience level, and he was trying his best to, in his words, "tread lightly." Ending up in his bedroom probably wasn't the best idea, he admits, but he insists it turned out innocently enough.
Mostly Sarah enjoyed seeing his house and seeing the things he loved—like his plane, which he kept in his garage, and his bike, which he kept in his bedroom. Sarah was fascinated with the cage he had built for his iguana. It was huge and light and airy and went up to the ceiling and had windows. Sarah had never seen an iguana cage like this one.
"I don't know what it was made of, certainly not normal material," Sarah remembers. "Iguanas are hard to care for, too. I'd say 70 percent of them die when they're little." Steve's iguana was "really tame and really spoiled." Sarah used to have an iguana, but her parents sold him "because they said he stunk up my room."
When Sarah arrived at Steve's house on the night of Sept. 26 and knocked on his door, he didn't answer. She figured he was just running late. She went back to her car and read.
Finally, Steve arrived. He "pulled up really quickly and slammed the door shut and jumped out," Sarah said. He looked "really somber."
"We really need to talk," he said.
"Here it comes," Sarah thought. "Here's where he tells me he doesn't want to see me anymore."
Instead, Steve told her about Jerry's visit. "Your stepfather is really scary," he said.
He seemed disturbed by the way Jerry kept bringing everything back to sex.
Steve's cell phone rang a couple of times, but he didn't pick it up. Then his home phone rang. It was Sarah's mom, and even from a distance, Sarah could hear her screaming, telling Steve that he was a predator and sick and that Sarah's father was on his way out from Arizona to shoot him.
"I've never heard my mom scream so loud and be so out of control in my entire life," says Sarah.
Steve seemed bewildered but tried to remain calm. Sallie hung up on him. Steve sent Sarah home, where she was put on what her parents called "house arrest" and her car keys were taken away.
"I had to walk to school and stuff," Sarah recalls. "They thought that was the worst thing in the world, but I didn't really mind. They started saying that they were going to treat me as a minor until I was 21 and dictate everything I do."
They made Sarah write out a contract.
"She needed to understand that there were certain minimum standards of behavior that were expected of her," says Jerry.
The first contract Sarah wrote wasn't acceptable. "It was one-word sentences like, 'I'll be polite. I won't see Steve,'" Jerry recalls.
Sarah wrote another contract that again proved inadequate, but "the third time around, she got it right." It read:
I will respect you by obeying rules because you are my parents and are entitled to that right. I understand that hostility will not be tolerated or taken lightly and that only obedience and courtesy is an option. I will aspire to create a peaceful environment by abstaining from hurtful comments or defiance. Paying heed to the "little things," such as placing the trash bins against the wall or immediately cleaning dishes after use, will be top priority. I will respect decisions made on my behalf, in what is believed to be my best interest. As a result I will have NO contact with Steve. I understand that a breach of this contract will result in my deportation to Arizona or the loss of Steve's job. Signed, Sarah Jansen
Sarah came to fear that their promise to pay for her college education was "just another way to control me." A week later, she got a job at Target. The next couple of months were strained. "I don't think a day went by that she wasn't confrontational and abusive," says Jerry. "She took every opportunity to make her mother cry."
On Dec. 5, 2001, Jerry and Sallie walked into Target holding hands. They told Sarah that they had just notified all her coworkers that this would be her last day, that her father would be driving out from Arizona on Saturday to pick her up and take her back with him.
"They came up and said, 'You're leaving,'" Sarah says. "I said, 'I'm not leaving.'"
Sarah told her parents that she was going to move in with her best friend Alana, that Alana's dad approved the plan.
A little while later, Irvine Police Detective Vic Ray walked into Target. He took Sarah into a surveillance room and asked her questions about her future and the nature of her relationship with Steve. He asked her whether she was doing drugs.
"I think he expected something horrible from me that would warrant Jerry bringing him out," Sarah says. "Once he established that I wasn't abused and I wasn't abusing myself, he said he thought he could talk my parents into letting me stay with Alana." Sarah was dubious but hopeful. She sat in the room while the detective went out into the store and talked to Jerry and Sallie for what seemed like an hour. The detective came back and told Sarah that he was reasonably certain she would be allowed to stay. But the minute Sarah got home, she saw the giant suitcase her parents had placed in the middle of the living room. "Pack your stuff," her mom told her. "You're going to Arizona."
That night, Sarah stayed up all night packing. She was fairly resigned.
"If a detective couldn't talk them into letting me stay, I certainly wasn't going to be able to," she says. For the most part, she was relieved to be getting out of the house.
The next night, she stuffed her bed with pillows and sneaked out to visit Steve. Her parents caught her on her way back in. She was without remorse. A couple of nights later, Steve came over late at night, and the two talked through her window.
"As far as I was concerned," says Sarah, speaking on the phone from her grandparents' house in Arizona, "my mother had relinquished her title as mother at that point. She had no rights. I couldn't care anymore. I certainly wasn't scared. All the fear was suddenly gone—it had suddenly evaporated, and I knew what I was going to do. I had a plan, and I'm sticking to that plan right now."
The plan is to save up money, move back to California when she turns 18 and put herself through college. The Hassons say her plan is to move in with Steve when she turns 18, but this, Sarah says, "is a fabrication."
Recently, Sarah got a card from her mother saying that Sarah was "directing everything inward and killing herself from the inside out."
"I can't believe she thinks she still has the right to tell me these things," says Sarah.
"You know, I realized something because everything's been yanked away. I realized that a lot lies within me, not the environment. I'm out in the desert out here, and I really have to make this myself instead of letting the environment mold me. Someday I'll go to Europe, too. It's not like all my dreams are shattered. I'm not sad or depressed or sitting around crying like my mom would like to think."
Steve's life hasn't been the same since the Hassons sent out their e-mail to the faculty and staff at Irvine Valley College and Orange Coast College. With each call that comes in, he wonders who it is this time, who's heard about the scandal. He's noticed some colleagues backing away. "No one wants to touch this; no one wants to be associated with it," he says. He'd like to defend himself, to explain himself to everyone who thinks he's a creep, but he's afraid that with something like this, there's simply no way to clear his name, no chance for exoneration.
"It's a weird thing to have somebody say, 'Look, we're going to make an accusation, and just the accusation is going to destroy your life,'" he says.
He's currently looking for full-time work up the coast and hoping for the best.
"It didn't have to be such a big mess," says Steve. "It just didn't have to be so big."
As far as Jerry's concerned, though, Steve chose this. "He knew ahead of time that if he didn't adhere to our wishes, there would be consequences, and without consequences, it's like there's no rules in life. It was my job to do what I could do to get this guy to feel the consequences of his actions. I was just the enforcer."
A few weeks ago, Sarah stuffed her bed again and crept out of her grandparents' home in Arizona. Her dad called the police to file a runaway report.
She returned in the morning but "never had a plausible answer for where she was."
While she was missing, Jerry called all the numbers he had for Steve. There was no answer.
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