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Tutor blamed in Newport Beach cheating scandal due in court

A tutor who allegedly led a cheating ring at a top-performing Orange County high school is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday on burglary and computer fraud charges, prosecutors said.

Authorities said Timothy Lance Lai, 29, fled the country last year amid a growing grade-fixing scandal that came to light after a teacher at Corona del Mar High School discovered that some of her student's grades had been changed.

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On Monday, Lai was arrested after landing at Los Angeles International Airport. District attorney officials declined to say whether he surrendered or if police were tipped off to his arrival.

The cheating scandal rocked Corona del Mar High in Newport Beach, leading to the expulsion of 11 students and the resignation of a district administrator who said officials mishandled the case.

Lai is accused of helping the students obtain the passwords and log-on information of teachers in order to hack into the district computer system to change their grades and access exams.

He allegedly instructed students to insert a USB device into two teachers' computers that recorded their keystrokes. He is accused of accessing the school's network from April 1, 2013, to June 14, 2013, using the information from the devices and changing the grades of three students.

School officials also assert that Lai provided students with English, science and history exams, some at the honors and Advanced Placement levels.

On June 14, 2013, one of the teachers discovered that some grades had been changed and contacted school administrators.

Police said they were able to identify Lai and 12 students suspected of involvement in the alleged scheme. Officers searched Lai's home the next day, but he was gone.

"We have not had any contact with him before today," Newport Beach police spokeswoman Jennifer Manzella told The Times Monday after Lai's arrest.

Authorities seized four USB thumb drives, several electronic devices, a cellphone, a notepad bearing students' names, a notebook containing multiple tests with a female student's name written on it, schoolwork, routers and several exams, according to the property report attached to the search warrant.

Though prosecutors charged Lai with changing the grades of only three students, 11 were expelled from the school in January in the aftermath of the scandal.

Jane Garland, the administrator who resigned and was deeply involved in the case for months as Newport-Mesa Unified School District's head of discipline, said the district mishandled the investigation and ignored her recommendations to give the students a lighter punishment or heed warnings that the problem might be more far-reaching.

If convicted, Lai faces a maximum sentence of five years and eight months in prison.

Prosecutors plan to request that he be held on $200,000 bail at Santa Ana Jail.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna and @AdolfoFlores3.

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