After eluding authorities for months, a private tutor at the center of a cheating scandal at a top-performing Orange County school was arrested Monday at LAX upon his return to the U.S.
Timothy Lance Lai, 29, was also charged Monday with one felony count of second-degree commercial burglary and four felony counts of computer access and fraud, according to prosecutors.
The cheating scandal rocked Corona del Mar High School 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 the grades of some students had been changed and contacted school administrators.
The case was then investigated by the Newport Beach Police Department. The probe continued, with authorities unable to identify the tutor, until December, when another keylogger was discovered on a third teacher's computer.
Police were able to identify Lai and the 12 students suspected of involvement in the alleged scheme. Officers searched Lai's home the next day, but he had left.
Authorities believe Lai fled the country after the scheme was made public. Police did not release how they knew he was going to be at LAX or where he was arriving from Monday afternoon.
"We have not had any contact with him before today," said Newport Beach police spokeswoman Jennifer Manzella.
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. The time and date of his arraignment has not been determined.