The Cycle of Sexual Abuse (Part 1): How a teacher became a sex offender

Once jailed for molesting a 15-year-old student, teacher of the year Jim Cunneely says his crime is part of a cycle of sexual abuse that began when he was molested at 15 by a teacher of the year. This two-part series prompted a criminal investigation into the 1990s allegation against Carol D’Annunzio, now retired and living in Florida. The series also was awarded first place in the enterprise category of the New Jersey Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest.

Cunneely screenshot

(Nov. 9, 2014) (PDF)

Pale and shaking, Jim Cunneely lay in bed, barely finding the breath to speak. He clung to his wife like a child, his head on her chest. 

“I’m going to have to go,” he whispered. “They’re coming. I’m going to have to go.”

Dawn Cunneely didn’t understand. Go where? Her husband wasn’t making sense. 

“Who’s coming for you?”

“I’m going to have to go,” he repeated faintly. “They’re coming.”

On the night of Feb. 5, 2007, they came for Jim Cunneely, a popular French teacher — a teacher of the year — at Kittatinny Regional High School in Sussex County. Two police officers escorted him to a van and drove him to the Hardyston station, where they sat him at a spare steel table.

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Jim Cunneely in 2014 (Aristide Economopoulos)

“How are you, Jim?” a State Police detective asked, according to a transcript of the conversation.

Cunneely was tired. Tired of the worry. Tired of the secrets.

In that moment of guilt and shame and catharsis, Cunneely, then 30, admitted to a seven-month sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl, a student in his class. He described trysts in motels, in her bedroom, in his car. He told her he loved her, the confession shows.

His acts would lead to the destruction of his marriage, the end of his career, a year in prison and a lifetime of parole supervision under Megan’s Law. He had become among the most reviled of criminals: the sex offender.

But his arrest, Cunneely said, also forced him to face a past he had all but ignored, even as it dictated the patterns and behaviors of his life, fueling impulses and muting every internal alarm.

The teacher of the year says that, at 15, he, too, was sexually abused by his French teacher, also a teacher of the year.

In court documents, in a self-published memoir and in interviews with NJ Advance Media, Cunneely alleges the relationship with the teacher, Carol D’Annunzio, then 42, lasted more than two years and dominated every aspect of his time at Lenape Valley Regional High School in Stanhope during the early 1990s.

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Carole D’Annunzio in a yearbook photo

He described trysts in her classroom, in the auditorium, in her home and car. She told him she loved him, he said. On a school trip to Paris, they exchanged symbolic wedding vows beside the Seine, Cunneely said. He says he still has the crucifix ring she placed on his finger that day.

To those who study sexual abuse, Cunneely’s account of his life, from alleged victim to abuser, is not unusual.

Researchers say that in a minority of abuse cases, trauma can lead victims to identify with their aggressors in effect, become their aggressors and re-enact their experiences in minute detail later in life.

Colloquially, it is known as the cycle of abuse. In practice, it is a wrecking ball that shatters lives and families across generations.

It makes no difference if a victim is male or female, the researchers say. In popular culture, the young male who beds the hot teacher wins attaboys and backslaps. In reality, the experts say, he is likely to suffer the same psychological harm as a young girl molested by an older man.

Cunneely, now 37, said it was only through years of therapy after his arrest that he understood how his past experiences played a role in the decisions that landed him in prison and made him a social pariah. Because of that understanding, he insists, he is not a risk to reoffend.

His participation in this story provides a rare and unfiltered view into the mind of a convicted sex offender. He agreed to take part to explain his actions and to show there is depth to his life beyond the stigma that now follows him. At its most elemental, he said, he wants others to know he is not a predator.

Cunneely said he also is speaking out because D’Annunzio has never been held to account for her alleged actions and because she has continued to work with children.

“I took responsibility for what I did,” he said. “I betrayed many people. I hurt many people. The same is true for her. I want her to be held responsible.”

After inquiries by NJ Advance Media, the Sussex County Prosecutor’s Office the agency that sent Cunneely to prison opened a criminal investigation into D’Annunzio, authorities confirmed. Cunneely met with detectives several times in August and September. In recent weeks, investigators have been interviewing potential witnesses.

First Assistant Prosecutor Gregory Mueller, who is overseeing the probe, said the statute of limitations would not bar the prosecution of D’Annunzio if investigators find corroborating evidence.

Mueller, no relation to the writer, declined to answer additional questions about the investigation, saying only that his office was “taking the matter very seriously.”

“It’s an open and active investigation, and we ask anyone with information to please contact our office,” he said.

Cunneely shared his account of his teenage years with a handful of people long before his arrest.

Dawn Cunneely, who has since divorced her husband, said he told her on their second date, in 1997, that he had a lengthy affair with D’Annunzio beginning when he was 15. Dawn Cunneely said she immediately objected to her husband’s characterization of it as a relationship.

“I was 22 when he told me, and even at 22 I knew it was abuse,” Dawn Cunneely said. “It’s every parent’s nightmare who sends their children to school.”

Two years later, in 1999, Jim Cunneely repeated the story to a former colleague and close friend, Dan Stevens, after Stevens confided in him that he had been molested by a priest as a child.

“He was emotional about it,” said Stevens, 69, a retired teacher. “He got a little tearful. Over time, we talked more about our experiences.”

Cunneely talked about it again in the final moments of his 2007 confession, telling investigators the alleged relationship weighed heavily on his mind as his own criminal behavior played out, the transcript shows. Days later, speaking with a court-appointed psychologist, he used D’Annunzio’s name and provided a detailed account of the alleged abuse.

NJ Advance Media obtained a copy of the psychologist’s report, known as a psychosexual evaluation. Initially sealed, it became a public document when Cunneely and his attorney used it to establish mitigating circumstances ahead of sentencing.

Cunneely discussed the allegations during two additional examinations, one by a psychologist at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center, a facility for sex offenders in Avenel, the other by Philip Witt, a forensic psychologist and one of the state’s leading experts on sexual offenders.

In both reports, Cunneely’s account of the alleged abuse by D’Annunzio is consistent with what he told NJ Advance Media.

Mueller, the prosecutor, said authorities did not pursue Cunneely’s claim of abuse in 2007 because he did not ask that it be investigated and because, at the time, it appeared to be self-serving and unrelated to the criminal case at hand.

Today, given Cunneely’s willingness to cooperate and testify, he will be treated with the sensitivity given to any other accuser, Mueller said. Cunneely’s criminal record, the prosecutor added, will not be held against him.

As he awaits the outcome of the probe, Cunneely exists in both past and present. Two tattoos tell his story. On his left arm, he has permanently inked the word “compulsion,” a reference, he says, to how his teenage years contorted his thinking.

The word “penance” lines his right arm. It is his self-inflicted scarlet letter, a reminder of the harm he has caused and the debt he owes.

He speaks openly about the dark corners of his life, inviting scrutiny and answering difficult questions calmly and directly.

His home is a small bedroom in the house owned by Stevens, his teaching colleague, and Stevens’ wife, Connie, in Wantage, in New Jersey’s rural northwestern corner.

Cunneely earns his keep by helping them maintain their rental properties. Some days, he works for his father in Jersey City, converting fleet vehicles into customer-ready taxis. His parole officer visits randomly, requiring him to urinate in a cup for a drug test and swabbing his cheek to ensure he has not consumed alcohol.

It is a very different existence, he said, from the one experienced by the woman he says abused him.

Working with children

D’Annunzio, who turned 64 in August, retired to Land O’ Lakes, Fla., nearly a decade ago with her husband, Paul Sonnenberg, 50, public records show.

Neighbors called her a friendly woman who brought in extra income by teaching guitar to children in her home. She also has worked for years as a substitute teacher at the Academy at the Lakes, an independent school for children of all ages, the school’s headmaster, Mark Heller, confirmed.

“She is awesome,” Heller said. “She has helped our school in countless ways over the years with her intelligence, her flexibility, her great skills in music and French and just being a great gal.”

Told of the allegations against D’Annunzio, Heller said he was unaware of them and declined further comment.

Earlier this year, D’Annunzio and her husband moved to a newly built, gated development in the nearby community of Wesley Chapel, about 23 miles northeast of Tampa.

A reporter and videographer made several attempts to reach her for comment, visiting the ranch-style home four times over three days.

The first time, Sonnenberg said his wife was working as a substitute teacher and that he would give her a message. During subsequent visits, he said she was not home, and she did not respond to a letter requesting comment. Follow-up calls to Sonnenberg’s cellphone were not returned.

Carol D'Annunzio
Carol D’Annunzio in a yearbook photo

D’Annunzio and Sonnenberg are aware of Cunneely’s allegations. In February 2012, Cunneely said, he knocked on their door in Land O’ Lakes and confronted D’Annunzio, asking for an explanation and an apology. He said he received neither. At the same time, he informed her he was writing a book about his experiences.

Sonnenberg confirmed the visit, saying his wife “got upset for a month after he came around.”

Asked if he believed his wife had a sexual relationship with Cunneely, he replied, “I don’t know. Probably not.”

Sonnenberg said he and D’Annunzio began dating 20 years ago, or about a year after Cunneely claims his relationship with her ended. The couple married two years later. They do not have children.

He said Cunneely should take responsibility for what he did molesting a teenage girl without blaming others, and he cited the perseverance of his own father as an example.

“My father was an orphan,” Sonnenberg said. “He didn’t blame his parents for leaving him in a bar. He still raised his family.”

The husband scoffed at Cunneely’s claim that the alleged relationship had a negative impact on his life.

“Kids today are doing it before they’re sophomores,” Sonnenberg said. “Don’t think they’re not doing it already. Kids are having sex in middle school. They know what they’re doing.”

Teenage boys, especially, face no harm from sexual relationships with teachers, he said.

“They have control of that. It doesn’t hurt them,” said Sonnenberg, a Sussex County native and a graduate of the county’s vocational-technical school system. “I know lots of people who had sex with their teachers, and they’re fine. It doesn’t have an effect on them.”

It would be different, he added, if a male teacher held down a female student and raped her.

Sonnenberg questioned why his wife should bother talking about the allegations, saying it was clear Cunneely would never find “closure.”

“When does it stop?” he asked. “When does it end?”

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The  crucifix ring Cuneely says D’Annunzio gave to him. (Aristide Eonomopoulos)

Teacher of the year

In the halls of Lenape Valley Regional High School, she was known as “Ms. D,” a cheerful, engaging educator who brought the French language to life, drawing on literature, the arts and real people and places.

Carolann Veronica D’Annunzio made music a staple of her lessons, playing guitar and singing in French. Students often sang along, learning phrasing and grammar. If time allowed on Fridays, she took English-language requests, playing everything from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin.

“Great teacher,” retired Lenape Valley Superintendent Joseph M. Stracco said. “The kids loved her.”

James C. Riccobono, the school’s retired principal, called D’Annunzio popular and smart. Riccobono hired D’Annunzio when Lenape Valley first opened in the fall of 1974. She would go on to organize the annual Christmas concert, found the student-exchange program and serve as chair of the foreign language department, Riccobono said.

In 1989, the year before Cunneely entered Lenape Valley, the administration named her teacher of the year.

“She made a tremendous contribution to that school and in class,” Riccobono said. “I think very highly of her.”

D’Annunzio stood out in another way. She was an attractive single woman, with long, wavy black hair, a broad smile and a manner of dress that teenage boys noticed, said Diane Macchiarola, 38, a classmate of Cunneely’s at Lenape Valley.

“You wouldn’t look at her and go, ‘Oh, that’s a teacher,’” Macchiarola said. “She had big hair and wore leather miniskirts. For her age, she was very pretty.”

Cunneely, a member of the wrestling and football teams, said the two became intimate during his sophomore year. His best friend’s mother had passed away suddenly, and Cunneely, who had never experienced the death of a loved one, said he felt the loss acutely.

D’Annunzio, he said, took notice, offering him comfort, guidance and her phone number.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel special in a way,” Cunneely said. “I’m a 15-year-old boy, and she’s taking this interest in my life. How could I not make that phone call?”

Cunneely, who had a personal phone line in his bedroom, said those first talks were innocent. For hours each night, Cunneely said, she asked about his interests, his plans for the future, which movies and music he liked.

She told him about swimming competitively in high school, the death of an uncle, her travel to France in college, he said.

She felt like a friend, he said, and she soon suggested they go for coffee.

Cunneely asked his parents. They told him no, he said.

“They agreed it didn’t seem right,” he said. “They said, ‘It’s not that there’s anything going on, but how would that look?’”

D’Annunzio’s reaction stunned him, he said.

“I called her and nonchalantly explained that my parents said no, and she burst out in tears,” Cunneely said. “She was hysterical, which made me feel very odd. I didn’t understand why she was so upset. So she explained to me in very cryptic language she was afraid that was going to be the answer, and that led her to fear she was never going to be able to act on her feelings.

“So I took the bait and said, ‘What are your feelings?’” Cunneely said. “And she said, ‘I’m falling in love with you.’”

That was three weeks after their first phone conversation, he said.

Cunneely who’d had only one girlfriend and little sexual experience said he fumbled for words. D’Annunzio, he said, then asked how he felt about her.

“Do you love me, too?” he said she asked.

“At 15, I didn’t know what love was except the love I felt for my parents or siblings, but I knew what the answer had to be, so I said yes,” Cunneely said. “And that flipped some kind of switch in her, because she immediately started asking where I thought we could go from here.”

The nightly phone calls went later and later, Cunneely said. She said she wanted to kiss him and sobbed into the phone that she’d have to wait until he was 18, he said.

She asked if he’d heard rumors about her having sex with other boys, Cunneely said, and he replied that he had. She explained they weren’t true couldn’t be true because she was a virgin, Cunneely said she told him.

Less than a week later, after a late wrestling practice, Cunneely said he was walking down a deserted stairwell with D’Annunzio at Lenape Valley when she turned, stopped him and kissed him for the first time.

Soon after, Cunneely said, she invited him to her apartment in Jefferson. She wanted to give him a Christmas present, he said. It was there, Cunneely said, that they had their first sexual contact.

Over the next two years, they would have sex hundreds of times, he said. D’Annunzio, he added, always provided the condoms.

“Whenever we crossed into a new area, whenever some new sexual act was happening, she would ask me, ‘Am I crossing a boundary?’” Cunneely said. “It felt like being injected with some kind of paralytic venom, because she knows I don’t have the ability to say no to her.”

Confusion and unease always followed, he said.

“There’s no way to deny an orgasm feels good,” Cunneely said. “But then you feel guilty that it feels good, because you know you’re doing something that’s wrong. There are just so many, many layers of emotion that are unable to be processed.”

For two weeks around Easter during Cunneely’s sophomore year, he took part in the student exchange program, traveling to Paris. While every other student stayed with a host family, D’Annunzio arranged for him to live with her in the home of a woman she knew, he said in interviews and during the psychosexual evaluation after his arrest.

D’Annunzio, he said, told the woman he was her nephew. He said the lie was meant to explain why they slept in the same bed. It was during the trip, Cunneely said, that the two exchanged vows on a bench beside the Seine River. She called him “mon amour” my love and used the French variation of his name, Jacques, Cunneely said.

As time went on, Cunneely said, D’Annunzio became increasingly brazen, pulling him into a storage closet in the back of her classroom for sex in the middle of the school day or after classes ended. At least half of their sexual encounters took place on school grounds, he said.

His parents, Loretta and James Cunneely, said they suspected nothing.

Their son rarely talked in detail about his day and deflected even innocuous questions about classes and friends, they said, but didn’t all teenagers do that?

The more they came to know D’Annunzio, the more she won them over. Soon they welcomed her into their son’s life, believing she was a positive influence.

“She was so involved with him, and I thought, ‘What a wonderful teacher. Look how good she is to him,’” Loretta Cunneely said. “We’d go for parent-teacher night, and she’d say what a wonderful student Jim is. As a parent, you’re proud to hear these things, so you would never imagine anything is going on. I never connected the dots. None of them.”

What his parents didn’t know, Cunneely said, was that he had been skipping practices, creating fictional outings with friends and cutting school when D’Annunzio took days off so the two could have sex.

To minimize the risk of exposure, D’Annunzio would drive Cunneely back to Lenape Valley on school days in time to catch the bus, he said. When Cunneely’s absences mounted, prompting the school to send letters home, he or D’Annunzio intercepted them at his mailbox before his parents finished work, he said.

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Members of the French Club. Cunneely, second from right, stands behind D’Annunzio.

The talk of the school

They were together so often, students began talking openly. Rumors skittered through the school.

Macchiarola, Cunneely’s classmate, said she saw him in D’Annunzio’s classroom during lunch, during free study periods and after school. Often, she saw them walking together in the hallways.

“She was always giddy around him, very giggly, a huge smile,” Macchiarola said. “It was so obvious to me something was going on. He was like arm candy to her. You just really got a vibe from it, like he belonged to her.”

Macchiarola, who now lives in Hopatcong, said she considered going to the administration with her suspicions, but she figured the people in charge already knew. Had to know.

“There’s no way anybody could have not seen it,” she said. “And I think that’s the reason so many of us didn’t say anything. It was, ‘Well, if they don’t care …’”

Cunneely said D’Annunzio told him the administration did have suspicions, that Riccobono, the principal, pulled her aside and told her he was hearing things about her and a student. D’Annunzio denied anything inappropriate, leaving with a warning from Riccobono not to allow her reputation to be ruined by a “student with a crush,” Cunneely said.

Riccobono, asked about the account, said he spoke to a number of teachers over the years about the “line in the sand,” the need for separation between a student and a teacher. He said he wasn’t comfortable disclosing whether he’d had that conversation with D’Annunzio.

“In the role of principal, when you challenge a person about their behavior, you better have cold, hard facts,” Riccobono said. “The only time I had cold, hard facts, that teacher lost his job, and it was not at Lenape Valley.”

Cunneely said he hoped at times someone would discover it, rescue him from a situation he found increasingly intrusive and overbearing.

On days he wanted to go out with friends, he said, D’Annunzio pressured him to meet her. If he didn’t answer his bedroom phone, she would call the main home line and tell his mother she needed to speak to him about an assignment or an after-school activity, he said.

Cunneely said he met the growing pressure on him by tamping down emotions, numbly role-playing through his days. Now he was a son and brother. Now he was a student. Now he was a boyfriend to his 40-something teacher, he said.

His life, he said, felt unreal, as if he were watching a movie about himself. The lies, the burden of secrecy, felt crushing, he said.

“By the end of my junior year, I couldn’t even function,” Cunneely said. “I don’t know if I was clinically depressed, but I did nothing. I didn’t do homework. I barely showered or took care of myself. It felt like the entire purpose of my existence was for her sexually, emotionally.”

He said he began picking fights with her and ordered her not to speak to a particular male teacher, shifting the power balance. The sparring went on for months, he said.

“Finally one day I called her and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I need to stop talking to you,’” Cunneely said. “She just broke out into hysterics, saying, ‘We’re supposed to be together. We’re going to spend the rest of our lives together.’”

She told him she had risked everything for him, Cunneely said. She threatened to tell his parents, he said. He told her he would stay, he said.

It was November 1993, he said, when he found the courage to break free.

She had summoned him to the auditorium early that morning, he said.

“I thought we were going there to have sex, but she stood on the stage and said, ‘Is this really what you want? To be done with me?’” Cunneely said. “And after that same kind of gut-wrenching deliberation, I said ‘yes.’ I’ll never forget her words. ‘OK, then you have your walking papers.’

“It was this one last power shift,” Cunneely said. “She knows I want out. She knows I never really wanted in. But in the end, it’s her that sends me away.”

Cunneely remained in D’Annunzio’s class through his senior year. She treated him as if nothing had happened, he said.

The rumors about the two lived on.

Cunneely’s sister, Jackie, 33, said she heard them when she attended Lenape Valley five years later. Some students even spoke of trysts in the storage closet in D’Annunzio’s classroom.

Scott Cunneely, 10 years younger than his brother, also heard the stories before his graduation from the school in 2004.

“Like any sibling, I denied them,” Scott Cunneely said. “I never asked him, but when it was brought up, I’d say, ‘Get out of here. That can’t be true. You guys are just messing with me.’”

Jim Cunneely went on to the University of Virginia before transferring to Montclair State University, earning a degree in French translation. He would have three children with Dawn Cunneely.

He was teaching Spanish at Sussex County Community College in 2000 when he was hired as a French teacher at Kittatinny Regional in Hampton Township, about 17 miles from Lenape Valley. He became a soccer coach and a National Honor Society adviser.

Cheerful and engaging, he brought the French language to life, as his own teacher had once done for him. Students loved him.

In 2005, he was named teacher of the year.

In June 2006, a 15-year-old girl a student in Cunneely’s freshman French class walked into his classroom before the start of school. She sat at a desk and began sobbing. She was having a personal problem, she said. She needed someone to talk to.

Within months, Cunneely was having sex with her.

Part 2: A Teacher’s Betrayal

 


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