Ronald Rodgene Hutton was once regarded as a top-flight educator who consistently received glowing reviews and guided his students through innovative, award-winning projects.
Now, police accuse the former Baltimore schoolteacher of being a drug dealer, a midlevel player in the heroin trade who watched his legitimate career crumble as unpaid bills mounted.
Two weeks ago, a federal task force charged Mr. Hutton, 48, with operating a drug ring out of a Bolton Hill rowhouse. Investigators said they seized several handguns and $500,000 worth of raw heroin.
"If he is guilty of this, it's just a dreadful human tragedy," said Samuel Banks, former chairman of the Baltimore school system's social studies department. "It would be the story of a marvelous and creative educator who had a great fall."
Based on co-workers' observations and court records, Mr. Hutton's tumble from a respected teacher to an inmate awaiting trial appears to be a tale of a private crisis, tangled debts and lawsuits. Through it all, bankers tried to collect thousands of dollars in outstanding bills, court records say.
Disheartened colleagues are puzzled by the apparent contradiction in the life of a man whose career was otherwise characterized by achievement.
"This is unfathomable," Dr. Banks said. "I knew him professionally but not personally. He was a teacher's teacher, highly effective with his students. He made an outstanding and indelible contribution to the school system."
Mr. Hutton's relatives could not be reached for comment. His lawyer, Stanley H. Needleman, said his client plans to plead not guilty.
"Obviously, there is nothing to be said until a preliminary hearing," Mr. Needleman said.
Mr. Hutton is charged with possession and possession with intent to distribute drugs, conspiracy and possession of drug paraphernalia. He also faces a weapons charge. The hearing on the state charges is scheduled for July 13 in U.S. District Court, but federal prosecutors said last week they may seek a federal indictment.
Police said they became interested in Mr. Hutton this year after anonymous tipsters directed authorities to his rented Bolton Hill rowhouse. FBI and undercover city police began to investigate.
Police and a school spokeswoman said they have no evidence that any of the purported drug dealing occurred in the schools.
"We have no reason to believe that his alleged drug activity ever took place at the schools where he taught or involved his students," said Donna Franks, a spokeswoman for the city school system.
Mr. Hutton started with Baltimore public schools as a social studies teacher in 1970, at Patterson and then Lake Clifton high schools. He had graduated in June 1969 from Morgan State University with a bachelor's degree in history.
By 1978, he had earned a master's degree in history.
"He worked very hard with the students, and his main emphasis was working to have them improve their writing skills and thinking skills in the social studies," said William C. Schultheis, social studies department head at Lake Clifton. He was Mr. Hutton's supervisor there.
More than once, Mr. Hutton coached students through research and writing projects that won first place in citywide academic contests, Mr. Schultheis said. He wrote a letter of recommendation when Mr. Hutton sought to be promoted from teacher to social studies department head.
Mr. Hutton then transferred to Lombard Middle School, where he was described as a well-liked, effective teacher who took on extra duties, said Loretta Breese, who was his principal there.
"He got involved in the lives of his students," she said of Mr. Hutton, who was in charge of the school's Student Government Association.
In 1990, Mr. Hutton was promoted to head the social studies department at Lombard Middle School, and a year later he transferred to Calverton Middle School, retaining his title.
Dr. Banks, who wrote a recommendation letter for the promotion, said Mr. Hutton took to the students.
"He'd take them places -- to museums such as Great Blacks in Wax -- and he'd counsel them. He went above and beyond the call of duty in his role as a teacher. I also recall that he'd warn students about the dangers of drugs."
But it was around that time that Mr. Hutton's problems appear to have begun. School sources said his superior work rating fell to ++ satisfactory. Some co-workers thought Mr. Hutton was suffering from health problems. He was often absent, the sources said, and complaints about poor attendance were filed in his personnel records. Finally, school officials say, he stopped coming to work, and in October he was dismissed.
Some colleagues in social studies said they had not realized he ** had been dismissed until news media reported his arrest. Mr. Schultheis said he had seen Mr. Hutton at events for social studies teachers, and then last year, "it seemed he disappeared."
Until a year ago, Mr. Hutton apparently lived in the Horizon House apartment building on Calvert Street, in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. School colleagues confirmed that it was the last address they had for him.
But police said he most recently lived in a third-floor apartment in a Bolton Hill rowhouse owned by a Crofton woman who described Mr. Hutton as an "excellent renter," who usually paid on time. Police arrested the former teacher at that address.
But even while living there, Mr. Hutton listed his mailing address at his mother's house, a one-story home on Forest Drive in Annapolis. Motor vehicle records show he owns one car, a 1986 Toyota four-door sedan that he bought with at least 125,000 miles on the odometer.
Maryland court records show that seven companies have filed lawsuits against Mr. Hutton since 1990 seeking payment on overdue bills, interest and lawyer fees totaling more than $31,000.
His debts include more than $9,000 from Signet Bank for two credit cards, including a MasterCard on which Mr. Hutton is alleged to have rung up a $5,000 balance, according to court records. The bank won in court the right to garnishee part of Mr. Hutton's wages -- he earned $2,071 biweekly from September to June.
But Signet had to wait in line to collect behind Citicorp, which earlier sought more than $8,700 from a outstanding credit card bill, and Provident Bank of Maryland, which claimed Mr. Hutton owed $1,900. By law, only one creditor at a time could garnishee his wages.
Court records also show that Mr. Hutton owed Montgomery Ward more than $1,800, Norwest Card Service $5,600 and Chevy dTC Chase Federal Savings Bank $4,100.
School officials interviewed stressed that Mr. Hutton showed no signs of the double life he is alleged to have lived at the end of his school career.
When Ms. Breese, Mr. Hutton's principal at Lombard, learned that he had walked away from his job in the school system and heard of his arrest, she suggested he was the type of person who might have left so his troubles would not affect his students and co-workers.
"That would be in his character," she said. "What we need to do is pray that he's all right."