After becoming pregnant, Kelli Peters valued safety above all.
She found it in Irvine. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times) If she had time between tasks, she might slip into the cartooning class to watch her 10-year-old daughter, Sydnie, as she drew. Her daughter had been her excuse to quit a high-pressure job in the mortgage industry peddling loans, which she had come to associate with the burn of acid reflux. No matter how frenetic the pace became at school, the worst day was better than that , and often afternoons ended with a rush of kids throwing their arms around her. At 5 feet tall, she watched many of them outgrow her. Peters had spent her childhood in horse country at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. She tossed pizzas, turned a wrench in a skate shop, flew to Hawaii on impulse and stayed for two years. She mixed mai tais at a Newport Beach rib joint. She waited tables at a rock-n-roll-themed pasta house. A married lawyer — one of the regulars — grew infatuated with her and showed up at her house one night. He went away, but a sense of vulnerability lingered. In her mid-30s she married Bill, a towering, soft-spoken blues musician and restaurateur who made her feel calm. She spent years trying to get pregnant, and when it happened her priorities narrowed. “I became afraid of spontaneity and surprises,” she said. “I just wanted to be safe.” In Irvine, she found a master-planned city where bars and liquor stores, pawnshops and homeless shelters had been methodically purged, where neighborhoods were regulated by noise ordinances, lawn-length requirements and mailbox-uniformity rules. For its size, Irvine consistently ranked as America’s safest city. It was 66 square miles, with big fake lakes, 54 parks, 219,000 people, and 62,912 trees. Anxiety about crime was poured into the very curve of the streets and the layout of the parks, all conceived on drawing boards to deter lawbreaking. From the color of its lookalike homes to the height of the grass, life in Irvine was meticulously regulated. (Christina House / For The Times) For all that outsiders mocked Irvine as a place of sterile uniformity, she had become comfortable in its embrace. She had been beguiled by the reputation of the schools, which boasted a 97% college-admission rate.
Now she watched as her ruin seemed to unfold before her. Watched as the cop emerged from her car holding a Ziploc bag of marijuana, 17 grams worth, plus a ceramic pot pipe, plus two smaller EZY Dose Pill Pouch baggies, one with 11 Percocet pills, another with 29 Vicodin. It was enough to send her to jail, and more than enough to destroy her name. Her legs buckled and she was on her knees, shaking violently and sobbing and insisting the drugs were not hers. The cop, a 22-year veteran, had found drugs on many people, in many settings. When caught, they always lied. Plaza Vista School was a jewel of Irvines touted public education system. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times) Peters had been doing what she always did on a Wednesday afternoon, trying to stay on top of a hundred small emergencies. She was 49, with short blond hair and a slightly bohemian air. As the volunteer director of the Afterschool Classroom Enrichment program at Plaza Vista, she was a constant presence on campus, whirling down the halls in flip-flops and bright sundresses, a peace-sign pendant hanging from her neck.