Knoxville – Tennessee – 2006 – 180,000 people resided in Knoxville. It is a conservative community, part of the Bible Belt, with several churches and a love of football. On Cochre Avenue, 29-year-old Erin McLean prepared for her first day as an English teacher at Always High School. McLean however, looked nothing like a teacher. She wore tight mini-skirts and sky-high heels. She was very attractive and very bright. She had her Masters Degree in Education.
However, her appearance made it difficult to focus on English literature. She didn’t behave like a teacher. McLean sat and giggled with the students and had inappropriate conversations with them. McLean enjoyed the boys’ attention. She was “touchy-feely” with the boys, knowing her approach was arousing. One boy in particular, 17-year-old Sean Powell, paid close attention to her. Powell was popular, girls like him and he was considered “the life of the party.” He was kind-hearted toward everyone.
McLean and Powell began flirting with each other. Most teachers would have set boundaries against this sort of thing but McLean didn’t feel the rules applied to her. Soon it was rumoured there was a mutual infatuation. Powell shared McLean’s love of English Literature. Powell wrote poetry and shared it with McLean. The poetry was often sorrowful and when McLean looked into Powell’s background, she discovered Powell had been born to an abusive drug-addicted mother, and she had given him up for adoption early in his young life. Powell had been adopted into a good home. McLean herself hadn’t enjoyed a particularly stable childhood. Her parents divorced when she was young. She lived with relatives who passed her around among themselves. She wasn’t particularly wanted by anyone.
McLean saw Powell as a soul mate. She felt he could meet her needs and desires. McLean crossed the boundaries she should have set with Powell and all her male students. Eventually, Powell and McLean became involved in a sexual affair. McLean knew what she was doing was very wrong, and she didn’t care. Yet McLean was married to a musician, Eric McLean. McLean had been drawn to her husband because she liked his artistic sensibility. The two had met when Erin was sixteen. Both grew up in Knoxville and met during high school.
Erin liked the fact that Eric’s family was stable. There was no divorce. McLean had never known stability and this gave her reassurance for the future. McLean became pregnant at nineteen and she married at that age. Soon they had a second child. The strain of child-rearing took its toll and the marriage weakened. Neither spouse spent much time with each other. Eric joined a band and often stayed out late, away from his family. Erin became angry with the lack of attention. She was frustrated that she had married young, and felt she had missed a great amount of her youth.
When she met Powell she felt as though she had a second chance at her youth. She felt like a teenager again. Powell’s mother noticed a change in his behaviour. He was distracted and distant. Powell told his mother he liked a new girl but he wouldn’t tell her that it was his teacher. Erin didn’t hold back when it came to a sexual affair with her student. She saw nothing wrong with it. She was driven by her own unfulfilled needs, betraying her husband and her role as teacher. McLean believed the affair could continue endlessly, without concern for consequences to Powell or her husband.
Late November, Powell was caught with alcohol on the school property. He was expelled. His parents were furious and sent him to a 28-day rehabilitation program. McLean was distraught. She began to text Powell and begged him to come home so they could be together. Powell, helpless to break away from McLean’s spell, agreed. Powell checked himself out of rehab and returned to his affair with McLean. Powell’s parents refused to let him come home. Homeless, Powell lived on the street for a few nights McLean, naturally went to his rescue and asked Eric if Powell could live in his van space. Eric, completely oblivious to the situation, agreed. Essentially, Eric created a love nest for his wife and the teen.
Even though McLean was satisfied with the relationship with Powell, he had no intention of leaving Eric. She wanted both lover and husband. She needed Eric to care for the kids and to earn money. McLean had the audacity to welcome Powell into her home. Eric, who must have been incredibly naïve, allowed him to live with his family. Over time, Eric noticed the unmistakable chemistry between his wife and Powell. Erin ignored her sons and devoted her time to Powell. Eric kicked out the hapless teenager.
By now 18, Powell continues the affair with McLean and he brags to his friends about his sexual conquest. Eric’s suspicions about his wife and Powell grew and one afternoon he followed Erin right to the door of his van space. Powell stepped out and Eric watched, infuriated, as the two kissed then disappeared inside the van space. Consumed with jealousy, Eric confronted his wife later that night. Erin insisted it was Eric’s fault for “neglecting her needs.” Eric tried to appease his wife but she told him “you’re just going to have to deal with it.” The affair intensified. Erin even locked her young children out of the house so she could have sex with Powell.
By now several students and some teachers suspected McLean was involved with Powell but no one spoke up. McLean and Powell became more obvious about their relationship; one Friday night they went out drinking together. The two encountered Eric who was socializing with his friends. In front of her husband, Eric leaned over and kissed Powell passionately. She enjoyed humiliating her passive, submissive husband. With Eric’s passivity, Powell became cockier and more confident. Hours later, Eric returned home to find Erin and Powell in their bed. Oddly, Eric simply closed the door and walked out, spending the night on the couch.
Eric’s rage slowly grew. He decided to finish the affair for good. Incredibly, Eric wrote what seemed like a suicide note, explaining he had retrieved his shotgun from his father. “I have thought about suicide many times … I have nothing left to look forward to,” he wrote. But he was unable to shoot himself. On Saturday March 10, 2007, Eric believed his marriage might be improving when Eric got dolled up and told him it was “date night.” Of course, Erin then told Eric her date was with Powell, not him. This was the final straw. “Don’t come back!” Eric finally told her. “That’s fine by me,” Erin replied “There’s nothing here for me anyway.”
Suddenly Powell strolled in the door as if he owned the house. Erin informed Eric she and Powell were taking the children and leaving. Blind with rage, Eric went and found the shotgun. He had reached his limit. Powell laughed at him and told Eric “in two weeks, they’ll be calling me Daddy.” Suddenly, there was the sound of a gunshot. Erin appeared to be in shock. She called 9-1-1. “Oh my God he shot him. Sean Powell, my student!” A neighbour tried to console her but Erin walked away from her and into her house. The neighbour peered into Erin’s car. Powell sat slumped over with a hole in his head.
Eric was arrested the next morning walking along a train track, desperate and in shock. He was charged with the first degree murder of Sean Powell. As the investigation began, Erin left with her children. She wanted to place as much distance between herself and her husband a she could. Eighteen months later Eric went on trial for Powell’s murder. The courtroom was packed. The trial was all people seemed to talk about around town. The student-teacher aspect of the murder was especially titillating.
Eric told the court Powell’s murder was an accident. “I’ll take that gun and shove it up your ass,” he told the court he said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t even believe it.” Not one juror believed that McLean could deliberately kill Powell. Instead McLean was found guilty of reckless homicide, a crime that carried a sentence of only 90 days in jail. Although Powell was a young man who lost his life after being manipulated by an older woman, he was still an adult who had responsibility for his own actions. Erin was tracked down in Austin, Texas. In Nashville, Erin got another teaching job and soon after she began another affair with a student. Prosecutors determined that Erin committed no crime with Powell since he was 18 when the affair began. However she got 95 days in jail for fleeing the state with her children and skipped mandatory court appearances in the custody proceedings.
Erin McLean’s pathological need for attention and her disregard for other’s well-being led to a violent crime that should never have happened. 95 days is hardly going to lead McLean down a better path.
On October 18, 2008, Erin McLean gave an interview to the Knoxville News Sentinel, stating “It’s simply not possible for me to live in Knoxville. I am so hated there. I cannot have a life there, in the community that I loved.” About her relationship with Sean Powell, she claimed it was, “the biggest mistake of my life, and a regret I’ll carry for the rest of my life.”
In her narcissistic manner, McLean managed to shift the blame to Powell even after his death. “I’m not saying he was a bad guy,” Erin adds. “If he were alive today, I would still be his friend, but he was manipulative and troubled, and absolutely, it was a huge mistake.”
I’m certain Sean Powell would have agreed with her.