Defiant Teacher Defends Romance With Ex-Pupil-Turned-Murder Suspect

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty/Handout
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty/Handout

When accused murderer Gage Ashley’s longtime lover showed up last month at a Central New York courthouse to testify in a routine pre-trial hearing, few people expected it would be a teacher from his former high school.

Mary Ferro, 61, insisted under oath that the two didn’t begin a sexual relationship until Ashley, now 26, had graduated and was of age. Still, whatever was happening concerned Ferro’s daughters enough to warn the school years ago about their own mother.

The surreal twist in the case, which began with a fatal drug-related shooting that has already sent three people to prison, has captivated local residents. And as Ferro’s relatives struggle to comprehend how she managed to end up in this situation, the retired educator continues to stand firmly by her man, who has been jailed since his arrest a little over four years ago.

In her first interview since outing herself in court on Jan. 19 as Ashley’s partner, Ferro said she’s willing to endure a public shaming in service of his defense.

“I guess my opinion is, I think this is all driven by the district attorney,” Ferro told The Daily Beast on Tuesday from her home in Aurelius, a town of 2,600 roughly 40 miles west of Syracuse. “And because he doesn’t have any facts against Gage in the murder trial, that this is his attempt to smear me. So I think that this is good news for Gage’s trial, because smearing me is right now his best case against Gage.”

Ferro’s identity was revealed publicly after she claimed police investigators illegally searched her residence, where Ashley was living at the time of 36-year-old Joshua A. Poole’s November 2019 murder, which led to her testimony at an evidence suppression hearing last month. On the stand, Ferro insisted that a signature on a consent form allowing cops inside was not hers. (On Wednesday, a judge ruled that the search had indeed been properly carried out, and called into question Ferro’s “veracity and credibility.”)

Ashley pleaded guilty in 2021 to first-degree murder, second-degree murder, first-degree attempted robbery, fourth-degree conspiracy, tampering with physical evidence, and second-degree criminal weapons possession, and was sentenced to a prison term of 21 years to life. However, his conviction was overturned in May 2023 by a New York State appellate court that determined the grand jury which handed down Ashley’s indictment had been “illegally constituted because one of the grand jurors was not qualified to serve due to a prior felony conviction.” He will now be retried on the same charges.

A mugshot of murder suspect Gage Ashley

Gage Ashley.

Auburn Police Department

During the hearing, Chief Assistant District Attorney Christopher Valdina asked Ferro if her and Ashley’s relationship was ongoing.

“Insomuch as you can call having a relationship with someone who is incarcerated a ‘relationship,’” Ferro responded. “I care for him deeply and I am trying to be a support system for him.”

Ferro said under questioning that she met Ashley in 2014 at Southern Cayuga High School, where she was then working as a teaching assistant. The teen moved in with her and her family the following year, when he was 17. Ferro, who began working at Southern Cayuga in 1982 as a math aide, claimed on the stand that the two began sleeping together around 2017; her husband filed for divorce in 2018. In 2019, after the birth of a child Ashley had with another woman, he moved back in with Ferro. She would go on to reveal she had been barred from visiting Ashley in the jail where he is presently detained after being caught passing him contraband, and that she had put $295 on the books of one of his imprisoned co-defendants.

Ferro said on the stand that she “took a full retirement” in December from Southern Cayuga High School after being asked to resign.

“Somehow, the DA felt that this was relevant to his murder trial,” she told The Daily Beast. “And I don’t see where it has any relevance to that. I did not sleep with him as a student or [as] a minor, and I don’t see where it has any relevance to his case now, and why they’re trying to say it does.”

Prosecutors did not ask Ferro if Ashley had been one of her own students during his time at the school. She declined to answer when The Daily Beast inquired about this detail.

In an email, Cayuga County District Attorney Brittany Grome Antonacci said, “Unfortunately, we cannot comment until the trial is over. Currently the trial is scheduled for the second week in March.”

A short time after Ashley began living with the Ferro family, her four children noticed that their typically reserved mom, who told them the teen was there because Ashley’s mother had moved out of town, seemed quite different around him, according to Auburn, New York, newspaper, The Citizen. It soon became apparent to Ferro’s daughter Melissa that Ashley and her mom were physically involved, the outlet reported.

However, Ferro’s other daughter, Jessica, pushed back firmly on the notion, Melissa Ferro Ekiert told The Daily Beast. In 2017, the truth emerged when Jessica and one of Ferro’s two sons, caught their mother and Ashley—then 19—having sex, according to Ekiert.

“It was, like, the proof that it was happening,” Ekiert said. “I had had suspicions for a long time prior to that. And honestly, no one believed that it was [happening]. My sister had been defending my mother up until that point, when she saw them together. And then she realized that I wasn’t just making stuff up, that it probably had been going on for a while.” (In response, Ferro again denied ever having sex with Ashley when he was a minor.)

Although Ashley was no longer a student at the time, Ferro was still teaching high school, and Jessica urgently messaged Southern Cayuga Central School District Superintendent Patrick Jensen.

“We are unsure what consequences our mother will face at this point,” she wrote in an email reviewed by The Citizen. “We are trying to allow anyone with connections to her the chance to make their own decisions before this becomes public. This will be and is humiliating for us, but if we can save anyone else from being blindsided with the news, we would like to.”

According to The Citizen, Jensen asked for proof, which the Ferro siblings said they didn’t have. And then, nothing. The relationship between the two was brought to the district’s attention again in 2019, when homicide investigators looking into Ashley’s role in Poole’s murder showed up at Southern Cayuga High School to ask Ferro why the younger man had been spotted driving her vehicle. The school’s principal covered Ferro’s class while she was being questioned by officers, The Citizen reported.

A photograph of Southern Cayuga High School.

Southern Cayuga High School.

Southern Cayuga Central School District

Jensen and the Southern Cayuga Central School District Board of Education did not respond to requests for comment.

Ferro’s children haven’t spoken to her since they discovered her in bed with Ashley, Ekiert told The Daily Beast.

“I honestly have no idea what she sees in him,” she said. “And I do not know why she sticks by him.”

Ekiert still sees Ferro “occasionally, not by choice,” she went on.

“She had taken us to court for grandparent’s rights to our older children,” Ekiert said. “So my two oldest children still have a relationship with her, which was court-ordered. She does show up to their sports events, so I do see her there, and I try not to associate with her at all. Because I don’t want to.”

For her part, Ferro claimed the bad blood between her and her children is “rooted from childhood feelings in divorce.” However, she said she was hesitant to share much more.

“Her allegations are allegations,” a defiant Ferro told The Daily Beast. “It’s a very unfortunate situation, and I’m at a loss for words as well as they are.”

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