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Teacher, Teen's Conflicting Stories Told : Trial: Opening statements presented in case of a respected instructor accused of molestation by youth he took into his home.

August 29, 1991|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a blazing hot afternoon in June, 1990, Harry Christ Manos, a respected Montebello high school science teacher, was driving to a physics conference in Minneapolis when he spotted a hitchhiker standing under a freeway bridge just outside Las Vegas.

The blond-haired boy, who had just turned 17, accepted a ride and, in the weeks that followed, accompanied Manos on a cross-country road trip before moving into the teacher's home in Alhambra.

When Manos, 50, went on trial this week in Pasadena Superior Court on charges that he sexually molested the teen-ager, neither the prosecutor nor the defense attorney disputed how the teacher and the youth had met.

But in their opening statements Monday, both lawyers disagreed sharply about what took place after the roadside meeting. Manos' fate will hinge on whether jurors believe he molested the youth or was falsely accused after the teen-ager became angry at him.

Manos is charged with three counts of oral copulation with a minor and faces a maximum of four years and four months in state prison if convicted of all charges.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Amy Suehiro told the jury that during and after the cross-country trip, Manos paid the teen-ager to engage in sex acts with him.

"He told the victim he would care for him, give him food and shelter, if he would engage in acts of sex," Suehiro said.

But defense attorney Charles T. Mathews argued that his client simply took a troubled youth into his home, with the permission of the boy's parents, and enrolled him in high school to ensure that he completed his education. Later, when Manos placed the teen-ager in a hospital counseling program that the teen-ager disliked, the youth took revenge by falsely accusing Manos of sexual misconduct, Mathews told jurors.

"Mr. Manos will tell you that none of it happened," Mathews said.

Manos has maintained an exemplary teaching record with the Montebello Unified School District since 1967 and has received state and national honors for his teaching skills, district officials said.

His arrest last Dec. 21 was a shock to the students and faculty at Schurr High School, where he was teaching physics and pre-calculus math.

The case attracted wide attention after Alhambra police seized from Manos' house a number of sexually explicit magazines, videos and photographs, along with a jar containing severed male genitals.

The teacher's attorney said the jar's contents were a "gag gift" that a medical student had taken from a cadaver.

In pretrial proceedings, Judge Janice Claire Croft ruled that the jar could not be introduced as evidence because it was not relevant to the molestation charges. She also ruled, however, that the jury could view an X-rated video and adult magazines that Manos allegedly showed the teen-ager.

During jury selection, many potential panelists were excused after they told Croft that they would have difficulty viewing such material.

After being impaneled Monday, the 10-man, two-woman jury heard graphic descriptions of sex acts as Suehiro began questioning the young man, who turned 18 in June and attends a community college. The teen-ager testified that he participated in the acts because it was his only source of money to buy clothing, a portable video game player and other items.

He said he had been forced out of his father's home in Utah and believed the living arrangement with Manos was the only way to complete his education.

"I didn't have any other options open," he testified.

The prosecutor said Manos' continuing requests for sex led the teen-ager to attempt suicide last December by swallowing 20 Tylenol tablets. While in a hospital's youth treatment program, he told a counselor about the alleged molestation, which led to Manos' arrest.

Mathews said the teen-ager was trying to destroy Manos' teaching career. The defense lawyer said the youth knew that Manos was gay and made the molestation claims as an act of revenge after Manos refused to remove him from the hospital treatment program.

Manos will remain on an unpaid leave from his teaching post until the criminal charges are resolved, Schurr High School Principal Jim Douglas said Tuesday.

Douglas, who said he has known Manos for 25 years, described the defendant as an excellent teacher and added that he has never heard complaints from students regarding Manos' conduct.

"If he has had a private life, it has indeed been that," he said.

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