VAN NUYS — A high school English teacher, described as "an intellectual" and dedicated family man, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to a single felony charge of endangering his 20-month-old son by leaving him locked in a car Sunday in 100-degree heat.
While noting that the actions of Dennis Karl Fischer, 34, "will not go down in the annals of history as the smartest thing," Municipal Court Judge Leland Harris nonetheless reduced bail from $50,000 to $10,000, taking into account Fischer's clean record.
The judge said that Fischer did not intend to hurt his son, and that the boy did not require medical treatment.
Darleen Fischer, the defendant's wife and mother of the victim, said she is standing by her husband. She said she considered the criminal charge against him to be "overblown." Social workers returned the boy to her custody.
The case, defense attorney Jan W. Versteeg said, "has totally torn asunder a loving, close-knit family."
Fischer, who teaches 10th and 12th grade English and is the department chairman at Fremont High School in South-Central Los Angeles, was ordered to return to court Sept. 13 to schedule a preliminary hearing. The hearing will determine whether he will stand trial in Superior Court on the felony child endangerment charge, which carries a maximum six-year prison sentence.
Police and prosecutor David Mintz allege that Fischer left his son, Jarred, locked inside the car in front of a Foster's Old Fashioned Freeze in the 7300 block of Reseda Boulevard on Sunday afternoon.
Accounts vary of how long the child was left in the car. Fischer estimated his son was alone for five minutes, but passersby told police he was gone 20 minutes or more, Mintz said.
The toddler began screaming, apparently while his father was inside a nearby music store, and passersby pulled him from Fischer's Honda Civic, using a fan belt to unlock the door, Mintz said.
Mintz said the temperature inside the car was estimated at 110 degrees and that the child could have suffered brain damage or death.
The prosecutor added that the three rescuers found the child flushed and perspiring, so they gave him water, wrapped him in a wet towel and kept him in an air-conditioned car to lower his body temperature. He said one of the three rescuers dialed 911.
Fischer also called police, fearing his son had been kidnaped when he came out of the store and found the boy gone, said Versteeg.
Versteeg said the day began innocently when Fischer took his son for a swim. The boy was asleep in his car seat so Fischer decided to leave him behind while he went into the store "to pick up a few things," the lawyer said.
"He got distracted inside," Versteeg said. "He came back and the child was gone. He was horrified. He thought the child was kidnaped. He was devastated. He loves his son very much."
The people who rescued the child refused to return him to Fischer until police arrived.
Officers took Fischer into custody and the case was reported to social workers.
"On Sunday, he went for a swim with his son, and that afternoon he found himself in jail," Versteeg said.
Colleagues said the Fischers had postponed having children until they could buy a home. They said he was happy with his new family.
"I just find all this amazing," said Laura Holden, a physical education teacher and the teachers union representative at Fremont.
"People are just shocked," said Marcia Hines, an assistant principal. "They're saying, 'No, it couldn't be him.' "
She added, "He's really a fine teacher; he's responsible and reliable. He really has a spotless record with teaching. He's an intellectual."