In a courtroom packed with supportive students and parents, a Camarillo High School teacher pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges that he tried to seduce or had sexual relations with nine male students in the last two years.
Chad Wenzlick Pridgen, a 30-year-old science teacher and coach, faces 33 misdemeanor and felony counts. Charges include supplying teenagers with alcohol, showing them pornography and forcing teenage boys to perform oral sex on him.
If convicted, Pridgen could face more than 20 years in prison.
Superior Court Judge Roland Purnell refused Wednesday to lower bail for Pridgen, despite testimony from students and a fellow educator that he is "a man of his word" and well-respected in the community. Bail is set at $250,000.
"The court has to assume these charges are true in a bail hearing," Purnell told more than 50 students, parents and teachers in the courtroom. "Taking into consideration the trust he had as a teacher.... Someone who would commit these acts is a great risk to the community."
Pridgen did not speak during the hearing and made no eye contact with supporters.
He remained in Ventura County Jail as of late Wednesday.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Douglas Ridley pushed for the maximum allowable bail after filing more charges against Pridgen on Wednesday. The teacher is accused of having sexual relations with two of the nine teens and engaging in lewd behavior with all of them.
Additional charges are possible, Ridley said, as investigators still have to contact several more potential victims.
"This is serious," Ridley told the court. "His access to high-school-aged children and his ability to drum up this kind of support is a concern. We believe there is danger of tampering with witnesses in this case."
Pridgen's Los Angeles attorney, Paul Takakjian, argued in court that the public show of support for Pridgen indicates that the teacher poses no danger to the community. Pridgen was considered a "model citizen with the full support of the community as a teacher and as a coach," Takakjian said.
Officials in the Oxnard Union High School District have placed Pridgen on paid administrative leave and assigned his four Advanced Placement classes to a substitute teacher. District officials were to discuss the matter in a closed session Wednesday night.
Several Camarillo High School students and parents who showed up at court said they did not believe the charges, describing Pridgen as one of the best teachers they had ever known.
"It's totally false; he's not like that," said 19-year-old Carleen Pitts, a former environmental science student of Pridgen who now attends Moorpark College.
"I find the allegations to be ridiculous."
Christine Tobias, who said she has known Pridgen for seven years, said he was a great influence over her twin daughters, who both were students of his.
"He was a good mentor and a tough taskmaster, who got the most out of kids and the best out of kids," Tobias said. "Until he looks me in the face and tells me he did these things, I will never believe it. I know him too well."
Pridgen was arrested Feb. 5 after a sheriff's investigation prompted by one student, now 18. The youth said the teacher showed him pornography in attempts to seduce him, gave him alcohol and masturbated in front of him on several occasions between the fall of 2000 and last month, according to court documents.
The student reported the alleged behavior to police after an incident Jan. 31, when Pridgen asked the boy to see him after class about assignments missed because the boy had been sick, according to court records.
The student told police that Pridgen then asked him to engage in oral sex with another student in exchange for "not giving him a bad grade during the semester," court documents said.
Using a concealed microphone and transmitter worn by the student during a meeting with Pridgen the night before the teacher was arrested, police recorded admissions by Pridgen that he had watched pornographic videos with the student and bought him alcohol, according to court documents.
At the bail hearing Wednesday, Sheriff's Det. Scott Peterson said his investigation revealed that Pridgen had Camarillo High School students at his house on weekends for get-togethers that often involved alcohol and pornography.
"He would show them the tapes, and that would lead to other sexual behavior," Peterson said.
The behavior ranged from coercing students to masturbate or to perform oral sex with him or each other, Peterson testified.
However, Camarillo High senior Susan Trinh, 16, said she had been to Pridgen's house with other students, and the gatherings usually involved studying or playing board games.
"I've known Mr. Pridgen for two years, and I feel he'd never be a threat to anyone," she told the court Wednesday.
"He's an excellent person and an excellent citizen."