A Woodrow Wilson High School teacher who was charged Tuesday with the first-degree murder of his girlfriend, a Wilson graduate, was convicted of misdemeanor spousal abuse seven years before the Long Beach Unified School District hired him.
The district is investigating how it hired Pedro Tepoz-Leon, 34, who pleaded guilty to spousal violence and battery Aug. 9, 1990, and served three years' informal probation, said spokesman Dick Van Der Laan. The U.S. Department of Justice conducts fingerprinting and background checks on all teaching applicants and any serious or violent felony conviction would mean automatic rejection.
Misdemeanors, Van Der Laan said, are usually a judgment call that first would be made by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing before the district considered a teacher's application. The commission would consider whether an applicant's crimes, particularly misdemeanors, would endanger students or teachers or preclude someone from teaching, he said.
Tepoz-Leon has a teaching credential that expires in 2006, according to the commission's Web site. No one there or at the Justice Department could be reached late Tuesday for comment.
"There is a great desire here to find out how something like this could happen," Van Der Laan said. "As far as the specifics of this case, we don't know yet. I know no one is taking this more seriously than the superintendent."
Christopher J. Steinhauser, who last month became superintendent of the Long Beach district, the state's third-largest, was not available for comment.
Tepoz-Leon, 34, pleaded not guilty to one count of murder Tuesday during an appearance before a Long Beach Superior Court judge, who set bail at $1 million and ordered a pretrial hearing for Dec. 9.
Tepoz-Leon, his neck bandaged for wounds that police suspect were self-inflicted after the attack on his girlfriend, said little but "yes" to the judge and waived his right to hearings that would otherwise occur earlier.
His attorney declined to comment after the arraignment.
The body of Mayra Mora Lopez, 19, was found beaten and stabbed in the couple's Long Beach apartment Oct. 27. Long Beach police officers were called to the area on a report that a man was stabbed. Officers arrived and found no such man, but someone said they should check the couple's apartment.
An hour later near Vacaville, Calif., Tepoz-Leon pulled up in his vehicle behind an officer and, bleeding from wounds on his neck and torso, requested help.