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Teacher Gets 24 Years for Molesting O.C. Boys

Courts: The former instructor argued that the youths were framing him, but a judge doesn't buy it and gives him the maximum term.

September 20, 2002|MAI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former elementary school teacher who molested boys in two Orange County school districts was sentenced Thursday to 24 years in prison after the victims' parents spoke of how the crime devastated their children and violated their trust.

The parents said they thought Jason Abhyankar, 28, was helping their three boys--only to learn he was abusing them. The betrayal was all the worse, they claim, because he was able to commit crimes even though administrators had suspicions about him.

"I adored Jason," said the mother of one of the victims. "I thought he had everything going for him. Unfortunately, he had this desire to manipulate families to get access to their young boys."

Other parents spoke of how their children were traumatized. Some no longer trust male teachers and sometimes refuse to go to school. Others have withdrawn from friends and no longer enjoy group activities and school sports.

"The children have [lost] their youth and innocence," said the father of one victim. "This has been hell."

After hearing the testimony, Superior Court Judge Carla Singer sentenced Abhyankar to the maximum 24 years in prison. His lawyer sought a three-year sentence.

Abhyankar insisted he didn't molest the boys, and his family has argued that the boys were framing him because he assigned too much homework. But Singer didn't buy that argument.

"You may have convinced your loving parents and your brother that this was a case of vendetta ... but you haven't convinced anyone else," Singer said.

Abhyankar reacted angrily to the sentence. "Boy, what a day," he said as he was taken into custody. "What a life."

At the same moment, family members of the victims and their friends let out sighs of relief and gave each other high-fives.

"He left a path of destruction that we have to clean up. He has caused so much pain," said one parent. "He's caused them a lifetime of sorrow."

The parents filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Huntington Beach school system. They contend that officials wrote a letter of recommendation for the teacher even though they suspected him of acting inappropriately around his students. Abhyankar subsequently was hired to teach at Portola Hills.

Two of the boys were molested at Village View Elementary in Huntington Beach, the other one at Portola Hills Elementary School in Portola Hills.

Tracy Pelman, a board member at Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach, declined to comment on the sentencing or the lawsuit. "We are allowing the process to go through," she said.

Abhyankar was found guilty of nine felony child molestation counts on three boys between September 1998 and January 2000.

An investigation began when a 9-year-old student from Portola Elementary School woke up crying and refused to go to school, telling his mother he had been molested.

Investigators interviewed parents, teachers and students, who were shocked. Abhyankar was a popular figure in the community. Some parents allowed him to take their children alone on trips. He frequently dined with students and their parents, according to court records.

"We took him like one of our own," said the mother of one victim.

Investigators also talked to those who knew him at his previous school, Village View Elementary. They concluded that Abhyankar molested two boys, 10 and 11. He locked his classroom and molested the boys while the class was at lunch, prosecutors said.

One boy told him to stop but he refused, allegedly saying: "You better not tell anybody because you could get in really bad trouble and this thing could get on the news," according to court records.

Defense attorney John Barnett said the sentence was too harsh, considering he didn't have a criminal history. "Twenty-four years is for the worst person, who has not done anything in society," Barnett told the judge. "That's not him."

Barnett said he will appeal the decision. About 30 letters were submitted from parents, teachers, students and his family seeking leniency. The letters described Abhyankar as a "dynamic and energetic" person and a "committed, skilled educator" who had an "excellent rapport with students."

Linda Berger, one of the jurors who convicted Abhyankar, said she returned to court Thursday to see justice served.

"We believed he deserved the maximum sentence," said Berger, 37, a paralegal from Costa Mesa. "The families took him in as a friend and a son and he violated their trust."

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