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Arrested Official Had Prior Case

Child porn allegations against a Calimesa councilman follow his suspension from teaching in O.C. over porn found at school.

October 21, 2005|Lance Pugmire and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

A Calimesa city councilman arrested this week on suspicion of possessing child pornography had been suspended from his job as a teacher in Orange County in 2000 for allegedly downloading pornography on a public school computer, state records show.

Jonathan L. Winningham, 49, was placed on unpaid leave from Santa Ana's Santiago Creek continuation school after a computer technician found sexually explicit photographs of men and women on his school computer, as well as e-mails about "adult activities," according to officials with the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the Orange County Board of Education.

Winningham, 49, had taught a variety of subjects to middle school and high school students at the school from 1986 to 2000.

The councilman was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of possessing and distributing child pornography after Riverside County Sheriff's investigators, acting on a tip from two unnamed witnesses, searched his Calimesa home and confiscated three computers.

Investigators are trying to determine whether the pictures are of local children or whether they were downloaded from an Internet child porn database, said Ingrid Wyatt, a spokeswoman for the Riverside County district attorney.

On Thursday, Winningham said he was weighing whether to step down from the council in this small Riverside County city, and he declined to answer questions about the allegations. Willingham served two terms as mayor of Calimesa during his 13 years on the City Council.

"I haven't resigned yet," Winningham said in a telephone interview from his home. "I'm discussing it with my wife and my attorney."

Meanwhile, the councilman was removed Thursday as president of a local children's theater troupe, Yucaipa Little Theatre. Daren Prescott, chairman of the theater's board of directors, said he had taken over Winningham's responsibilities. Winningham's children, ages 18 and 12, are actors in the troupe, Prescott said.

"We want to let the public and those who come to our shows know they can bring their children here and be safe," Prescott said. "We know what's going on [with Winningham], and we've taken the steps necessary to protect our children."

In August 2000, while Winningham was working at the Santiago Creek school, a technician fixing a problem with Winningham's school computer reportedly discovered the pornographic photographs, and further inspection was done.

"The systems administrator found numerous sexually explicit, nude photographs of men and women on [Winningham's] computer," Sam W. Swofford, executive director of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, wrote during the investigation. The images "were found in cache files, two of which were entitled 'Jon at work,' and 'Jon Winningham.' ... There were 120 to 150 images in each cache."

Winningham told investigators he did not realize some e-mailed photos he received were inappropriate until he opened them. He acknowledged one e-mail was not work-related and of a sexual nature, and he conceded that viewing porn at a school site was not appropriate, according to the commission's investigative report.

In 2001 Winningham appealed his suspension and retained a computer forensic expert who argued during a 2004 hearing that it was "not possible to definitively determine the origin of the graphic files."

The commission concluded that there was no evidence of an "innocent explanation" for the hundreds of pornographic images on his computer, saying that his "acknowledged interest in pornography [points] to an intentional accessing and viewing of pornography" by him.

Last week, Winningham received a 60-day suspension of his teaching credential because of the 2000 case, but he will still be forbidden to teach in California unless he is cleared in the new case. He had remained on unpaid administrative leave from the Santa Ana school until he agreed to resign in March 2004, said Richard Nagle, the Orange County Department of Education's assistant superintendent for human resources

In financial disclosure reports filed with the Calimesa city clerk's office, Winningham listed his profession as City Council member and a member of the Riverside Transportation Agency from 2000 to 2005.

Calimesa Mayor Shenna Moqeet and Councilman John Chlebnik said they were content to let Winningham decide his own fate as a council member, as long as he wasn't convicted. The city of about 7,500 is 22 miles northeast of Riverside.

"The decision he has to make is by himself," Chlebnik said. "He was duly elected, he has not been convicted of anything, and he's a member in good standing on the council.

"We'll see what happens, and when the appropriate time for an action occurs, we'll take that appropriate action."

Winningham posted $5,000 bail and was released from the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside early Thursday morning. He referred other questions to his attorney, Clay Presley, but Presley did not return phone calls to his office.

The board of Yucaipa Little Theatre will hold a 6 p.m. Monday meeting with parents at the theater to address their concerns. The theater typically enrolls about 30 children, as well as adult teens, in its monthly productions, including this month's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

Although Winningham played a stage role in the theater's 2003 production of "A Christmas Carol," Prescott said the councilman "never dealt with children" in his more recent work as a ticket seller and lighting/sound technician.

"We were shocked about this; there was no indication," Prescott said.

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