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D.A. delayed action on substitute teacher who fled to Mexico

For nearly a year, officials did not push for return of fugitive suspected of crimes against children.

February 25, 2012|By Alan Zarembo and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
  • Accused in a child sex case, George Hernandez was a substitute teacher in L.A. Unified.
Accused in a child sex case, George Hernandez was a substitute teacher in… (Huntington Park Police…)

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office chose not to seek the extradition of a substitute teacher wanted for sex crimes, even after prosecutors learned of his whereabouts in Mexico, court records show.

The records contradict statements made this week by a deputy district attorney, who said the teacher would be extradited as soon as authorities could locate him.

The teacher, George Hernandez, was arrested by Huntington Park police in September 2010 for allegedly exposing himself to a girl outside a middle school. Detectives who searched his Inglewood apartment discovered a videotape they say shows Hernandez molesting a second-grader in a classroom. He was released on bail and fled the country.

An investigator working for a bail bonds company found Hernandez early last year, and Jalisco, Mexico, state police briefly detained him on Jan. 19, 2011. In a letter faxed nine days later, the company informed the district attorney that it was continuing to track Hernandez and could help apprehend him.

But on March 15, Deputy Dist. Atty. Ann Huntsman responded saying prosecutors did not want to bring him back to Los Angeles.

"We have evaluated the case and have determined that we will not seek the defendant's international extradition from Mexico on this case at this time," Huntsman wrote. "The case will remain open and the defendant is still subject to prosecution in this case."

The revelation comes in a case that has focused attention on how schools can fail to weed out dangerous teachers. Before his arrest, Hernandez had been investigated three times at three L.A. Unified School District elementary schools for alleged sexual misconduct. He was never charged and apparently never reported to the state commission on teacher credentialing.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said the decision came after consultation with U.S. Justice Department officials, who said success was far from guaranteed.

Prosecutors also considered the fact that Hernandez, now 45, had no criminal record and that the charges they had filed against him — possession of child pornography and indecent exposure — fell short of child molestation, Gibbons said.

Huntington Park police, who investigated the case, said they showed prosecutors several videos they found in Hernandez's apartment. Some had been downloaded from the Internet. Others appeared to be homemade, including a 14-minute video in which Hernandez appears alone with a girl detectives said they eventually identified as a 7-year-old student.

Detectives determined that the video was made in 2008 in a classroom at Beulah Payne Elementary, in the Inglewood Unified School District, while Hernandez was filling in for a teacher on leave. According to their investigative report, he repeatedly reached under the girl's clothes and placed her across his lap, as she tried to resist.

Gibbons said prosecutors determined the strongest charge the evidence could support was felony possession of child pornography. The charge was based only on a video taken from the Internet, she said. Prosecutors were never shown the evidence related to the video of the child in the classroom, Gibbons said.

"We presented what we had and they didn't feel that was enough for more serious charges," Huntington Park Lt. Anthony Porter said Friday.

Inglewood schools hired Hernandez in 2007 after he had left L.A. Unified under a cloud of suspicion. His 2010 arrest — and his flight soon after — received little public attention at the time. But if Hernandez remained a fugitive, Aladdin Bail Bonds stood to lose his $30,000 bail.

The company hired a Mexican investigator, Antonio Oswaldo Ramirez Perez; and in January 2011, he went to San Miguel el Alto, where Hernandez had spent his early childhood before moving to the United States. It wasn't hard to find him.

"It's a very small town," Ramirez said by phone this week. "He was well known."

Hernandez drove a red Ford pickup with Jalisco license plates. He was living in the center of town in a small house that Ramirez thought belonged to Hernandez's relatives and he didn't have a job.

With help from the Jalisco state police, Ramirez photographed Hernandez holding a Mexican newspaper, collected his fingerprints and copied down his driver's license number.

The information was included in the bail company's Jan. 28, 2011, letter to the L.A. County district attorney. "Aladdin's investigators remain aware of the defendant's whereabouts and can assist in the apprehension of the defendant if Los Angeles County law enforcement authorities wish to commence extradition efforts of the defendant in this case," it said.

It was filed in court, along with the response from the district attorney.

Under California law, a bail company can keep its money if it locates a fugitive abroad and provides the information to prosecutors. On April 5, a judge ruled that Aladdin was off the hook.

After The Times published an article about Hernandez's case this week, L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. Diana Martinez said he would be extradited as soon as his exact location could be determined.

There has been no such effort "because that requires we know where he is," she said in an interview Wednesday.

Gibbons said Martinez was not aware Hernandez had been located or of the discussions about his possible extradition. The case remains open, she added.

Meanwhile, Hernandez's family has been begging him to return, according to a relative, who said, "All of his actions have shown what a coward he is, and I doubt he will come back."

alan.zarembo@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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