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Former Los Banos teacher convicted on child porn charge will spend some time in jail

Did Los Banos teacher sentenced for child porn possession express remorse?

Attorneys discuss whether Ernesto Cortez, a 52-year-old former first grade teacher at Los Banos Elementary, expressed remorse for possessing child pornography.
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Attorneys discuss whether Ernesto Cortez, a 52-year-old former first grade teacher at Los Banos Elementary, expressed remorse for possessing child pornography.

A former Los Banos Elementary first grade teacher who was convicted of possessing child pornography was sentenced Tuesday to nine months in jail.

Ernesto Cortez, 52, pleaded no contest to a felony count of possession of child pornography on Aug. 30, two weeks after Los Banos police arrested him.

Merced County Deputy District Attorney Katie Gates said Cortez would be eligible for reduced time for good behavior.

Gates said Cortez also can apply to serve time under house arrest instead of jail, but that decision is up to the Merced County Sheriff's Office.

Cortez also will be required to register as a sex offender, serve three years probation and abide by restrictions on electronic devices, Court Commissioner Jeanne Schechter said.

"It's in the realm of what other criminal defendants in this county have gotten before for similar acts," Gates said.

Police reports indicate authorities found 47 videos and several images of underage children on Cortez's personal electronic devices. Merced County Deputy District Attorney Katie Gates said those victims weren't identified as of Tuesday, but they were of similar age to the first graders Cortez taught.

Cortez's sentencing comes seven weeks after he was arrested. Gates and Cortez's attorney, Mark Coleman, both said it was unusual for a suspect facing Cortez's charges to plead so early.

The speed of the conviction and sentencing has outpaced the ongoing investigation, Gates said, adding that it's unclear if additional crimes that could affect sentencing may be uncovered.

Gates also said while Cortez admitted guilt and said he felt sorry for the impact of the crime on family, friends and the Los Banos community, he hasn't expressed remorse for the victims in the images.

Coleman argued otherwise, claiming that Cortez decided to not contest the felony charge because he was remorseful for his crime.

"He has struggled with it," Coleman said to Schechter. "He knew it was wrong when he was doing it. ... He takes responsibility for it."

Schechter said Cortez did appear remorseful in discussions with probation and a psychologist, and that he had no prior criminal record. However, the amount of images found in Cortez's possession also factored into the sentence, she said.

Merced County probation will determine whether Cortez will be restricted on where he could live, Schechter said.

Jessica's Law, a California voter-approved law enacted in 2006, requires registered sex offender to not live within 2,000 feet of a school, park or any other place children gather.

However, recent case law overturned Jessica's Law, giving parole and probation officers discretion on residency restrictions, Schechter said.

The Los Banos Unified School District placed Cortez on administrative leave the morning after he was arrested. The school board terminated his contract during it's following closed session meeting on Sept. 14.

Cortez is one of several local school officials convicted of or facing child sex crimes in the past two years.

Former Dos Palos High School teacher Craig Branstetter is facing felony charges of having a sexual relationship with a minor.

Former Pacheco High School teacher Gary Bettencourt was sentenced last year to eight years and four months in prison for having a sexual relationship with students.

One of those students also is alleged to be a victim of former Los Banos police officer and teacher Dusty Norris. Norris is awaiting trial on child sex crimes.

Robert Gamel, a 67-year-old former Catholic priest in Los Banos, was convicted of possessing child pornography last year and is now facing additional charges after police say they found the same photos inside his home while he was on probation.