A Los Banos Elementary School teacher pleaded no contest Wednesday to a felony count of possession of child pornography.
Ernesto Cortez, a 52-year-old first-grade teacher, was arrested Aug. 16 after authorities found numerous pornographic images and 47 videos of underage children on Cortez’s personal devices, police said.
Cortez, who is out on bail, will be sentenced Sept. 27.
“Mr. Cortez decided for the sake of his friends and family to simply put it behind him as quickly as possible,” said Mark Coleman, a defense attorney representing Cortez.
Cortez declined to comment on his plea after the hearing.
Cortez’s early plea was unusual for suspects appearing for their first arraignment hearing, according to Rob Carroll, chief deputy district attorney for the Merced County District Attorney’s Office.
“Those are very disturbing charges,” Carroll told the Sun-Star in a telephone interview. “He has a right to admit it. But he’s not going to get any special consideration from us because he admitted it early.”
Carroll on Wednesday couldn’t say whether the early plea could shield Cortez from additional charges that may arise from an ongoing investigation by the Los Banos Police Department.
“Once the investigation is complete, we will review all our available options,” Carroll said, adding that the District Attorney’s Office will be making recommendations for punishment during the sentencing.
Los Banos Police Cmdr. Ray Reyna said the department will continue its investigation despite the plea.
“At this point, it’s still too early to determine if there were any local victims in the evidence we’ve found,” Reyna said.
The court will ultimately decide the sentence, which could range from probation to three years in prison. He will be required to register as a sex offender.
“He has an impeccable background, no prior criminal history,” Coleman said. “He has 28 years. He’s been a great teacher. So we have a lot of factors in mitigation.”
Los Banos Unified School District Superintendent Mark Marshall said the school district found out about the plea Wednesday morning.
“Because Mr. Cortez has been convicted of a sex crime, he is prohibited from teaching,” Marshall said in a statement.
Marshall said Cortez will remain on leave and have no contact with students until the school district terminates his employment.
That termination process has started, but requires certain steps because of Cortez’s due process rights as a teacher, Marshall said.
“There is a process in state law that we must follow in order to separate him from employment,” Marshall said. “We will be following that process as quickly as we can.”
According to police reports, Google first reported two sexually explicit images of boys to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on Oct. 27, 2016, tracing an email address and IP address to a home on the 800 block of La Mesa Lane in Los Banos.
Investigators with the District Attorney’s Office became aware of the images on Aug. 14 through an email from Internet Crimes Against Children, reports state.
Los Banos police were notified of the images two days later and confirmed a house at the address belonged to Cortez.
They served a search warrant at the home the same day and were greeted by Cortez, who was “very nervous” as an analyst examined an open laptop on his living room floor, according to the reports.
The analyst found multiple images of children in sexually explicit positions, the report states, adding that many of the images had been deleted but were in the computer’s recycle bin folder.
Cortez was arrested and transported to the Los Banos Police Department Jail. There, he declined to give a statement and requested to speak with his lawyer, according to the reports.
According to a forensic examination on Aug. 17, a hard drive taken into evidence contained 47 videos containing “known child pornography,” reports states.
A file named “My Pictures” on the hard drive contained about 20 folders housing illegal images, the reports state.
Another search of Cortez’s home yielded a look-alike BMW key that was a USB storage drive. Authorities searched Cortez’s classroom at Los Banos Elementary but didn’t find anything, according to the reports.
Vikaas Shanker: 209-826-3831, ext. 6562