A former fourth-grade teacher at George De La Torre Jr. Elementary School in Wilmington pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of sexually assaulting 15 children.
Robert Pimentel, 57, of Newport Beach, was arrested Wednesday. He began working for the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1974 and was removed from the classroom when an investigation began last March, according to police and the district.
He is suspected of assaulting as many as 20 children and one adult, police said. He was charged by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office with eight counts of continuous sexual abuse and seven counts of lewd acts upon a child, for the alleged assaults of 15 children under age 14.
An investigation is continuing into other alleged assaults, officials said.
Some parents at the school told reporters Pimentel had a reputation of being extra friendly to female students. The school's principal was removed last March when the allegations came to light. LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy told the Los Angeles Times he was ``dissatisfied'' with the handling of the situation at the school.
Pimentel was being held at the LAPD's Metropolitan Detention Center in lieu of $12 million bail. He is due back in court Jan. 31 for a pretrial hearing, and his attorney indicated he would try to have his client's bail reduced.
``We don't even have a determination of probable cause for anything, other than the fact a police officer made up an arrest warrant and he was arrested,'' attorney Richard Knickerbocker said.
``Before this, Pimentel has had a pretty exemplary life,'' the attorney said. ``He has no arrest record for anything. ... He's raised a family. He's been a soccer coach. He's been a whole lot of things, been very good. He's received awards. He is, as far as we're concerned, an outstanding teacher.''
LAPD Detective Gus Villanueva said the investigation into Pimentel ``began when several girls told their parents that they had been inappropriately touched by a fourth-grade teacher.''
According to the LAUSD, parents at the school were notified within 72 hours of Pimentel's removal from the classroom. The district began efforts to fire him, but Pimentel opted to retire, meaning he will collect pension benefits.
Deasy told reporters state laws need to be changed so teachers suspected of sexual misconduct can be fired immediately when they come under investigation and prevented from retiring and earning a pension.
``It is time for the state to act to change laws to make it easier and quicker to protect children by dismissing individuals who commit ridiculously heinous acts,'' he said.
United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing the district's teachers, issued a statement saying union officials are unfamiliar with the details of the case and Pimentel is no longer a member of the union, which will not be involved in his defense.
``The allegations described are horrific. As teachers, we have a duty to uphold the trust our students and their parents place in us,'' according to the union. ``We urge our members and the community to cooperate with ongoing law enforcement investigations in the case.''
A grandmother of a student at the school expressed shock over the allegations.
``It's crazy,'' Jacqueline Ruiz told KCAL9. ``I mean, it's right down the street. You would never think it would happen in our school. This is a new school. You can't trust nobody nowadays. It's not even safe to send your kids to school anymore.''
Anyone with information on the case was asked to call detectives at 213-486-0570.
- City News Service