“I was 16 the first time Gary Bettencourt molested me,” a victim of the former Los Banos High Schoolteacher said during an impact statement delivered at a sentencing hearing Friday.
The woman, who was identified in court as Victim No. 2, said it began when she was particularly vulnerable: Her brother had just been called to duty in Iraq and she felt alone.
“I needed a friend, and he knew that, and he swooped in at the right moment,” she said.
The woman was one of the three identified victims. Each struggled to hold back tears as they described how Bettencourt had molested them. While each had differing perspectives on Bettencourt, they all described the teacher as becoming closer to them as they went through rough times.
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“I was robbed of my innocence,” the victim said. “All I was was just another point on a scoreboard. … I hope the judge will give him as high a sentence as possible.”
Judge David Moranda sentenced Bettencourt to eight years and four months in jail on felony charges of having sex with at least three underage students.
Bettencourt will have to serve the full sentence before being considered for parole. He also will have to register as a sex offender for life.
Bettencourt pleaded no contest to all charges, stemming from incidents when he had sexual relations with a 15-year-old girl in 2003 and 2004, oral copulation with a girl under 18 in 2006, and repeated sex acts with a 17-year-old girl over several months in 2015, according to Merced Superior Court records.
Deputy District Attorney Travis Colby said Bettencourt was a “con man,” referencing the term’s origin, “confidence man.” He noted the victims’ statements and said Bettencourt preyed upon them.
Colby said while Bettencourt eventually pleaded no contest to the charges, he did so only after he knew he had been caught.
“His house of cards was knocked down,” Colby said, asking for Moranda to give the maximum allowable sentence.
The three victims identified in the investigation into Bettencourt had differing accounts of their relationship with the teacher.
Victim No. 3 said she didn’t feel victimized when it occurred, but she felt shaken years later when she learned he had inappropriate sexual relationships with other girls.
“He has made mistakes, but he’s a good person,” she said.
Victim No. 1 said her relationship with Bettencourt caused her to develop a major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and an eating disorder.
Her mother also testified, stating that she remembered bringing her daughters to school plays directed by Bettencourt during a period when he was molesting one of her daughters.
Bettencourt also gave a statement to the court, admitting his guilt, but also noting that he had built up school programs and helped many people.
“I know my responsibility was to be the adult,” Bettencourt said. “I failed.”
Moranda said he noted Bettencourt’s unconditional plea, and turned two of the charges into concurrent sentences instead of consecutive sentences.
Bettencourt’s attorney, Jeffrey Hammerschmidt, asked Moranda to consider a sentence of six years and eight months. But Moranda’s ruling gave Bettencourt 36 months on one count, and eight months on eight other counts, not including concurrent sentences.
However, Moranda admonished Bettencourt for using his position of public trust to commit the sex crimes.
“There’s no more noble of a profession than being a teacher,” he said.
Colby said he was pleased with the court’s ruling, and that the sentence showed that Bettencourt is a predator. He also said the emotions of the victims ran the gamut after he was sentenced.
“There has been a number of violations of the public’s trust (in Los Banos),” Colby said, also referring to the conviction earlier this year of Los Banos priest Robert E. Gamel, who was convicted of possessing child pornography. “Anytime the public trust and confidence is broken, it affects the whole community.”
After the sentencing, Hammerschmidt said Bettencourt tested low, 5 percent, in his likelihood to offend again after he is released. He also said Bettencourt is remorseful and is looking for opportunities to help communities deal with crises such as the one he is involved in.