A 52-year-old first-grade teacher at Los Banos Elementary School was arrested Wednesday night on child pornography allegations after police detectives searched his home and classroom.
Ernesto Avila Cortez, who has been a teacher at the Los Banos Unified School District for nearly 30 years, was booked into Merced County Jail on suspicion of felony possession of child pornography. He remained in custody on Thursday with bail set at $25,000.
The District Attorney’s Office on Monday received from the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Bill Olson, the supervising investigator for VIPER, wrote a search warrant for Cortez’s IP address and the residence where it was located, he said.
Los Banos police detectives and the Merced County District Attorney’s VIPER team served a search warrant Wednesday at a home in the 800 block of La Mesa Lane after learning that Cortez “had sent or received electronic child pornographic images,” police said in a statement.
“At the residence, detectives located Cortez and conducted a search of the home where they located multiple pornographic images of underage children on Cortez’s personal device,” police said.
Cmdr. Ray Reyna added that it was too early to know whether any of the “numerous” images seized by police depicted any local children or students.
“At this point, we don’t know whether there are local victims or whether these are images from other parts of the world,” Reyna told the Sun-Star. “We are working to determine whether there are any local victims.”
Olson said he was surprised to learn after the arrest that Cortez was a teacher.
“I think it’s a horrible circumstance,” Olson said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Police also searched Cortez’s classroom at Los Banos Elementary but said they found no evidence there.
“We are working diligently on our investigation into Mr. Cortez’ activities but the processing of electronic media takes time and we expect that this case will take several weeks to complete,” Chief Gary Brizzee said. “The Police Department is working with the School District to ensure the safety of students and staff.”
Superintendent Mark Marshall said the district was aware of the arrest and is cooperating with law enforcement. “Student safety remains a priority for this school district,” he said.
Cortez has worked for the school district for 28 years, Marshall said.
The veteran teacher has been placed on paid leave pending the police investigation.
Marshall said the district has a team of counselors and licensed psychologists to help students and staff as needed.
Parents waiting for their children after school Thursday declined to comment on the record. But many were frustrated and upset by the news. Several were questioning why they weren’t notified earlier in the day about Cortez.
Marshall said the school district found out about the investigation into Cortez on Wednesday night after police made the arrest.
School officials had a substitute teacher oversee Cortez’s class Thursday, Marshall said. But they didn’t notify parents of the arrest until after the police department issued its statement.
“We couldn’t put out that information before (the police statement),” Marshall said. “We’re not going to put out information that’s not confirmed.”
Marshall said the school will conduct its own internal investigation.
In his profile on the Los Banos Unified School District website, Cortez said he earned his bachelor’s degree in Spanish from California State University, Chico with minors in math and Latin American studies.
Cortez is the fifth teacher in Merced County arrested in two years on suspicion of sex crimes involving teenage students.
Craig Branstetter, a veteran Dos Palos High School teacher was arrested in January, accused of having a sexual relationship with an underage female student. He’s free on bail and due back in court this month.
Former Los Banos teacher Gary Bettencourt was arrested in February 2016 and eventually pleaded no contest to more than a dozen felony sex crimes involving three female students from Los Banos. He is serving an eight-year term at North Kern State Prison in Delano. Former Los Banos teacher Dusty Norris also was arrested last year, accused of sexually inappropriate relationships with students dating back more than a decade. Norris has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to stand trial later this year.
Blia Yang, a 30-year-old Merced High School teacher, was arrested in January, accused of having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student. He is scheduled to begin a one-year jail sentence in September.
For the second time in a little more than a year Robert E. Gamel, the former head priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Los Banos, is facing a child pornography trial. Gamel first was arrested in June of 2015 after a 10-month investigation revealed he sought out nude photographs of a teenage boy, and “bragged” to several people about an anonymous Instagram account he operated, according to a search warrant affidavit.
Anyone with information about this case is encouraged to contact Detective Sean Bayard at 209-827-7070 ext 115.