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Charge added to teacher's molest case

Thanks to the sharp eyes of a new prosecutor, accused child molester Jesus Colmenero Rivera is wearing a county-issued gray jumpsuit once again.

The former Golden Valley High School drama and Spanish teacher was arrested by bailiffs at Merced Superior Court during a routine hearing last week. The arrest came after Deputy District Attorney David Sandhaus decided to prosecute Rivera for an alleged crime he believes was overlooked during a preliminary hearing in the case three years ago. Rivera's attorney immediately branded the prosecution's tactics as "low-life."

Sandhaus, who took over the case in June, said he recently reviewed transcripts of Rivera's preliminary hearing and discovered new evidence that one of the victims was forcefully penetrated by a foreign object. That crime, Sandhaus said, originally had not been charged against Rivera.

Based on the new evidence, Sandhaus made an Aug. 22 motion to add the new charge to Rivera's case -- a motion Superior Court Judge Carol Ash accepted. "Once that court accepted that amendment to the information, the court has to apply bail to that charge," Sandhaus explained. "At that point, the court has the defendant remanded into custody, and then the defendant has the right to try to make bail again."

With an additional charge of penetration by a foreign object under force or duress added to his case, Rivera was given a bail amount of $200,000 and placed in a cell at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility, where he remains.

Rivera's attorney, Woodrow Edgar Nichols, said he disagrees with the prosecution's tactics, saying his client has been free on bail for more than two years and has been present for every court date. "(Sandhaus) is new on the case, so the first thing he wants to do is make (the charges) more serious so that we'd be more willing to make a deal," Nichols said. "If he did it as a tactic to get (Rivera) to plead, then that is pretty low-life."

In response to Nichols' comment, Sandhaus said the evidence in the case fully supports the charges against Rivera. "He should have to answer for the crimes that he has committed," Sandhaus said.

Rivera's trial is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 24.

Known to his former students as "Chuy," the 45-year-old Rivera is accused of sexually abusing five students while he worked at the school as a Spanish and drama instructor three years ago. In addition to the latest charge, he also is facing four counts of lewd and lascivious acts upon a child, one count of sexual battery by use of restraint, penetration with a foreign object of a person under 18, oral copulation and two misdemeanor counts of annoying or molesting a child.

Investigators believe the alleged abuse dates back to 2002 and occurred in the school's theater as well as in Rivera's apartment. The victims ranged in age between 14 and 17 at the time of the alleged incidents.

Rivera, who is also a former board member for the Planada Community Development Corp., was removed from his teaching duties by the school's administration on Jan. 13, 2004. A day earlier, two of the boys had come forward with the allegations. If convicted of all the charges, Rivera faces up to 14 years in prison and would have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life, Sandhaus said.

The court hearings in case have been particularly contentious in recent months. Rivera's attorneys have accused prosecutors of withholding key taped interviews between Rivera and Merced police investigators -- tapes they were told were missing until recently. Nichols said the defense still has yet to receive all of the tapes from the prosecution -- evidence which he feels is crucial to defending his client. "They never put down, in the police report, contradictory statements that had been made by these victims or (their) inability to tell the story twice the same way," Nichols said. "They were ordered to turn over these tapes back in January 2005."

Sandhaus declined to comment when asked about the tapes. "I think it's really inappropriate to argue about evidence," Sandhaus said. "It's really important that we get a fair trial for both the defendant and the state, and that means that you don't discuss evidence in a newspaper, because then people will make up their minds before they hear the evidence and we have to draw the jury pool."

Rivera is being kept in a protective custody wing at the jail that is reserved for suspects accused of child molestation and others who may well be targeted by other inmates, according to Merced County Sheriff's Detective Paul Barile. Nichols said Rivera's friends and family members are concerned for his safety, particularly because he was attacked by another inmate in July 2004 while handing out clean clothes at the jail.

In the meantime, Nichols said Rivera's supporters will try to raise collateral and funds to pay his $200,000 bail. "He's still suffering physical problems from being beat up the last time," Nichols said.

Deputy District Attorney Kimberly Helms, who is no longer employed by the Merced County District Attorney's Office, originally handled Rivera's case.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at 209-385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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