Outside judge will handle Atwater molestation case

An out-of-county judge will handle the case of an Atwater softball coach accused of child molestation because the suspect has family ties with a sitting Merced County Superior Court judge, court officials said Tuesday.

Presiding Judge John Kirihara said an outside jurist will be used to avoid any potential conflict of interest and "to be on the safe side" in the case of Henry Esparza Jr., an Atwater resident facing four felony charges of child molestation.

Kirihara said it's still unclear whether the suspect's family relationship to the judge will prevent any Merced County Superior Court judge from hearing the case in the future. Kirihara declined to identify the judge who is related to Esparza.

Esparza was arrested April 25 at his home on the 200 block of Pacemaker Drive in Atwater for allegedly molesting a 14-year-old girl over a period of several years, according to Atwater police.

On Tuesday, Judge Armando Rodriguez postponed Esparza's videoconference arraignment until today because the suspect's attorney was not present in court. Dressed in a grey jailhouse jumpsuit, Esparza told Rodriguez that he is being represented by Modesto-based attorney Kirk McAllister. Rodriguez is a Fresno Municipal Court judge.

Atwater Police opened their investigation after Esparza's wife notified the Turlock Police Department about the allegations last week. Atwater Police Chief Richard Hawthorne said it's unknown whether there are other victims in the case. "Obviously, we feel strongly that we have enough information to prosecute," Hawthorne said on Monday.

Esparza is facing four felony counts, including committing a lewd act with a child under age 14, oral copulation with a child under 14 and sexual penetration with a foreign object.

Dan Barton, recreation supervisor for the city of Atwater, on Monday said Esparza worked a year ago as a boys basketball coach for the city's recreation youth basketball program, a job he worked for two to three years.

Barton said a routine fingerprinting and background check was done on Esparza prior to his coaching job with the city. "He was cleared at that time," Barton said.

Esparza was also known as a coach for a travel fastball-pitch softball team and regularly rented playing fields from the city, Barton said.

He remains at the John Latorraca Correctional Center in lieu of $550,000 bail.

Reporter Victor A. Patton

can reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.