Weary residents of Los Angeles may think only of the Palm Springs area as a two-hour warm weekend getaway, but there’s a dark underside of child molestation by a couple of trusted teachers amid the palm trees, pools and desert.
A former Indian Wells elementary school teacher who admitted molesting eight of his students was sentenced Friday to nine years in state prison. That sentencing came one day after a Palm Springs High School teacher was convicted of sexually assaulting two boys and trying to seduce another with games and other favors.
In the Indian Wells sentencing, Robert Keith Bryan, 64, had already pleaded guilty to four of 12 felony counts of lewd acts on a child that had been filed against him in 2012, along with four of five misdemeanor counts of molesting a child.
Indian Wells is a small, upscale city in the Coachella Valley east of Palm Springs.
The Palm Desert resident, who taught fourth-graders at Gerald R. Ford Elementary School, admitted guilt in May on the day his jury trial was set to proceed at the Larson Justice Center in Indio.
A 10-year-old girl was the first to allege that Bryan touched her private parts over her clothes while she was in his classroom during the 2011- 12 school year.
According to Riverside County Sheriff’s Investigator Michael Gaunt, seven other female students also told authorities Bryan “touched their bodies in a manner that made them feel ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘weird,”‘ such as patting them on the buttocks and stomachs or rubbing their lower backs.
Bryan had inappropriate conduct allegations lodged against him dating back years. The educator was suspected of committing a lewd act in 1992 but wasn’t charged because of a lack of evidence, according to the investigator.
In 1994, Bryan was suspended from the school district without pay for inappropriately rubbing a female student’s back, and was told by the school’s principal that he had to stop touching students and not be alone with one pupil or he might face disciplinary action, according to Gaunt.
When authorities served a search warrant at Bryan’s classroom in July 2012, they found a photo of a topless girl that had been downloaded four times on his computer and several other “suggestive” images of girls, Gaunt said. The computer contained “several thousand” images of children, according to the investigator.
Students in Bryan’s class during the school year claimed he took “numerous” photos and videos of them during school hours, according to Gaunt.
Paul Wallin, Bryan’s attorney at the time of his arrest, said then that the educator “vehemently” denied the allegations and had “been an outstanding educator for over 30 years.”
He said Bryan had “never been convicted of any criminal offense in his entire life, and has been a local homeowner for 26 years. He has taught thousands of students over these almost three decades.”
Bryan started working for the Desert Sands Unified School District in 1986 and retired from the district in August 2012.
A lawsuit filed in January 2013 on behalf of two victims against the school district, Gerald R. Ford Elementary’s principal and Bryan alleged he was “known to engage in inappropriate touching and other lewd conduct” but was allowed “to continue teaching and remain unsupervised with young female students.”
In January, the district agreed to pay $650,000 to one of the two girls, according to plaintiff’s attorney Ben Meiselas.
“Of course, there is nothing that will undo the torment caused to our client,” he said then. “However, this resolution was a significant result for her and her family who have fought admirably for the past three years.”
A spokeswoman said the DSUSD, at the recommendation of legal counsel, agreed to the financial settlement as a trial would be “an emotionally and financially difficult process, especially for the family.”
In the other case, the Palm Springs High School teacher was convicted Thursday of 16 felony charges and one misdemeanor for sexually assaulting two boys and trying to seduce another.
After deliberating one day, a Banning jury weighing the fate of 44-year-old Ronald Steven Bishop found him guilty of the sex-related offenses, which occurred in 2012.
Jurors were apparently unable to reach unanimous verdicts on 25 other counts. Riverside County Superior Court Judge Samuel Diaz did not immediately set a sentencing date.
The felonies for which Bishop was convicted included sodomy of a minor, sexual penetration with a foreign object, performing sex acts on an unconscious victim and contacting a minor with the intent to commit a sexual offense. He was also convicted of annoying a child under 18 years old — a misdemeanor.
Testimony in his two-week trial concluded Tuesday, and the prosecution and defense delivered closing statements Wednesday.
According to the District Attorney’s Office, the defendant’s alleged offenses came to light in early 2013 after a former student revealed that Bishop had been pursuing him with frequent online communications, text messages and offers of assistance.
The boy, whose identity was not disclosed, told investigators that he became close to the English teacher after his parents initiated divorce proceedings.
The defendant expressed an interest in helping the youth cope with the family split, leading to regular conversations via instant messaging and texts, which numbered in the thousands, according to police. Bishop bought the boy a PlayStation game and ferried him to different locations when the victim had no other means of transportation.
Prosecutors allege that the educator sent explicit pictures and raised the topic of masturbation with the teenager, who indicated that he and the defendant were not intimate.
However, two other boys, whose identities also were not released, alleged that Bishop had engaged in sex acts with them, including when they were under the influence and not aware of what was happening, according to the prosecution.
After serving a search warrant at Bishop’s Indio residence, investigators seized more than 150 VHS tapes and three-dozen DVDs containing child and adult pornography, police said. One tape purportedly showed the defendant molesting one of the victims, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
Bishop was arrested in the high school parking lot on Baristo Road in January 2013. He was placed on unpaid administrative leave pending the outcome of the case, according to the Palm Springs Unified School District. A spokeswoman told City News Service today that his status had not changed.
Bishop taught language arts at Palm Springs High between 2006 and 2013, and at Nellie N. Coffman Middle School in Cathedral City from 2004 to 2006.
He’s being held without bail at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning.
–Staff and wire reports