A judge's gavel. Photo via Pixabay.
A judge’s gavel. Photo via Pixabay.

A former Coachella Valley school bus driver who inappropriately touched an 11-year-old girl with special needs over the course of several months while on the job was sentenced Thursday to a 12-year probationary term and ordered to complete a sex offender treatment program.

Superior Court Judge Bonnie M. Dumanis warned Samuel Raul Ortega that if he commits any probation violation, he will be immediately sentenced to 12 years in state prison.

The 60-year-old Cathedral City resident pleaded guilty earlier this year to committing three or more lewd acts with a child under 14 years old.

At the time of the crimes, which occurred between August and November 2018, Ortega was driving a bus for First Student, a school bus company that contracts with several local school districts. The victim attended an unspecified school in the Palm Springs Unified School District.

During the sentencing hearing at the Larson Justice Center, the victim’s father said Ortega methodically groomed his daughter, who has intellectual disabilities, prior to molesting her, likely resulting in permanent psychological damage.

“Our daughter fell victim to a sexual predator, a person that everybody assumed could be trusted implicitly, a person with a responsibility for her safe transport to school every day. She fell victim to her school bus driver, Samuel Ortega,” the father said.

“Ortega’s actions have further eroded our daughter’s ability to make sound decisions about relationships,” he said. “It will likely cause her to continue to seek out inappropriate relationships with adult men, and even perhaps with her peers. She will likely need counseling for years to learn how to engage in healthy and loving relationships.”

The victim’s father also said that his daughter came home from school one day and asked to buy a candy bar for her boyfriend “Sammy,” whom she said she wanted to marry.

Ortega apologized for his actions.

“I’m so sorry for what I’ve done to your family,” the defendant told the victim’s farther. ”I just hope that she will be fine. I hope she is OK. She is a good girl.”

The investigation began in November 2018, when sheriff’s deputies were sent to the 100 block of Clearwater Way in Rancho Mirage on a report that a minor had been possibly assaulted. Ortega was subsequently arrested at his Cathedral City home on Jan. 24, 2019.

During the defendant’s preliminary hearing in March, sheriff’s Investigator Josh Reinbolz testified that authorities collected six weeks worth of video footage from a video camera placed inside the defendant’s school bus.

Reinbolz described various inappropriate interactions caught on tape between Ortega and the victim, whom the defendant called “his future girlfriend,” while aboard the bus, including “groping, tickling, pinching and grabbing.”

Other than his recent conviction, Ortega had no documented felony convictions in Riverside County.

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