A 25-year-old man accused of inappropriately touching five young girls while employed as a soccer coach at a Thermal middle school must stand trial on several felony charges, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Juan Manuel Pantoja of Salton City was arrested in March for crimes he allegedly committed while working at Toro Canyon Middle School between August and November 2019.
Following a preliminary hearing at the Larson Justice Center in Indio, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Charles Stafford Jr. found there was sufficient evidence for the defendant to proceed to trial.
Stafford set the defendant’s bail at $2 million and scheduled a post-preliminary hearing arraignment for Jan. 12.
Pantoja remains behind bars at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning.
The defendant is charged with three felony counts of committing a lewd act with a child under 14 years old, with one of the charges allegedly occurring through the use of force. He is also charged with three felony counts of contacting a minor for sexual purposes, and several related misdemeanors.
Pantoja additionally faces two sentence-enhancing allegations of committing sex acts with multiple victims, opening him up to a possible life sentence if convicted.
Riverside County sheriff’s Investigator Damen Butvidas testified that the investigation began on Feb. 21 when school officials reported the allegations to the sheriff’s department.
At the time, Pantoja was a soccer coach for the After School Education and Safety, or ASES, program.
Butvidas said that five girls — ages 12 to 14 years old — reported various inappropriate acts, which they alleged occurred during on-campus soccer coaching sessions, field trips and even during a nighttime school carnival.
The defendant allegedly fondled multiple girls, and in one instance, forced one of the victims to touch his genitalia, the investigator said.
One of the girls alleged that Pantoja propositioned her to have sex in exchange for money, according to Butvidas.
The girls also reported a wide range of other inappropriate activity — from him commenting on their bodies, to inquiring about their sexual preferences, Butvidas said.
Coachella Valley Unified School District Superintendent Maria Gandera previously said that Pantoja was “immediately released from his contract” after district officials learned of the allegations.
“When the school district became aware of these allegations, we immediately contacted law enforcement,” Gandera said. “The district has been cooperating with their investigation and working with them ever since.”
Pantoja has no documented felony convictions in Riverside County, court records show.
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