Trial proceedings are slated to get underway Monday for a former youth soccer coach accused of molesting five girls at a Thermal middle school.

Juan Manuel Pantoja, 26, of Salton City was arrested in March 2020 in connection with offenses he allegedly committed in 2019 while employed at Toro Canyon Middle School.

Pantoja, who is being held in lieu of $2 million bail at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning, is charged with three counts each of forcible lewd acts on a child and contacting a minor for the purpose of perpetrating a sexual offense, five counts of annoying a child and one count of battery, with sentence-enhancing allegations of targeting multiple victims in a sex crime.

The defendant faces life in prison if convicted.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Otis Sterling scheduled trial for the first week of January at the Larson Justice Center in Indio after conferring with the prosecution and defense early last month, at which time they agreed to work on clearing their calendars.

During a preliminary hearing in December 2020, sheriff’s Investigator Damen Butvidas testified that the molestation investigation was initiated after school officials reported the children’s allegations to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

Pantoja was then a soccer coach for the After School Education and Safety, or ASES, program.

Butvidas said that five girls — ages 12 to 14 — alleged various inappropriate acts, which they said occurred during on-campus soccer coaching sessions, field trips and even a nighttime school carnival, between August and November 2019.

The defendant fondled the youths, and in one instance, forced one of the victims to touch his genitalia, the detective alleged.

One of the girls alleged that Pantoja propositioned her to have sex for money, according to Butvidas.

The girls also alleged a wide range of other inappropriate activity — from the defendant commenting on their bodies, to inquiring about their sexual preferences, Butvidas said.

Coachella Valley Unified School District Superintendent Maria Gandera announced soon after the allegations surfaced that Pantoja’s contract with the district had been terminated.

The defendant has no documented prior felony or misdemeanor convictions in Riverside County.

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