Melody Lippert. Michelle Ghirelli
Melody Lippert (l) and Michelle Ghirelli were booked on suspicion of having sex with two teenage male students. Photo courtesy of the OCSD

Two former Covina-Valley Unified School District teachers who allegedly took underage students on a San Clemente camping trip and supplied them with alcohol and marijuana pleaded not guilty Wednesday to felony sex charges.

Melody Suzanne Lippert, 38, of Covina, is accused of playing “matchmaker” for co-defendant Michelle Louise Ghirelli, 30, of West Covina, who is charged with having sex with a 17-year-old boy during the camping trip at San Clemente State Beach, according to Deputy District Attorney Kristin Bracic.

Bail was set at $50,000 for Ghirelli and $20,000 for Lippert, she said. They are due back in court April 15 for a hearing on a defense motion seeking records from the school district’s investigation of the defendants, who were charged with the felonies on Monday.

Both previously posted bail.

The defendants were initially charged last month with a misdemeanor count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. More serious sex-related felonies were not filed then because investigators at the time lack enough evidence, Bracic said.

But a school district-related investigation that uncovered alleged cocaine use at the party led Orange County sheriff’s deputies to re-interview witnesses in the case, Bracic said. Cell phone records also helped convince investigators that Ghirelli knew the boy was 17, she said.

Lippert taught at South Hills High School in West Covina, and Ghirelli worked in the administration offices in the Covina-Valley Unified School District.

Lippert organized the unapproved Dec. 27-29 camping trip through a group text message/invitation to the co-defendant and five male high school students, according to Bracic.

West Covina police contacted sheriff’s investigators Jan. 16 about the party, leading to the arrests of the defendants the next day.

Lippert is charged with one felony count each of unlawful sexual intercourse and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor, along with a sentencing enhancement for being more than four years older than the victim.

Ghirelli is charged with the same counts, plus a felony count of oral copulation of a minor, and would have to register as a sex offender if convicted.

Lippert, however, “facilitated the relationship between Miss Ghirelli and the 17-year-old, and therefore she is fully responsible under the law,” Bracic alleged. “I think the bottom line for teachers out there is keep your hands off your students.”

Lippert’s attorney, Leonard Levine, said, “I would just remind everyone that these are charges, not proof, and that Ms. Lippert is not charged with actually having sex with any minors. We look forward to the true facts coming out in court.”

Ghirelli’s attorney, Stephan DeSales, told City News Service that his client is “devastated” and that it was not altogether clear to her that the alleged victim was underage.

“There was a lot of stuff going on and it was not clear what the age of this kid was when whatever happened happened,” DeSales said.

Three of the five teens were 18, DeSales said.

“She’s totally devastated,” DeSales said of his client. “She’s a sweet person, a very nice person who was getting her master’s degree at Cal Poly Pomona and now that’s all gone.”

DeSales said he is seeking the records from the school district investigation because he suspects there may be statements from witnesses that are “inconsistent” with the police reports. School district officials were resisting turning over the documents, he said.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Carlton P. Biggs will consider whether to compel the school district to turn over the records, DeSales said. A hearing on that motion is scheduled for April 15.

Both defendants resigned when they were threatened with termination by the district, DeSales said.

—City News Service

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