POCATELLO — A former Grace Lutheran Elementary School teacher was sentenced to serve two years of unsupervised probation last week after pleading guilty to one count of misdemeanor battery for spanking one of his students last year.
Ricardo “Rick” Rafael Torres, 50, who now lives in South Carolina, received the sentence while participating in the hearing remotely via Zoom, which was held at the Bannock County Courthouse on June 24.
The June 24 hearing was held after the 10-year-old victim in the case and her parents were unable to log into Zoom and left out of Torres’ original sentencing hearing on May 5. About two weeks later, 6th District Judge Steven A. Thomsen granted a new sentencing hearing and recused himself from the case.
Sixth District Judge Scott E. Axline handed down Torres’s sentence last week after much discussion between Pocatello Prosecutor Ian Johnson and Torres’ Pocatello attorney, Stratton Laggis, about whether a letter that alleged prior deviant behavior on Torres’ part from his previous employer, the FBI, should be admissible for the judge to consider in determining the appropriate sentence.
Pocatello police initially charged Torres in November 2019 with one count of misdemeanor sexual battery after he allegedly spanked the girl on Grace Lutheran Elementary School’s playground in September of that year. The victim’s mother said the playground incident occurred less than two weeks after Torres was advised by her as well as Grace Lutheran Elementary School officials not to touch her child after he allegedly placed the girl between his legs and started tickling her sides and armpits during a school-sponsored overnight camping trip to Camp Perkins in Stanley.
Judge Axline ultimately denied a motion from Laggis during the hearing last week asking for the letter to be inadmissible and stricken from the record. The victim, her parents and Torres then made statements to the court before Axline handed down the sentence.
The victim’s father described the experience as a nightmare. He said it was disgusting to hear from a Pocatello police officer that Torres was grooming his daughter, adding that Torres’ time at the FBI included investigating child sex crimes and that he should have known better than to repeatedly touch his daughter in ways that made her uncomfortable.
“This is how children get hurt and it’s just disgusting what we had to go through,” the victim’s father said. “I just want you to take the letter and the fact that he is supposed to be a professional and that he should know better than anyone else not to lay hands on children and pray you take it into consideration.”
The victim’s mother spoke largely about how her family and the Torres family were close prior to the incident, enjoying play dates, sleepovers and barbecues together before the unwanted touching of her daughter began. Moreover, she described the incident at Camp Perkins in more detail, of which she said the unwanted touching of her daughter occurred while the camp participants were playing a game. The game involved Torres acting as a wolf and involved campers catching him by forming a circle around him while holding hands.
“(Torres) took advantage of his place within Grace Lutheran’s community and that trust that was instilled in him as a teacher,” the victim’s mother said. “Furthermore, he took advantage of his background, garnering attention and trust from his reputation as a former FBI agent. He knew what he was doing and he knew that it was wrong.”
She continued, “And how ironic that nine months ago Rick Torres played the wolf. We all know that the wolf in sheep’s clothing is most dangerous to the flock.”
The 10-year-old victim in the case provided a statement that began by saying she wanted to spend her fifth-grade year creating memories with her friends. She then detailed the fallout of being the reason Torres left the school and speaking out about Torres’ behavior.
“Because he made the decision to touch me even after he was told to stop, your honor, I hope that you will keep Rick Torres away from kids because no one should be made to feel that fearful or uncomfortable,” she said. “No other children should have to have an escape plan. No other children should feel judged for protecting themselves and standing up for what’s right.”
Torres first apologized for the unwanted touching of the victim, describing the incident as an inadvertent back-handed swat to fend off the victim’s kicking while she was lying on another student’s shoulders.
“It upset (the victim) and has her teacher, as a teacher period, I would never want to upset my students,” Torres said. “It was done of the words of the Grace Lutheran School’s internal investigation, ‘in a playful manner while at recess,’ which is an accurate description.”
He explained he was unaware of the victims concerns following the Camp Perkins trip and said the 30 supporting character letters submitted on his behalf are more reflective of who is now than a letter from the FBI containing alleged behavior that happened seven or eight years ago.
“These letters talk about me as I am now,” Torres said. “I was a teacher trying to lead my students.”
In addition to the two years of record check probation, which include conditions Torres find employment in South Carolina and maintain a clean criminal record, Axline ordered and suspended 90 days in jail and imposed a fine of $750. Axline also scheduled a review hearing for Torres’ case for June 15, 2021.
“If (the victim) felt uncomfortable, then she was uncomfortable,” Axline said. “The court has no problem with that at all. And the court does believe even if Mr. Torres did not have advance notice of the camp incident, he is in that position of responsibility as a teacher.”
The judge continued, “It was your job, Mr. Torres, to know. It was your job to know that that was inappropriate in both instances. In the position you were in … it doesn’t matter. You are a teacher and you should know.”