A 27-year-old Riverside Unified School District teacher’s aide who sexually abused multiple children over several years was sentenced Friday to 20 years to life in state prison.
Fernando Figueroa pleaded guilty Nov. 15 to three counts of lewd acts on a child under 14 years old, and in exchange for his admissions, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office dropped 22 related counts.
Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Prevost certified the terms of the plea agreement and imposed the sentence stipulated by the prosecution and defense. In addition to the prison term, Prevost ordered that Figueroa register for life as a convicted sex offender, if and when he’s paroled. The Penal Code 290 requirement limits where he can work and stay.
During the sentencing, one of the victims, with her mother at her side, detailed the trauma she endured because of the defendant’s actions.
“Mr. Fernando sat next to me in the computer lab and started rubbing my thigh,” said the girl, identified only by her initials, C.S. “He rubbed all the way up between my legs. Another time, he made me sit on his lap, and he rubbed my stomach. I was bullied because of having to sit on his lap. Now I have a hard time trusting men. I don’t like teachers in general. This has affected my life daily. I have struggled with depression and contemplated suicide. But what happened doesn’t define me. I hope this pervert psycho will feel the same physical discomfort I felt after he is in prison.”
Other victims submitted letters, which were read aloud in court by Deputy District Attorney Nicole Furtado.
“I felt my mom would be ashamed of me,” the prosecutor read from one letter by M.M.A. “I felt like killing myself after the abuse. When I looked in the mirror, I felt dirty and disgusting.”
In a letter from a girl identified as M.A., Furtado read, “When Mr. Fernando touched me, I felt sad and scared. I didn’t tell people because I thought they would think I was lying. Now sometimes I feel bad when I’m by myself. I still blame myself to this day. But I know it’s not my fault. He did this.”
Figueroa, clad in an orange jail jumpsuit, sat motionless, mostly staring straight ahead during the hearing.
The defendant was indicted in 2017 on 25 sexual assault-related counts connected to 11 victims. The offenses occurred between 2014 and 2017.
Four civil suits have been filed against RUSD stemming from the defendant’s actions — and what the plaintiffs’ attorneys argue were blatant failures on the part of school district administrators to prevent them.
The same Irvine-based law firm, Morgan Stewart, has been involved in the lawsuits, one of which was settled in December 2017 for $6.2 million, paid by the school district’s insurers. The remaining suits are being heard in San Bernardino County Superior Court because several plaintiffs reside in that county, according to their attorneys.
“Instead of resolving the pending cases, the school district is dragging these girls through lengthy litigation, making them recount their own sexual assaults,” attorney Saul Wolf told reporters outside the courthouse.
RUSD officials have declined to comment directly on the suits, citing privacy and confidentiality concerns. However, in a statement released to City News Service in August, administrators said they “remain shocked and disappointed that the high standards of and expectations to which we hold our classroom aides were not met by Mr. Figueroa.”
The defendant worked at the Liberty Elementary School technology lab, and he had illicit contact with the victims during instructional sessions, sometimes carried out with only him and a child in a room — with the lights out — according to the civil complaints.
All of the children were girls, ages 8 to 11 years old, in grades 2 to 5.
According to the plaintiffs, the assaults began with fondling of the girls’ privates and, in at least one instance, escalated to forced digital penetration on the Liberty campus.
Court papers state that Figueroa routinely hugged the students, and when no supervisors were present, he openly groped them.
According to the civil complaint filed in August, there was no effort by RUSD to examine Figueroa’s “personal and background references,” which would have revealed the defendant’s alleged juvenile record of sexual abuse.
The complaint stated that a “number of victims, eyewitnesses and parents reported Figueroa’s … sexual misconduct to Liberty teachers and to Principal Esther Garcia before or during the time Figueroa was abusing them. Yet … Garcia and her staff took no action and specifically failed to alert local authorities as required by California’s mandatory child abuse reporting law.”
Riverside police detectives were alerted to an assault at the Liberty campus in early February 2017. Figueroa was arrested Feb. 16 at his residence in the 5000 block of La Sierra Avenue.
He was a “dual employee” of the school district and the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Redlands-Riverside. The club’s chief executive officer, P.T. McEwen, told CNS at the time that Figueroa worked in the organization as a “youth development professional,” and had been in that position for three years, “working directly with kids.” McEwen emphasized that Figueroa underwent a background check prior to being hired.