A former Centennial Arts Academy teacher charged in 2021 with child molestation pleaded guilty Monday, Sept. 19, to a misdemeanor charge.
Gabriel Ramon Espinoza, 46, entered a plea to disorderly conduct and was sentenced to 12 months on probation by Superior Court Judge Clint Bearden.
He was facing up to 40 years in prison if convicted on the child molestation charges.
Espinoza, who has seven children, told The Times the resolution of the case was a “way for me to get back to my life, to love and serve and bless my children.”
“Some people may think that I want to be angry or frustrated with the community,” Espinoza said. I thank the community for every support, every positive word, every positive message, every prayer (and) every word of encouragement, because there has been so much encouragement.”
Espinoza was arrested in February 2021 and was terminated from the Gainesville City Schools system in March. He was the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math, or STEAM, activity teacher.
Defense attorney Arturo Corso said the case “will always be remembered” as one that went from a “specious accusation of child molestation” to a disorderly conduct plea.
In his roughly 27-year law career, Corso said there has never been a case resolved like this.
“No one ever leaves the courtroom pronounced innocent, but this is as close to a judicial declaration of innocence as there ever could be,” Corso said.
Espinoza entered an Alford plea, which means he does not admit wrongdoing but concedes that there is sufficient evidence to convict him.
Corso said the case started after a “Good Touch, Bad Touch” seminar at school.
“Every year when these ‘Good Touch, Bad Touch’ lectures are given, there’s always a flurry of outcries after that,” Corso said.
Corso said it can be tough to discern which of these allegations are true because children may not comprehend the “crushing consequences that flow out of it.”
As part of his probation, Espinoza cannot be a public or private teacher, though he is allowed to educate his own children.
Espinoza was previously charged in a February accusation with two counts of child molestation. He was accused of touching the thigh and leg of one girl and touching the chest of another girl.
The new accusation filed Monday accuses him of acting “in a violent and tumultuous manner” towards the two children by putting them in fear for their safety.
Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said the prosecution felt that it would be “difficult to prove the specific intent required by the child molestation statute” that Espinoza’s actions were to “arouse or satisfy the sexual desires of himself or the child.”
There had been discussion about putting the case on what is called the “dead docket,” where the case is not actively moving toward trial, Darragh said.
“In the end, we felt that it would be better to try to close the matter if we could,” the prosecutor said.
Darragh said he is convinced that Espinoza did do what he was accused of doing, but the missing element for a conviction would be proving the intent.
Espinoza told an investigator that he would comfort kids who were in distress but he would “never do such a thing” like the accusations he faced, according to testimony by Investigator Erin Escalante from a previous hearing.
Espinoza has moved on to landscaping, something he did on the side while teaching.
When contacted Monday afternoon, he was putting on his boots to take care of some business.
But Espinoza said he “rejoiced in the learning of children.”
Beyond his own children, Espinoza said he “went to work and taught the community’s children and just was thrilled to see them engaged and learn and grow.”
“There’s definitely a great sense of loss that I don’t do that anymore, because children are the heritage of God,” he said. “They’re really His children, and we are to care for them, take care of them, nurture them and bless them.”
With the case looming over him for the past 18 months, Espinoza said he would get up every morning to pray.
“To know that some people may have feared me or do fear me because of these false accusations, what a tremendous sense of loss,” he said. “But it doesn’t stop me from continuing those prayers, every single morning.”