A former Sanger High teacher can’t withdraw his no-contest plea to sexually assaulting a 17-year-old female employee inside his restaurant in 2011, a judge ruled Monday in Fresno County Superior Court after hearing about four hours of conflicting testimony.
Sergio Heredia, 53, testified that his lawyer, Robert Sherman Wynne, pressured him into pleading no contest to felony charges of sexually battery and unlawful sex with a minor.
But Wynne said he never pressured Heredia. The plea deal, Wynne said, was in Heredia’s “best interest.”
I felt abandoned.
Former Sanger High teacher Sergio Heredia
Judge James Petrucelli had to weigh the credibility of Heredia, an Army veteran and longtime Sanger High teacher, against Wynne, a longtime Fresno criminal defense attorney who has been suspended from practicing law by the State Bar of California for getting three drunken driving convictions, in 2008, 2014 and earlier this year.
In one of the convictions, Wynne admitted on the witness stand that he was arrested for lying to police.
In the end, Petrucelli said both Heredia and Wynne made “self-serving statements, so it was difficult to judge their testimony.” Heredia, however, had more than four years and dozens of court appearances to tell the court about his concerns about Wynne, but never did.
Petrucelli also noted that he was the judge who accepted Heredia’s no-contest plea in February. Petrucelli said Heredia signed the plea form and “freely and voluntarily” pleaded no contest. “There was no rush, no hurry,” Petrucelli said.
Heredia, who is free on $100,000 bail, will now be sentenced on Dec. 14. Under the plea agreement, he faces up to four years in prison.
At a hearing in June 2014, Sanger police Detective Ramiro Garza testified that the girl was not a student of Heredia’s but had worked at his Sports Bistro on O Street as a waitress for about a week before the assault. The detective said the girl was crying when she was assaulted on a pool table during the evening hours of Nov. 21, 2011.
Prosecutors contend the victim told Heredia several times that she didn’t want to have sex and tried to push him away, but he overpowered her. The girl is about 5-foot-3 and 130 pounds. Heredia is 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, court records say.
Police said the victim was crying when she was assaulted on a pool table during the evening hours of Nov. 21, 2011.
Heredia initially was charged with rape and other felony sex crimes, prosecutor Nathan Lambert said Monday. If convicted at trial, Heredia faced about 12 years in prison.
According to Wynne, Heredia believed he was innocent because the sex was consensual and he didn’t know the girl was a minor. Wynne also testified Monday that Heredia told him that when the girl said no, he didn’t believe she meant it.
Wynne said it was his idea for Heredia to take the plea deal because the victim appeared credible and her statements matched the physical evidence at the crime scene.
But on the witness stand Monday, Heredia said he was willing to take his case to a jury.
Heredia, a graduate of Fresno State, taught social studies at Sanger High for about 10 years and had been employed by the Sanger Unified School District at least 13 years. He testified Monday that he served in the U.S. Army in the 1980s and was stationed in Central America as part of President Ronald Reagan’s secret Iran-Contra affair in which the United States provided funds to the Nicaraguan contra rebels from profits gained by selling arms to Iran. He said his assignment was to build bridges, roads and schools in Honduras.
There was no hurry, no rush.
Judge James Petrucelli
Before the sex charges, Heredia’s only run-in with the law was a drunken driving conviction in 2007, court records show. He has a pending drunken driving case stemming from a 2015 arrest.
After his arrest on the sex charges, Heredia testified he called a number of lawyers, but only Wynne agreed to let him make payments on the agreed upon price of $7,500 to represent him. He said he met with Wynne two times before his arraignment to go over the evidence. But once Heredia was arraigned in December 2011, he said Wynne would only talk with him briefly during court appearances or on the telephone. In February 2012, Heredia said he started sending certified letters to Wynne about his concerns.
Wynne never replied to the letters, said Heredia, who was questioned by Lambert, the prosecutor, and defense attorney Jason Sorensen. In addition, Heredia said Wynne never gave him a copy of the evidence against him until after he pleaded no contest.
Heredia said when he questioned Wynne’s courtroom tactics, he said Wynne told him that he knew what he was doing and told him: “Don’t get the DA upset.” Heredia said he was ready to go to trial and that a jury already had been chosen when Wynne told him about the plea deal.
“I felt abandoned,” he told the judge.
Initially, he said he didn’t want to take the plea agreement, but he said Wynne told him that he would be pleading to misdemeanor battery and get probation. But once he saw the plea agreement, Heredia said, he realized he was pleading to felony charges. He testified he was shocked and confused and wiping tears from his eyes when he accepted the plea agreement in court.
“I felt pressured to take the plea deal,” Heredia told the judge. “My attorney told me enter the plea deal or spend 10 to 16 years in prison.”