A veteran Dos Palos High School teacher was arrested Thursday, accused of having a sexual relationship with an underage female student, the Police Department has confirmed.
Craig Michael Branstetter, 43, of Chowchilla was booked at 5:07 p.m. Thursday into the Merced County jail on suspicion of felony unlawful sexual intercourse with a person under 18 and misdemeanor annoying or molesting a child under 18. He posted bail and was released at 9:48 p.m. Thursday, according to jail records.
Dos Palos police Chief Barry Mann said Branstetter is believed to have engaged in a sexual relationship with a female student under the age of 18, though he declined to disclose the student’s age.
“This was definitely not an isolated incident,” Mann told the Sun-Star. “We know this has been going on for a period of time.”
Efforts Friday to reach Branstetter by telephone for comment were unsuccessful.
Mann said he could not comment of the exact time frame of the suspected relationship.
“We’re not going to comment on the number of possible victims at this time because the investigation is ongoing,” Mann said. The chief said investigators have not ruled out the possibility of locating additional possible victims.
Mann said detectives have not been able to interview Branstetter.
“He did not want to answer questions without his attorney present,” Mann said.
“Mr. Branstetter was highly regarding by many of the students and the professionals in the community, including myself,” Mann said. “We’re going to push forward to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Mann said police were contacted earlier this week by a family member of the girl. Police on Thursday notified Dos Palos Oro Loma Joint Unified School District Superintendent William Spalding about the allegations.
“We contacted them as soon as we had probable cause,” Mann said.
Spalding told the Sun-Star on Friday morning that a school employee had been placed on administrative leave Thursday in connection with a pending criminal investigation.
Spalding wouldn’t confirm Branstetter as the employee, citing an ongoing district investigation into an incident. He also declined to confirm if the employee was a teacher and at what school the employee worked.
“Yesterday, the employee was immediately put on leave upon the school district receiving information from the police,” Spalding said. “The school district is fully cooperating with law enforcement. That’s all I can say.”
Branstetter was a varsity basketball coach for several years up through 2011, according to records from MaxPreps.com.
Branstetter is the fourth teacher in Merced County arrested in less than a year on suspicion of sex crimes involving teenage students.
Former Los Banos teacher Gary Bettencourt was arrested in February 2016 and eventually pleaded no contest to more than a dozen felony sex crimes involving three female students from Los Banos. He is serving an eight-year term at North Kern State Prison in Delano. Former Los Banos teacher Dusty Norris also was arrested last year, accused of sexually inappropriate relationships with students dating back more than a decade. Norris has pleaded not guilty.
Blia Yang, a 30-year-old Merced High School teacher, was arrested earlier this month, accused of having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student.
Mann said he believes the allegations against the well-known Dos Palos teacher will affect the students.
“I know this will have an impact on the students and on the community. It impacts all of us,” Mann said. “I’m sure it’s going to impact the faith and the trust that some students have in those who are put out there to mentor them through life.”
Vikaas Shanker: 209-826-3831, ext. 6562