The tawdry allegations in the trial of San Jose elementary school teacher Craig Chandler are alarming enough -- that he blindfolded little girls and forced them to perform oral sex while the rest of his students were at recess, just a few steps away.
But in the trial that opened Monday, two factors make this case more notable than just another tale about someone allegedly violating a position of trust: the misdemeanor conviction last fall of the school principal who failed to report the suspected child sexual abuse, and Chandler's thorough defense.
Chandler, 36, faces 75 years to life in state prison if he is convicted of five counts of child molestation coupled with five multiple-victims enhancements.
Prosecutor Alison Filo painted a devastating picture of innocent second- and third-graders being taken one by one into Room 18 at O.B. Whaley Elementary School. There, said Filo, they were blindfolded, had something inserted into their mouths and were ordered to do things like, "Move your tongue around."
"Instead of being a classroom where children could grow and develop, this became a classroom of nightmares," Filo said. "Craig Chandler became the ultimate wolf in sheep's clothing."
Among the most striking pieces of evidence Filo introduced during her opening statement were photographs of two adult-sized chairs where some of the alleged victims were ordered to sit.
"Detectives found semen,'' she said. "Not just semen, Craig Chandler's semen.
Filo also played portions of videotaped interviews with some of the children. In one, a little girl said she peeked out from under the blindfold while the object was in her mouth and saw "hair and skin." The detective then asked her to draw what she saw. The sketch was shown to the jury of three women and nine men -- it appeared to be a phallic-like object.
Defense presents case
Jurors, who looked aghast during Filo's presentation, listened avidly to defense attorney Brian Madden's. He offered a completely different -- and surprising -- interpretation of the evidence during his opening statements.
The chairs, Madden said, were stained because Chandler did indeed engage once in inappropriate sexual conduct in his classroom -- with a woman.
"It's certainly not something he's proud of," said Madden of Chandler, who is married to a fellow elementary schoolteacher, with whom he has three young children. "It shows incredibly poor judgment, and it obviously shows he's being unfaithful to his wife."
"(But) Craig Chandler has no sexual interest in children," Madden said. "It's inconceivable that children would allow him to do what they said he did without evoking some physical or emotional reaction."
Madden also claimed that despite taking a report about the adult sexual encounter, San Jose police investigators made up their minds that Chandler was guilty of the child molestation charges.
"They buried this report," Madden said, eliciting an angry objection from Filo that was sustained by Judge Arthur Bocanegra. "The San Jose police did not do a crackerjack job on this case."
The defense attorney did not address Filo's assertion that the semen was located in more than one place on one of the chairs, indicating the possibility of multiple encounters.
The blindfold, Madden said, was part of a "completely valid" lesson plan meant to foster compassion in children for the plight of blind people like Helen Keller.
Madden also employed what's known as the "McMartin defense,'' named for the 1983 McMartin preschool case in Southern California, which involved dozens of children, lasted more than six years and never resulted in a conviction. The defense was able to show in that case that suggestive interviewing techniques were used to convince the children they had been molested.
Madden said he will call an expert to testify that parents and police in the Chandler case planted the notion that Chandler's "Helen Keller" lesson was nefarious.
The attorney did not explain why Chandler continued to use that lesson after he'd already gotten in hot water once for teaching it without parents' permission. He had been specifically counseled by then-Principal Lyn Vijayendran to drop it after another student complained of a similar incident with the teacher involving a blindfold and possible sexual act. .
Vijayendran was convicted in November of the extremely rare charge of failing to report (Chandler's) suspected sexual abuse to authorities. An 8-year-old girl, one of the alleged victims in this case, had told the principal in extremely explicit detail about her odd encounter with Chandler. All the principal did was tell him to avoid that lesson plan.
Under cross-examination by Madden on Monday, the mother of one of the alleged molestation victims acknowledged that she reacted angrily and with great fear when her daughter told her about the strange encounter with Chandler.
"Maybe I shouldn't have reacted the way I did," said the mother, who wound up calling police, who then discovered four more alleged victims. "I don't like to alarm her. (From my reaction), she knows now something bad happened.''
But the mother also testified on direct examination that she made up her mind to call police after she ran to the nearby school and told the substitute principal (not Vijayendran) her daughter's story. The substitute, who was replacing Vijayendran while she was on maternity leave, was aware of the previous complaint.
Recalled the mother: "She said, 'Oh my God, not again.'''
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.