LATHROP – It was the worst of times that turned into the best of times. That was 2011 in a nutshell for Michael Berchtold, the former Joseph Widmer Elementary School teacher.
After being beleaguered by one court trial after another that began nearly three years ago when he was charged with lewd acts upon a minor under the age of 14 by three alleged female victims, the legal roller coaster that he endured for the great part of 2011 culminated with complete triumph toward the end of November. On Nov. 28, all of the remaining misdemeanor charges related to the complaints lodged against him were dropped by the San Joaquin District Attorney.
Just a month before, the French Camp resident who lost his job as a result of the complaints, was found by a San Joaquin County Superior Court jury not guilty of all the felony charges related to the case. The District Attorney made the final decision on the six misdemeanors because the jury was hung on those counts – 10 to 2 – with the majority in favor of Berchtold.
Being cleared of all the felony and misdemeanor charges meant several things to the former third-grade teacher, explained Pleasanton attorney Patrick Ewing Clancy who represented Berchtold in the second round of court trial. It was Clancy who succeeded in having Berchtold’s first trial set aside – as though it never existed – with the former teacher pleading guilty. The judge sided with Clancy’s argument that Berchtold’s former lawyer at the first trial “failed to advise” his client of his defense in the case, and a trial before a jury panel was set in place.
The former teacher’s legal triumph meant he will now be able to collect the $40,000 reimbursement for his attorney’s fees. Clancy explained that teachers have an insurance policy which helps them pay for attorney’s fees, but only if they are subsequently found innocent.
With the innocent verdict, Berchtold also could now re-apply to get back his teacher’s certificate and get reinstated to his old job. Clancy helped his client get that process started right after the verdict in November at the courthouse in Stockton. Berchtold will need to take the process up and get his teaching credentials back with the assistance of the California Teachers’ Association.
A teacher’s credential is automatically suspended in matters of this nature, explained Manteca Unified Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Services Don Halseth.
Nearly 50 people – parents, teachers, school maintenance personnel, and former students of the teacher – appeared in court to give testimony to the teacher’s character.
When the teacher was arrested and sent to jail with bail set at $225,000, dozens of relatives and friends of his family including former students and their families, pooled their money together and raised the amount that subsequently set him out of jail.
Berchtold was 32 years old at the time of his arrest. At the time, he had seven years of teaching under his belt, all of which were spent teaching third grade at Widmer School.