Last February, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office received a call from two parents reporting that their 14-year-old daughter had been involved in a sexual relationship with a 27-year-old man, later identified as the minor’s teacher, Danny Joseph Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, now 28, later pleaded guilty to one count of attempted sexual conduct with a minor under age 15, a Class 3 felony, and was sentenced Monday afternoon at Santa Cruz County Superior Court to 7.5 years in prison.
“He was a teacher and a great friend. He had taught me so much and always pushed me to do better and get out of my comfort zone,” the victim, accompanied by her parents and other supporters, stated in court prior to the sentencing. “Somewhere, that line was crossed. He used my trust to manipulate me to get what he wanted… It took me a long time to see it this way.”
According to his pre-sentence report, Gonzalez began contact with the victim through his position as her teacher in the Avalon Gardens community. The victim’s parents began questioning her relationship with Gonzalez after noticing that she had developed “some sort of crush” on the defendant and was constantly texting with him.
The victim, court documents show, later admitted that she had met with Gonzalez at midnight on about five separate occasions in June 2018 and the two had become sexually involved during those encounters. She added that she had also exchanged nude photographs with the defendant.
Gonzalez admitted to building a familiar relationship with the victim, including hanging out with the victim’s family several times, but initially denied ever exchanging photos with the minor or having sexual interactions with her.
“I’m here taking responsibility… I apologize to the family, the victim for everything that they’re going through and everything that’s coming,” Gonzalez said in court on Monday prior to his sentencing. “I’m here in front of you, accepting where I am now.”
But several family and friends submitted character reference letters to the court maintaining that Gonzalez was innocent.
“I work with youth all over the country who have different forms of mental abuse and sexual abuse,” one of Gonzalez’s friends stated in court on Monday afternoon. “I can tell you that as a survivor, I know perpetrators and I know true pedophiles, and that is my friend and he is not one.”
Defense Attorney Michael Rothman asked the Judge Thomas Fink to deliver the mitigated sentence of a lifetime of supervised probation, as well as having Gonzalez register as a sex offender, insisting that his educational background and clean history spoke well about his character.
“The character letters, they’re not intended to make excuses,” Rothman said. “The purpose of the character letters are just to explain who my client is. They still believe that he still has various character attributes that they believe are noteworthy.”
Rothman argued that a lifetime of probation would allow Gonzalez to seek the therapy and treatment he needs, as well as keep him under supervision to ensure that he doesn’t commit such a crime again.
But Deputy County Attorney Gary Redente countered that Gonzalez’s character references and clean history were no longer relevant considering the crime he committed.
“He was the victim’s teacher, he was in a position of authority and he lived in a community in which the family and the victim lived. The defendant took advantage of this authority, took advantage of that (child’s) crush and of that disparity in maturity,” Redente said, adding that the supporters who wrote the character references may not understand the severity of Gonzalez’s crime.
Speaking before the judge, Redente and the victim’s parents asked for Gonzalez to receive the maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
After questioning both parties’ sentencing requests, Fink stated that neither request seemed appropriate for the case.
“Sometimes I have defendants before me who are involved in sex offenses and you think that this is a person who really needs to be on a lifetime standard supervised probation because they’re wired that way,” Fink said. “I don’t see that here… It was a crime of opportunity and I think you made a bad mistake and you have to pay for that mistake.”