Crime

Former Richland High teacher sentenced for molesting student

A former special education teacher at Richland High School was sentenced Tuesday to 1  1/2 years in prison after pleading guilty to molesting a student in his class.

The school principal was notified last May by students that Steven Diaz, 32, was having an inappropriate relationship with a then 15-year-old girl.

The relationship started when Diaz begun corresponding with the victim in her class journal and escalated after Diaz sent sexually charged emails, court documents said. The girl was moved to his class in late 2014.

In the emails, Diaz apparently made comments about the girl’s appearance, told the victim he could get her pregnant and encouraged the teen to have sex with his girlfriend, court documents said.

Diaz molested the teen on at least four occasions, including at a park, at his home and in his car, court documents said. Officials say there is no proof the two had sexual intercourse.

The Army veteran who was deployed to Iraq in 2005 pleaded guilty Tuesday in Benton County Superior Court to third-degree molestation and communicating with a minor for immoral purposes.

He will be on community supervision for 36 months and must participate in sex offender treatment.

“(Diaz) appeared to be a a popular teacher in the school. Diaz used this popularity to groom and sexually violate (the victim),” wrote a community corrections officer in a pre-sentencing evaluation. “He preyed on her vulnerability and her need to feel comfortable in his special education class.”

Diaz has previously taught in Gamble, Alaska, and Othello High School before being hired on at Richland High.

The molestation case isn’t the first time Diaz has been accused crimes with a sexual motivation, according to court documents.

In 2002, when Diaz was 19, a 12-year-old boy reported to police that Diaz showed a video of himself masturbating, court documents said. The boy told investigators Diaz also threatened to rape to him.

Then in 2014, a woman reported that Diaz forcefully raped her at a park shortly after the pair met at a bar, court documents said. The woman alleged Diaz offered her a ride home, but instead drove her to the park and raped her.

No criminal charges were filed in either case.

“It appears Diaz has long-term sexual deviancy issues, as can be reflected by his two prior contacts with local law enforcement, where he (allegedly) showed a video of himself masturbating to a 12-year-old and the alleged rape.”

The victim in the molestation case wrote the court a letter saying the abuse has tuned her life upside down, forced her to leave Richland High due to embarrassment and caused depression.

The girl felt uncomfortable communicating with Diaz and felt pressured to meet with him outside of school due to her grade, the letter said. After the abuse started, the victim began to isolate herself from friends and felt like Diaz was watching her everywhere she went.

“He overpowered me, took advantage and groomed me. He took away so much from me that I didn’t know it for the longest time,” she wrote. “It took me a long time to process what was happening and to understand.”

During his interview with the community corrections officer, Diaz never admitted any wrongdoing and told the official he pleaded guilty on the advice of his lawyer after seeing the evidence prosecutors had.

Tyler Richardson: 509-582-1556, @Ty_richardson

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