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Trial begins for former teacher charged with child sex abuse

Former Palo Alto teacher Michael Airo to testify

Lawyers gave opening statements Thursday morning in the trial of Michael Airo, 36, a former teacher at Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto who has been accused of sexually abusing a young girl more than a decade ago.

Airo's trial started Monday in Palo Alto after two days of jury selection. The prosecution sought to paint a picture of a man whose inappropriate obsession with his girlfriend's young daughter led to years of sexual abuse. The defense said that character witnesses, including parents of former Ohlone students, will provide evidence that will prevent a guilty conviction.

Airo has pleaded not guilty to the four felony counts he faces in the case: one count of continuous sexual abuse of a minor under the age of 14 and three counts of lewd or lascivious acts with the use of force, violence, duress, menace, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury on the victim or another person.

He was charged in 2016 after the girl, now 26 years old, told a therapist that he would inappropriately kiss her breasts, stomach and buttocks while she was taking showers at their home. The alleged abuse took place at their Palo Alto home between 2002 and 2005, when she was between the ages of 11 and 13 years old, according to police.

The Weekly will refer to the woman by a pseudonym, Anne Doe, to protect her privacy.

Santa Clara County Prosecutor Lindsay Walsh told the jury that Airo became a father figure to Doe. She showed the jury a series of family photos of Doe at different ages throughout the alleged abuse, including two of her sitting on Airo's lap.

"This case is about a man who became so obsessed with the victim and showed so much affection that he wanted her for his own, that he took it one step further and continuously molested her from fifth grade to eighth grade," Walsh said.

Airo's attorney, Michael Armstrong of Palo Alto firm Nolan, Armstrong & Barton, gave a brief opening statement. Airo will testify, he said, and deny all allegations made against him.

"After you've heard all the evidence in this case, you will either believe he is completely innocent or at least a reasonable doubt has been raised as to the charges," Armstrong told the 12 jurors.

Doe's mother, the prosecution's first witness, testified in detail about her relationship with Airo and the family dynamic. She first met Airo when he was working at an after-school program at El Carmelo Elementary school, also in Palo Alto, which her daughter attended. He was closer in age to Doe than her mother at the time, Walsh said.

The three of them, as well as Doe's older half sister, eventually moved into a house together. Doe's mother said she never witnessed any inappropriate behavior at the time, nor did her daughter tell her at the time that he had touched her inappropriately.

In 2002, Doe took Airo's last name. He "insisted that he become the father figure, insisted that he's the one she call dad," Walsh said.

Doe's mother described Airo as more attentive and affectionate with Doe — picking her up from school, helping her with her homework, holding her hand when they were out in public, reading to her alone, writing her "love poetry letters" — than with her. She never thought any of it was odd at the time, she testified.

"I trusted him," she said.

Doe testified during a preliminary hearing in 2016 that when she was older and tried to resist Airo's alleged behavior, he told her it was acceptable because he was her father.

"He was redirecting it as a question back to me. ... He would say, 'I love you; you're my daughter. It's OK for me to do this. I'm your father,'" she said.

Doe's mother and Airo eventually broke up in 2007, and the family had little contact with him afterwards, she said.

Armstrong asked Doe's mother a wide range of questions, from who would pick up Doe from school to when and what dance classes Doe took in middle school to their discussions about Doe taking Airo's last name.

Doe did not tell her mother about the alleged abuse until 2014, when the Palo Alto Police Department opened an investigation. Doe's therapist had reported the allegations to the San Mateo County Department of Children and Family Services, which then notified the police department.

The Palo Alto Police Department detective assigned to the case, Joel Hornung, also testified briefly on Thursday. He interviewed Doe, Doe's mother and half sister and her high school boyfriend, whom Doe reportedly told about the sexual abuse while they were together in 2014.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Allison Marston Danner is presiding over the trial, which is expected to last until Feb. 15 at the latest.

Doe, her half-sister, her high school boyfriend and an expert on child sexual-abuse accommodation syndrome will testify for the prosecution, Walsh said.

Shortly after Airo's arrest, the Palo Alto school board voted unanimously to dismiss him. He had taught fourth- and fifth-graders at Ohlone since 2009.

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