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Former teacher sentenced to 15 years for child sex abuse

Victim: 'I will never be free from the result of this crime'

Michael Airo, a 37-year-old former Palo Alto Unified School District elementary school teacher, was sentenced on Thursday to 15 years in state prison for sexually abusing his ex-girlfriend's daughter more than a decade ago.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Charles Wilson handed down the sentence — the minimum for the four felony charges Airo was convicted of last February — after the victim in the case, now a woman in her 20s, read an emotional statement and Airo's younger half brother spoke in support of Airo.

Airo, who has denied the charges in full, did not make a statement.

"For 16 years I felt confused and I thought that there was something wrong with me. I spent 16 years silent in both fear and denial," the young woman said, standing in front of a full courtroom at the Palo Alto Courthouse on Thursday, with half of the audience seats filled with Airo's family members, friends and parents of students he taught at Ohlone Elementary School.

"It is directly because of the defendant's abuse that I now feel powerless, vulnerable and even sometimes worthless," she said. "I will never be free from the result of this crime; therefore I only believe that the defendant's punishment for this crime (should) be the same."

During a trial last year, the young woman testified that Airo, 10 years her elder and at the time dating her mother, would kiss her breasts, stomach and buttocks while she was taking showers at their home in Palo Alto when she was between the ages of 11 and 13 years old. Airo assumed a father-like role in her life, said the young woman, who took his last name in 2002.

She did not tell anyone about the abuse at the time, and her disclosure years later to a therapist in college was what prompted Airo's arrest in 2016.

The young woman described on Thursday the lasting impacts of the abuse: a difficulty maintaining healthy emotional and physical relationships; damage to her relationships with her mother and sister; feelings of inadequacy, shame and "learned submissiveness."

"My body," she said, "no longer feels like it's my own."

In sharp contrast, Greer Stone described his older brother as a nurturing sibling and teacher who strives to better himself and those around him.

"He is in his heart and soul a caretaker," Stone said.

Nineteen people, including parents of his former Ohlone students, wrote letters to Wilson in defense of Airo, according to the probation department's report. Airo faced a maximum prison sentence of 40 years.

In a supplemental sentencing memo, Beles argued that even the minimum sentence amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment" and was "disproportionate" given Airo's lack of criminal history, age and "good character."

Wilson sentenced Airo to six years for one count of continuous sexual abuse of a minor and three years each for 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.

Wilson also followed the probation department's recommendation to place him on a subsequent five-year period of parole. Airo will be required to register as a lifetime sex offender and is not eligible for probation given the crimes he was convicted of. Wilson put in place a protective order prohibiting contact between Airo and the young woman for 10 years.

Wilson's sentence followed the probation department's recommendation. A representative from department said in court Thursday that the probation officer who wrote his report, however, completed it without reading the young woman's victim impact statement and urged Wilson to "rethink the penalty" in light of the "profound impact" the woman said the crime has had on her life.

Probation officers weigh mitigating and aggravating factors in making their sentencing recommendations. In this case, the sole mitigating factor was that Airo had no prior criminal record, Wilson said. Aggravating factors included Airo taking advantage of a position of trust or confidence and engaging in violent conduct that indicates a "serious danger to society."

The district attorney's office asked for a 30-year sentence. Prosecutor Anne Seery cited Airo's lack of remorse and "egregious" grooming, manipulating and isolating of a child.

"I can't say that I disagree with much of what the People and probation has indicated," Wilson told Airo. "Ultimately I can't speak to the amount of damage that you caused (the victim) but I hope that you think about the effect that you have made on her life."

Airo has been in jail since his conviction last February, time that will be credited toward his sentence.

Airo unsuccessfully sought a new trial late last year, arguing that his former defense attorney committed various missteps that changed the outcome of the trial. Wilson denied again on Thursday another motion filed by Airo's new attorney, Robert Beles, to reconsider the new-trial request.

Beles plans to appeal his client's sentence, he told the Weekly after the sentencing hearing.

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