By Jennifer Saltman
“It is odious and must be denounced emphatically,” said Justice James Williams while sentencing Michael Edward Herrera in B.C. Supreme Court in New Westminster Friday.
Herrera, 27, pleaded guilty last year to one count of sexual assault in connection with events that took place in May 2010, when Herrera was a University of B.C. student on a teaching practicum at Queen Elizabeth Secondary School in Surrey.
While teaching English and social studies, Herrera connected with a 15-year-old girl in one of his classes over a piece of autobiographical writing that detailed abuse she had suffered as a child. He shared his experiences and a series of instant messages and emails followed.
“She was a young person with real issues — a really vulnerable young person,” Williams said.
The communications started out innocuous, but over the course of a week became sexually explicit. They arranged meetings and Herrera talked about sex acts he wanted to perform. Crown prosecutor Winston Sayson said the messages recovered by police from Herrera’s cellphone and the victim’s computer show that Herrera was manipulating and grooming the teen.
“There’s a clear sexual flavour,” Williams said of the messages.
On May 12, 2010, Herrera met the girl in a secluded area at the school, where he touched her genitals and breasts. Five days later, the teen left school and went to Herrera’s home for what turned out to be a violent sexual encounter.
The incident lasted more than four hours, involved intercourse, physical abuse and domination and left the victim with 29 documented injuries, including bruising, tearing and tenderness. The victim repeatedly told Herrera “No” and tried to escape but he continued the assault.
“His conduct was demeaning in the extreme,” Williams said.
When she finally left, Herrera told her not to tell anyone what had happened and made her erase the messages he had sent her. She confided in friends and her parents, and three days later police became involved.
Now 18, the victim, who cannot be identified due to a publication ban, read a statement in court that detailed how the encounter with Herrera affected her life.
She said her final years of high school were difficult — her grades slipped, she changed schools and her memory suffered. She has frequent nightmares and flashbacks and is afraid of the dark.
The young woman said she now hesitates to tell people about her past because she is afraid it will be used against her by someone like Herrera. She is wary of men.
“I felt stupid and vulnerable for allowing myself to trust so easily,” she said.
Sayson said Herrera must account for the breach of trust he committed.
Defence lawyer John Douglas described his client in his submissions as a bright, intelligent young man who had a promising future.
“This week in his life has ruined his life to that extent,” Douglas said.
Douglas said Herrera was very immature at the time of the offence, but he has grown up over the past three years. He recognizes the harm he has caused and is willing to do whatever is necessary to deal with his issues. Although Herrera has been diagnosed as a sexual sadist, Douglas said the assault was an isolated incident.
Herrera offered an apology to the victim and her family and said he couldn’t bear to look her in the eye.
“I don’t know what to say because I’m so ashamed of my actions,” Herrera said. “I’m sorry.”
Williams accepted that Herrera is remorseful and said he hopes that Herrera has access to programs and counselling that will help him while he is in custody.
“What happened here is so, so distressing,” Williams said.