Daily Record [Morristown NJ]
March 26, 2022
By Lori Comstock
After the death of a classmate, it is natural for teachers to listen to their students and be patient and understanding of the ways they grieve. What isn’t a reasonable response is to use the death of the classmate to their advantage.
Carlos Franco-Leon, 44, a former teacher and coach at Morris Catholic High School, did just that when he offered his support to two 15-year-old heartbroken students, one whom he admitted in a plea hearing in October to touching her buttocks in his classroom and another who he had a sexual relationship with for years.
“It absolutely astonishes me the complete lack of understanding or comprehension of the offense and the lack of empathy for the victims,” Superior Court Judge Stephen Taylor said of Franco-Leon, who stood before the Morris County judge on Friday for his sentencing.
Taylor sentenced Franco-Leon to nine years in jail: six years for charges of first-degree aggravated sexual assault and three years for a charge of third-degree endangering the welfare of a child. Prosecutors agreed to sentence Franco-Leon in the second-degree range on the first-degree charge.
The former educator will have to serve 85% of his six year sentence, or about five years and one month, and an additional three years with eligibility for parole after around nine months.
The sentence aligned with what prosecutors recommended in the plea offer; defense attorneys argued for Franco-Leon to serve the six- and three-year sentences concurrently.
Franco-Leon was just months into his new career as teacher and head volleyball coach at the Denville prep school in 2015 when volleyball standout Madison Rae Torres tragically died, leaving students mourning her death.
Two of those girls, one now in college and another working post-degree, appeared in court Friday, and as they wiped away tears, faced a teacher they believed they could trust.
Franco-Leon had comforted both girls after their teammates’ death and had given them his cellphone number, a move that they didn’t immediately think unusual. But it was when he would be with them alone, whether in a car parked in the street or in his classroom with the door locked, he would touch them inappropriately. He would isolate them from their family and friends and forced them to lie, the girls said as they read through prepared statements.
One of the girls, who was abused for nearly two years in cars and hotel rooms, said she was groomed by Franco-Leon and taught to accept that hiding from her friends and lying to her family was normal. She would scream in her car sometimes, she said.
Both girls admitted they still feel the effects from Franco-Leon’s abuse to this day.
“He broke me and he silenced me,” one girl said. “I struggle to trust adults, I struggle to trust myself.”
Franco-Leon’s attorneys described a once-thriving teacher who had already suffered a great deal: In addition to losing his teaching license, he has lost the ability to see his children and potentially the freedom to live in the United States.
He came to America from Ecuador when he was an infant and is facing possible deportation.
The Morristown resident, his attorneys argued, was trusted and respected by fellow inmates, guards in the jail and former colleagues.
But it was Franco-Leon’s own words that seemed to seal his own fate.
Franco-Leon told the court he “regretted” his actions, but continually stressed his “relationship” with the one girl and told her that he “wasn’t angry” at her. He apologized for their fights and “wished her the world,” ending his statement with: “You love who you love.”
Taylor seemed perplexed over Franco-Leon’s lack of understanding that he had taken advantage of children who at the time of the offenses were less than half his age. In a psychological evaluation prior to his sentencing, Franco-Leon repeatedly referenced the victims’ “mistreatment” of him, calling their behavior “toxic.” He also said he did not need sex offender treatment, Taylor said.
“He has a complete lack of understanding and comprehension of the offense and lack of empathy for the victims,” Taylor said. “A disturbing lack of insight.”
Reema Sethi Kareer, a Morris assistant prosecutor, stressed her concerns that Franco-Leon could re-offend, referring to medical reports that showed he believed his assaults upon the girls to be “consensual relationships.”
“He was minimizing his position of power and minimizing his conduct,” she said. “He manipulated them, he groomed them, he used the death of a classmate to worm his way in.”
But above all, Sethi Kareer lauded the women for their bravery standing in front of Franco-Leon and his family on Friday.
“They represent the best and brightest among our young people today,” she said, describing how one has a successful job out of college and the other is studying to become a doctor.
And while Friday’s sentence does not erase the pain, actions and abuse of power, Sethi Kareer said, the girls are able to persevere not as victims, but courageous survivors of sexual abuse.
Franco-Leon’s teaching license has already been suspended. He will be on parole supervision for life, will have to register as a Megan’s Law sex offender and is to have no contact with the victims or their family.
Franco-Leon received a master’s degree at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City. He taught and coached at Immaculate Conception High School in Montclair for several years prior to working at Morris Catholic from 2015 to 2018. Franco-Leon allegedly told police he resigned from Morris Catholic after he developed an “emotional connection” with one of the girls and obtained a teaching and coaching job at Roselle Catholic High School in Union County until he was suspended at the time of his March 2020 arrest.
The case stalled for several years after defense attorneys argued there was no proof among hundreds of pages of evidence that his client had sexually assaulted a second student. He was initially charged in a 28-count indictment, accusing him of aggravated sexual assault against both girls.