UPDATE: Former middle school teacher gets 25 years in prison for sex with student

Jury finds Cristina Preston guilty on all counts

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comJune 4, 2013 

Cristina Preston

A months-long affair with a student has cost former Veterans Memorial Middle School special-education teacher Cristina Preston not only her career but 25 years of her life.

A jury of six men and six women Wednesday found Preston, 45, guilty of all the charges against her: aggravated child molestation, child molestation, statutory rape and sexual assault on a person in custody.

Superior Court Judge John Allen sentenced her to life in prison with 25 years to serve before she’s eligible for parole, after which she will spend the rest of her life on probation and have to register as a sex offender.

Allen also prohibited her having contact with any minors other than her own children, and having any contact with the victim, now 15.

The jury deliberated almost six hours Wednesday after attorneys delivered their closing statements.

Preston was accused of initiating the relationship on Halloween 2011, when the student was 13. Their sexual encounters continued after the boy turned 14 five days later, but ended Jan. 30, 2012, when deputies caught the two parked together in the dark at 12:42 a.m. in Columbus’ Cooper Creek Park, said prosecutor Don Kelly. He said Preston was 44 when she started the affair.

He said Preston, who worked 19 years for the Muscogee County School District, violated the trust parents place in teachers, and that was what was “most disturbing” about her misconduct — that “one of our trust teachers was willing to cross this line with a student.”

Preston’s attorney, Clark Adams, argued the boy’s accounts of their sexual encounters were too inconsistent to believe, and that investigators browbeat the teen until he told them what he thought they wanted to hear, adding more sexual episodes as the police probe progressed.

For example, the student said nothing about Preston’s kissing and fondling his genitals in a conference room adjacent to the middle school’s library until his third interview with investigators on Feb. 15, 2012, when he was accompanied by a family attorney, Adams said. Perhaps the parents planned to sue the school district, he said: “Do you smell a lawsuit?”

Kelly stressed the oddities of the incident in which Preston was caught with the boy in Cooper Creek Park, where she drove past well-lighted spaces to reach the park’s northeast corner, and then backed her Ford Expedition up against a wood line, facing out, with the lights off.

The teen said they had sex before deputies arrived. Preston claimed they had stopped to eat food from Krystal before she took him home.

“That’s ridiculous. That defies belief,” Kelly said. “They’re back there to have sex. There is no doubt about it.” The teen, who was a seventh-grader when the affair began, testified Tuesday that other occasions they had intercourse included:

• Once in Preston’s Springridge Drive bedroom.

• Once when they were riding four-wheelers off Hancock Road, where she disrobed but he did not, and they had sex on the ground.

• Once on “hunting land” belonging to her husband’s family in Marion County, where they went to ride four-wheelers before having sex in a deer stand.

Preston’s estranged husband described the deer stand Tuesday during his testimony, saying he and his wife had built it just for her. It was 4 by 8 feet long, and they named it “Cristie’s Condo,” he said.

Preston, who resigned after her arrest, had been out on bond while awaiting trial. After Allen sentenced her Wednesday, deputies immediately took custody of her in the courtroom.

Here is today's earlier update:

A former Veterans Memorial Middle School teacher accused of maintaining a months-long sexual relationship with a student has been found guilty of each of the four felony charges she faced.

The jury of six men and six women delivered the verdict after nearly six hours of deliberation during which they initially deadlocked on one of the four charges against Cristina Preston. She now has been convicted of aggravated child molestation, child molestation, sexual assault on a person in custody and statutory rape.

Preston, formerly a special-education teacher, was accused of initiating the relationship on Halloween 2011, when the student was 13. Their sexual encounters continued after the boy turned 14 five days later, but ended in January 2012 when deputies caught the two parked together in the dark at 12:42 a.m. in Columbus' Cooper Creek Park, said prosecutor Don Kelly. He said Preston was 44 when she started the affair.

Preston's attorney, Clark Adams, has argued that the boy's accounts have been too inconsistent, and that the teen was browbeaten until he told investigators what he thought they wanted to hear, adding additional sexual encounters as the probe went on.

Here's the report on Tuesday's court testimony:

A former seventh-grader nervously testified Tuesday about the night deputies caught him and his special-education teacher in her car in Columbus’ Cooper Creek Park, an encounter that led to Cristina Preston’s facing charges for allegedly having sex with the boy during a months’ long relationship.

Now 15, the boy told prosecutor Don Kelly that he and Preston had spent the afternoon of Jan. 29, 2012, riding four-wheelers along a power easement off Hancock Road. After that, they washed the vehicles off, joined a family celebration at the teacher’s house, left together to buy food at Krystal and then went to the park in Preston’s Ford Expedition.

There Preston parked in an unlighted spot along a tree line on the park’s northeast corner, where they ate before she asked him to get in the back seat with her, he said. She pulled off his blue jeans, performed oral sex, and then they had intercourse, he said.

They were in the front seat at 12:42 a.m. when two sheriff’s deputies checking the park shined a spotlight on the Expedition, and stopped to ask why they were in a park that closed at 11 p.m.

One of those deputies, Darren Bruce, said the Ford was backed in, facing out toward the unpaved road, and had no lights on. Preston, then 44, told him the 14-year-old was her daughter’s boyfriend, and they had stopped to eat before she took him home after a day of four-wheeling. His parents knew this, and it was not uncommon, the deputy said she told him. The teenager was unable to give him a telephone number or address for his parents, explaining they had just moved, Bruce said.

The deputies filled out a “field interview card” documenting the encounter and cited Preston for having an expired car tag, Bruce said.

But the boy’s story changed when Bruce visited the teen’s parents the next day. The boy would not make eye contact and was fidgeting nervously. Then he began to cry, and would answer no more questions, Bruce said.

Bruce left, but in 15 minutes the boy’s parents summoned him back, he said. Then the boy said he and his teacher had sex in the park, the deputy said.

That was not the only time, the boy testified Tuesday, listing sexual encounters that included one at Muscogee’s Veterans Memorial Middle School, where Preston was among his teachers.

The sexual encounters started Halloween 2011, he said, when he had helped hand out candy at what was then Preston’s Springridge Drive home. She was to drive him back to his home off Moon Road, but instead stopped elsewhere in his neighborhood. “She started touching on me,” he said, adding that she fondled his genitals.

He later testified that they also had oral sex during that episode.

Though they did not have sex, they had a similar encounter in what at the time was a windowless conference room adjacent to the middle school’s library, he said. There she kissed him and again fondled his genitals. “She used her tongue,” he said of the kissing.

He said occasions they had intercourse included:

• Once in her Springridge Drive bedroom.

• Once when they were riding four-wheelers off Hancock Road, where she disrobed but he did not, and they had sex on the ground.

• Once on “hunting land” belonging to her husband’s family in Marion County, where they went to ride four-wheelers before having sex in a deer stand.

Preston’s estranged husband, Guy Preston Jr., described the deer stand during his testimony, saying he and his wife had built it just for her. It was 4 by 8 feet long, and they named it “Cristie’s Condo,” he said.

Having worked for the sheriff’s office from 1987 through 1998, the husband still had friends there, and one told him about the deputies' Cooper Creek Park report later that same day, he said. Having heard nothing about that from his wife, he went home, packed his belongings and moved out. He filed for divorce Feb. 1, 2012, though they so far remain married, he said.

Cristina Preston’s attorney, Clark Adams, hammered on inconsistencies in the boy’s statements to police, and on investigators’ pressuring him to tell them all he knew. Going over taped interviews, Adams pointed out investigators made remarks to the teen such as:

•”Do you understand that this is not just going to go away? It’s gone too far to go away.”

•”Just know that in the end, this is going to blow up. It’s going to blow up in your face and in her face.”

Adams noted also that the boy was told officers were documenting his inconsistencies, the meaning of perjury, and that he could be jailed for perjury. The more they pressured the teen, the more sexual encounters he added after initially denying them, Adams said.

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