Art instructor convicted of molesting student, 12, faces life in prison

By Tonya Alanez and Jon Burstein
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted April 5, 2007

At the first utterance of the word "guilty," a courtroom deputy clicked handcuffs onto the wrists of former teacher Aaron Mohanlal.

Broward jurors agreed Wednesday with prosecutors that he had metamorphosed from sexual predator to vengeful suitor of a male student at New Renaissance Middle School. Mohanlal was convicted of 13 felony counts, ranging from lewd or lascivious molestation to child abuse.
 
After hearing the third guilty verdict, the victim, now 17, fought back tears, wiping at his nose and eyes.

After hearing the 13th and final verdict, the victim's father wrapped an arm around his son's neck.

Their three-year ordeal was finally over. A deputy led Mohanlal, 39, who had been free on bail pending conviction, across the courtroom to be fingerprinted.

Prosecutors said the first molestation happened in spring 2003, when the boy was 12, and continued in a classroom supply closet at the Miramar public school on an almost weekly basis through the next school year. When the boy rebuffed the art teacher's advances, Mohanlal printed fliers accusing the boy of molesting a dog and handed out the leaflets to students, said prosecutor Anita White. It was the humiliating fliers that ultimately forced the victim to tell his family of the abuse.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is not identifying the teen because of his age and the nature of the charges.

Prosecutors told jurors a grocery store surveillance camera captured images of the teacher copying the fliers. Police found the fliers inside his briefcase. He also was caught in a police station interview room ripping up index cards detailing his obsession with the boy.

Mohanlal, of North Lauderdale, created code names for him and his victim, calling himself "Cheese," prosecutors said.

"Your heart belongs to Cheese," he wrote on one card. "Your life belongs to Cheese."

Mohanlal's attorney, Steve Rossi, conceded Mohanlal's role in the fliers. They were a joke gone awry, he said. And the index cards demonstrated, at most, that Mohanlal and the boy might have had "a phone-sex type-of-thing going," Rossi said.

"There's nothing to indicate that he crossed that line and became a child molester," Rossi said.

Rossi argued that money also might be a motive. The teen and his parents are suing the Broward School Board. Prosecutors countered that the boy's parents want accountability for what happened to him.

The victim and his family are suing the School Board for its "failure to protect [the victim]," said civil attorney Diana Santa Maria, adding that she hopes this conviction raises awareness within the school district.

"The Broward County School Board needs to do a better job of who they hire and protecting their students and our kids," she said.

School district officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

Last month -- after the fourth district employee this year was arrested and accused of sexual misconduct -- Broward school officials said they must scrutinize the district's hiring practices. They said they might add psychological or behavioral screenings.

Circuit Judge Marc Gold will sentence Mohanlal June 14. He faces life in prison.

Tonya Alanez can be reached at tealanez@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4542.