A former Kesterson Elementary School teacher accused of molesting six students always had close relationships with children.
Mark Zana, 39, was a “cool” teacher to the fifth-graders he taught, his defense attorney Tom Pitaro and prosecutor Tom Carroll agreed.
But Zana got too familiar with some students.
“Mr. Zana was very touchy. He would touch the girls on their backs, on their arms, touch their hair and touch their face,” Carroll said during opening statements in Zana’s trial, which began Tuesday.
Zana also is accused of touching students’ breasts and genitals and encouraging some students to search his pockets for candy, where the students felt his genitals.
One former fifth-grader told police in 2005 she was in Zana’s classroom with another student after school when he came up behind her and put his hand down her shirt and touched her breast and then walked away. He also did it again later that year, she alleged.
Carroll said Zana has a history of similar molestation.
In 1992, when Zana lived in Beaver County, Pa., he invited a 13-year-old girl and her boyfriend over to swim. While the boyfriend was in the room with him, Zana pushed the girl down on his bed, pinned her down, lifted her shirt and fondled her, Carroll said. That victim is expected to testify during the trial, Carroll said.
He said jurors also will hear from a witness who has told prosecutors that in 1998, when she was a second-grader at Newton Elementary School, she felt Zana’s penis when Zana had her reach into his pocket for candy during an after-school program. Zana worked at Newton until 1999 when he was transferred to Kesterson.
Zana was charged in connection with the 1998 allegation in Henderson Justice Court, but prosecutors did not get the alleged victim to testify and the case was dismissed. The court records were then sealed.
Zana is not facing charges in connection with those allegations from the 1990s.
The current trial stems from his 2005 arrest by Henderson Police. Zana is charged with nine counts of lewdness with child under the age of 16 and 11 counts of possession of child pornography, which police found on Zana’s personal computers.
Pitaro said there is no evidence to show that any of the computer pornography had been opened by Zana, and Pitaro said he planned to put witnesses on the stand to testify that the files could have been downloaded accidentally and that there is no way to prove the images depict minors.
As for molestation of students allegations, Pitaro said Zana “is a victim of a rumor that just got out of hand.”
“This was a teacher, the evidence will show, who cared,” he said. “This was a teacher, the evidence will show, who did things properly.”
Zana had a policy never to be alone with any of the students, and every alleged incident of inappropriate touching occurred when someone else was in the room, but prosecutors had not lined up any of those eyewitnesses to testify about what they saw, Pitaro emphasized.
In the incident in which Zana was alleged to have touched the fifth-grader’s breast, the girl didn’t tell anyone until after she spoke to a friend about rumors that Zana touched girls inappropriately, and that friend knew one of the other victims in the case, Pitaro said.
The other girls didn’t come forward until years after the molestation is alleged to have occurred, he said.