MORRIS – The trial began Thursday for a former Morris Community High School teacher charged with unlawful grooming and indecent solicitation of a child who was his student.
Steffen Balegno, a former industrial arts teacher, was arrested in January 2012 and has been out on bond since. The accuser, now 19 and in college, was a former student and 16 when the alleged incidents occured. The Morris Daily Herald does not identify victims of alleged abuse.
Balegno, of Coal City, started at Morris High in August 2006.
On Oct. 25, 2010, the student’s mother notified the school of inappropriate communications between her son and Balegno, which prompted an investigation by school administration and Morris police. Balengo was suspended in November 2012 and resigned a month later.
Balegno used his cellphone in an attempt to entice a child through texting, resulting in Balegno intending to commit criminal sexual abuse, according to the indictment.
Authorities say he indicated he would pay the child to allow the defendant to perform certain acts.
In opening statements, Assistant State’s Attorney Peter Siena said prosecutors intend to show Balegno texted the student through the night and into the early morning hours, called him “sweetheart,” discussed making a sex video with him and offered money if the student would allow the teacher to perform oral sex on him.
Balegno’s attorney, Huma Rashid, called it a case of “paranoia and mistrust.” She said the defense would show a teacher, who is also a paramedic, who helped a struggling student and that resulted in a friendship misconstrued by the student’s mother.
She noted the incomplete phone records authorities have are enough to show reasonable doubt.
The former student was the first witness to testify Thursday.
He and the attorneys went over a portion of more than 500 texts obtained from phone records.
The state was able to recover only about 10 percent of more than 5,600 text messages made during a four-month period between the student and Balegno.
The student said he initiated the texting in June 2010 with Balegno while he played on the school baseball team. Balegno was an assistant coach, and the student texted him for help when he was having problems with older kids on the team.
The texting escalated into an almost daily routine that went from conversations about paintball to a “sexual tone,” according to the student. The texting ended in October 2010 when his mother overheard a late-night phone conversation between the two.
The student said the conversations became inappropriate when Balegno offered him paintballs he had at home in exchange for a back rub and later a kiss. No physical relationship ever took place, but the student said he held these early text messages against Balegno to ensure he would get the paintball equipment.
The conversations became more sexually orientated, the student said, including references to sexual favors for money.
The student responded via text to the sexual references and Balegno’s requests for inappropriate conversation, but said he became uncomfortable.
He said he never told anyone because of fear and he didn’t want Balegno to lose his job.
“I was scared, embarrassed and I didn’t know what to do,” he testified.
Defense attorney Raymond Wigell had the student clarify he chose to delete some text messages and was not asked to by Balegno, which he confirmed. He also had the student verify he sometimes initiated the texting, and read several texts where the student continued the conversation with Balegno about what he was doing or where he was.
A 22-year-old man, also Balegno’s former student, testified that he, too, received an inappropriate text from the teacher.
The two developed a friendship over several years, he said, and nothing physical ever occurred between them.
After Balegno sent him a text message referencing oral sex, the man said he cut off communication.
No charges have been filed against Balegno in regards to this man.
Other witnesses testifying Thursday included two former female students of Balegno’s called by the defense. Both testified to the teacher being supportive when they had family problems.
“He would help anyone through any problem they had,” said Megan Loftin, 23, of Morris. Her father died when she was a senior, she said, and Balegno helped her get through it.
She said he never said anything inappropriate to her.
When she was asked by the state if they ever texted, she said no.
The trial is scheduled to continue today at the county courthouse.