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Monday, Aug. 25, 2014 03:03 pm

Former teacher pleads guilty

Seven years for sex crimes

“Believe it or not, I care for you. I love you. You’re like a son to me.”

Not words one expects to hear a child molester tell his victim after finally being held accountable years after the fact. But that’s what Steven R. Battles, a former Springfield school teacher, told his victim in the courtroom Monday as the boy-turned-man slowly shook his head and otherwise remained stoic as he looked straight back at his abuser.

Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Leslie Graves sentenced Battles to seven years after he pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse for the crimes committed between 1999 and 2002, starting when the victim was ten years old and ending when he was 12. Not until he entered college did the victim reveal what had happened when he would spend the night at the home of Battles, whose children were friends with the boy. Battles in his guilty plea admitted to fondling the boy, and prosecutors dismissed a more serious charge of predatory criminal sexual assault that would have brought a longer prison stint. With time off for good behavior, Battles will be free in less than four years.

“I’m a broken person,” Battles told the judge. “I have issues that I deal with daily.”

Assistant state’s attorney Sheryl Essenburg said that there was more than one victim, including a man who had agreed to testify that Battles had also molested him when he was a boy.

“That put us over the hump,” Essenburg told the victim’s family on Monday after Battles was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. “He realized then that he couldn’t beat this thing.”

Essenburg said that the other victim did not want charges filed in his own case. She also said that Battles, who underwent two evaluations by mental health experts who prepared reports for the court, acknowledged that he had engaged in a pattern of inappropriate behavior.

“He admitted there had been multiple children over the course of his lifetime,” Essenburg said after sentencing. “We don’t know how many, or who these children were.”

For years, Battles had insisted that he was innocent, going so far as to sue his accuser for defamation after charges were filed in 2011. In the criminal case, he took a polygraph test, then expected charges to be dismissed after his attorneys provided the results to Essenburg.

“This was a heinous act,” Essenburg told the judge in arguing for seven years, the high end of the range for a crime that could have been punished with probation. “Perhaps if he had been forthcoming and taken responsibility, perhaps we might have taken a different approach. … I think a seven-year sentence is more than generous for Mr. Battles.”

In addition to a corroborating witness, the prosecution also had a letter of apology that Battles had written to his victim years after the crimes in response to the victim confronting him. The letter didn’t contain any details about the behavior that prompted the apology, Essenburg said.

“It was written in such a way that you couldn’t tell what it (the conduct) was,” Essenburg said. “He later denied that he had written it.”

James Elmore, Battles’ attorney who took over the case in 2012, told Graves that his client had paid “a handsome sum” for initial legal advice that had only prolonged the case. He said that it took time to build trust with his client.

“He was naïve to the process,” said Elmore, who asked for five years. “If he had had competent representation, he would have gotten probation.”

Not so, said Graves, who nonetheless criticized Battles’ first attorneys from the bench.

“From my perspective, Mr. Battles was not getting appropriate legal advice,” the judge said. “I disagree with Mr. Elmore, based on the charges, that there was a high likelihood of probation.”

Then she turned her attention to Battles, who had just told the court that he accepted full responsibility and that he has “issues.”

“I know about your issues,” the judge said. “I’ve read about them. I could sense your issues before I read about them. … What you did to this young man was create a lifetime of issues for him. What you did was every parent’s nightmare.”

Battles appeared to have trouble controlling his emotions as he addressed the court in a sometimes breaking voice.

“There’s no one to blame for this except me,” Battles said. “I was the adult and I acted like a child. I did things that were sinful. I did things that were criminal. I don’t blame Mrs. Essenburg. I don’t blame (the victim).”

Battles, 59, said he initially fought the charges because he was afraid that he would spend the rest of his life in prison.

“It frightened me and it scared me and my (legal) counsel was not what it should have been,” Battles told the judge.

Battles had engaged in questionable behavior while employed by the Springfield School District that ultimately led to his termination in 2009.

While teaching at Butler Elementary School between 2000 and 2004, Battles was warned by a principal that he should not allow students to sit on his lap. It is unclear whether the district did anything other than tell Battles to stop.

Battles, who frequently moved between schools during his 17-year career with the district, came under scrutiny in 2005 after a litany of inappropriate behavior that included Battles giving back rubs to male students in the library at Washington Middle School. Battles also ignored a request from a parent who asked that his son not spend time with Battles in the school library when the boy wasn’t in class, and he telephoned students and received calls from them outside of school. He also gave gifts to male students, and when district officials confronted him about the presents, he said that he could do whatever he wished with his own money. Battles also discussed sex and sexual preference with students, according to district files.

The district settled on a ten-day suspension for transgressions that surfaced in 2005 but reduced the suspension to seven days after Battles filed a grievance with the help of the Springfield Education Association, the union that represents teachers.

Battles transferred to Jefferson Middle School after the 2005 investigation, and the district appointed him yearbook instructor at Jefferson in the fall of 2006, with $2,000 in extra pay for his added duties. He was fired in 2009, after a Jefferson student complained that Battles had tried to touch him on the leg. He had also been giving money and gifts to students and had exchanged telephone calls with one boy more than 100 times in a two-month period.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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