MORRIS – A former Morris Community High School teacher was found guilty Friday on charges related to inappropriately texting a 16-year-old boy.
Steffen Balegno was charged with unlawful grooming and indecent solicitation of a child, and Judge Robert Marsaglia found him guilty on both counts. After reviewing the testimony and text messages sent by Balegno to his former student, Marsaglia said the state proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
"There is no possible inference to be drawn other than intent ... the explanations of the defense are not credible," Marsaglia said.
Upon his ruling, the crying of the victim's mother could be heard in the courtroom.
Balegno is a former industrial arts teacher who was arrested in January 2012. The accuser, now 19 and in college, was a former student and 16 when the alleged incidents occurred. The Morris Daily Herald does not identify victims of abuse.
Grundy County Assistant State’s Attorney Peter Siena said during the trial last week Balegno used his cellphone in an attempt to entice a child through texting, resulting in Balegno intending to commit criminal sexual abuse.
In his testimony, Balegno said he was trying to teach the boy a lesson in how to defend himself and say no by pushing him with the texts. The defense attorney, Raymond Wigell, called the texts between the teacher and student "banter between males."
More than 500 texts recovered from the student's phone were entered into evidence for the case. Authorities have said there were more than 5,000 texts from June to October 2010 between Balegno and the student.
The text exchanges were sometimes done in the middle of the night and contained inappropriate messages, including Balegno offering paintball equipment and money if the student would allow him to perform sexual acts on him. The student's texts to the teacher varied from sometimes initiating the inappropriateness to at one point saying "stop."
"I'm grateful to the state's attorney that it's all over and that justice is served," the victim's mother said after the ruling. "Part of me feels bad because nobody wins in this and I hope he gets the help that he needs. The only people who really do win in this are the people we saved, other victims."
Wigell questioned the politics involved in this case after the ruling.
"There is a presumption of innocence question in Grundy County," Wigell said. "Not because of the judge's ruling, but because of other political forces."
In addition to the victim testifying during the trial, another man testified that when he was a student of Balegno he also received inappropriate text messages.
Multiple Morris high school teachers, as well as Coal City fire department members, testified on behalf of the defense. Balegno was a paramedic with the fire department.
"It was clear to me for the teachers testifying, I believe it was their first time hearing what was said here," the judge said during his ruling.
Balegno's sentencing hearing is scheduled for Jan. 6. He could be sentenced to probation or up to three years in prison for the grooming charge and five years for the solicitation charge, according to the state's attorney's office.
Grundy County State's Attorney Jason Helland has previously said Balegno would have to register as a sex offender for 10 years if he was found guilty.