A former Arizona teacher has been sentenced to 20 years in prison, the lowest possible sentence allowed for her crime, after pleading guilty to molesting a 13-year-old student.
Ex-Goodyear teacher Brittany Zamora will be on probation for the rest of her life and must register as a sex offender. She will get credit for the 478 days she's already served in prison.
"I am a good and genuine person who made a mistake and regret it deeply," Zamora said in a Maricopa County Superior Court hearing Friday morning. "I lived my life respecting and trying to obey every law. I'm not a threat to society."
She apologized to the victims, their families and her own family. She told Judge Sherry Stephens that her actions were out of character and said she'd like to attend counseling. She said she plans to earn a new degree in prison so she can embark on a new career when she's released.
But outside the courtroom, Zamora in a statement read by her attorney blamed the child she sexually abused, and painted herself as the victim.
"This was not between a young child and Brittany — this was a teenager," attorney Belen Olmeda Guerra said during a news conference following the hearing.
'She used her position ... to molest a child'
The sentencing marked the end of the sensational case of 28-year-old Zamora. The former Las Brisas Academy elementary teacher has drawn international attention since she was arrested more than a year ago for molesting one student and potentially grooming another.
The details were salacious. Police reports recounted how she had sex with the boy multiple times in her car and classroom — once with an 11-year-old male student in the room. The two even sexually touched each other while her sixth-grade class was in session and the other students obliviously watched a video, according to police reports.
The Zamora who sat before the judge was attentive, but appeared almost stone-faced during the emotional hearing. The front of her grown-out brown hair was weaved into a delicate braid. The ends were still the blonde shade she favored in her former life.
A few tears ran down her face while several poignant statements were made directly to her, and as her mother pleaded with the judge to give her daughter the shortest sentence possible.
Her face began to twist as the parents of the victims told her they hope she never gets to become a mother.
"Ms. Zamora lures these boys, earns their trust and then takes advantage of them purely to fill her own sexual desires," the mother of the boy Zamora asked to stand watch while she had sex with another student said in court. "She used her position of power to molest a child. She's a pedophile and no different than if a man were sitting in her place right now."
Maricopa County Prosecutor Lacey Fisher said Zamora only stopped because she was caught.
"If a (parent) hadn't discovered what was happening, there's little doubt there would have been more victims in the defendant's considerable wake," Fisher said.
Zamora pleaded guilty to sexual conduct with a minor, attempted molestation of a minor and public sexual indecency in June as part of a plea deal. She was previously charged with 15 felony counts, including eight counts of sexual misconduct with a minor and a slew of other charges.
Stephens considered a number of mitigating factors, including Zamora's lack of criminal history and the fact that screenings indicated she was unlikely to re-offend, before sentencing her to the minimum term.
She said aggravating circumstances included the fact that Zamora violated and abused her position of trust and tried to conceal the crimes.
"I find the circumstances of the offenses to be especially aggravating," Stephens said.
The maximum sentence would have been 44 years.
'Society should be protected from her'
Neither of the two victims were present in the courtroom Friday. An attorney for the boy who was molested read a statement from his mother.
"Before, he was an innocent child, and now she stole his innocence from him," the victim impact statement submitted to the court read. "I hate Brittany Zamora for what she did to my son and family. We should not suffer for someone else's sick pleasure, but we all are."
The parents of both boys had expressed concern that Zamora would get a lighter sentence because she is a young and attractive woman. The parents of the boy who was abused asked for the maximum sentence.
"Now you'll spend the rest of your youth and most of your adulthood in jail," the boy's father wrote in a statement his attorney read in court to Zamora. "My son will grow up, have a good life, get married and have children of his own. I will not allow you to interfere in my son's life further. Good triumphs over evil."
Zamora's 20-year sentence was what her attorneys and family asked for. Her attorney highlighted Zamora's lack of criminal record and a psycho-sexual evaluation that determined she had no sexual interest in children, but suffered from anxiety and depression.
Zamora's mother Darlene Irwin told the court she thought it was actually the media and the public who were the monsters in this case. She said media coverage made Zamora seem more predatory than she was.
"Please understand this is not a monster. This is a beautiful person with the kindest heart ever," Irwin said, mentioning that Zamora had been prom queen.
Zamora will likely be in her late 40s when she would be released from prison.
It's unlikely she could teach again. She already surrendered her teaching certificate. To get a new certificate in Arizona, she would have to submit to a criminal background check.
But, to the mother of the victim, that's not enough. She wrote that Zamora's plea deal was too lenient.
"She should never have children," she said. "She should never be close to children, even in her own family. ... As written, Brittany Zamora will not even be 50 when she leaves prison. I hold out few hopes that she will have truly reformed by then. I think she suffers from a mental sickness that will never go away. Society should be protected from her."
The mother wrote that her son has struggled in the year since Zamora's arrest. His life was uprooted and he changed schools in the months after. He's experienced difficulty sleeping and headaches in addition to wandering thoughts, depressed feelings and anxiety.
"I am emotionally devastated and sick at heart and devastated by worry," the mother wrote. "I fear and mourn for my son, whose childhood ended too soon."
The mother also requested Zamora be ordered to cover the cost of her son's counseling fees.
Zamora lawyer shifts blame to victim in press conference
Guerra held a news conference shortly after the sentencing. Zamora's mother and a family friend stood silently behind her.
She implied that the underage victim seduced Zamora and emphasized the fact that he was a technically a teenager.
However, the age of consent in Arizona is 17.
Guerra also accused Las Brisas Academy Principal Dickey of ignoring Zamora's requests to move the victim to another class because the victim had "boundary issues" and was "obsessed" with his teacher.
The teen persistently inquired about Zamora's identifying features, such as her birthmarks and moles, Guerra said. He also had multiple cell phones and social media accounts.
The family had Dickey's cell phone number because of their son's "many behavioral issues," according to Guerra.
Guerra said she learned this new information from Dickey during a defense interview. It's not clear why they accepted a plea deal if Zamora believed there was so much evidence in the case.
"I can truly say that I have been unfairly treated by the state of Arizona," Zamora said in her statement. "It is shocking to me how others are so quick to judge after hearing accusations and only one side of the story. I feel like I was used as a publicity act to gain attention that was often driven by money and motivation from several parties."
Guerra denied that she was blaming the 13-year-old and that she was calling a Zamora a victim when questioned about the accusations directly.
Russ Richelsoph, an attorney for the victim's father and step-mother, told The Arizona Republic they were shocked by the comments.
"To go into court and argue a client is remorseful during a sentencing hearing and to hold a press conference hours later blaming it on the victim indicates she's not truly remorseful," Richelsoph said.
"Her statement today just punctuates the fact that she has an attitude toward children that is dangerous and makes her a danger to society," he added.
From star teacher to felon
Zamora graduated from Arizona State University and took a teaching job at Littleton Elementary School in Avondale. She was awarded "Teacher of the Year" in 2016.
She was then recruited to teach at Las Brisas Academy by the principal, Timothy Dickey. He previously served as the assistant principal at Littleton Elementary.
Zamora was arrested in March 2018 and accused of having a sexual relationship with one of her sixth-grade students at Las Brisas Academy.
Zamora is also accused of sending naked pictures of herself to the student, and police records indicate she may have been attempting to groom other students for sex.
The family of the victim also filed a civil lawsuit against Zamora's husband, Daniel, and Liberty Elementary School District. The lawsuit alleges Dickey was aware of rumors for more than a month before the sexual abuse was revealed.
The lawsuit also accused Daniel Zamora of failing to alert authorities after he learned of the ongoing molestation. He recently settled for an undisclosed amount.
The lawsuit against Liberty Elementary School District is ongoing.
The family's lawsuit claims that three students in Zamora's class reported inappropriate behavior to Dickey in written statements in early February 2018. Dickey later interviewed the students and lectured them on the dangers of rumors without referring the matter to police or alerting the boy's parents.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Former teacher gets 20 years in prison for molesting student