The Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office plans to drop its felony sexual assault case against a Palo Alto Unified School District middle school teacher due to "insufficiency of evidence," the deputy district attorney in charge of the case said on Monday, April 24.
Peter Michael Colombo, 55, was charged with one count of aggravated sexual assault (rape) of a minor by force or fear, related to an alleged incident at the former Jordan Middle School (now named Greene Middle School), where Colombo was a teacher. The attack allegedly occurred in the locker room during the 2001-2002 school year.
Colombo pleaded not guilty during arraignment on April 3.
Palo Alto Unified School District administrators notified police of the accusation against Colombo in late January 2022 after receiving an email from a husband who alleged his wife, now in her 30s, was sexually assaulted by Colombo when she was 11 years old. The school district initially placed Colombo on paid leave. After charges were filed, the district placed him on unpaid leave, school district Superintendent Don Austin said. The assault charge was filed on June 16, 2022, according to court documents.
The decision to drop the charges came after Colombo's March 21 preliminary examination, during which the student and Palo Alto Detective Yolanda Franco-Clausen testified. The court also considered a submitted 44-page transcript and ruled the case against Colombo could move to trial.
But Nikhil Warrior, Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney in charge of the case, said Monday that his office would no longer pursue Colombo's prosecution and intends to tell the court at the next court hearing that all charges would be dropped.
"It is our intention to dismiss the charges for insufficiency of the evidence at the next court date," he said in an email.
"The District Attorney's Office remains committed to investigating and prosecuting sexual assault and ensuring these individuals are held accountable. In this case, I want to thank Jane Doe for her courage in coming forward and detailing what happened to her. One of the many pernicious aspects of these types of crimes, particularly when inflicted on children, is the multiple forms of trauma they inflict — trauma which can impact a victim's ability to remember aspects of their attack," he said.
Colombo and his attorney, Joshua Bentley, didn't return requests for comment about the upcoming dismissal.
The husband of Colombo's former student told this news organization that while he and his wife were disappointed by the decision to drop the charges, they felt it was the most likely scenario given the age of the case and the lack of other accusers coming forward. The husband added that he took "some small solace" in the fact that his wife's story has been made public, even if the criminal case appears to be over.
The end of Colombo's criminal case isn't the end of an inquiry into the sexual assault allegation against him, however. Austin said the school district will conduct its own investigation of Colombo, having been asked by police to delay the district's investigation while the criminal case was underway. Colombo isn't guaranteed a return to his job.
"The decision to drop the charges doesn't automatically trigger a reinstatement. We will begin our own process," Austin said.
It's too early to say who would perform the investigation, Austin said.
"Typically, we would use an outside investigator on something this big."
Colombo was the subject of multiple complaints against him regarding inappropriate or offensive comments made to students and criminal convictions during a 30-year period, according to a Weekly investigation. The convictions included trespassing on a woman's property, DUI and vandalism. He falsified a 1995 substitute teaching credential application by omitting his criminal history.
At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, parents accused Colombo of rudeness and inappropriate comments and behavior toward students, a Weekly investigation found.
"His history has to be a factor," Austin said of the district's decision about whether to reinstate Colombo.
Colombo taught and coached within the school district, including at Palo Alto High School, for 24 years. His earlier teaching history includes Kennedy Middle School in the Redwood City School District and Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Colombo will remain on leave, but the district will check with its attorney regarding whether the continued leave will be paid or unpaid, Austin said.
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