SANTA ANA (CNS) - A well-known Orange County water polo coach was sentenced Friday to 18 years and four months in prison for sexual assaults on nine girls he coached and a misdemeanor assault on a 10th.
Bahram Hojreh, 46, was convicted in November of 22 felony counts, including lewd or lascivious acts with a minor under 14, lewd acts on a child 14 or 15, sexual penetration by a foreign object of a minor and sexual battery by fraud for attacks on nine victims. He was acquitted of sexually assaulting a 10th girl, but jurors convicted him of misdemeanor counts of simple assault in her case.
Multiple victims and their parents made statements to Orange County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Menninger on Friday, describing the defendant as a "master manipulator," who tricked the victims into accepting groping as a way to toughen them up for physical competition in matches.
In a sentencing brief, Deputy District Attorney Raquel Cooper said "many of the victims involved in this case were unable to even estimate the number of times defendant Hojreh touched their breasts, their vagina or penetrated their vagina during the time frames specified."
Two other alleged victims testified in the trial that they were molested, but Hojreh was not charged in those cases.
Cooper requested the maximum punishment of 25 years in prison.
Hojreh "manipulated and tricked his victims into submitting to and enduring his abuse under the guise that it would help further their water polo aspirations only to pave the way for his continuous abuse," Cooper said.
On Friday, the mother of one victim read statements from a few of her daughters and recounted how the abuse of one daughter led their idyllic family down a spiral of anguish and anger. One of the girls said, "It's so unbearable to see someone you love in so much pain. I wish I could take it from her."
Another sister said when the news of the abuse broke in her home she was "too little to understand sex abuse." One day, out of frustration when she was 7, she used her mother's phone to Google some of the things she had heard discussed in the home and, "I couldn't get those disturbing images out of my mind."
The mother recounted how her daughter revealed the abuse to her one morning when she said she could not go back to school. The girl's mother said she was sexually abused herself as a child so she was "hypervigilant" about sexual predators, but was fooled anyway by the defendant.
"He had the audacity to commit these acts under our watch," she said.
The anguish from the abuse caused "friction" in her marriage and "fractured my faith," she said.
She said she was active in her church, school and socializing with her friends, but then she "continued to withdraw" from everyone.
One victim said she repeatedly asked Hojreh to stop groping her during a practice, but he replied that it was her fault for not having the proper technique to avoid the conflict in the pool.
"He taunted me and then he blamed me," she said.
Another victim said, "He disguised his sexual abuse as a technique to make us stronger competitors." She said she regularly leans on therapy to cope and sometimes struggles in college, "And now I worry about the people who worry about me... It's sad to think who I could have been without this trauma."
One victim's father told the judge how when allegations surfaced about another coach accused of having a sexual relationship with one of the players, Hojreh would visit with the parents and assure them he was "defending our girls and water polo," but, "He was the perpetrator. ... In the end, I've never met a man who was such a master manipulator."
Another victim described how she agonized about going to practices for three years.
"For three years I was scared to go to practice, scared to go to sleep," she said. "There were days I couldn't get out of bed. ... You made me despise my body."
She said she lost 40 pounds during high school because of her anxiety.
Another parent said that as a single, working mom she would drop her daughter off at practice, thinking she was safe.
"I left her in Bahram's care never once thinking he was molesting her and mentally and physically abusing her," she said.
Another victim said she was molested when she was 6 to 9 years old, so right away she felt the coach was being inappropriate. She said she joined the team to be with her friends and was new to water polo.
Hojreh told her he noticed she was "sensitive about touch," but admonished her that she "had to get used to it," the victim said.
"I was new and I didn't want to tell everyone I thought the coach was a pervert," she said. "I sensed it, but I thought it was my fault."
Eventually she did speak up about the touching, she said.
"I said I feel like him touching us is not OK and they said that's how he coaches," she said.
About 45 letters were written on behalf of Hojreh and sent to the judge appealing for mercy.
Defense attorney John Barnett argued during trial that the allegations were driven by an attempt to win money in a civil suit. He also cast doubt on the allegations, noting the practices were open to parents.
Barnett said his client is a "famed water polo coach" who has coached the sport for 27 years in a career that included 10 national championships.
Hojreh coached the teens on the International Water Polo team at the Joint Forces Training Base pool in Los Alamitos, "where most of the abuse occurred," and at Kennedy High School in La Palma, Cooper said.
"It took place during one-on-one instruction in 2012 through the summer of 2017 and beginning of 2018," Cooper said.
Hojreh started coaching at Kennedy in the summer of 2017, she said.