This time a year ago, former first-grade teacher Juan Jose Soto Rangel sat in the Tarrant County Jail, charged with abusing one of his students at Turner Elementary School in Fort Worth.
The 54-year-old Mexican native sold his home to pay attorney fees and put his car up for sale because he couldn’t keep up with the payments in jail.
Today, Soto is a free man — a Tarrant County jury found him not guilty on Oct. 29 in a Fort Worth courtroom. But he's still under investigation by state officials over his teaching license, he doesn’t own a home, and he gets friends to drive him around because he doesn’t own a car.
“Weeks before my trial, I was offered plea deals, but I wouldn’t accept them,” Soto said one recent morning from a friend’s home in Keller. “I told detectives back in August  that I didn’t do anything, and I wasn’t going to prison for something that I didn’t do.”
A guilty verdict would have meant facing a maximum sentence of life in prison.
“My two sons wanted to come from Mexico to the trial, but I wouldn’t allow it,” Soto said. “I wanted to face this alone. I had done nothing wrong, but I was still scared.”
Even after the jury found him not guilty, Soto had to spend 24 more hours in jail because of a hold from the Department of Homeland Security. Soto had been in Texas on a work visa, and that remains in limbo, but he and his attorney are working to get him another type of visa to stay in Texas.
Prosecutors called the criminal case “sensitive.”
“We approach each case very seriously,” Sam Jordan, a spokeswoman with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, said Wednesday. “Our prosecutors tried this case ably, and no unexpected revelations occurred during the trial. This type of offense involves some of the most sensitive subject matter jurors consider; the jury’s decision suggests they chose to err on the side of reasonable doubt.”
Soto talked to the Star-Telegram in his first interview since jurors found him not guilty. He said the case was the first time he had ever been arrested or charged with a crime.
In the 2013-14 school year, 179 investigations were opened in Texas into allegations that teachers had inappropriate relationships with a student/minor, according to Texas Education Agency statistics. That increased to 188 in the 2014-15 school year. Of the 188, TEA officials disposed of or took action on 55 cases.
Jurors found Soto not guilty after a four-day trial, but his life will never be the same.
“It’s ruined him,” said Tim Moore of Fort Worth, Soto’s attorney. “Just the accusation was enough to destroy him.”
As of Wednesday, Soto was still under investigation by TEA officials.
“This is an open case,” TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said Wednesday in an email. “No final action has been taken by the SBEC [State Board for Educator Certification} against him at this time.”
Soto was accused of sexually assaulting a student in a classroom or in a bathroom every day until the student told a parent in the summer of 2014, according to an arrest warrant affidavit obtained by the Star-Telegram in August 2014.
The first-grader kept quiet out of fear that Soto would retaliate, the affidavit states.
But she later told a forensic interviewer that she had asked on July 22, 2014, to live with another parent to attend a different school, and then said Soto had touched private parts. She also told the interviewer he made threats about telling anyone.
Soto repeatedly denied any wrongdoing when questioned in August 2014, according to the affidavit. He was arrested Aug. 17 and charged with continuous sexual abuse of a child under 14.
Soto resigned Aug. 15, 2014, after six years in the district. Also that day, he took a polygraph test that indicated he was being deceptive when he answered questions about inappropriate touching, according to the affidavit.
“I was in shock when they arrested me,” Soto said. “I wanted to shoot myself.”
For 14 months in jail, Soto said, he mostly kept to himself, rarely talking to fellow inmates. He read book after book, including the Bible, To Kill a Mockingbird, Have a Little Faith, and Crime and Punishment.
Girlfriend Mara McClure of Keller supported Soto. They plan to marry in early 2016.
“I just know what a wonderful, wonderful honest, respectful loving person he is,” McClure said. “That’s why I was there for him.”
Moore said the girl had too many inconsistencies in her story at trial.
“She took the witness stand and the story wasn’t the same as she had told authorities,” Moore said.
Soto said he didn’t take the witness stand because the jury saw the interview he had with detectives in which he denied doing anything to the girl.
Criminal justice professor Raymond Teske said Thursday that it’s rare for such a case to go to trial.
“Most of these type of cases a defendant will reach a plea agreement,” Teske said Thursday. “But once it goes to trial, a jury will give the benefit of the doubt to a defendant.”
Teske, who was not involved in Soto’s case, has been a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville for more than 40 years.
Soto was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and grew up there. At one time, he worked as a middle school teacher, teaching mathematics for three years to seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders. He was married but later divorced. He was hired by the Fort Worth school district and moved to Tarrant County in 2008.
In training to be a Fort Worth elementary school teacher, Soto said, he was taught that he should never be in a room alone with a student or touch a student. And if he suspected a student was being abused, he must call 911 immediately.
“I had been careful my entire teaching career,” Soto said.
This month, Soto is continuing to try to repair his life and planning his marriage. Though he won’t be back in a classroom, he hopes to get a job in education
“I still believe it’s a beautiful career,” Soto said. “If someone asked me now about being a teacher, I wouldn’t discourage it. It is very rewarding.”
But he warned teachers:
“I would tell them to be aware of their students,” Soto said. “And get to know the parents of your students. Meet them more than once. If the parents of this girl had just known me, they would have known that I wouldn’t do anything to one of my students.”