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Accused Livingston teacher faces judge

A Livingston High chemistry teacher accused of storing explosive and dangerous chemicals in her classroom made her first in-person appearance Wednesday in Merced County Superior Court.

Wearing a red jailhouse uniform, Japhia Smith Huhndorf said little during the routine court hearing, whispering occasionally to her new attorney, Paul Fromson of Merced. Huhndorf had previously been represented by Fresno-based attorney Ernest Tuttle.

Because Huhndorf has a new attorney, Judge Marc Garcia pushed back her next hearing to July 27, allowing Fromson time to review all the paperwork and reports in the case. Fromson declined comment Wednesday.

Before Wednesday's hearing, Huhndorf had only appeared in court on a television monitor, via a live video feed broadcast from the Merced County Jail.

The 34-year-old Atwater resident is accused of six felony counts, including child endangerment and possession of explosives in a school or public setting. She has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

Deputy District Attorney Monika Saini is prosecuting the case.

Huhndorf was arrested in late May after Livingston police reported finding a vial of nitroglycerin in her chemistry lab. That happened after she'd already been arrested on suspicion of helping three students inhale chloroform.

Livingston police reported finding four milliliters of nitroglycerin her chemistry lab. The discovery prompted school officials to evacuate the campus of about 1,100 students and end classes for the day. The Merced Police Department's bomb squad also responded to safely dispose of the nitroglycerin.

Investigators say Huhndorf told police she had allowed Advanced Placement chemistry students to choose subjects for a class project — and one of her students chose to focus on explosives. She found directions for making nitroglycerin on the Internet and made a small amount for the student's experiment, authorities say.

Chloroform is an organic compound that's been used as an anesthetic to depress the central nervous system, according to court documents. Anyone who inhales its fumes can pass out. Nitroglycerin is used medicinally by people with certain heart conditions, but the size of the dose can turn it from therapeutic to toxic.

Huhndorf remains at the John Latorraca Correctional Center in lieu of $500,000 bail. If convicted, she faces a maximum of 12 years, eight months in prison.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsun-star.com.

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