Judge will decide next month if Atwater coach will be tried on molestation charges

MERCED -- An Atwater softball coach accused of child molestation appeared in Merced County Superior Court on Monday, and a judge set Oct. 21 as the date to determine whether there's enough evidence to take his case to trial.

Although the hearing in the case of Henry Esparza Jr. was supposed to take place Monday, visiting Judge Glenn Ritchey told those gathered in the courtroom that a scheduling miscommunication had occurred.

Dressed in a gray jailhouse jumpsuit and wearing shackles, Esparza sat quietly with his attorney, Modesto-based attorney Kirk McAllister, throughout the brief hearing.

Esparza was arrested April 25 at his home in the 200 block of Pacemaker Drive in Atwater for allegedly molesting a 14-year-old girl over a period of five years, according to Atwater police.

He is facing six counts of child molestation.

Esparza worked a year ago as a boys basketball coach for the city's recreation youth basketball program, a job he had done for two or three years. He was also known as a coach for a traveling fast-pitch softball team and regularly rented playing fields from the city.

The Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office is handling the case at the request of Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II because Esparza, 41, is the brother-in-law of Merced County Superior Court Judge Marc Garcia.

Morse had said earlier this year that the relationship between Garcia and Esparza presented a conflict that would preclude his office from handling the case.

On a similar note, Merced County Superior Court Presiding Judge John Kirihara also said earlier this year that an outside jurist is handling the case to avoid any potential conflict of interest. Ritchey is a visiting judge from Stanislaus County Superior Court.

Esparza remains at the John Latorraca Correctional Center in lieu of $870,000 bail.