For more than two hours May 27, a series of prosecution and defense witnesses produced two starkly different accounts of Justin Walters before he was sentenced to four years in prison and lifetime probation for sexually grooming and abusing a student starting when she was 14.
Among those who testified was his victim, who had been a student at Desert Garden Montessori in Ahwatukee, where Walters had been a teacher from 2017 until December 2020. During that December, the girl told police about the sexual relationship, which began in June 2019 after Walters spent three months grooming her through lurid emails and other social media messages.
The witnesses’ testimony came atop a lengthy pre-sentence memorandum filed by his attorney, Colin O’Sullivan, that provided a detailed account of his client’s life. It was accompanied by more than a dozen testimonials – including some from his former colleagues at Desert Garden.
In that memorandum, Sullivan told Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Fish that Walters “was undoubtedly influenced by unresolved emotional problems which Justin was unaware at the time” that he repeatedly engaged in sexual acts with his victim.
“To be sure, Justin is not a sexual predator,” O’Sullivan wrote. “Rather, he believed, albeit misguided, that he was in a consensual relationship with the victim whom he believed he loved.
“What he did not realize at the time, but now understands, is that Justin made several emotionally charged decisions because he was needy for love and affection that he felt he was not getting from home, which in turn stemmed from his unresolved depression and low self esteem.”
Several witnesses, including his father, buttressed O’Sullivan’s description of Walters, 29, of Tempe, as someone who grew up “surrounded by the love and care of his parents, siblings, and grandparents,” “maintained a strong work ethic” and “has an extensive history of serving underprivileged communities, both at home and abroad.”
Desert Garden social worker wrote that Walters “is someone whose presence brings joy to others and longtime Desert Garden teacher called him “an asset to our community.”
The victim and prosecution witnesses provided a darker portrait.
A Desert Garden teacher said, “He has the uncanny ability to connect with children on a personal level that we previously thought was a beautiful quality of quality about him.”
She said students reacted to him “as if he were the Pied Piper” and “looked up to him as a mentor and admired him and wanted to be who he was.”
“Others might share that Justin has found his way back to God, that he is serving his community, that he is remorseful for what he has done,” she said. “But his charming and charismatic personality are now … what actually make him a dangerous person in our society.
“His ability to mask what he’s really doing at any given time is truly worrisome. He kept a secret sexual relationship with a child that grew up in our community, not only under his parents’ roof but under our school’s roof.”
“He has negatively impacted countless families with his action,” she continued. “Some amazing dedicated teachers resigned because they were worried that his actions reflected upon them. Students and families unenrolled, leaving their community and their support system behind. Students to this day still cry on campus at the mere mention of Justin’s name. … Students feel betrayed by him.”
The victim’s stepmother said she was “shocked at how many people are here in support of him.”
“I’m not sure what lies they had to tell themselves in order to be here today or what manipulation took place. I would hope that they do themselves a service by reading the police report in full,” she said.
The victim’s mother said, “I sent my child to school there because I was told and shown it was a helpful, kind, loving educational school for her. I did not send her there so a teacher could make her a sexual partner. … I can’t even express like how much anger and sadness and betrayal I feel and I tried to talk to my child and she doesn’t want to talk to me about any of this stuff.”
The victim, who is now 18, was the final prosecution witness to testify and noted she was “reliving the worst moment of my life.”
She described in graphic detail how he started his seduction as “the first boy to call me beautiful, to make me feel confident about myself” and how it evolved from intimate touches and salacious messages into a sordid first sexual encounter on an air mattress in his pickup truck that was nothing short of rape – though she said “I would do anything to please him.”
“He placed himself in a position of a trusted and caring person who could save me from my situation and give me the love that I wanted,” the victim said. “He made me believe that I was special. When you’re young and insecure and seeking validation, that’s what you’re looking for. He knew this and used it against me.”
She recalled how Walters “told me I was lucky to have him and he was sacrificing so much to be with me and I should be grateful for that. He made me feel like I was in the driver’s seat, that it couldn’t be wrong: I was the one choosing it. I was made to feel like everything was my responsibility, keeping this a secret. And I believed him.”
She described how he was “extremely touchy” with other girls at the school and ”even wrestled with them while they were in bikinis on a school trip.”
Walters would ask girls for pictures of their dates and details about their sex life, bought a student an emergency contraceptive pill during a school trip to Puerto Rico. She recalled how he gave students a lift in his pickup truck and had them look into the console where he had a stack of condoms.
“He would beg me to sleep with other men in front of him,” she testified. “He convinced me that this relationship was just special, that it wasn’t a problem and it was socially acceptable in other parts of the world.”
As the pressure of his abuse took its mental and emotional toll on her, the victim said, she told Walters she wanted to tell her girlfriend. He told her it would kill his mother, who owns the school where he was a teacher, and that it would ruin the school.
And besides telling detectives she was lying, Walters also told her to tell them she had made it all up.
After several witnesses, including his father, tested on his behalf Walters cited Biblical passages and told the judge “I have to work to pay back the debt that I owe my family.”
He talked of how every morning “I wake up and humble myself before God” and that “it was also a selfish human being that made these poor choices.”
He made repeated references to God, saying “as I continue to learn from what I’ve done, I will use that to help other broken men like me to heal …and heal all the victims of my crime.”
But by the end of his semi-coherent address, Walters never acknowledged his victim.