Former school bus driver pleads guilty to sexual abuse; victim says trauma will haunt her the rest of her life

Michael A. Gaston

OREGON – A former school bus driver admitted Wednesday that he sexually abused a teenage girl in May 2016.

Michael A. Gaston, 68, pleaded guilty to the Class 2 felony offense of aggravated criminal sexual abuse as he appeared with his attorney, Aaron Buscemi, in front of Judge John Redington.

Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Leisten told Redington the state would dismiss six counts of criminal sexual assault – Class 1 felonies – in return for Gaston’s plea of guilty to a seventh charge that was filed Wednesday.

In that count, Gaston was charged with committing a sexual act for his own gratification with the girl, who was between the ages of 13 and 17.

When asked by Redington if he had agreed to plead guilty, Gaston replied, “Yes, Your Honor.”

Gaston was a bus driver with Forrestville Valley School District 221, but was fired March 1, 2023, according to school board meeting minutes.

Buscemi said Gaston and the girl knew each other at an “area school.” He said Gaston had no other criminal history, except the charges he was currently facing.

Valerie Letko, a Chicago attorney representing the victim, read a statement from the girl to the court. In that statement the girl said Gaston first sexually abused her 7 years ago while on a camping trip and had groomed her when she was a vulnerable teenager.

“He came into my life when I needed a father figure the most, and unfortunately, he took advantage of that while teachers and school administrators turned a blind eye to every red flag,” Letko, an attorney at Stinar Gould Grieco & Hensley, read to the court.

“The trauma I endured will haunt me for the rest of my life,” Letko said, reading from the victim’s statement. “I was brave enough to find my voice and speak out.”

Redington agreed to sentence Gaston to 48 months of probation with several conditions, including that he successfully complete specialized sex offender therapy as ordered by the court and the Ogle County Probation Department. Gaston had agreed to a sex offender evaluation by a licensed counselor with the Sex Offender Management Board in October 2023. That evaluation was not made public and was sealed in court records.

According to the Illinois Department of Corrections website, the board was created “to standardize the evaluation, treatment and management of sex offenders at each stage of the criminal, juvenile justice, or mental health systems, so that those offenders will curtail recidivistic behaviors and the protection of victims and potential victims will be enhanced. The Board provides education and training to parole, probation, law enforcement, treatment providers, and others involved in the management of sex offenders.”

Redington also instructed Gaston to have no contact with the victim without consent of the probation department and pay any and all costs related to the evaluation and/or treatment for himself as well as the victim.

A sentence of 180 days in jail was delayed until May 2028, at the end of the probation period. If Gaston completes the probationary period without any violations he will not have to serve the jail time.

Redington also ordered Gaston not to enter into any employment that allows him access to minors under the age of 18 without approval of the probation department. And the judge barred Gaston from having any contact with minors without the consent of the court or probation department.

Another condition of his probation forbids him from possessing any sexually explicit materials including books, magazines, videos or computer transmissions as well as any such information stored on electronic devices. Gaston must also submit to any examination of any of those devices or platforms as requested by the probation department.

And he must also complete HIV and STD testing and DNA indexing within 45 days and pay $250 to the Illinois State Police Offender DNA Identification Fund.

Redington said fines and costs totaling $2,809 would be covered by Gaston’s bond that he posted after his arrest in 2023.

Gaston was initially charged May 1, 2023, with six counts of criminal sexual assault. According to those court documents, the incidents occurred in May and December 2016 as well as January, February and March 2017. He pleaded not guilty to the charges May 26, 2023, and had requested a jury trial.

The charges came after Forreston police received a report of a sexual abuse incident and began an investigation, Chief Chris Thiel said in a 2023 news release.

Gaston was released from custody after posting 10% ($10,000) of a $100,000 bond, and remained free as his case progressed through the court system.

Earleen Hinton

Earleen Hinton

Earleen creates content and oversees production of 8 community weeklies. She has worked for Shaw Newspapers since 1985.