By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES, March 4 (Reuters) - Two Los Angeles-area teachers pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges they provided cocaine and alcohol to underage students on a beach camping trip where one of the instructors had sex with a 17-year-old boy, prosecutors said.
Melody Suzanne Lippert, 38, and Michelle Louise Ghirelli, 30, joined about five students on camping trips at San Clemente Beach in Orange County during Thanksgiving and winter breaks last year, said Orange County Deputy District Attorney Kristin Bracic.
Prosecutors say the two teachers provided the teens with alcohol, cocaine and marijuana, and that Ghirelli had sex with the 17-year-old boy. Both women pleaded not guilty to all the charges during a court appearance in Newport Beach, Bracic said.
The two teachers, who are free on bail, were arrested in January in a case that gained prominence after one of their colleagues, a teacher at South Hills High School in suburban West Covina, came to their defense on social media and was suspended by his school district for appearing to blame the students involved.
Lippert and Ghirelli were previously charged with misdemeanor counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. But on Tuesday, prosecutors brought several additional felony charges against the two women.
Ghirelli now faces charges of unlawful sexual intercourse, furnishing a controlled substance to a minor and oral copulation of a minor, while Lippert is charged with unlawful sexual intercourse for facilitating Ghirelli's sexual liaison with the 17-year-old and with furnishing a controlled substance to a minor, prosecutors said.
"The investigation was not complete when we filed the misdemeanor charges, now that the investigation has been completed we're comfortable moving forward on the felony charges," Bracic said.
Ghirelli's attorney, Stephan DeSales, said there is a "real question" over whether she knew the 17-year-old boy she is accused of having sex with was underage.
"There's five guys there and at least three of them, maybe four, were 18 years old," he said. "One of them was a college student."
An attorney for Lippert, who faces a maximum sentence of more than 10 years in prison if convicted, could not be reached for comment. Ghirelli faces a maximum of over 11 years in prison if convicted, prosecutors said. (Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)
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