On a weekend in mid-June 2007 someone used a small knife or pointed tool to pick open an improperly installed main-door lock on the Palo Alto Children's Theatre, leaving with dozens of large and small items, the Weekly has learned.
That apparent break-in triggered an extended police investigation that resulted in closure of the theater Jan. 24 and suspension with pay of four key staff members. The investigation is continuing with no estimated date for completion, Police Chief Lynne Johnson has said.
After that June weekend, theater staff members continued discovering additional missing items days, weeks and months after the incident, according to reports made to the police by theater staff and observations of other theater volunteers.
And the scale of the thefts grew.
Four multi-media projectors with a combined worth of about $17,000 were discovered missing in early October; their empty boxes had been carefully placed back where they were supposed to be, according to reports made to police. They had last been used in late May and only discovered when Technical Director Michael Miranda went to get one on Oct. 4 but found only four empty boxes.
Police detectives have kept the investigation under tight wraps, funneling all queries to Johnson. Police abruptly closed the theater Jan. 24 and City Manager Frank Benest placed four top staff members on administrative leave: Director Pat Briggs, Assistant Director Michael Litfin, Costumes Supervisor Alison Williams and Program Assistant Rich Curtis. Litfin, who was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, died a week later.
Litfin told the Weekly on the Friday after he had been suspended that he was angry about the suspension. He said he and Briggs were the ones who reported the thefts and missing items as they were discovered, and who followed up with regular queries about the status of the investigation.
The Weekly learned last week that the probe included sending a detective sergeant and forensic accountant to Texas last November to interview former Arts & Culture Director Leon Kaplan. Kaplan, in a telephone interview from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land disclosed that investigators' questions reached back to a major renovation of the Children's Theatre in the early 1990s. Questions also covered surplus-costume sales by the Friends of the Children's Theatre nonprofit group.
But a major element of the investigation was an extensive list of items discovered missing after the weekend of June 15-16.
One list of missing property, undated but believed to have been prepared in late June or early July, included more than 50 items, from cameras, voice recorders and traveler's checks to incidental office equipment, according to one source familiar with the case.
Some of the traveler's checks -- left over from parent-funded trips to take the young actors to see performances in Ashland, Ore. and Southern California or to perform in Georgia -- turned up in San Carlos less than a week after the apparent break-in and resulted in the arrest of a young couple who tried to cash them. The man, 20, told police he found them in a trash can in East Palo Alto. (See accompanying story, "Theater-burglary trail leads to U-Haul vans.")
Other checks mysteriously showed up in August on the floor of a U-Haul van rented in East Palo Alto. The approximately 40 checks, most in $50 denominations, totaled about $2,200, according to a source. The discovery of the van connection possibly indicates how items were transported from the theater in June.
All the checks were reportedly made out to Briggs.
Kaplan said it was standard procedure on such trips for parents to write checks to cover expenses for their children, and for the City of Palo Alto to convert them to traveler's checks in Briggs' name so she could cash them on the trip. He said theater staff also typically paid their own expenses. Other checks, which had not been stolen, were found in Briggs' office during the investigation.
The sequence of the discovery of missing items illustrates at least part of the complexity of the police investigation:
On June 18, theater staff discovered things missing from the apparent weekend break-in and reported the thefts to police at 10:30 a.m. The police log entry reads: "Unknown suspect entered building and took a printer, cash, coins and checks." Tiny scratch marks on the main-door lock indicate that a small knife or similar pointed instrument was used to open the lock.
On June 23, San Carlos police arrested the young couple trying to cash traveler's checks.
A preliminary police report was prepared, dated July 3, listing cash and some missing items. An undated list of 50-plus items was prepared.
On July 7, Technical Director Miranda reported discovering that a high-end video tripod was missing from the Children's Garden area and added it to the list of missing items.
On Aug. 4, a renter of the U-Haul van reported via a voicemail to Briggs that he found 40 checks scattered in the back.
On Oct. 4, Miranda discovered that the four multi-media projectors were missing from their boxes. The projectors reportedly had been given to the theater by the Friends of the Children's Theatre. They were last used in late May, suggesting to theater staff they may have been taken in the mid-June break-in. The neatness of the replaced boxes also prompted theater staff to relate to police that whoever was responsible "knew the theater operation quite well," possibly indicating someone who had been involved with the theater.
In November, detective Sgt. Michael Yore interviewed Kaplan in Texas.
On Jan. 24, police closed the theater; Benest suspended the four top staff members. Police searched the homes of three of the four and searched seven storage units linked to the theater.
On Feb. 13, Chief Johnson issued a general statement about the investigation in which she noted that "tens of thousands of dollars" were involved in the probe. She has been unable to provide an estimate of when the investigation might conclude. Release of the statement was delayed a day pending approval by the city manager's office.
Johnson is out of town this week and could not be reached for comment. All media queries relating to the investigation status are routed to her.