Two or three unidentified teenagers familiar with the Palo Alto Children's Theatre may have instigated the June 17, 2007, burglary at the theater, Police Chief Lynne Johnson disclosed Wednesday.
The burglary triggered a chain of events that led to a broader investigation of "financial crimes" at the theater, suspension of four key theater staff members and continuing turmoil in the community.
Police disclosed Tuesday that they had arrested Abraham Esquivias Torres of East Palo Alto on March 19 on suspicion of burglary. He recently admitted to taking part in the burglary and is expected to enter a plea Monday.
Torres told Palo Alto police detectives that on the evening of Sunday, June 17, he and a friend were hanging out, smoking pot in Palo Alto's Rinconada Park when they were approached by two or three teenagers.
The teens seemed to have inside knowledge of the theater, in that they pointed out where traveler's checks were located, Johnson indicated.
Torres said the teens suggested the group break into and rob the theater at 1305 Middlefield Road, a block away from the park.
Torres, who was then 20, and his friend biked while the younger teens drove to the theater, where they pried open the front door and "tampered with" the alarm, Johnson and Acting Lt. Sandra Brown reported this week.
Other reports indicated the alarm may have already been inactive or broken.
The burglars "rummaged through" several rooms, Brown said in the Tuesday-evening press release.
Torres admitted stealing power tools, a video camera and traveler's checks, Johnson said in an e-mail Wednesday.
"The younger people showed him where to find the checks," she said.
The burglary was discovered and reported the next morning, June 18, by theater staff. Initially, staff said $500 in traveler's checks, a printer and $250 in cash and coins were missing. Over a period of months, additional items were reported missing -- more than 50 items, including cameras, office equipment and four multi-media projectors worth $17,000, according to a source familiar with the investigation.
Six days later, Torres and his girlfriend at the time, Maria de Jesus Diaz, 20, of Menlo Park, were arrested in San Carlos trying to cash the traveler's checks.
Brown said this week the checks were made out to theater Director Pat Briggs and Program Assistant Richard Curtis, both still on administrative leave. That is the first report that Curtis' name was on some checks.
Torres was arrested with $1,450 in checks, Brown said. He is believed to have stashed another $2,200 in checks in the U-Haul van the pair was driving. It had been rented from Amigo Market in East Palo Alto, which has since gone out of the U-Haul business. The extra checks were discovered in August by a man who had rented the same van.
Johnson reported that the U-Haul van apparently was not involved in the burglary.
Brown said Palo Alto police had tried to contact Torres shortly after his June arrest. But detectives couldn't find Torres after he was released from jail, she said.
They do not believe Diaz was involved in the burglary.
On March 7, in ongoing coverage of the Children's Theatre investigation, the Weekly reported the June 23 arrest of Torres and Diaz. The article disclosed that Torres was back in jail after being released on bail shortly after the burglary.
A few days after the March 7 article, Johnson said officers -- possibly referring to San Carlos police -- had previously talked with Torres, but that he "didn't provide much information."
"We have moved on to more pressing things in the investigation rather than that," Johnson told the Weekly.
Yet on March 19, less than two weeks later, Palo Alto detectives went to visit Torres in San Mateo County's Maguire Correctional in Redwood City, Brown said.
It was then that Torres "readily admitted" to participating in the burglary, according to Brown. Torres initially told San Carlos police he found the checks in a trash container at the Chevron station at University Avenue at U.S. Highway 101 in East Palo Alto.
The detectives arrested him March 19 on suspicion of burglary, Johnson said in the Wednesday e-mail.
Brown said that officers had learned independently in March that Torres was incarcerated and went to interview him. She said she didn't think detectives had gotten the information from the Weekly story.
"I doubt that they're reading your papers," Brown said.
"No one's trying to hide anything," Brown said Tuesday evening when asked about the month-long delay in announcing Torres' admission and arrest. Brown, the department's media spokeswoman, said she only learned about Torres' admission a few days earlier and that she and detectives on the case were both busy.
Johnson said she had known about Torres' admission but didn't think she needed to announce it as it was part of an active investigation pointing to others possibly involved.
The only named suspect in the burglary so far is Torres.
Johnson said the link to the unidentified teenagers is from Torres' recounting of his involvement in the burglary.
Palo Alto police still haven't released any information about the broader "financial crimes" investigation. Police consider the burglary a separate but related investigation, Johnson said.
A separate "administrative investigation," probing into the employees' compliance with city rules and regulations, is also ongoing.
Theater Director Pat Briggs, Program Assistant Richard Curtis, and Costume Supervisor Alison Williams are still on leave, forbidden to return to the theater or speak about the case. The fourth suspended employee, Assistant Director Michael Litfin, died Feb. 1, one week after the theater was temporarily closed on Jan. 24. Litfin told the Weekly Jan. 25 that while he was deeply angry about the suspensions he was optimistic about his treatment and prognosis. The precise medical cause of death has not been disclosed.
As part of the administrative investigation, Curtis is suspected of accessing his computer at the theater during the Feb. 17 memorial service for Litfin.
Brown said Det. Michael Yore and other detectives are working on the "big case," the financial crimes investigation, while other detectives are working to find the other suspects in the June burglary.
In addition to demands for information from loyal theater supporters, several City Council members have expressed dissatisfaction about the Police Department's handling of the investigations.
"I'm confused by the statements that have been coming from the Police Department," Councilman Pat Burt said. "I would look for clarification from the Police Department on why we're not getting information that appears to be available that does not appear to jeopardize their ongoing investigation."
"I really just don't understand the whole situation," Councilman Jack Morton said.
"I think the whole community is very disappointed about how things have been handled. Everybody's in limbo, and everybody feels the situation is completely inexplicable and unsatisfactory."
"I think we are all restive, looking for information to come out," Councilman Greg Schmid said.