News

Unknown teens linked to theater burglary

'Two or three' teenagers with inside knowledge of Palo Alto Children's Theatre operations may have instigated fateful June 17 burglary

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.

ARCHIVE: Children's Theatre investigation

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 24, 2008 at 3:04 pm

Now we are beginning to see something that makes sense. Teens who possibly were PACT kids. Sounds like an inside job from the bottom to the almost top.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by litebug
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 25, 2008 at 2:08 am

Better not speculate...that got me into a lot of trouble!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by fireman
a resident of another community
on Apr 25, 2008 at 6:48 am

If the people who might have been involved are unknown, How do they know they are teens?

Reaching for straws??? again?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Deep Throat
a resident of another community
on Apr 25, 2008 at 1:16 pm

All of Torres alleged stories come from the Palo Alto police.

The latest story is that some unidentified teens told Torres where he could steal something and the teens did what? -- The teens didn't steal anything? the teens stole something?

Just what time of day on Sunday did this encounter with the teens at Rinconada Park occur? Were there activities going on at Lucie Stern Community Center? If so, when did they end and when did all the participants leave? When did the contract janitors arrive and leave?

The Weekly article says Torres "readily admitted" the theft, but the press release says Torres "recently admitted" the theft. Is that a transciption error, or is there another source of the language "readily admitted", since it is attributed to Acting Lt. Sandra Brown, who wrote the press release but did not interview Torres?

I am always suspicious when someone like the theater employees appear to be accused of a crime that they can easily defend themselves against, such as the theft now attributed to Torres, and then the employees are accused of a vague crime that they can't defend themselves against because they don't know what they are being accused of.

Is Sgt. Yore working for the Police Chief or for the City Manager?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by guy
a resident of another community
on Apr 25, 2008 at 4:31 pm

I wonder why "perp walk" and all the other people who were so sure that this robbery was an inside job done by Pat, Allison and Richard haven't commented on these new revelations... Where'd everybody go?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Just Waiting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 27, 2008 at 10:29 am

> Where did everybody go?

From the article --

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
---

When the details of the "financial crimes" are released .. there will plenty of time to say "we told you so" ..


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Tim
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 28, 2008 at 10:41 am

My kids performed in several plays at PACT, and I have to confess, I found Michael and Pat to be very rude and arrogant...anyone else ave this experience, or was it just me?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by good grief!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 28, 2008 at 11:08 am

Oh, please! It's bad enough to hear all the sugary syrupy accolades for these employees. Let's not fill this space with insults, too. Keep personal judgements of them out of it (innocent until proven guilty) at least until the police are done doing their thing.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by narnia
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 29, 2008 at 11:06 am

Tim,

I have not know anybody I ever came across ( I am in my 50's) as irascible, arrogant, rude, insulting, as michael liftin. In the mid-eightys I took a large group of school children to watch a play at PACT. We had about one chaperon for each 6 children (6/7 year olds). As I inquired respectfully, meekly and patiently wether it would be possible to reserve seats together because of the difficulty in managing the group if we were separated, I was met by an innapropriately angry Michael to whom my inquiry had evidently been related to. In front of some of the children with a foaming mouth from which adjectives fell cascade like Mr. Liftin decried my inquiry as an attempt to subvert the PACT policies and I as a someone whose inquires had the response I deserved since I and my group were behaving like elitists who wanted for themselves what nobody else had: assigned seats. As I tried to explain that we were just asking as to the possibility for safety and logistic reasons and all PACT had to do was to say "not possible" he continued his absurd and adjective laden tirade and I turned my back on him, shepparded the children out telling them " this man is out of control, we better go". We returned with our tickets on the play day and queued up for about 4 hours (very civilized making children and chaperons do this...that must be why in the eminent theaters tickets are always assigned ...) and when the doors opened we just couldn't cope with the crowd going forward, so some of us didn't get to seat and see the play...PACT seemed to me then, not so much "managed" but dictated by Liftin.

I didn't relate this incident at the time of Liftin 's death because I thought it inelegant to add a stain to his public CV. But as I wonder why some children were cast over and over again compromising the mission of the PACT if Mr. Liftin irascible demeanor was not a factor.... I certainly didn't want to repeat the experience. The class didn't either.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Perp walk
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2008 at 11:14 am

Guy--I was always in favor of letting the investigation conclude and listening to the ploice's conclusions. That is still the case. The investigation is not yet over.
However. most of my comments were in response to those who were against any kind of investigation and had elevated the PACT staff to sainthood.
the fat lady has not sung yet


 +   Like this comment
Posted by litebug
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 1, 2008 at 1:04 am

After reading the comments here and on subsequent (more recent) PACT case threads I am wondering why my old nemisis, Vic, hasn't jumped up to condemn those expressing views unfriendly to the PAPD or (heaven forbid) "speculating" about the case. He jumped all over me a couple of weeks ago for those "offenses". Seems his wrath is quite selectively applied.

The burglary sounds like a very ordinary, mundane crime. I have yet to read one word about this case that would justify the unique and ill treatment of the PACT staff, which continues without explanation or justification. All that is ever talked about in the Weakly and by the PAPD is the burglary. The rest of the case is a black hole. I saw nothing in the descriptions of Yore's background that would qualify him as a specialist in forensic accounting...if indeed it is a hugely complex financial crime that he's trying to unravel. Remind me again how long it took to figure out Enron.


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