Editor's note: This article includes graphic language and may not be suitable for younger readers.
Three women who didn't know each other until a chance connection via Facebook have discovered that they share a common bond: long-lasting impacts of having come into contact with a formerly local sexual predator.
The shared impacts have affected the lives of each, despite great differences in their connection with the man involved, David Schwenke Tupou (pronounced "too-BOH"). Tupou, who in the 1990s volunteered in several Palo Alto schools, is now 57 and since 2001 has been serving a 67-year sentence at California Department of Corrections. He is currently at Soledad State Prison, relating to a four-year relationship with one of the women, starting when she was 12.
This is the story of how the three women, two as girls, each experienced trauma that lingered for years after meeting Tupou. Finding one another, they say, has given them the assurance they needed to understand what had happened to them.
United in that strength, they have decided to speak out by contacting the Weekly sharing their experiences and insights in the hope that future incidents of child and early-teen sexual abuse could be better detected, reported, reduced, and the abusers appropriately separated from society.
While their stories are individual and deeply personal, the women view their overlapping experiences as a strong cautionary tale of how individuals in families, in schools and in society failed to act despite indications and even evidence of something being terribly amiss.
One woman, now 30 and married with three young children, was the 12-year-old San Jose resident who became entangled in a relationship with Tupou. She looks back with deeply mixed feelings but with a nuanced understanding of what happened to her and why, which she is sharing on condition of anonymity to protect her family.
A second woman, now 27, also anonymous, was not physically abused but recounts that she was explicitly pursued by Tupou in Palo Alto in the early 1990s when she was 6 years old. The pursuit mostly occurred when visiting some young friends who she says were being abused physically when Tupou was working as their family nanny, but it continued at her school, from kindergarten through third grade.
Based on what the girl -- who will be identified as "Beth" in this article -- reported to her parents and a friend, Tupou was arrested in October 1994 and charged with felony child abuse. Those charges were later dropped to a misdemeanor (and finally expunged) when the family declined to have their children testify, the Palo Alto Weekly reported at the time. The family later moved out of state.
The third woman is Karin Tanaka, now 51, who two decades ago became embroiled in controversy when she attempted to have Tupou banned from Palo Alto classrooms and school grounds for inappropriate behavior around kindergarten girls -- behavior such as tickling them on a tire swing.
Her frustrations at achieving only a partial success still rankle. Tupou was barred from some classrooms and one school but not from schools district-wide.
David Tupou got involved in children's activities in Palo Alto in the early 1990s. He was a young-looking man in his late 30s, described as having charm in his dealings with adults and children. His 2001 prison-induction papers identify him as 5 feet 10 inches tall, 150 pounds, with brown hair and green eyes.
Prior to moving to the Palo Alto area, he reportedly resided in San Luis Obispo and earlier in Seattle.
Yet in Palo Alto, some children and adults said he had an aura of strangeness about him.
Then using Schwenke as his last name, Tupou volunteered in at least five Palo Alto elementary schools over two years prior to his late-1994 arrest: Hoover, Juana Briones, El Carmelo, Addison and Walter Hays. While not a parent, he volunteered mostly in kindergarten classes while he worked as a nanny in a Palo Alto home.
He was actually employed by the school district as a part-time language tutor at several schools from March 1991 to June 1992, after he had been cleared by a routine background check for school employees.
But there was a shadow even then. Two principals asked him to discontinue his services, once because of parents' concerns (by Karin Tanaka and her then-husband, Toru) and once for what the principal independently considered "inappropriate behavior."
Police reported that he also had been involved in children's programs at the Children's Theatre, Palo Alto Parents and Professionals for Arts (PAPPA) and the Jewish Community Center, as well as volunteering as a youth soccer coach.
Tupou's arrest was not announced by either the school district or the police department. Police Capt. Tom Merson told the Weekly at the time that no announcement was made because the investigating officers didn't think it would lead to identifying additional victims.
"I made the determination that the molest was more of an opportunity, in a certain atmosphere, which (the suspect) did not have in the (school) jobs," Detective Luis Verbera, who interviewed the two alleged victims and Tupou before his arrest, told the Weekly.
At Hoover, then-Principal Kay van der Berg said, "One parent suggested discomfort, so I asked him not to volunteer."
At El Carmelo, Principal Elayne Goodman told the Weekly that Tupou worked as a paid primary language tutor about three years prior to his arrest, but she had him removed from the school because "I just did not feel that he was behaving suitably.
"There was no instance of reporting any physical or verbal abuse of any kind," she said. But "there are times that a person who works with children doesn't act appropriately."
Yet it was at Hoover that Beth had some of her worst experiences with Tupou, she recalled in the recent Weekly interview.
"I was terrified of him," Beth recalled of his insistent flirtations and suggestions when she was 6. "He called me his 'little princess'" and made suggestions that she didn't fully understand until several years later, she said.
She said she would hide in the girls' bathroom when he was at school, and he would send in other girls to try to get her to come out.
She recalled two incidents: "He was always very childlike. I felt that he felt he had a right to be there.
"He would play with the boys, the 'kissy game' where the boys chase the girls and kiss them. He would be one of the boys."
She once earned a "Golden Ticket" to a slumber party based on how many books students read.
"I was the first to get a Golden Ticket, and he came up to me and said, 'Oh, so you'll be there. We can put our sleeping bags together.' I said, 'It's just for the kids,' and he said, 'Oh no, I'm going to do magic tricks.' He did do magic tricks, but then he was asked to leave."
In spite of her fear she once confronted him and called him a "gross old man" and told her parents about him.
"I'm proud of myself that I said that, and I think that's what saved me" in terms of her future mental health, she said. The experience led to her work years later at a child-assessment center and in child psychology, she added.
Beth also told her best friend, a girl her age, who told her parents. The girl's father called the police, and Beth said she recently learned that her own father also called the police.
The calls resulted in the investigation that led to Tupou's 1994 arrest.
Tanaka said she noticed Tupou when he was a nanny and volunteering in a kindergarten class at Hoover. He would bring a young male toddler to class but essentially ignore him and focus on little girls, she said.
One day during a break, she said, Tupou got "a bunch of little girls, including my daughter, on a tire swing and he starts spinning it really rapidly then he starts reaching in and tickling them.
"That's when I went up to him and said, 'I want to talk to you.' And he said, 'What?' And I said, 'These kids are scheduled down to the minute in this classroom. This break time is the only time for them to be playing and doing their thing, and I don't like the fact that you are interjecting yourself in their play and I don't like the fact that you are playing tickle. You keep your hands off my kid.'"
Tanaka spoke to the teacher, who said she would discuss it with the principal but added that she needed volunteers to help run the program. Tanaka agreed to round up parent volunteers as needed for the remaining eight months of the school year.
"That night I said to my husband, 'If they don't take him out of the classroom, we're taking her out of the school because this guy is up to no good.'"
Word spread rapidly about Tupou's arrest, once it became known. Some parents expressed concern that they were not notified promptly by school officials or police of the situation.
But other parents rallied to his defense, based on information from the mother of the two girls he allegedly molested.
Some parents asked the district attorney's office to drop charges against him and submitted a 30-signature letter on his behalf, objecting to "fabricated and unsubstantiated charges."
In early January 1995 the felony molestation charges were reduced to misdemeanors, with the promise of being dropped altogether if Tupou attended counseling about appropriate behavior around children.
Tupou continued to show up at the school and around town, although he later moved to the San Jose area, Tanaka said.
She recalled that period after his arrest, when Tupou was out on bail but before his sentence was commuted to misdemeanors.
"He would see me and he would smirk," she recently told the Weekly. "And he went skateboarding past my house when he was released. I looked out and I saw him ... heading to the school and I was, like, OK, we're going to go talk to the superintendent." She and her former husband protested that someone with a felony child-abuse arrest should not be allowed at schools.
But they were told the district was "not going to try to convict a man who hasn't had his day in court," Tanaka recalled. So they notified the Palo Alto Weekly, which reported on the situation.
Tanaka said she felt the backlash of speaking out: "For the rest of that kindergarten year I was constantly accosted by parents who thought he was wonderful, saying things to me at soccer games, such as, 'I don't know what your problem is with Tupou. He's so wonderful.'"
Beth said she felt wounded years later when she discovered the letters and comments in the articles, including a quotation from the unnamed mother of the two girls saying Beth was lying about Tupou.
"Without even touching me he got through to me," Beth recalled. "But I probably felt most victimized, if that's the word, when the community got to me by posting those letters, and not letting the trial happen -- (saying) 'We're going to believe him.'
"I'm terrified by what he said -- especially as I got older and understood exactly what he was saying."
The message was that young victims of abuse will not be believed and will get in trouble if they tell anyone about what is happening to them -- a core message conveyed by chronic abusers, the women agree.
Beth described her parents as terrific and protective but added that they perhaps protected her too much, to an extent that potentially other young victims of abuse were ignored and the public was not given the full story. She said she was willing to testify as to what she witnessed, including clothes-on touching of her friends by Tupou. But the girls' family decided to move out of state, and prosecutors decided not to pursue the drastically weakened case.
Beth said she has decided to speak now to "bring some closure" to her feelings about what happened in that long-ago time when she was being groomed and pursued by a much older man and disbelieved in the community.
Tori (not her real name), the then-teenager whose testimony led to Tupou's conviction, also felt wounded and angered when she learned of community members' defense of Tupou. At one point she sent letters or Facebook messages to every person named in the Weekly articles or who signed letters to the editor, including Tanaka, who didn't initially respond.
Beth also turned to Facebook and contacted Tanaka months later. At that point, Tanaka recalled the earlier message from Tori.
"So really Facebook was the medium that connected the three of us. It was (Tori) first, then (Beth), and me connecting the dots, and it was, 'Oh my gosh!'" Tanaka recalled.
The Weekly's reporting on Tupou goes silent after the 1994 charges were dropped.
None of the women have any information about his activities for the time between the dropping of the original charges relating to the young girls and when he took up with Tori, or even to some extent while he was with her.
Tori believes she was not his only victim; there are potentially many more who are unknown. (She notes there is no time limit on reporting such activities, and many reports do not happen until a person is an adult.)
Tori now looks back at her 12-year-old self with both a critical and empathetic eye. She was a bright, inquisitive, somewhat rebellious youngster living with her mother in an apartment complex, where coincidentally Tupou resided.
"My parents were divorced and had been divorced for awhile. My dad had another family. My mom worked a lot.
"She was a great mom when she was a mom; when she paid attention to me she was a great mom," Tori recalled, despite lingering "bad blood" between them relating to Tupou. But her mother was living a new social life of her own at the time, circa 1997-98, as well as working as apartment manager for the complex.
Her mother did warn her about Tupou.
"My mom came up to me and said, "Stay away from that man who did the apartment check.' I was very curious. ... I would hear from other kids that he was weird, with rumors going around.
"He was a limo driver when I met him. That's how we were found because we were parked wrong," Tori recalled.
But early on it was seduction.
"I don't remember how it happened. He would see me around and say things to me. I just didn't understand what the big deal about him was. ... Like I was too smart for my own good, and I just didn't get it. I wanted to understand why people thought he was weird."
Thus started a multi-year relationship that began as heavy petting and moved to fully sexual, she recalled, nearly all of it in the back of a limo or, at the last, a town car.
As the relationship progressed, Tori's mother found them together and attempted to intervene: "She called him and asked him to stop seeing me."
But that was more than ineffectual, Tori recalled: "When you call a predator and say, 'Can you please keep your hands off my daughter?' that's a green light to 'Hey, do whatever you want because I'm really not going to call the cops.'"
Then her father died.
"When I was 13 my father died, and I watched him die. And I think Tupou took advantage of that, because things like sodomy were then introduced. ... I saw him the day after my dad died. That's when drugs pretty much started."
They spent days together: "He would pick me up almost every day from school. So in freshman and sophomore year I spent collectively a month in school.
"So I don't know how I graduated high school. I'm lucky that I'm smart and knew how to get by."
There was a kind of normalcy to it all, she recalled, and Tupou told her she was his true love.
"I didn't know what a victim I was. ... It's like when you're being abused by a lover. You're being abused and you don't know it. You don't know you're being abused until you're not being abused."
Then in 2001 came the fateful day of discovery, the beginning of an unraveling for Tupou and a recovery and coming together for Tori.
They had parked a brand-new town car at a loading dock behind a BevMo! store on Stevens Creek Boulevard in Santa Clara.
"We're making out. We're pretty bold at this point. We'd almost been caught a few times, and I think he thinks he can't be caught. I was a sophomore in a continuation school.
"So we're in the back of the town car. ... An unmarked car, a detective's car, pulls up. The cop gets out and knocks on the window. He says, 'You are illegally parked and have to move.' I have a woman's body, and I'm straddling him, and trying not to look and all of a sudden something in me does this (turns her head toward the officer).
"The cop sees my face and he says, 'Get out of the car, now!'
"He puts him immediately in the back of the cop car and pops the (town car's) trunk and searches the back of the car. At this point there is a felony going on, and the car is no longer Tupou's car. There was big binder in the back of the car and he's going through it, a CD case kind of thing, and there are naked Polaroid pictures of me and him.
"This was why he was arrested. They sent me to Valley Med. I had a rape kit done and they found semen."
She said Tupou earlier had coached her about what to say if they were caught: That she should say she couldn't live without him. She did as told and wound up in a "51-50" psychiatric hold for a 72-hour observation.
As the case proceeded, "He wasn't going to plead no contest, so the DA and his public defender and the judge all go for a meeting. And the DA pulled out this plastic, floppy dildo ... double-sided, and she says, 'Do you really want me to bring this stuff out in trial? And the testimony of that girl, right there, that you just talked to, and you want me to bring this out?'"
She said she had numerous U-Haul boxes of similar evidence.
Police found in Tupou's home numerous Barbie dolls, some in bondage, or in sexual positions, or headless, Tori recalled.
Tupou pleaded no contest to multiple felony charges, and his 67-year sentence followed.
Yet even after his arrest and imprisonment, Tori alleged that they exchanged letters, hundreds of them, which she has now burned. Until at last "I sent him a letter telling him I was married and had two kids and was pregnant having another and if a man like him was ever around my kids I'd be the one in prison because he'd be ..."
He wrote back a one-liner, saying, "He had, like, saved me and helped me and that he did not do anything wrong to me."
There are multiple lessons to be learned from the stories of the three women.
"It's a call to action," Tanaka said of Beth's story of being pursued and traumatized in kindergarten.
"You really have to know who your kids are and pay attention. For the most part they don't have a frame of reference to describe what's happening to them. And when a kid will describe as you did, that should be paid attention to -- to the utmost."
She said both school officials and parents should be more attuned to behavior that seems odd or inappropriate and not be afraid to express their concerns to those responsible for creating a safe environment for children.
"Tupou didn't destroy my childhood and I've had a good life, and I'm in a good place," Beth said. "But it dates my childhood in the way I reacted to situations, and it has continued to affect me as an adult in the way things would come up and I would flash back to that.
"He didn't do anything (physically) but he certainly shaped it," she said of her childhood and some of her adult years. In addition to witnessing the clothed touching and the stories of her young friends, there was a constant threat: "It was hard to deal with the threat. He would constantly threaten, 'I can do what I want.'"
"I'm speaking up because of that ... mom (of the two Palo Alto girls)," Tori summed up. "I'm speaking up not only as a victim but as a mom: 'You probably knew he was having sexual relations with your kids and you hid it.'
"And because you did that more children got hurt, and he went down the Peninsula and met me later. What about the kids in the middle? What about the fact that he became a limo driver and loved picking kids up? Do you know how many parties he was a limo driver for? How many little kids he had in the back of the limo?
"And I'm so grateful that I turned my head and looked at that police officer. If I hadn't, none of this would have been happening, and he'd still be out there."
Connecting with each other has had a special meaning to all three women. Each cited a "closure" it has brought to them, but it almost didn't happen. Tori had emailed Tanaka initially on Nov. 12, 2012, with five words: "Do you know David Tupou?"
But Tanaka, stung by earlier crank emails about Tupou, didn't respond because of the lack of context.
Then last August, Beth -- trying to sort out her own confusion and not knowing if Tupou was in custody somewhere -- contacted Tanaka.
Beth expressed gratitude for the connection: "I am grateful that sharing the truth the three of us were forced to know ended the loneliness caused by people who refused to know," she said. "I am thankful that the goodness of our bond together could create this closure, untainted by any darkness of the past."
"We are survivors," she said.
Tori said her confusion about the relationship with Tupou lingered until she connected with Tanaka and Beth last fall.
"Tupou and I had a somewhat 'normal' relationship. We would go to the movies, grocery shop, go to concerts. We went to a Sharks game. He would cook for me, buy me books, do things for me, pick me up, drive me around, take me to and from school.
"And the fact that he could be so intimate with a 12-year-old girl is all the more disturbing.
"I think that is why up till this past year I was utterly confused about him: Do I hate him? Do I love him? Do I mourn him as a loss? Am I happy he is gone? What do I do about this hole in my life, this aspect of my life that was shattered when he was arrested? What do I do with this now? How do I process this?"
"The fact that he molded my childhood and my teenage years is a hard thing for me to swallow now as an adult.
"Talking with them has given me a great sense of closure, to finally have a sense of who he was: a predator. ... Thanks to them I can completely close the door and move forth, focus on my family and my life, today and tomorrow.
"It is no longer about my past. No more questions haunting me, no more why's or what's. 'Did this really happen to me -- how could this happen to me?'
"The community dropped the ball; a lot of people's lives were broken because of this man. ... I am picking up these pieces and hopefully helping a lot of people with their own closure as well."
Tanaka said the connection with Tori and Beth was reassuring to her that her instincts were on the mark all those years ago and that perhaps sharing them might encourage others today and in the future to speak up about situations they feel are inappropriate or strange.
"Connecting with Beth and Tori and hearing their stories has been a profound experience. On the one hand, it's been a powerful validation of my instincts about Tupou and the course of action I chose in encountering him 20 years ago.
"However, it's also been tremendously depressing to realize how profound and far-reaching an impact he had on these young women's lives -- and perhaps on countless others. And it's been depressing and enraging to know that the adults of our community so totally and completely failed our children, choosing to protect the offender and persecute those of us willing to speak out about what we were observing and experiencing, rather than seeking to understand.
"The best part of connecting, for me, has been having the privilege of meeting these young women and seeing how they are building good lives, despite lingering issues around trust and self-doubt. It has been a privilege to connect with these fighters who were willing to speak out about their experiences and ultimately put Tupou behind bars so he could not victimize others.
"I deeply regret that there is no way to turn back time and fight harder in order to prevent Tupou from having victimized more children between his original felony arrest in Palo Alto and his final arrest ... six years later. Although she put him behind bars, Tori paid a heavy, heavy price -- and that knowledge will always be with me."
Editor's note: The Weekly contacted David Tupou for comment but did not receive a reply.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or email@example.com. He also writes periodic blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com.