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A rare inside glimpse of a police investigation

Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus, on Jun 3, 2008

Herewith is my personalized review of one of the oddest cases in the history of the Palo Alto Police Department. It is complex, as early police statements repeatedly emphasized, but the end is at last in sight -- maybe.

The abortive police investigation into finances at the Palo Alto Children's Theatre became public Monday, thanks to parallel Public Records Act requests by the Palo Alto Weekly and the Palo Alto Daily News.

Reporters Becky Trout (Weekly) and Kristina Peterson (Daily News), and editors, immediately dove into the half-inch-thick report, a result of 11 months of investigative work by Sgt. Michael Yore and other detectives.

The report, written by Yore, had names of witnesses and city staff members blacked out for privacy reasons, an immense job in itself. The tedious redaction work was done over the past week under the direction of Don Larkin, Palo Alto's able assistant city attorney.

The report became legally available after the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office declared it would not prosecute the case or take it to court. Deputy DA Steve Lowney told the Weekly the case was simply too complicated to explain to a jury. He said even he didn't understand what happened at the theater, after working with police on the case since November.

And the case had serious holes -- such as "stolen" traveler's checks that never left city property and difficulty in proving that costumes were "embezzled" for annual pre-Halloween public sales by the Friends of the Children's Theatre nonprofit organization, rather than being declared surplus goods.

But then there were well over a hundred instances in which Briggs allegedly billed both the city and Friends for reimbursements for the same items, and years when there were no receipts for expenditures at all.

Lowney explicitly said the police investigation was justified by the evidence, even if the case ultimately failed the "take it to court" test.

This newly released document provides a detailed, often harsh look at the evidence police laboriously gathered, even down to Yore's daily log of contacts and activities during the peak of the investigation.

The information in the report makes many people look less than good and some pretty bad, not the least Director Pat Briggs and the late Assistant Director Michael Litfin, who died a week after he and three other staff members were placed on paid administrative leave Jan. 24.

Dozens, perhaps scores, of questions are raised by information laboriously -- and ultimately frustratingly -- dug out by Yore and others in what heretofore was one of the most secretive investigations I've seen in more than 40 years of either covering or observing police probes.

No longer. Ironically, one of the most secretive of investigations is hanging out there for the world to see.

Yore and colleagues, up to and including Police Chief Lynne Johnson, must have felt they fell down a rabbit hole into a strange world when they began investigating what appeared to be a simple, fairly minor weekend burglary at the theater in June 2007. Things just got curiouser and curiouser, and the detectives became more and more curious, which morphed into serious suspicions that, like the Cheshire cat, ultimately faded into no case at all.

I've got nothing personal against Sgt. Yore, nor has the Weekly. I've never met him; wouldn't know him if we passed in the hallway of the police station. He declined to meet with the media. "He's too busy," Chief Johnson explained. I suspect he's got a hardened anti-media bias somewhere in there. That's speculation, but if true he's not the first officer I've known of with such a bias -- some became friends.

Yore jumps to conclusions from time to time, such as when he accuses a former administrator of either lying to him or to me (i.e. "the Weekly") or when he concludes that vacation trips to exotic places were "probably paid for with city funds," with no substantiation. But many of his findings and conclusions seem capable of verification.

He also cites the strange roles of state Sen. Joe Simitian and Mayor Larry Klein, both strong supporters of Briggs and Litfin and the theater. Simitian, who once acted in a Children's Theatre production, served as Litfin's executor. At Simitian's request, Klein (whose kids once performed there) processed the estate paperwork, which he described as routine documents. But what's illegal about that? There's no law against "odd."

But Yore said Simitian found in Litfin's condo some additional traveler's checks, and Yore reported that Simitian and Klein were initially "reluctant" to turn them over to police. He does not explain how he knew they were reluctant -- no attribution of source. He could have used some basic journalism training in the "who said?" school.

An ironically sad twist is that Litfin has left the bulk of the value of his condo to the Children's Theatre. Is this something someone who has been robbing from the place would do?

In addition, Yore questions why Councilman Jack Morton, an accountant who does the books for the Friends group, didn't provide specific details about costume-sales and revenues. Well, I don't know either, but one can't take innuendo or question marks to court.

A separate "administrative investigation" has concluded that Costume Supervisor Allison Williams may return to work, but that Briggs and staff member Richard Curtis should be terminated -- Briggs for general management shortcomings and confusing if not false statements and Curtis for getting into his computer during a memorial service for Litfin. One wonders why the city didn't freeze his password when he was put on administrative leave.

Curtis' ironic defense is that he was getting information he needed to defend himself in the administrative probe. Both Briggs and Curtis are reportedly planning to appeal and fight the dismissals.

So there may indeed be no end in sight, for now anyway.

Police also confiscated Briggs' laptop from her home during a search. It was to be returned today (Tuesday, June 3).

But police reportedly still have to decide what to do with a reported 70-plus boxes of old costumes. Are they surplus? Or are they city property?

The core of the case, as outlined in Staff Writer Becky Trout's initial story on the release of the police reports on Palo Alto Online, was suspected embezzlement, a "skimming over prolonged periods of time" by top staff members of the venerable Children's Theatre.

Yore cites lax city supervision or oversight because the theater and its veteran staffers were so highly regarded in the community, and apparently trusted widely, if perhaps unwisely, to run a tight ship.

Curiously, he ostensibly found that several board members of the Friends group had been paid as consultants by the Children's Theatre -- a startling report that would clearly violate an arms-length relationship and which, if true and undisclosed, should result in resignations from the board, in my view.

Yore found contracts for services that Larkin and others declared were in violation of clearly established city procedures and possibly illegal, violating state Penal Code sections.

So now it's time to pick up the pieces. Clearly, the police probe into embezzlement and "financial crimes," as it was initially termed in a press release by Chief Johnson, is at a dead-end unless they can carve out something simple and convincing enough for a DA prosecutor to take to a jury. Word is that higher ups in the DA's office are weary of this endless, tangled case.

At the police department level, does anyone have the heart, stamina or thick-enough-hide to try to refine and redefine the case in the face of community outrage about what has been done to Briggs, Litfin's reputation and Curtis? And aren't we all more than a bit tired of it, as we got tired of the O.J. Simpson case long ago?

But there's still that oddball burglary -- the one that kept growing and growing over a period of months as theater staff members found new things missing in the huge complex of stored items and clutter.

Some quick addition last week by the Weekly pegged the total value of missed items at more than $32,500 -- not including traveler's checks or costumes. That's no longer the chump change it originally seemed, when detectives opted to virtually ignore the burglary in favor of the big item: embezzlement.

So far one person is charged with the burglary, a feckless-seeming fellow of 21, Abraham Esquivias Torres of East Palo Alto. He told police he is a one-time meth addict now trying to get his life straight. He and a girl friend were busted in San Carlos driving a U-Haul van a week after the late-June burglary trying to cash traveler's checks made out to Children's Theatre staff members. The van was not involved in the burglary, apparently.

San Carlos police alerted Palo Alto police after Torres told them he found the checks in a refuse container at the Chevron station at University Avenue and Bayshore Freeway. He told police he had gone there to get swishers (a kind of cigar rolled with marijuana) from someone. Sheesh. Who tells police they were looking for illegal drugs?

Inexplicably, Palo Alto police didn't even try to interview him until Sept. 27, by which time he was long gone on bail and they couldn't find him. They suspected he might have returned to Mexico.

Much later, on March 18, 2008, Palo Alto detectives finally interviewed him (two days after the Weekly reported perhaps coincidentally that he was back in jail on an unrelated situation). After being shown fake fingerprint cards with his name on them in red ink, Torres copped to being part of the burglary.

He told Palo Alto officers he and a friend had ridden their bicycles from East Palo Alto to Rinconada Park, where they were sitting on the lawn smoking dope. How many people would just up and tell cops something like that?

But that is precisely why I believe the next part of his story -- that he and his friend were approached by two mid-20s guys who asked if they could buy some pot from them. Being friendly sorts, Torres and his friend, Sergio or "Savage," offered to share, he told officers. He said the men were dressed like "skaters," with gloves.

Then the two guys asked if they wanted to join them to burglarize the Children's Theatre. Well, why not? Seemed like a good idea at the time, perhaps, being stoned and all.

The pair of strangers were joined by a woman.

Then Torres told of the hairstyles: One of the guys, Torres said, had really blond hair done up in stiff spikes. The other had an "Eraserhead" hairdo -- shaved vertically up the sides and flat on top. The woman had rainbow streaks in her dark hair.

These folks sound like something right out of the villains in the old Dick Tracy comic strip, of which I'm sure the trio never heard.

But anyone who would readily 'fess up to smoking dope and using other drugs during a police interview -- is that person capable of making this stuff up?

Now I'm going to do some unsubstantiated speculation, just so Sgt. Yore doesn't feel he's the only one capable of doing that from time to time. Here goes:

First, I'd say the trio set up Torres and his buddy to take the rap, giving him several thousand dollars in traveler's checks and telling him they were just as good as cash. Right. Besides, how much loot can one carry off on a bicycle? So the trio made off with the good stuff.

Second, my guess is that SOMEBODY OUT THERE KNOWS WHO THESE FOLKS ARE. And they knew instantly, if they read the story -- another speculation. Where's a police sketch artist when we need one?

Further, from skills honed by watching police profilers on TV, I would surmise that one or two of them, if not all three, had a relationship with the Children's Theatre that could date back a decade or more when they were child actors or stagehands -- before they adopted punker hairdos and took up drugs, maybe not in that order.

Becky and I would sure like to interview them. So would Sgt. Yore.

Comments (23)

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2008 at 9:06 am

One other opportunity this investigation has provided is for the investigative journalism done by our local reporters. This has indeed been tricky to report on as there seem to be so many different ways of looking at this story. Some people seem to have preferred the Daily's take and other's the Weekly's. Both newspapers have tried to sort out the mess and raise conclusions at the same time as appearing to remain impartial.

I concur that this mess can be looked at from many different points of view and commend all the journalists involved for taking all the time and effort to try to establish the truth, motive and relative information while at the same time in this high tech age of trying to be the first with the scoop.

For those of us who have got lost somewhere along the line, thank you to all the journalists for sticking with this and trying to sort out the evidence from the half truths and the facts from the innuendo. Please continue to look into this and let us know what you find.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Perp walk
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2008 at 9:15 am

Jay--interesting article, Jay. Be prepared from the fall out by the "friends" and "supporters" of PACT who have not hesitated to attack anyone who dares to question the sainthood of the staff.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by William
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 3, 2008 at 11:04 am

Typical Jay Thorwaldson gobbledygook .. all of these words .. and almost nothing of substance to report to the readers.

> Inexplicably, Palo Alto police didn't even try to interview
> him until Sept. 27, by which time he was long gone on bail
> and they couldn't find him. They suspected he might have
> returned to Mexico.

There has been very little made of the robbery in all of this. At a minimum, someone should have at least tried to determine the inventory of stolen equipment, and reported on the status of this equipment. The press has no idea how to investigate crimes; the reporting on this aspect of the matter proves this in spades.

> After being shown fake fingerprint cards with his name on
> them in red ink, Torres copped to being part of the burglary.

This is a troubling technique, which has been used by the police in the past. It's legal, but it means that anything that the police says can not be trusted to be true.

Maybe it is time for the city to post this report on line so that the residents can read it by them selves.



 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2008 at 11:13 am

William,

This is the editors blog, not a report. There is a difference. The report is covered by journalists in the news article. Here Jay is using his editors blog to raise discussion points.

Blogging is a new journalistic device. The idea that we can all comment on the news is wonderful to me. It doesn't mean that all the stuff has to be answered. It doesn't mean that the editor cannot put in his own opinion. If you want to comment on the investigation do it on the investigative article. If you want to comment on the blog and enter this discussion, then here is the place to do it.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by peter
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jun 3, 2008 at 5:02 pm

The full report of the investigation is on the police web site. Go to the city's web site, click on police, and it should be accessible from that page.

Thank you resident for explaining the difference between a blog and an investigative piece. What is worrying is that many (most?) will never go to a paper which does investigative pieces and get a reasonably unbiased report. Instead they will depend on opinions and half truth from others who have also not down their homework.

I wonder how the Theatre supporters will react to the facts given in the report. Maybe they will recognize that emotion and wishful thinking does not drive results.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by William
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 3, 2008 at 8:32 pm

> Here Jay is using his editors blog to raise discussion points

Seems to me he is slamming the police with no evidence to back up his claims.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Fowl Play
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jun 4, 2008 at 12:58 am

Thanks to the Internet, you no longer need to depend upon newspaper reporters or bloggers to do your thinking for you. Source documents are available to study. This enables you to decide for yourself how timely and credible you feel the investigation to date has been, then what your next steps should be.

Children's Theater Palo Alto Police Report dated May 15, 2008, Case #07-4606, Embezzlement
Web Link

In cases like this, an old axiom has served me well, "If it waddles like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it's a duck."


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Chris Ritter
a resident of another community
on Jun 4, 2008 at 7:39 am

From my personal experience I have instead learned that,
"if it waddles like a duck, and if it quacks like a duck, there's still the slim chance that it could merely be a brilliantly engineered duck-like robot."



 +   Like this comment
Posted by William
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 4, 2008 at 9:07 am

The following can be found on page 2 of the on-line police report:
---
Briggs used her status in the community, theater constituencies and long standing with the city to deter and dissuade internal scrutiny, questioning and auditing of her financial practices. One city employee, Lalo Perez (current director of the Administrative Services Division), told me his awareness of Brigs stature in the community modified the way he followed up with Brigs when he discovered a misappropriation. Briggs told this employee she would cease the activity they discussed, but she did not. Perez also recommended an operational audit of the Theater, but the City Auditor did not follow up his recommendation and commented to the employee that she was a friend of Briggs.
---
Not only does this report give us a rare glimpse of a police crime investigation, but it also gives us a very clear view of how badly managed the Office of the City Auditor was also. (Didn't this same Jay Thorwaldson recently write a glowing farewell of this Auditor and suggested in the strongest terms that Palo Alto needs another one just like her? Based on this, and many other failures of this Auditor--it does not need any more like the last one.)



 +   Like this comment
Posted by William
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 4, 2008 at 12:19 pm

The following can be found on page 32 of the police report:
----
The City's municipal code requires a formal budget setting process to authorize all spending. The fraudulent contracts stated that the money diverted to the Friends would be spent on the Theater, however, diverting City money to the Friends had the effect of Briggs and Litfin overriding the City's budget process, in violation of the municipal code, because the money death cab donated by the Friends was directed to the purpose they chose. Some of the monies were used by the Friends to find a Director's Discretionary Fund expressly for Brigg's use (Section four details misuse of this fund by Briggs).

Some of the misappropriated funds were diverted within this City's books. These funds were diverted out of the general fund and into a special advance cash trip account that was later drawn upon by Briggs and Lipton and fun trips the theater took; trips which the city believed were completely funded by fees paid by parents or other outside donations.

XXXXXXX [redacted] who was in charge of the box office and of depositing all money collected at the box office to the city's general fund, altered the bookkeeping entry to record deposits to facilitate the misappropriations.
----

While this bit of text needs to be considered in the context of several pages of discussion, words like "altered the book keeping entry" should raise a bit of a red flag to honest people. (Is altering book keeping entries legal?)

It's clear that the Friends (meaning individuals and the Board) are up to their ears in inappropriate, and possible illegal, activities with public money. The City should indefinitely terminate any association with the Friends of the Children's Theater until a comprehensive probe of their finances and activities have been conducted by the police.

This probe should be on a voluntary basis. Failing to comply, or cooperate, should see this group banned from any further activities on City property.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Person
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 6, 2008 at 6:37 pm

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this intriguing investigation, Jay!

Sounds like Palo Alto is Lake Wobegon Gone Wrong, a town where everyone knows everyone else and fingers are in every pie. And of course all the children are "above average". A cautionary tale indeed.

Children's Theater itself is a mixed bag. I've met parents who've actually MOVED to Palo Alto so their kids could be involved, with some sort of misguided sense that it is a ticket to popularity and possibly even fame for their offspring! (Woe is me!) On the other hand, as a Palo Alto parent myself, I can appreciate that parents are desperate to keep their kids in wholesome after school activities.

The problem lies when volunteers (presumably some were parents?) and even city staff were so overwhelmingly enamored of PACT that they couldn't call out Briggs when she used funds inappropriately. Reminds me of the Giordano case...when Jordan PE teacher was every popular kid's "best friend" and was seen leaving campus frequently with a female student in tow. No one wants to rock the boat in pretty Palo Alto.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by LazloToth
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 6, 2008 at 8:51 pm

How truly sad that an editor has time to write about city employees in the heart of the Silicon Valley! How truly pathetic that the Palo Alto Weekly has been reduced to a gossip page with the editors blessing! Please tell us that there is more news in Palo Alto than what city hall employees are doing? Surely there has to be more important news affecting Palo Alto citizens than this trivial malarkey! Please try to stretch your editorial boundaries and maybe try just a bit to give us some real news stories about something other than the weekly gossip.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by peter
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jun 9, 2008 at 4:48 pm

Thanks, Jay, for trying to write a reasonably balanced analysis of this case. It's not an investigative journalism piece, but this is a blog, and some guesses and speculation can creep in.

Yes, it had to be done when one reads of the emotionally driven opinions of those who have not read page one of the Report.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dawn Novello
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 13, 2008 at 2:40 pm

Dear Lazlo Toth,

How truly sad that your definition of truly sad is so truly sad.

A holocaust is sad; an editor blogging on a labyrinthine cultural and political issue is not.

Jay's piece helped shed some chiuroscuric light on an otherwise murky situation that potentially affects the quality of life for thousands of Palo Alto residents, most notably its nearly 12,500 children.

The professional lives and reputations of numerous people are at stake and this case plays well beyond the level of mere gossip.

Maybe you can instead favor us with an attempt for you to present an even clearer impartial summation of these myriad events?

Short of that, maybe you should just clam up and start writing letters to Nixon again.








 +   Like this comment
Posted by children's theater alum
a resident of another community
on Jun 20, 2008 at 3:56 pm

I'm a children's theater alum, long gone from PA, and just saw this blog as an intro to this mess. I loved being involved in children's theater, but what finally drove me out was Briggs and Litfin, not that I'm suggesting anything, they just seemed cliquish (sp?) and petty -- to me anyway -- I guess they probably favored kids with talent. And I definitely wasn't a favorite. BUT, boy they sure could put on a good show. I wish my kids had some sort of similar organization they could go to.

What I think it all comes down to, above any Enron-esque evil, is the axiom, "artist organization is a contradiction in terms." -- and if lazy habits go unchecked too long, they become big habits. And it's been a long time, those guys must be pretty old -- because I'm pretty old and they seemed old when I was there.

PS: the three punk stoners sound like just about every one I knew there.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 29, 2008 at 5:48 pm

The perfect description of a public inquiry

Web Link

This one's for you Jay, and anyone else still reading.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Ferdinand II
a resident of another community
on Jun 29, 2008 at 6:41 pm

Resident,

Yeah! that's a good one, but I think you're giving City management and the PD too much credit. If they really were the BS artists in "Yes Minister" they would have pulled this one off and there wouldn't be a controversy or any type of "investigation of the investigation".

Here's one that suits my opinion of this fiasco. The bubbling incompetence of the police torturing an old woman....

Web Link




 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2008 at 9:31 am

Ferdinand

I like it, but I think you have credited the police for being too soft when in actual fact they were probably not soft but were operating with one hand tied behind their back.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Danny
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 3, 2008 at 3:20 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by a resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 6, 2008 at 12:05 pm

Thank you to Jay for your thoughts. How about an update as more time with this goes on?
The fact that this can happen with as clearly a caring institution as the Children's Theater is a sober lesson for us all.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Roy Rogers
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 16, 2008 at 2:48 pm

Jay has been covering police stories for many years. When I was a detective, I had no fear of contacting Jay and tell him of a burglary trend, suggestion of how neighbors could be extra eyes for strangers. He was responsible for the old PA Times, having a police blotter, which was a great tool. I used to have people who read the blotter, then call my office and say that they did see a suspicious car or person, in the area of a listed burglary.

Jay has been writing crime stories since the 70's, and knows how to do an investigation of his own. The article above is extensive an shows the complications that occurred all from what looked like a simple crime.

Jay has every right to express his views of the participants, the police the administration, etc. This is a BLOG, not the NEWS section.

As for Sgt Yore not wanting to talk to Jay, that is his choice, but a poor choice. I often sat down in a room with Jay and answered questions regarding my work. The investigation information was reported correctly every time Jay wrote his article. My (unasked for advice) is that Sgt Yore should meet Jay, and help out with unanswered questions, unless they affect the investigation. Face to face meetings are very beneficial.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jo Gilbert
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 18, 2008 at 6:13 pm

As a former resident of PA and a retired Court officer, I am supportive of the PD's efforts to make sense of the confused, quasi-criminal activities at Children's Theatre. Jay's blog is the first clear explanation I've run into. At the least, there was financial irresponsibility which wasn't helped by a lack of fiscal supervision by the City. Gawd, if any other public official had been this lax in their bookkeeping, the stuff really would have hit the fan with heads rolling down the aisle. Some council members seem too closely connected to the Theatre bunch and should recuse themselves from commentary. In brief, appears the anger is at the messenger rather than the offenders.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by the watcher
a resident of another community
on Jun 22, 2009 at 7:45 pm

It would be very interesting and (possibly) explosive in content if someone did a past 10 year audit on how many friends of friends and former (retired) employees from the City of Palo Alto have been re-hired as consultants throughout the various city's departments . From what many understand is that these so-called consultants make huge salaries for minimal level work output. (What department conducts the audits for these completed work-contract?)
Seems that in these financially strapped times, all the cities financial expenditures should be viewed by the public (with no exceptions), and especially the work that is contracted out.
In the past the contratcted work budget has never been revealed to the media and the public in the same manner as has been with the current employees of the City of Palo Alto.
Is the answer "Blowin in the Wind?"

By the way Mr. Thorwaldson this blog was very insightful.


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