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By Jay Thorwaldson

A rare inside glimpse of a police investigation

Uploaded: 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.