Beyond the Lights: The Backstage Betrayal in Vacaville
- OnStage Editor-in-Chief
Beyond the Lights is an investigative documentary column that looks to expose the unethical and criminal within the theatre industry. The mission is to raise awareness in order to make theatre safer for all involved. If you know of something wrong happening in your local theatres, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editors Note: What follows is a chronicling of an investigation into child pornography involving a local theatre and other cases. At this time the court proceedings are ongoing. So we must say the actions of those accused is alleged.
Due to the nature of the article, reader discretion is advised.
“Reprehensible. Couldn’t imagine that it would happen, and very shocked that it did,”
“There were no signs...”
“I keep asking myself, ‘How did it happen? How did I not see it?’ Like, how do you not know these things, but I guess you don't...."
Just about an hour outside Sacramento, CA sits Vacaville. A somewhat small town, their performing arts epicenter resides at the Vacaville Performing Arts Theatre. The venue, which opened in 1993 has hosted a slew of events and concerts such as Debbie Reynolds, Lou Rawls, The Smothers Brothers, Boyz II Men and George Winston. It also plays host to a number of local events such as Vacaville Ballet Theatre Company, Solano Community Symphony, Vacaville Concert Society and Dixon Dance Studio's annual recitals.
But what used to be a place of creation and performance, is now a crime scene. Because now, the Vacaville Performing Arts Theatre is at the center of a child pornography investigation. The alleged perpetrators? Two former theatre employees. The victims? A countless number of young female dancers at Dixon Dance Studio.
This past summer, a police investigation into a local child pornographer turned up secretly recorded videos of young girls dressing and undressing at the Vacaville Performing Arts Theatre allegedly recorded or kept by two Vacaville men who worked at the city-owned theater.
According to The Daily Republic,
"The details of what police uncovered included nude images of girls from the Dixon Dance Studio. The girls were secretly recorded with a cellphone as they were dressing and undressing during rental of the theater in June 2013."
While one video is horrific enough, police found more than 40.
The videos were shot from above, presumably from an air vent. They were later downloaded from a cellphone to a computer. The owner of the computer? Theater technical director, Thomas McPike. In addition to the cellphone videos, police also found a slew of other child pornographic material on McPike's computer. In their investigation they also found that McPike's neighbor and co-worker at the theatre, Donald K. Wade also was in possession of child pornography. This time, Wade's collection include rape videos of young girls, some as young as four years-old.
Both men were arrested and charged.
While the nature of these crimes are horrific, residents of Vacaville must come to terms with two hard facts. 1. Given the size of a dance company with the amount of videos found, the number of victims is countless. 2. Since neither men had previous criminal histories, very little could have been done to prevent this.
What is even more tragic, is there have been plenty more cases just like this.
- Last April, a A Vineland, NJ school teacher and Pitman resident who was caught in a statewide child porn sweep also hid a camera in a rehearsal space used by the borough's Broadway Theatre. Thomas Guzzi is also charged with third-degree invasion of privacy for allegedly hiding a tablet computer in a bathroom stall at the Broadway Theatre.
- This past July, a former Fort Worth, TX high school drama teacher exchanged nude photographs and videos with a 15-year-old boy from Michigan and told authorities the teen was his boyfriend. Matthew Anthony Keller was arrested. He faces a charge of receipt of child pornography, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
- In June, Charles A. Brieger, who served as director of Elgin's Summer Theatre productions in IL, faces a felony charge of criminal sexual assault of a 16 year old girl. According to police, Brieger is accused of assaulting and abusing her in the backstage/catwalk area of the middle school.
And just last month, it was reported that a longtime leader of a youth theater program in Maine, sexually abused three girls under the age of 13 whom he met when he was a director of the group’s community musicals, according to an affidavit released in court.
According to police, Henry A. Eichman victims described multiple incidents when Eichman either touched them inappropriately or secretly took photographs and video of them at his home on Pleasant Street in Topsham. During pool parties, the children allege that Eichman did not want them tracking water into his apartment to use the bathroom, so he set up a bucket outside for them to use instead. While using the outdoor bucket, one child described seeing a “video camera thing” with a blinking red light that was recording her, according to the affidavit. The other incidents involve multiple sleepovers at Eichman’s home.
One child allegedly saw two other children sleeping in Eichman’s bed with him, and that he was “moving up and down” on top of one of them, the affidavit said. On another occasion last winter, Eichman made the children sleep on his living room floor, and did not allow them to wear underwear. Eichman slept on a couch nearby. One girl said she woke up at night to use the bathroom and discovered Eichman was “fake sleeping,” and that he had a camera he was using to take photos of the other children as they slept.
What is common is that all of these cases involve first time offenders, which means nothing in the interview/vetting process could have turned up to prevent these individuals from being hired and therefore put in close contact with children.
Most theatre are able to go through the various background checks for employees, but the same cannot be said when it comes to volunteers or, in the case of Vacaville, trust that 3rd party contractors have done their due diligence in background checks. While much of this legwork is done in professional theatres, at the community level, it is much more inconsistent.
So what can children and parents do to protect themselves? The first is to make sure they inquire with the theatre company that all bases have been covered with their staff. Also, make sure that each theatre has a strict policy regarding access and handling of child performers that you're comfortable with. We all want our kids to be stars but if the theatre isn't keeping them safe, it's not worth being on their stages.
Also, make sure you and your child have a clear communication system set up in case something happens. Many incidents go unreported because the victims are afraid to tell someone. Having dialogue about what to do if your child encounters anything wrong is vital to reporting it and protecting them from further abuse.
For further information and advice about what to do in these situations, I encourage you to visit stopitnow.org.
There is too much good that can be done in theatre to have it ripped away by monsters like these. It is my hope that the more we report incidents like this, the more theatres, parents and performers can be proactive about preventing such crimes.