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 was 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.
Last year, 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 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.
In April, Thomas McPike accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 16 months in state prison, in addition to lifetime mandatory sex offender registration upon release, for possessing child pornography. Wade, also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison and will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life
While the nature of these crimes is horrific, residents of Vacaville must come to terms with two hard facts. 1. Given the size of a dance company with a number 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.
- In July of 2016, 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 pled guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
- Last year, 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.
- In September, an employee at a Sellersburg, Indiana, high school has been arrested on a charge of child seduction and is accused of engaging in sexual acts with a student. Alonzo Richmond, 30, a director at Silver Creek High School's theater program is accused of having sexual activity with a 17-year-old student following a community theater event
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 theatres 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 by 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 a 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.