WALNUT CREEK -- Top Lesher Center officials uncovered evidence of possible child sexual abuse by a city employee and then fired him, but never informed local police of the allegations, a law enforcement review has concluded.
Now the Contra Costa District Attorney's office is deciding whether to charge four officials with violating laws requiring them to report their suspicions to police. This newspaper first reported the DA's review on March 22, and now has obtained an internal police memo that describes in damning detail the alleged failures of officials who oversee the city-owned performing arts center.
According to the March 15 memo, the longtime manager of the Lesher Center, Scott Denison, fired employee Jason Pedroza in November after learning about the suspected abuse. But it was a worried parent and not Denison who first told police of Pedroza's alleged misdeeds.
Prosecutors in February charged Pedroza, 27, with two felonies -- using a minor for a sex act and contacting a minor for the purpose of engaging in lewd and lascivious behavior -- and misdemeanor sexual battery and child molestation. Pedroza, an actor and theater teacher, turned himself in to police in February, three months after he had been fired.
The police memo names Denison, Walnut Creek Arts, Recreation and Community Services Director Barry Gordon, his assistant director Kevin Safine and city Human Resources Director Sally Rice as failing to report suspected child abuse to local authorities. They were placed on paid administrative leave March 22 while the city conducts an internal investigation, said City Manager Ken Nordhoff, who confirmed the four names to a reporter last week after declining to identify them earlier.
"They will be on leave as long as the internal investigation takes," he said, giving no timeline for the investigation, started by outside counsel last week.
Denison, Gordon and Rice didn't respond to requests for comment. Safine could not be reached for comment.
The county District Attorney's Office is still considering the matter, said Nancy Georgiou, senior deputy district attorney and head of the office's sex crimes unit.
The memo offers a shocking assessment of how city officials handled the Pedroza situation, and describes lax supervision over minors and evidence of an inappropriate sexual climate at the Lesher Center.
According to police interviews recounted in the memo, witnesses reported seeing girls and boys in the same dressing rooms, minors sitting on Pedroza's lap during rehearsals and Pedroza attempting to lure juveniles into isolated areas.
One witness told police that acting groups at the Lesher "were a big family and sending/receiving sexually suggestive (electronic) messages was normal," the memo reads.
The concerns about Pedroza escalated last fall, when the parents of an alleged victim told both Danville police and the Contra Costa Musical Theater Company that Pedroza had inappropriate contact with their child. Pedroza had worked at the theater company and the Ballet School in Walnut Creek; both fired Pedroza on Nov. 3.
The Lesher Center's Denison was informed of the allegations against Pedroza at around the same time. Denison's daughter Jennifer Perry is director of the ballet school and works on productions with the theater company. Police say the senior Denison viewed some inappropriate texts between Pedroza and a minor. Denison then notified his bosses Gordon and Safine, and fired Pedroza Nov. 8. But none of them ever reported the alleged abuse to police, according to the memo.
On Nov. 9, the parents of a second child contacted Pleasant Hill police about alleged sexual misconduct by Pedroza. Pleasant Hill investigators determined some of the alleged crimes occurred at the Lesher Center and contacted Walnut Creek police in December -- the first time Walnut Creek police had heard of the allegations.
Pleasant Hill police said their investigation "suggested" Pedroza's alleged criminal activities were common knowledge among other actors and administrators with the city-owned Center Repertory Theater Company and the Lesher Center, according to the memo.
Pedroza appears to have a personal connection with the Denison family. In a photo that appeared in a 2011 edition of Scene, a Bay Area News Group style magazine, Pedroza is pictured arm in arm with the Denison family -- including Denison, his wife and children -- at a Lesher Center gala.
In March, Walnut Creek police began their investigation into whether city employees had violated mandated reporting laws. Police found that not only did employees not report what they knew, they didn't know of their duty to do so.
"Shockingly, Gordon told (a Walnut Creek police sergeant) he was completely unaware of any mandated reporting laws and how they would apply to employees in the (arts) department," the memo says.
State law lists 44 types of "mandated reporters," public and private employees who come in contact with children through their work and are required to report any suspicion of abuse or neglect. The three Lesher Center administrators are mandated reporters and were obligated to have reported Pedroza to local police, even if they believed another agency was investigating him, according to police. It is unclear if police consider Rice a mandated reporter.
"In the Pedroza case additional victims continued to come forward alleging crimes in Walnut Creek after (Arts, Recreation and Community Services Department) administrators and Human Resources were aware of the alleged abuse," the memo states.
Whether the employees are mandated reporters is something the DA will weigh. But if the employees are, they likely violated the law, said William Grimm, senior attorney with Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law.
"If the conditions for a duty to report are met, the reporter should report whether or not others may have reported," he said. "How does the person know that what they saw or heard is the same or different from what another reporter may have seen and reported?"
Police suggest the city start mandated reporter training, beginning with Human Resources Director Rice, who said she forgot about a November memo Safine sent her on the alleged Pedroza abuse and did not know who in the city qualified as a mandated reporter.
"Rice should be the go-to person for other employees on this topic," the memo states.
In the wake of this situation, Nordhoff is proposing a sweeping new city policy that makes every city employee a mandated reporter.
Staff writer Matthias Gafni contributed to this report. Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.