The three-year saga at Balboa Park’s San Diego Junior Theatre, a city-funded operation, continued May 7 when former theatre parent Matt Valenti and his family went to City Hall to confront city attorney Mara Elliott.
Before the city council budget committee, with Elliott seated a few feet away, Valenti accused her of conspiring to obstruct justice and cover up child abuse. Documents Valenti obtained from his pending public records lawsuit against the city revealed that the day after he emailed Elliott his 110-page malfeasance complaint against the theatre’s board of trustees, she forwarded it to Gil Cabrera, former chair of the city’s ethics commission, who Valenti said “was the prime subject of its allegations.”
Valenti said Cabrera got involved as an attorney in the real-life drama at the theatre at the behest of his wife Krista Cabrera, who sits on the theatre’s board.
It all started on June 29, 2016. Witnesses say that while trying to get kids to quiet down, the theatre’s executive director James Saba went into a dressing room, grabbed a female student, and shook her. Francia Cohen had worked at the theatre for seven years, and she told the budget committee she witnessed the alleged battery. “Because I was trying to tell the truth, to tell everybody what I knew, Gil Cabrera... threatened to sue me if I said anything about what happened,” recalled Cohen, who no longer works at the theatre.
Valenti said two theatre board members involved in the alleged cover-up worked under Elliott: deputy city attorneys Joan Dawson and Catherine Morrison. He says that at an August 3, 2016 board meeting, “Dawson presented a confidentiality clause — a gag order, basically — for the board to insert as an amendment to the bylaws, in order to frighten two whistleblowing board members, Celestina Cozic and Joe Marron.”
Valenti said within weeks of that meeting, two staff members who witnessed the dressing room incident were fired and Cozic and Marron were voted off the board. He said he got involved after Cabrera sent a cease and desist letter to a 15-year-old student who started an online petition to support the fired teachers.
Notes taken by Cozic at the August 3, 2016 meeting document that she raised a question about drama teacher Eric Phillip von Metzke, who was known to be dating an underage female student. Theatre staff had also received a warning about him earlier that year from Shaun Evans, a staff member of another theater, who found inappropriate texts from von Metzke to one of his students. Evans told the budget committee he was “soundly rebuffed and blown aside” when he issued his warning. Cozic recorded then-board president Darien Webster stating he was looking into it.
Two months later, October 3, 2016, according to a statement made to police by Jane Doe, a 16-year-old Junior Theatre student, von Metzke sexually assaulted her after picking her up in the middle of the night and driving to a library parking lot. She later told police she snuck out of her house because she felt she had to watch her teacher, because she heard he had threatened to hurt himself. She stated she was sobbing during the assault and wished she had been strong enough to stop it. On November 3, 2016, Doe texted a teacher, Michelle Gray, telling her she had had sex with a teacher. Gray replied, “Sex is not an accident. I can’t know this information. What you did with that teacher is a crime. If it comes out that I knew and didn’t report it, I will be in trouble. Just stop texting me.”
Valenti said Saba and the board, including the two deputy city attorneys and Krista Cabrera, did nothing about the questions raised by Cozic or the earlier reports about von Metzke. Junior Theatre spokesperson Carla Cordero responded, “The incident with Eric von Metzke was not ignored, nor covered up. A police report was promptly filed by Executive Director, James Saba.” But Saba reported the assault of Jane Doe to the San Diego Police Department on January 9, 2017, more than two months after Jane Doe texted Gray. Cordero did not comment on why that information took so long to get from Gray to Saba to police. She did not address what Junior Theatre staff and board members did or didn’t do in response to the warnings issued before the assault. She added that Valenti was disgruntled by the staff changes that were made and was making “exaggerated and false” allegations.
Von Metzke was arrested March 14, 2017, pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor and oral copulation with a minor on April 21, 2017, and received his sentence on June 20, 2017. His defense attorney Domenic Lombardo argued against a prison sentence. In his probation interview, the now-37-year-old von Metzke denied he was a predator and stated, “My conduct was a result of pure loneliness and depression.” He told police he was “getting older, while most of his friends were getting married and having kids.”
Lombardo argued his client had three dozen character reference letters supporting his bid for a light sentence. His supporters included business and entertainment executives and alumni from the Junior Theatre. Some suggested it would be a waste of his talents to send him to prison. Multiple supporters stated they had known the convict for years as the babysitter of their children and one said she still trusted him to be alone with children. His crime was described as “a total departure,” “highly uncharacteristic,” and “a single event.”
However, as cited in the sentencing memorandum, the police report states von Metzke already had unlawful sexual intercourse with another underage Junior Theatre student, Jane Doe 2, before he assaulted Jane Doe. It states von Metzke was in a relationship with Jane Doe 2’s older sister, then started dating Jane Doe 2 when she was 16 years old. And that he was living with the sisters’ family during that time. Jane Doe 2 refused to cooperate. She told police statutory rape laws were “lame.” Von Metzke told police that at first he ignored Jane Doe 2’s advances “but then her parents were all about it.” He was charged only for the assault on Jane Doe.
Deputy District Attorney Trisha Amador asked the judge to sentence von Metzke to state prison and order him to register as a sex offender. She argued that von Metzke “took advantage of a position of trust to commit the offense...After he realized he was under investigation, he was more concerned about his future and his feelings, and completely disregarded the victim, her feelings, and how his actions impacted her. He encouraged [Jane Doe] to lie to police.. Nothing in his actions demonstrates remorse.”
On June 20, 2017 von Metzke was sentenced to three years in state prison and ordered to register as a sex offender. He was released October 4, 2018.
On March 15, 2017, Valenti filed a 110-page, 55-exhibit complaint with the state attorney general, detailing the theatre board’s alleged misconduct. On April 12, 2017, he forwarded his complaint to Elliott, requesting legal intervention. The next day Elliott forwarded it to Cabrera stating she “remembered [Valenti’s] name from our prior conversations.”
Valenti said his email should have been confidential and Elliott broke the law by forwarding it to Cabrera. Cabrera said Valenti’s argument “strains credulity,” considering he made his complaint public two weeks after emailing Elliott.
Valenti said, “Once I learned [Cabrera] was so well-connected with the downtown political establishment, I was concerned local law enforcement wouldn’t conduct a proper investigation. In the case of the city attorney, this turned out to be 100 percent correct.”
Cabrera said he “briefly represented Junior Theatre on a pro bono basis two years ago.” He said the allegations have “no merit,” and that he would not send his two children to a place where children are abused. A city attorney spokesperson would not comment on Valenti’s allegations.
At the May 7 budget committee meeting, Valenti disclosed the latest theatre-related allegation of abuse against then-Junior Theatre board president David Braun. Valenti read a letter from a man named Tyler. “When I was 14 years old, I was sexually abused by David Braun. He was my middle school vice principal at Marshall Middle School in Scripps Ranch... He took me on trips, including to Junior Theatre... Eventually he began to show me pornography and told me to masturbate naked on his bed... I’m convinced I’m not the only person David has abused. When I learned he was on the board of Junior Theatre, I became very worried more kids would be hurt by him.”
In response to Valenti’s allegations, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit issued a memo on May 30. He stated, in part, “In March of 2019, the SDPD Sex Crimes Unit investigated an allegation made by an adult male. The male, a juvenile at the time of the alleged offense, claimed the two offenses occurred between November 1998 and March of 1999...There were no allegations of any physical contact between the suspect and victim. The alleged offenses were determined to be outside the statute of limitations and the case was closed.”
David Braun and Joan Dawson are no longer listed as members of the theatre board. Valenti’s presentation garnered more than 360 views on YouTube and more on Facebook. His daughter Sophia’s speech has more than 106,000 views. She accused Elliott of lying to her at “Little Leaders,” an event where Elliott said she couldn’t do anything about abuse at Junior Theatre because it’s a non-profit. “She showed that protecting her friends... is more important than protecting kids.” Sophia said that when they got rid of the theatre’s beloved staff members, “the board had taken away the heart and soul of Junior Theatre.” She implored the committee, “Help me go back to my favorite place in the world.”
Matt Valenti’s wife Jenn Valenti told the committee she was furious when she learned the warnings about von Metzke were ignored. “My own daughter Sophia had been in his classes and two of his shows... The time for ignoring victims and protecting criminals is over.”
On June 18, city council members Scott Sherman and Vivian Moreno wrote a bipartisan letter to district attorney Summer Stephan and attorney general Xavier Beccera, asking them to review Valenti’s complaint. Junior Theatre is in council member Chris Ward’s district, but he did not sign on to the letter. (On March 8, he tweeted a picture of himself with Krista Cabrera, Darien Webster, David Braun, and James Saba at Junior Theatre.) Valenti says the district attorney’s office is now conducting an investigation.
Valenti filed a public records lawsuit against the city of San Diego related to Junior Theatre on November 16, 2017 to “obtain access to all responsive public records that are not exempt from disclosure,” which he alleges the city has failed to provide. On July 26, 2019, Judge Eddie Sturgeon ruled that Valenti can get records from Junior Theatre related to allegations of child abuse against von Metzke and Saba. And he may take depositions from Dawson and Morrison.
On July 31, Valenti presented a child protection policy proposal to the city council rules committee. He wanted city-funded programs like Junior Theatre to have the same level of screening for child care workers that public schools have, including live scan fingerprinting, mandated reporter training, and child abuse prevention training. Council member Barbara Bry was the only one to address his proposal. She didn’t see it as something to put on the ballot, but referred it to the council’s public safety committee for consideration as a council policy.