MORAGA -- As allegations swirled that a popular science teacher had sexually abused students in the Moraga school district nearly two decades ago, a town police detective sought to investigate the complaints, but said school officials thwarted her efforts, this newspaper has learned.
Detective Julie Valdez built a case against teacher Daniel Witters despite efforts by school administrators to limit her access to information about his conduct, according to the report she filed in 1996. That portion of the probe derailed after Witters killed himself days after the abuse claims surfaced. However, Valdez turned her focus to his superiors.
She concluded in her report that at least three school district employees broke the law requiring them to report sexual abuse claims to authorities, a failure that allowed additional abuse to occur. It is not clear why charges against the employees were not pursued.
Valdez's five-page report, obtained by this newspaper, reveals a wealth of new details about the police investigation, showing for the first time that it found wrongdoing not just by Witters, but by his supervisors and a colleague, as well. The report also indicates that Moraga school administrators did more to protect Witters than has previously been known.
Valdez could not be reached for comment, but the Moraga police chief at the time, Barry Kalar, recalled his frustration in a recent interview. He said he asked the superintendent and principal, whom he considered friends, "'What the hell were you thinking here? Why didn't we know sooner?' And they would say, 'Well, he's a good guy and we're trying to deal with this.'"
Valdez's findings support what this newspaper reported last year -- at least three district employees failed to report allegations of abuse by Witters to police or Child Protective Services, allowing the former teacher to victimize more girls. Four of Witters' former students have since sued the district, claiming officials' failure to report resulted in them being abused. Cal swim coach Kristen Cunnane, the only victim to go public, settled with the district for $2.85 million in May. Three other Jane Does' cases are still in Contra Costa Superior Court.
"I'm mystified why these educators were not criminally charged for a clear violation of the child abuse reporting laws," said David Ring, an attorney for two victims. "Had Moraga administrators fulfilled their legal obligation to report (earlier), then several girls would never have been abused by Witters thereafter. This is the exact reason why California mandates that educators report suspected child abuse -- to prevent other children from being seriously harmed."
Current Superintendent Bruce Burns said he has no information about past actions of administrators and could not comment, but he repeated the district's apology to the victims.
"We are committed to providing our community's children an excellent education in a safe environment," he said.
In her report, Valdez details how she was sent to Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School on Nov. 22, 1996, to look into a reported child molestation. She learned there were written statements from possible victims, but met resistance from the superintendent.
"I was told by John Cooley ... that he did not feel comfortable with me reviewing the statements," Valdez wrote. "Cooley said the statements were written by students and were confidential."
The former superintendent told the detective the district hired attorney Nancy Bourne to conduct an internal investigation and that after that probe, "they would consider releasing the statements," Valdez wrote.
"After much telephone debate with Cooley and Bourne, I was advised that I could only view the documents," she wrote. "Bourne also expressed she did not want me talking with potential victims. ... Bourne felt if the police interviewed the victims it would ruin her investigation. Bourne said that (the police) have a way of intimidating people in an attempt to gain information.
"She also indicated that the police would put these victims through a number of interviews, and that it would be useless because chances were that the DA's office would never file on the case," the detective wrote.
Bourne, reached by telephone, said she did not remember any specifics from the case. She also said, "I have never done anything to discourage a police investigation. We always want to assist a police investigation. However, districts do have to act within the parameters of the law, particularly when students are involved."
Valdez, now retired, did not return a message left for her at her Dixon ranch. But Kalar, the 66-year-old former police chief, said in a phone interview from his West Sacramento home that police got "absolutely zero support" from the school district.
When Valdez did finally get access to the district's documents, she found a June 12, 1994, letter from an unidentified student who detailed how Witters had molested her in 1990, during his first year at the school. The girl wrote that she sent the letter to then-principal Bill Walters because she hoped he would take action "to prevent such an incident from occurring again." Walters not only did not report the allegations to police but he also revealed the victim's identity to Witters and showed the letter to then-Vice Principal Paul Simonin, who also failed to report it.
The girl's 1994 letter "clearly" should have been reported to authorities by any employee who viewed it, the detective said in her investigation.
Valdez also viewed a March 16, 1996, memo to the principal written by Julie Correa, a Joaquin Moraga physical education teacher, in which she said some girls told her Witters had kissed, licked the ear and patted the butt of a student. Neither Correa nor Walters reported the allegations as required by law, according to an internal memo.
"I discovered two letters that substantiate the mandated failure-to-report laws set forth by the state of California," Valdez wrote. "The contents of the above-mentioned letters clearly meet the provisions" of the child abuse reporting penal code.
Cunnane believes that had Correa been prosecuted for her failure to report, it may have stopped the P.E. teacher from raping her over a three-year period. Correa, a confidante turned predator, is serving an eight-year prison sentence for those crimes.
"It is my hope that we figure out exactly what happened back then in terms of abuse and failure to report," the Cal women's swim coach said. "Many of us were forever wounded, and learning from the past is how we can change the future."
In 1994, it was a misdemeanor -- punishable by up to six months in jail -- for school employees to be told of sexual abuse allegations and not report them to police or Child Protective Services. The former employees can no longer be prosecuted, as the statute of limitations has long since expired.
Attorneys for Cooley, Walters and Simonin did not return calls and e-mails for comment.
As she investigated the Moraga district's failures to report, Valdez interviewed staff about the mandated reporting requirements and was told there was no district policy or training.
That has since changed, following multiple news reports about the district's failure to train staff and report past abuse. The district now follows one of the most comprehensive abuse reporting training programs in the Bay Area.
The report ends with Valdez saying she was forwarding the case to her boss, Kalar, and to the Contra Costa district attorney. County prosecutors say they never received the failure-to-report case from Moraga police. It's unclear why the case was not forwarded.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.