A new lawsuit against the Santa Monica Police Activities League (PAL) accuses a second person of sexually abusing children in the program, joining existing complaints related to the Eric Uller case.
In the past two weeks, a total of nine individuals have filed claims or complaints against the City of Santa Monica and PAL that allege both institutions failed to take action when children and volunteers warned that Eric Uller was sexually abusing young boys he met through the program. Uller, a former City employee, molested more than 10 boys in the 1980s and 1990s while he volunteered at PAL and was found dead in his apartment last November shortly before he was scheduled to appear in court on multiple child molestation charges.
One of the victims, however, claims she was abused by a PAL employee, a complaint filed last week reveals.
Elizabeth Esquivias alleges she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by Fernando Ortega, who she claims was on probation at the time, when she was 12 or 13 years old in the early 1990s. Ortega was assigned to drive children in the program home at night and would drive Esquivias home last in order to be alone with her. He assaulted her on at least five occasions, according to the complaint.
Ortega told Esquivias not to tell anyone what had happened or they would both be in trouble. Frightened by his threat, she did not tell anyone about the abuse until last summer when law enforcement began investigating an anonymous tip about Uller. Claypool said he is planning to file a fourth complaint on behalf of Esquivias’ brother, whom Uller abused.
“There was not only another molester, but one with a criminal record,” Claypool said. “The City and PAL weren’t doing any reliable, diligent background checks on volunteers or supervising volunteers.”
What happened to Esquivias is similar to the stories of the two men who have filed complaints through Claypool so far. Both Rogelio Monroy and Jose Zaldivar, who filed a complaint last week at the same time as Esquivias, allege that Uller groomed them by driving them home from PAL events and molested them at his father’s medical offices under the pretense of giving them physicals.
The complaints assert that PAL staff should have prevented Uller and Ortega from spending time with children unsupervised and responded to claims that Uller was molesting young boys. Monroy’s complaint alleges that another boy in PAL called Uller a molester in front of PAL employees and was subsequently kicked out of the program.
“If anyone was paying attention, they would see that these guys are driving kids home alone, which is completely inappropriate,” Claypool said. “Uller and Ortega were grooming these kids.”
The City launched an internal investigation late last year into allegations that City staff covered up Uller’s crimes. It has retained Praesidium, an outside consultant, to review the policies and practices of current youth programs to ensure that best practices for preventing incidents of abuse are in place throughout City programs, said City spokesperson Constance Farrell.
“We are deeply disturbed by the claim filed with the City for alleged sexual abuse that occurred in the 1990s,” Farrell said. “The City of Santa Monica is deeply committed to ensuring the health and safety of all children enrolled in City programs. Any allegation of crimes committed against our youth will be responded to with transparency and accountability.”
The complaints ask for a jury trial and judgment against PAL for sexual harassment and negligent supervision, hiring and retention. It seeks damages in an amount to be determined at trial. Claypool said he is also planning to add the City to the lawsuit pending court approval.
This article was updated Mar. 25 at 5:17 p.m.