The city of Santa Monica will pay out $42.6 million to 24 individuals who sued the city for failing to protect them from child sexual abuse at the hands of a former city employee and volunteer.
City Attorney Lane Dilg announced Tuesday that the city has settled claims filed by 23 victims of Eric Uller, who sexually abused boys between 1987 and 1999 while volunteering with the Santa Monica Police Activities League, and a claim filed by a woman who was abused by another PAL volunteer, Fernando Ortega.
Uller was arrested October 2018 on five counts of child sex abuse and took his own life the following month, the day he was scheduled to appear in court. Uller was an employee in the city’s Information Technology Department at the time of his arrest.
Dilg said the payouts will be distributed as part of a $38 million settlement involving 19 individuals and separate settlements to an additional five individuals totaling $4.6 million. The $38 million will be allocated amongst the 19 individuals by a retired Superior Court judge.
“By resolving these claims and lawsuits swiftly, the city aims to avoid the risk and expense of litigation, thereby directing funds to survivors rather than to legal expenses,” Dilg said. “The city also hopes to afford our current and former community members the privacy and respect that they deserve, rather than engaging in painful and protracted litigation proceedings.”
Attorneys for the victims said Uller preyed on vulnerable Latino boys from the Pico neighborhood, where Santa Monica’s Latino community is concentrated, while he volunteered at PAL, a nonprofit operated by the city that offers afterschool activities for youth and aims to build trust between youth and police. At the time of the abuse, PAL was located in Pico’s Virginia Avenue Park.
Uller’s victims said he groomed them by taking them out for meals and driving them home before taking them to his father’s medical offices and molesting them under the pretense of performing physicals. Ortega’s victim said he sexually assaulted her several times while driving her home from PAL.
In the claims filed against the city, the victims’ attorneys argue that city staff knew or should have known about Uller’s criminal conduct and failed to act on the information. The city and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are investigating the allegations.
In January, a former PAL employee who was interviewed by sheriff’s detectives told the Daily Press that in 1993 she reported Uller’s behavior toward one boy to her direct supervisor, who reported it to two Santa Monica Police Department officers. The former employee said the officers interviewed the boy but did not launch an investigation into Uller.
City Council approved the settlements Tuesday and adopted a resolution to put in place procedures to prevent and respond to child abuse in city-run youth programs, including screening all volunteers working with youth and expanding mandated reporter training. The city has hired consultant Praesidium to serve as the city’s child protection officer and previously retained the consultant to review the policies of its youth programs to ensure that best practices to prevent abuse are in place.
“It’s time to acknowledge the pain these men and their families have lived with. As a city, we must take responsibility,” said Councilmember Ana Maria Jara. “We have made progress, but we cannot overlook the fact that all of the victims were children of color. We must continue to think of how we hold ourselves accountable today.”
The PAL board of directors said in a statement Tuesday said they share the anger and anguish of the survivors and their families.
“It is our hope, that as they and their loved ones move forward, they can eventually find peace and justice in the wake of the city of Santa Monica’s settlement agreement,” they said. “We will persist in our efforts to ensure that the homework assistance, college preparatory scholarships, arts, athletics and food assistance programs at the Santa Monica Police Activities League have the resources necessary to continue to make a profound impact in the lives of the youth they serve and their families.”