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She reported a child predator in S.F. She waited years for a reckoning | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey


After she was molested by her aunt’s husband in 2001, Rachel Tolliver waited a decade for something to happen with the police report she filed in San Francisco. That only happened after police discovered more victims of Robert Earl Thomas Jr. and sought Tolliver’s help stopping him. For the next 12 years, eight months and nine days, she lived a second life as “Jane Doe Two.”

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

Rachel Tolliver was in an Apostolic Christian church in San Francisco when she was reminded of the devil from her past.

It was 2011 and Tolliver, then in her early 20s, had known a hard road. Raised around addiction and abuse, and having spent time in multiple group homes, the Bayview native was well versed in the ways that adults and systems can disappoint the children in their care. She was “over it all — just over life, to be quite frank,” she said. So she came asking God for a reason to go on.

“I made every single day of my life church,” she said. “Sunday all the way through Saturday, going to church. I was very committed to that.”

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Then, one evening, Tolliver caught curious looks from parishioners who lived in her building. They said the police were looking for her. One handed her a business card with a detective’s name on it. Tolliver concealed her embarrassment.

“No one wants to go around saying, ‘Yeah, I was molested,’ ” she said. “That’s how it all began again.”

In 2001, when she was 12, Tolliver was molested by a man named Robert Earl Thomas Jr. He was her uncle in a roundabout way — married to a woman who used to be married to her dad’s brother. When it happened, Tolliver did what the system encourages victims of child sexual abuse to do: She reported.

She told her mother, who called the police, who sent an officer to take Tolliver’s statement.

Tolliver remembers the male officer asking her to write down what happened and the officer complimenting her for her vivid account. He said one other thing. It’s seared into her memory.

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“ ‘Well, you know, they’re not gonna do anything because it’s your word against his,’ ” she said the officer told her. “That was the absolute last time I heard of it.”

Until a decade later, at church. Thomas was back on authorities’ radar as a serial rapist of children. One of his victims was participating in the prosecution; the others couldn’t or wouldn’t. Authorities needed Tolliver’s help stopping the pedophile she had tried to warn them about long ago. She felt many things, including anger.

“I didn’t wait to report him. I went home and told the police exactly what happened,” she said. “I didn’t wait years for him to do it again. The system did. Not me.”

But once again, in 2011, Tolliver did as the system asked. Once again, there was an extraordinary wait. This one lasted 12 years, eight months and nine days. By the end of it, Tolliver was questioning the cost of legal justice — and whether victims are the ones to pay it.

‘Where’s the responsibility? ’

On the same day that Tolliver filed her police report in March 2001, Thomas showed up at the Bayview police station with his wife to give his version of events, police incident reports show. He was already a registered sex offender, convicted in a 1990 case in which he kidnapped, raped and tortured a 19-year-old woman he had been dating.

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Thomas was arrested in the lobby. A juvenile inspector was assigned the case, the police reports say, but Tolliver says she never heard from him.

The District Attorney’s Office, then led by Terence Hallinan, declined to file charges and sent the case back to police for additional investigation, spokesperson Randy Quezada said in an email. “In this case, it is unclear why the case was not charged decades ago by a previous administration,” Quezada wrote.

A few months after Tolliver’s report, San Francisco police heard Thomas’ name again.

A 10-year-old girl had told peers that Thomas, her uncle, had been sexually abusing her since she was 8. Child Protective Services referred the allegations to police, who interviewed the girl in front of her mother. The girl denied everything.

According to court documents, Thomas went on to abuse the girl and two others for several years.

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A former student who wished to remain anonymous at Sacred Heart School in Atherton is suing the school alleging that it did not respond appropriately in the late 90s when her English teacher openly groomed and later assaulted her in Atherton, Calif, on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023.
The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa in Sonoma, Calif., Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

Reviewing case documents for the Chronicle, University of Massachusetts psychology and criminology professors Stephanie D. Block and Linda M. Williams criticized San Francisco authorities for not taking a closer look at Thomas in 2001, when there was a chance to stop him from perpetrating several more years of unspeakable abuse.

The fact that Thomas was a registered sex offender accused twice in a span of months of preying on young girls should have prompted more urgency, said the two experts on child sexual abuse investigations and prosecutions.

“Where’s the responsibility?” asked Williams, a UMass professor emerita who co-founded the Justice and Gender Based Violence Research Initiative at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

Or, as Block, who with Williams studied more than 500 cases of child sexual abuse for the National Institute of Justice in 2019, put it: “Somebody clearly f—ed up here.”

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In some ways, Thomas’ victims fell through an existing gap in San Francisco where, each year, hundreds of child sexual abuse claims go uninvestigated.

According to the Family Violence Council, which has been auditing the system-wide response to child abuse since 2009, most reports of a child being sexually abused get screened out before an investigation can be done by the city’s Family and Children’s Services agency, whose rate of proving such abuse declined from 12% in 2007 to 5% in 2018.

The vast majority of sexual abuse victims are children of color, the Council found in its 2017 report.

For Tolliver, a Black girl from the historically neglected Bayview neighborhood, the officer who interviewed her in 2001 had delivered a message.

When she was 16, Tolliver was sexually assaulted by two men at a Dublin movie theater. Her boyfriend at the time called the police, and Tolliver said she initially felt obligated to report the crime. But when detectives brought her to an interview room and turned on the video camera, she recanted.

“I believed that no one was going to do anything because it was my word against his,” she said.  “I believed that cop.”

The good cop

San Francisco police Inspector Liza Johansen was at home when the call came.

In May 2011, patrol officers responded to a reported child sexual abuse in the Bayview district. A suspect was already in custody, and there was purportedly video of one of his horrific crimes. Johansen, assigned to the police department’s child abuse and exploitation unit, arranged to have another inspector meet her at the Bayview station to interview the victim.

This is how Johansen met a young woman who would later be identified in court records as “Jane Doe One.”

Then 20, Jane Doe One told inspectors that Robert Thomas, her uncle by marriage, had been sexually abusing her since she was 8 years old. Thomas told Jane Doe One he would kill her and her mother if she said anything, so she stayed silent, even after Thomas had been arrested in 2003 for allegedly raping a 16-year-old girl, once at a cemetery. Thomas pleaded guilty to statutory rape. When he was released from prison in January 2006, his abuse of Jane Doe One resumed for another five years.

The way it all came out was this: Thomas had made secret videos of his rapes and showed one to a man he knew from prison. The man happened to be dating Jane Doe One’s mother and immediately told her. A family meeting ensued. Jane Doe One spoke up.

“His role was pivotal,” Johansen said of the mom’s boyfriend.

With one case seemingly closed, Johansen looked for others. The inspector had a strong hunch there were more victims, partly because of how old Jane Doe One was when the crimes surfaced. She also felt an obligation to act.

“I had a professional and moral obligation to Jane Doe One and every person that (Thomas) victimized,” Johansen said.

A search of Thomas’ iPhone and iPad found multiple videos of Thomas raping other girls.

The inspector pulled every police report she could find with Thomas’ name on it. One was dated March 2001 and concerned a then-12-year-old girl. Johansen called numbers, left messages, knocked on doors. She visited an office, an apartment, a church. She handed out business cards. One finally found its way to Tolliver.

Tolliver was a little annoyed to learn from neighbors that police were looking for her. It brought questions she wasn’t eager to answer. But she also felt a twinge of something she hadn’t felt in a long time: hope.

“That police report I wrote at 12 years old was actually needed in this case,” Tolliver said.

She called the number on the card. Johansen answered.

‘Robert’s game’

The People v. Robert Thomas went to San Francisco Superior Court in June 2011. It was a Jenga tower of a case.

Authorities had identified seven of his victims. The statute of limitations had expired for one. The cases of two others had already sent Thomas to prison for nearly 10 years. Two of his victims were so shaken by Thomas’ crimes that they couldn’t stomach the thought of testifying.

That left two women to carry the prosecution’s burden: Jane Doe One and Tolliver, who would be identified as “Jane Doe Two.” They happened to be childhood friends.

The case would inch along for nearly 13 years — a phenomenal length of time, prosecutors acknowledge and experts say.

Thomas orchestrated the pace from jail, where he was held on $2 million bail. He waived his right to a speedy preliminary hearing and then his right to a speedy trial, while his attorneys requested one continuance after another.

Robert Thomas Jr. consults with his public defender in Department 28 of the Hall of Justice on Feb. 6. It was one of more than 100 court hearings to determine what should happen to Thomas, accused of sexually abusing girls from 1998 through 2011. Arrested in 2011, Thomas spent the nearly 13-year life of the case in jail.  

Robert Thomas Jr. consults with his public defender in Department 28 of the Hall of Justice on Feb. 6. It was one of more than 100 court hearings to determine what should happen to Thomas, accused of sexually abusing girls from 1998 through 2011. Arrested in 2011, Thomas spent the nearly 13-year life of the case in jail.

 

Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

In recorded jailhouse phone calls, Thomas and his wife openly discussed their strategy of dragging things out in the hopes of wearing down Jane Doe One, against whom Thomas was accused of committing multiple counts of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation.

In May 2012, when Thomas’ wife told him that he should want to avoid trial, he agreed, saying that stalling would benefit him in the long run, according to a 2023 filing by the District Attorney’s Office that included excerpts of multiple calls. “Sometimes evidence gets messed up or people don’t want to show up,” Thomas was recorded saying. “I’m just saying, things happen; you never know what could happen.”

A month later, when his wife noted that he would have to be released if Jane Doe One backed out of the prosecution, Thomas replied, “That’s the whole idea.”

From June 2011 to February of this year, more than 100 hearings in the case were held at the Hall of Justice, ultimately involving 25 judges, 18 prosecutors (including future District Attorney Brooke Jenkins) and 12 defense attorneys. The majority of hearings concerned scheduling and were continued, records show.

The District Attorney’s Office said it was the defense that asked for and received numerous continuances, while its prosecutors filed motions in 2016, 2022 and 2023 asserting the people’s right to a speedy trial.

“It’s a frustration of DAs that ‘technically’ we have a right to a speedy trial on the books,” said Assistant District Attorney Ana Gonzalez. “But it is a right without a remedy, and it is a right that always has to bend to the defendant and the defendant’s attorney saying that they need to be adequately prepared. It is unfortunate that it happened in this case.”

While judges can deny requests for more time, forcing a defendant to trial before he is ready would be an issue on appeal, Gonzalez explained.

“He could’ve gone to trial sooner,” she said of Thomas. “He chose not to, and obviously did not want to.”

V. Roy Lefcourt, Thomas’ private attorney from 2015 until he retired in 2020, noted that the District Attorney’s Office reassigned the case to multiple prosecutors during its run.

“No reason existed for pushing the case to trial on our end,” Lefcourt wrote in an email. “As these type (s) of cases age, there is the hope from the defense that the victim and family would want closure rather than pursuing the case to trial.”

To Tolliver, it seemed that no one but her wanted a trial.

When one of the eight prosecutors assigned to the case raised the prospect of a plea agreement, she said she reacted by blocking the prosecutor’s phone number and showing up at hearings to make sure one didn’t happen. She wanted a reckoning, not a compromise. Unlike other victims, who Tolliver acknowledges suffered worse abuse than she did, she was willing to testify under oath with Thomas sitting there, forced to listen. Let the chips fall where they may, she thought.

“If the evidence against Robert Thomas was so, so horrible, like everyone said it was … why are we not going to trial?” she asked. “It feels like we were playing Robert’s game all along.”

Before he was dismissed in 2021 by then-District Attorney Chesa Boudin for criticizing another lengthy prosecution, victims’ advocate Giles Feinberg said he and Johansen were the “sole connection points” to a mystifying process of starts and stops. Every time he informed Jane Doe One and Tolliver of another complication, he said, they were justifiably confused, discouraged and angry.

“To be hanging on a cliff for over a decade and to not know if you’re going to get pushed off that cliff every time your advocate calls is unimaginable,” he said. “For all of the injustice (s) that there are for defendants — of which there are many, countless — we never ever f—ing talk about victims. … What we put on not only women of color, but anybody who comes through the doors. Justice is painful, slow and utterly inhumane.”

The mother of Jane Doe One, left, embraces Assistant District Attorney Melissa Demetral following the Feb. 6 sentencing hearing for Robert Earl Thomas Jr. at the San Francisco Hall of Justice.

The mother of Jane Doe One, left, embraces Assistant District Attorney Melissa Demetral following the Feb. 6 sentencing hearing for Robert Earl Thomas Jr. at the San Francisco Hall of Justice.

Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

Sentences

After all the continuations and complications, Thomas ended up cutting a deal in which he pleaded guilty in January to two of 14 felony counts. In exchange, he received a 50-year-to-life prison sentence — minus the decade-plus he’d spent in San Francisco jail — and was ordered to pay a $740 fine. The plea agreement allows for the possibility of parole in 22 years.

On Feb. 6, a hearing was held to make the sentence official.

At the defense table sat Thomas, 56, his mostly gray hair clipped short. He was unmoving and alone. The wife who had stuck by his side from the beginning had sought an annulment in December 2022. The five people in the gallery were there in support of Jane Doe One and Tolliver, neither of whom attended the hearing.

Johansen, now a captain in the Police Department, read a statement from Jane Doe One, a scathing indictment itemizing the years lost to a man she called “a twisted son of a bitch.”

“Although I’m not able to be there today to watch you be sentenced, my mother will be there, standing with her head held high, watching your Black ass crumble,” Jane Doe One wrote. “Robert, I stopped being scared the last day I saw you at the gas station, when I was about 20 years old. At that very moment, I knew one day you would reap what you sowed. Today is that day. You reap destruction.”

The mother, her shoulders heaving, blurted out a curse in Thomas’ direction and was gently admonished by the judge.

Tolliver didn’t attend the sentencing. She didn’t support making a deal with Thomas and felt like she’d put her life on hold long enough for a process that could never return what had been taken from her.

Rachel Tolliver feels like she put her life on pause for nearly 13 years while serving as “Jane Doe Two” in the criminal prosecution of Robert Earl Thomas Jr., who sexually abused multiple girls in San Francisco. When it became clear that the legal process would leave her unfulfilled, she decided she needed to find closure outside of it.

Rachel Tolliver feels like she put her life on pause for nearly 13 years while serving as “Jane Doe Two” in the criminal prosecution of Robert Earl Thomas Jr., who sexually abused multiple girls in San Francisco. When it became clear that the legal process would leave her unfulfilled, she decided she needed to find closure outside of it.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

From the day Thomas was arrested to the day he was sentenced, Tolliver had moved away and then back to San Francisco. She had lived out of a church shelter and worked at a number of tech startups where she said she observed or experienced sexual harassment. She had quit three jobs and been fired from one, all after complaining about abuses of power and feeling ignored.

In relationships, she was put off by men who approached her, preferring to be the one in control, and had little interest in physical intimacy. She saw peers who had partners, were starting families. At 34, she was mostly keeping the world at arm’s length, and so very angry. No more, she decided. 

Referring to Thomas, she said, “I’m not going to spend his time in prison with him like I spent his time in jail with him.”

The day of the sentencing, Tolliver put her phone on “do not disturb” and spent an uncharacteristically sunny day in the city she has again decided to leave, this time permanently. Standing under a tree, she looked at the sky and let out a breath she had been holding for more than 20 years.

“That day, I finally exhaled,” she said. “And I’m going to be OK. I chose to be OK.”

Then, alluding to her impending move from San Francisco, she added, “I’m closing this freaking book and burning it.”

Reach Raheem Hosseini: [email protected]. Reach Daniel Lempres: [email protected]



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