A 427-acre boarding school less than two hours away from Los Angeles, the Thacher School counts titans of industry, renowned artists and even a federal judge among its alumni, but the Golden State’s educational Shangri-La has spent the better part of a year grappling with the legacy of decades of alleged sexual misconduct.
Last June, an elite and selective law firm released a 91-page report blowing the lid on some 20 incidents of alleged sexual misconduct and “boundary crossing” dating back to the 1980s. In one of the earliest cases, an English teacher allegedly raped a 16-year-old student, leaving her “traumatized” and “bleeding.”
“I bled for an entire week after the first time I was raped,” she told investigators in the report. “I was alone in the woods with my classmates with no comfort or support.”
The former student said her teacher sometimes sexually abused her “multiple times a week” throughout her sophomore and into her junior year. Dozens of pages from the report—detailing accusations of faculty and staff misconduct (including faculty sexual misconduct), and the school’s handling of such actions—suggest she was far from alone in experiencing alleged sexual abuse at the school.
Such accounts drew an uncommon degree of national media attention to the co-ed boarding school in California’s lush Ojai Valley, including coast-to-coast articles about the scandal in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
A Law&Crime investigation details what multiple sources claim to be a striking omission: a misconduct claim against a direct relative of Sherman Day Thacher, who founded the school in 1889. After an alleged “choking incident,” these sources claim, administrators quietly gave the relative the choice to leave the school or face exposure in a public report.
“The parents and offending student were told at that time in August  by the new dean of students that if the student voluntarily withdrew from the school, the incident would not impact the recommendations made by Thacher School to any of the colleges to which the student might apply,” one source told Law&Crime.
This source said the student was told that, absent his voluntary withdrawal, the incident would be relayed to the law firm for inclusion in a secondary report, “thereby using the threat of” that report “as a club to force the offending student’s withdrawal.”
Ventura County Sheriff’s Office Detective Sgt. Ryan Clark told Law&Crime that the alleged choking incident was reported to law enforcement in December 2021.
That report, Clark confirmed, sparked a criminal investigation, which he said was submitted for review by the prosecutor’s office. A district attorney’s office representative said, without being told anything other than the student’s name, the date of the alleged incident and the date the incident was reported: “I can’t answer anything regarding a juvenile.”
Following publication of this story, Clark strongly disputed the characterization by sources that there was a sexual encounter: “This student did not have sex with the male juvenile and was not engaged in the sexual activity alluded to in this report when the assault occurred.”
The allegations from these sources, some of whom have worked for the school in various capacities and declined to speak on the record for personal and professional reasons, and as well because of the sensitive nature of the allegations, raise questions about the independence of Munger, Tolles & Olson, LLP (MTO), a well-heeled law firm that authored the report and reportedly generated more than $200 million in revenue in 2011. The firm previously claimed to have had “complete autonomy” over the report.
The school did not respond to Law&Crime’s detailed questions requesting comment, and MTO’s co-managing partner Hailyn Chen, one of the authors of the report, declined to comment. The allegations also come during a time of rising frustration among alumni, staff and others since a 2021 disclosure they describe as incomplete.
According to the sources, the Thacher scion was accused of engaging in a non-consensual act of sexual violence against a female student during an alleged sexual encounter on campus by choking her during sex. Law&Crime is withholding the names of the relative and his alleged victim to protect the privacy of minors.
Critics say that the report is incomplete and focused on old scapegoats. One internal letter, provided to Law&Crime, alleged that misconduct took place at the school “while [the firm] was investigating.”
Thacher is hardly alone among elite boarding schools across the country facing allegations of harboring sexual predators. Such stories have popped up particularly in the U.S. northeast and New England.
To Thacher alumni, the school is known for its inclusive environment, progressive curriculum and egalitarian admissions process, undergirded by generous scholarship programs that provide youth of all walks of life access to a ranch campus and atmosphere they would otherwise never experience. Yes, many would admit that the price tag is high—reportedly $64,700 a year—but some 30-percent of students are on financial aid. The scholarships are abundant and utilized to bring as many would-be Thacher alumni into the nesting folds of Ojai’s natural beauty.
Despite all this, the past few months have produced a jarring crack in the image.
“Choked the Other Without Consent”
Multiple sources told Law&Crime the relative of the school’s founder, a male student and a junior at the time, non-consensually choked a female student during an alleged sexual encounter on campus in May 2021.
The MTO law firm’s report released a month later does not mention the incident, and a former trustee and parent claims there is a reason for that omission.
In letter dated Dec. 12, 2021, some six months after the release of the report, former Thacher trustee and parent Bill Oberndorf described an incident that he said “included allegations of violent and potentially criminal conduct.”
The alleged perpetrator, described in the letter as “Student A,” is whom sources claim to be the founder’s relative.
According to the letter, the relative was “reported to have choked the other [student] without consent”—before administrators allegedly swept the incident under the rug.
The letter, which can be read in full here, states:
During an alleged sexual encounter between two students on campus, one student (“Student A”) was reported to have choked the other without consent. Reportedly, in the last few weeks of the school year, Student A took an early leave from the School. Members of the Thacher Community, including members of the faculty and administration, were told that the reason for Student A’s leaving was because Student A had become depressed and suicidal. It was expected that Student A would return to Thacher for the 2021-2022 school year.
In August of 2021, Student A returned to campus for an official Thacher event and the beginning of the school year. At this event, Student A was apparently taken aside by a senior member of the Thacher administration. In this conversation, Student A was purportedly told that Student A could voluntarily withdraw before the start of the new school year and that Thacher would not report the incident to whatever new school Student A attended, as well as potential colleges. If Student A did not withdraw, Student A would face a disciplinary hearing and the allegations would not only be provided to MTO but included in its supplemental report. Student A chose to withdraw.
A member of the Thacher community, who requested anonymity due to the nature of their employment, confirmed the identities of the students said to be involved in the choking incident and discussed the circumstances in which the male student allegedly left campus.
This source claimed it is an “open secret” at Thatcher “that there’s something troubling going on for the girl,” and criticized what the person termed “abominably poor behavior by that school’s administration.”
“The faculty was told essentially nothing about what happened,” this source said. “The faculty was told he withdrew. Period. For a student to withdraw and no one to know why, is very, very unusual.”
While faculty were allegedly kept in the dark, the broader administration and the board were allegedly made aware of the choking incident, a former board member learned, according to a different source associated with Thacher.
In August 2021, the student and his parents learned that he would not be attending Thacher for his senior year, this second source told Law&Crime.
“Both parents of the male offending student, and the student himself, were surprised to be informed by the current administration in August of 2021, two months after the MTO report was published, and well after the occurrence of the spring incident, that the boy would not be allowed to continue at Thacher in the fall,” this source said.
According to this source, the parents and the student were told by the school’s “new dean of students” that if he voluntarily withdrew, the choking incident would not impact recommendations made by Thacher to any colleges the student might apply to.
At the same time, the student and his parents were allegedly offered an ultimatum.
“However, if the student did not withdraw voluntarily, then the school would have the incident put in the second MTO Report, thereby using the threat of MTO as a club to force the offending student’s withdrawal,” the source alleged.
The student withdrew from the school, and he currently attends a school in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, sources say.
“Embarrassing Questions Will Be Raised”
The same month as the alleged choking incident, an alleged sexual harassment incident occurred.
Former longtime Thacher trustee and audit committee chair Philip Pillsbury relayed the broad outlines of the incident to Law&Crime.
According to Pillsbury, a serially-rebuffed male student was discussing his unsuccessful attempts at getting a girl to like him with another male student. The rebuffed boy expressed, in four-letter terms, his desire to have sex with the girl who had repeatedly turned him down, in a remark that was overheard on a lunch line. Under the glare of a sexual abuse scandal, the Thacher School dismissed the boy, and his parents threatened to sue over what they reportedly perceived to be a heavy-handed overcorrection. Pillsbury said the board called a special session to deal with the threatened litigation.
Pillsbury cited both alleged incidents in an open letter to the “Thacher Community” dated Jan. 20, 2022.
Like Oberndorf’s December 2021 letter, this letter criticized the current Thacher administration headed by Board of Trustees Chair Dan Yih and Head of School Blossom Pidduck for their response to the two incidents.
“We know that these two incidents were handled entirely on this Board’s and this Administration’s watch, and we know that embarrassing questions will be raised about what they knew, when they knew it, and why the two students involved were forced to resign from the School,” Pillsbury wrote. “What happened? Why were these students forced out?”
Pillsbury told Law&Crime in an interview that he found it “puzzling” that both incidents, known about on campus a month before the June 2021 report’s release, did not appear in its pages.
“One of the things that is so puzzling to me, as I look at it from the outside as somebody that knows the system very well, is when there was an incident in the spring of 2021, that’s last May, when a student was accused of having sex with another student that involved some kind of choking–or as it was called at the time, strangulation–why that incident was not reported to MTO,” Pillsbury said during an interview, referring to the law firm. “Because it wasn’t it. It wasn’t in their report. The MTO report came out in June. The incident happened in May.”
Pillsbury defended the school’s decision to oust the boy allegedly overheard making the crass sexual remark.
“There was legitimacy to why the school took the action they did,” Pillsbury said, claiming offending student had a history of “being abusive” to other male students.
For Pillsbury, the fact that the second incident sparked a special session and threatened lawsuit made the seeming omission all the more glaring.
“That’s a significant event,” he said, referring to the session. “Those don’t happen very often. They indicate a crisis.”
“Some Posts on Social Media”
When the investigation was announced in summer 2020, accusations of “rape culture” at Thacher were so pervasive on social media that there was an Instagram account regarding such claims, designated under the handle @rpecultureatthacher. Board of Trustees Chair Yih himself nodded to that controversy in a letter describing comments “on social media” and “in our alumni forums.”
“Unfortunately, some posts on social media and comments in our alumni forums have made it clear that the School has not always been the inclusive and caring community we aspire it to be,” Yih wrote. “In the past few years, the School has made great strides in understanding how it must grow to become the community we want. As we talk more openly about these issues, the board and the School are committed to take action.”
The English teacher accused of raping the 16-year-old is named in the report as Timothy Regan, who later resigned, according to the report.
The report notes there was no record that “anyone from the School reported Regan to law enforcement.” The alleged victim of that incident says she was treated poorly by Thacher upon her return and that Thacher’s then-head of school, Bill Wyman, had tried to convince her mother not to return to campus after Regan was removed. The circumstances of Regan’s dismissal, however, were apparently kept murky for decades.
“According to one faculty member, Wyman announced Regan’s departure to the faculty soon after he left campus, but offered no explanation,” the MTO report notes. “The faculty member told us that, because he was new that fall, he had to ask another teacher what was happening. Former students told us that the reason for Regan’s departure also was not explained to students. We were unable to find any evidence that the students were ever told why Regan left campus or that his resignation was due to his misconduct.”
The report also took stock of how the school “handled allegations of sexual misconduct by students or recent graduates.”
Questioning the completeness of the report, members of the school’s community have written letters to the Thacher board and to the editors of local publications. They also generally have gotten noisier on and off the internet.
That’s because, they say, they’ve heard “crickets, a deafening silence,” as Pillsbury described this shared experience during one of multiple phone calls with Law&Crime.
The report makes clear that it is “not an exhaustive recounting of every report of sexual misconduct” the law firm received.
Particularly relevant to two of the alleged omissions, it states: “With respect to student-on-student sexual misconduct, we did not investigate the sexual misconduct itself.”
Since the May incidents concern allegations of “student-on-student sexual misconduct,” the scope of the report would appear to exclude them by definition.
Former Thacher board members, parents and alumni have been left wondering when and if the May 2021 incidents were even reported to MTO at all–and, if so, why they wouldn’t at least be included in a discussion of how the present administration at the school handled them.
In his December 2021 letter, Oberndorf characterized the process as unfair, opaque and seemingly self-serving.
“If the MTO investigation [were] truly impartial, but did not include these recent, highly disturbing allegations, it is hard to imagine any explanation other than that the Board and the present Administration intentionally covered up these incidents of sexual misconduct,” Oberndorf’s December 2021 letter accuses. “If the Board and Administration did indeed hide these allegations from MTO, that would make a mockery of the claim of an independent and impartial investigation.”
Jonathan Tucker, a Thacher alum, longtime donor to the school and former alumni council member, told Law&Crime that he thought Thacher “had and continues to have important work to do to acknowledge the incidents/crimes and shameful moments of its past,” but said the report leaves the “community with an incomplete understanding of what happened.”
“For alumni like me who care so deeply about Thacher, we are still left with more work to do — the work that should have taken place decades ago and the work that should have taken place to make the MTO report an honest accounting, which it is not,” Tucker said.
The school and the firm both acknowledge that their work is not complete.
Yih wrote a series of follow-up letters about the situation in late June, late July, early October and late November of 2021. Most of those letters are publicly available on Thacher’s website here.
Citing “new evidence” in his July letter, Yih wrote: “MTO will also prepare a report that will be shared with the community as soon as it is completed.” In his October letter, Yih anticipated that this supplemental report would arrive “later this fall that will address reports received subsequent to the release of the June report.” A month later, Yih spoke of eventually moving “beyond the release of the supplemental report” as well remarking on its “pending publication.” He apologized for the “delay”—without offering a timeline for its release. In his December letter, Yih wrote: “MTO has notified us that they expect the supplemental report to be completed in early 2022.”
Despite four promises of a supplemental report, no such follow-up has been released. Neither the school nor the firm have responded to Law&Crime’s inquiries about when it might be released.
In a letter dated Jan. 7, 2022, Yih suggested a law enforcement investigation has held it up:
At the specific request of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department (VCSD), and in an effort to maintain our ongoing cooperation with law enforcement, MTO shared with VCSD the information that will be set forth in its supplemental report. Last month, VCSD, along with the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office, jointly wrote a letter to MTO asking that Thacher consider postponing the supplemental report’s release. They expressed a concern that releasing MTO’s report before their own investigations are completed could “hinder the efforts of law enforcement to investigate these crimes, interview potential suspects, and bring those responsible to justice.” The Board has since reviewed the letter and will, of course, honor this request.
That law enforcement request is dated Dec. 14, 2021, the same day Yih wrote a letter announcing, once again, the supplemental report’s imminent release.
For Oberndorf, that timing was significant.
“[Yih’s] January 7 letter adds to the confusion in the Thacher community about what the current board and administration are doing with the ongoing investigation of sexual abuse at the School, and how forthcoming they have been with us about that investigation,” Oberndorf wrote in a second open letter on Jan. 10, 2022. “As I see it, [Yih’s] January 7 letter raises several questions about what he and the board have (or have not) been sharing with the Thacher community over the last several months of MTO’s investigation.”
Pillsbury also noticed what appeared to be mixed messages on that date.
“We know that on December 14th, that very same day, this very odd letter came out from the district attorney saying, ‘Don’t produce the special report,'” Pillsbury said. “Now, why would the chairman of the Thacher board say, on that very same day, that this is–that the supplemental report is coming out in January?”
Skeptical that the board just learned about the investigation later, Pillsbury opined: “They’re obviously just trying to cover their tracks. I’m not saying it’s a cover-up. I’m just saying there were odd things that should have been reported that weren’t.”
“Just Like a Regular Case”
Local law enforcement is also keeping mum.
“We’re not gonna discuss any details,” Ventura County Sheriff’s Office Detective Jamal Clark told Law&Crime, citing to an “ongoing and extensive” investigation with the local district attorney’s office.
“I’m just diving into this case, so even if I were to be able to speak to or confirm the details,” the detective said, he likely couldn’t because of a lack of familiarity with particular incidents.
When pressed about the choking incident, Clark would only say the VCSO was definitely aware “if it’s in the report, yes,” but could not otherwise confirm specific details due to general concerns for the investigation and privacy interests.
“Just like a regular case,” Clark added.
Yih and Pidduck did not respond to repeated requests for comment by phone or email.
On Dec. 14, 2021, the chair signaled in a letter that the MTO, the author of the report, would wrap up its work by January 2022–while keeping an email and phone line open until June 2022—and new investigators would take over in its place.
“[F]ollowing the conclusion of MTO’s investigation with the release of the supplemental report, we will begin transitioning to the law firm of Van Dermyden Makus for the investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of adult members of the Thacher community,” Yih wrote.
“The School will continue to have responsibility for the investigation of any current student-on-student misconduct, which will be conducted with the assistance of a third-party investigator, Jody Shipper, the co-founder and managing director of Grand River Solutions,” Yih added later on.
Not only was MTO no longer committed to investigating all of the issues at Thacher, but that work would be parceled out to two separate entities–one of which wouldn’t be independent at all, but would act in collaboration with the school.
Where alleged adult sexual misconduct was concerned, the new law firm would have discretionary authority to release a report if they decide “that future reports of misconduct meet the same principles of disclosure that MTO and the Board established at the outset of their investigation,” Yih’s December 2021 letter says.
That letter does not describe these other investigations as even purporting to be independent.
“Investigative teams such as MTO’s are not scaled to be available on an as-needed basis to investigate individual reports,” Yih wrote in the letter announcing the all-but wholesale personnel shift.
Oberndorf scoffed at the notion that “one of California’s largest and most reputable law firms, is not equipped to continue investigating allegations of misconduct at Thacher.”
“MTO has extensive experience investigating sexual misconduct, as well as handling some of the biggest and most complex litigations in the United States,” his December 2021 letter states, calling the chair’s assertion “highly implausible.”
Pillsbury says he and others are now entirely skeptical that the remainder of the process–whatever that may be–will yield reliable results whatsoever.
“They don’t know what to say in it,” Pillsbury said of the supplemental report and its would-be authors. “MTO doesn’t know what to say. Is MTO going to withdraw? Is MTO going to do a supplemental report? Will they require the next law firm to do the supplemental report? What will it be based on? No one trusts it anymore. No one trusts the June report–why would we trust the supplemental report?”
“A Tragedy of Shakespearean Proportions”
An integral subplot in this story is the role played by Thacher’s former and longtime head of school Mike Mulligan.
Mulligan became acting head of school in the fall of 1992 after a long gone iteration of Thacher’s board allegedly sweeping under the rug years of alleged sexual harassment and “unwanted and inappropriate physical contact with students” by Wyman, according to the MTO report. Wyman was allowed an early retirement with full salary, benefits and housing, the report notes, saying investigators found no “evidence that the Board or the School administration discussed with members of the Thacher community the reports of sexual harassment allegations by Wyman.”
Mulligan became Thacher’s formal head of school in 1993. He previously served as the dean of students before his promotions.
The MTO report casts Mulligan as a sometimes out-of-touch or even aloof headmaster–occasionally quick to dismiss or play down instances of what the law firm terms “boundary crossing” during the ’80s and ’90s. At the same time, the report notes that Mulligan quickly fired–or forced resignations from–alleged perpetrators in several instances. But MTO also alleges that he later made choices that some survivors said added to their pain. There are also stark criticisms of Mulligan viz. certain key events alleging sexual abuse that are remembered differently by different people.
Additionally, in the report, Mulligan expressed contrition for “lack of understanding” over a teacher who turned out to be a serial abuser.
“Mulligan told us that he ‘regrets that he supported [John] Friborg’s hiring,’ and that understanding the great damage done by Friborg to the health and well-being of Thacher students, he wishes he had worked to prevent his hiring and ‘very much regrets’ that he did not do so,” the report notes.
In the immediate wake of the report, Mulligan’s name–along with that of his wife–was scraped off the campus dining hall. The circumstances of that decision have now become a major source of contention. Yih first said that the decision to rename the cafeteria was unanimous but when confronted with questions about the process, allegedly backtracked.
“Without vetting the MTO report for fairness or accuracy, the Board used the allegations in that report to justify removing the Mulligans’ name from the Dining Hall,” Oberndorf wrote in his original letter. “Mr. Yih claimed the Board vote was unanimous but has refused to respond to questions about whether all Trustees participated or were even given adequate notice of the vote. The Mulligans are beloved members of the Thacher Community and removing their names from the Dining Hall has brought a great deal of pain to many who love this School.”
“Why did Mr. Yih report that the decision to strip the Mulligans’ name off the Dining Hall was unanimous, when we know it was not (and Mr. Yih later admitted it was not unanimous)?” Pillsbury alleged in his January 2022 letter.
This allegation was reiterated during our initial interview.
“Yih admitted on a call with a former trustee that the decision to strip Mulligan’s name off the building was not unanimous,” Pillsbury charged. “And then he said, ‘but what does that matter?’ The answer is: it matters a lot when you’re the board chair and you say it was unanimous. If it’s not unanimous it means there’s some dissension going on on the board that you are trying to obscure.”
The school’s (and MTO’s) handling of the Mulligan question was a consistent refrain for opponents of the current administration.
“When meeting arguably its greatest challenge—reconciling with criminal sexual abuse, Thacher’s leadership did the very thing it cautioned us against: taking a path of convenience over courage, siding with emotion rather than impartiality, and doing an injustice by focusing on Mulligan as a scapegoat rather than on the victims and perpetrators,” Tucker said. “Unless the board knows something relevant not in the public domain, they’ve shortchanged the entire community, and, in this case, a couple that gave 30 years to the school.”
When asked what Thacher could do now to alleviate the numerous concerns raised by alumni, parents, and students at present, Tucker said the school should “provide a report that is complete with the documentation and other crucial information that was left out, as well as providing Mulligan and others an opportunity to respond point by point to the incidents outlined in the report.”
Similar concerns were voiced in a July 14, 2021, letter by former board member and alumni parent Janice Day.
“Correct the record immediately,” her letter counsels. “The MTO Report omits material facts both about the School’s response to incidents and about the investigation itself. These omissions are obvious to any Board member who served during Michael’s tenure and from the internal inconsistencies of the Report itself.”
The school has reportedly lost millions in pledged donations since the release of the June MTO report due to the “scapegoating” of Mulligan.
Far from a picayune dispute about the changing of the guard, alumni at odds with the current administration say the Mulligan story is an undercurrent emblematic of the entire scandal. To these alumni, the trustworthiness of the present administration, on a basic level, is suspect–along with any claims to moral high ground.
“What was done to Mike Mulligan and his wife Joy was unjust to the nth degree,” Pillsbury said, calling Mulligan’s treatment “outrageous.”
“Now, what’s unfair about it is–a fair statement would be: Thacher had a past in the ’80s and early ’90s. We’ve dealt with that. We’re looking carefully at how we move forward with boundary violations, grooming, those kinds of things. We’re looking at how we discipline and we’re doing that fairly,” he added. “They didn’t do that. Instead, they essentially said ‘There’s a new sheriff in town. And we’re going to handle these cases really importantly. We’re going to protect everybody. Not like Mulligan. We’re going to protect everybody.’ And so the new sheriff in town is the board chair of the administration. And they’re gonna clean up.”
“So, now you’ve got a new sheriff in town and the new sheriff in town has two incidents. On his watch,” he added.
Those comments were echoed by Tucker.
“That this has happened to Joy and Michael Mulligan is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions–the irony is unfathomable to those who know them,” Tucker continued. “As the son of two teachers–my father devoted 35 years to UMass Boston and my mother taught elementary school until a few years after my birth–I’m especially heartbroken by the casual nature that so quickly discarded with a couple who gave their lives to a school and its students. They gave with a rare and generous grace that is rewarded by the knowledge that they changed the world by setting thousands of young people on a path to doing good. The ability to give in such a capacity is reserved for the very few and very finest on this earth. It makes an Irish Jew born of New England academics believe in God.”
For now, Thacher’s biggest former acolytes are looking for something else to believe in. The school that has formed a large part of their identities is awash in scandal upon scandal and a reaction from leadership that’s created even more. This bumper crop of Thacher skeptics is now in an unenviable position: feeling the effects of the school’s decades of darkness–a darkness that was somehow incubated in the warm and piercing California sun.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to add further comment by law enforcement following publication of this article, disputing characterizations made by sources about an alleged sexual encounter between Thacher students. The story also has been updated to clarify that dispute.
[featured image and most inline images via screengrab/Thacher Films; infographic via Law&Crime/Venngage; up close image of a Thacher building via Frederick M. Brown/Online USA/Getty Images]
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