Investigations

Nipomo wrestling coach was accused of touching girl in 2008 — but nobody investigated

Former Nipomo High School girls wrestling coach Justin Magdaleno during a practice.
Former Nipomo High School girls wrestling coach Justin Magdaleno during a practice. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A former Nipomo High School girls wrestling coach had been accused of inappropriate behavior with teenage students more than three years before allegations of sexual assault led to his resignation in June.

But nobody investigated.

A police report obtained by The Tribune shows that former Santa Maria Joint Union High School District students came forward in 2014 with allegations that Justin Magdaleno supplied teens with alcohol and may have inappropriately touched one of the female students during a camping trip at Lake Nacimiento in 2008.

Santa Maria police took a report from the alleged victim and told The Tribune that they forwarded the case to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, because the incident allegedly happened in SLO County.

But the SLO County Sheriff’s Office says it didn’t receive the report. As a result, neither the Santa Maria school district nor the Lucia Mar Unified School District, where Magdaleno was by then working as a girls wrestling coach and teacher, were made aware of his alleged behavior.

After new allegations of sexual assault and harassment were made by as few as two and many as 10 of Magdaleno’s student athletes in October 2017, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office conducted a five-month investigation culminating in a recommendation that he face child molestation charges, though prosecutors declined to pursue the case, citing lack of evidence.

Magdaleno was not removed from his position until June 2018, and a civil lawsuit filed by one of Magdaleno’s alleged victims against the former coach and the Lucia Mar school district remains ongoing.

A representative for the Santa Maria Police Department said the department stands by its statement that it forwarded the 2014 allegations against Magdaleno to the SLO County Sheriff’s Office, but said it did not have records to support the claim.

‘Not aware’

For nearly a year, The Tribune has investigated students’ allegations of sexual misconduct by Magdaleno.

Parents told the newspaper in October 2017 that Magdaleno inappropriately touched their teenage daughters under the guise of wrestling instruction and made sexually explicit comments.

Magdaleno was suspended from the Lucia Mar school district and placed on paid leave in late October 2017 while the Sheriff’s Office and the district separately investigated the allegations. In April, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office forwarded its findings to county prosecutors, recommending that they file child molestation charges.

The District Attorney’s Office declined in July, saying it didn’t believe it could prove the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt, according to Assistant District Attorney Eric Dobroth.

Magdaleno — who collected about $63,000 in pay while on leave for nine months — quietly entered into a separation agreement with the district June 30, with an additional severance package of roughly $32,000 and an agreement that the district would not reveal the allegations against him to any potential future employers.

The Tribune and its parent company McClatchy filed a lawsuit against the district last week, after the district denied repeated California Public Records Act requests for complaints against Magdaleno and documents related to the district’s response.

A district spokeswoman says Lucia Mar is confident it followed all laws in providing information to the public.

The Nacimiento complaint

In June 2009, Magdaleno resigned from the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, where he worked as a special education teacher and girls wrestling coach. In his separation agreement, Magdaleno wrote he was leaving the district job because it “was not a good fit for me.”

But a two-page Santa Maria Police Department “disclosure of complaint information” provided to The Tribune in response to a public records request shows Magdaleno might have had inappropriate contact with a student one year earlier.

The department’s synopsis of the complaint shows that a Santa Maria officer interviewed a teenage girl and an adult, as well as four teenage witnesses, in regard to a complaint the group made against Magdaleno on March 5, 2014.

According to the report, in the summer of 2008, Magdaleno — then a long-term substitute teacher for the Santa Maria high school district — accompanied “several students, parents (and) friends” on a four-day, three-night camping trip to Lake Nacimiento. The synopsis states that the group rented two cabins, one for adults and another for the children.

On the first night, the report states, Magdaleno “brought a whole case of alcohol and put it in the kids’ cabin and later that night began giving them drinks.”

One of the students told the Santa Maria police officer that she was “inappropriately touched” by Magdaleno, but then retracted the statement, saying “that he only plied her with alcohol until she passed out and her friends took care of her and she woke up in her bunk bed.”

The synopsis of the complaint states that at the time of the incident, the student wanted to report what had happened to authorities but her friends “told her to keep quiet or they would be in trouble.”

Santa Maria Joint Union High School Superintendent Kevin Platt said Thursday that his research indicated that the camping trip was not a school-sanctioned event.

The memo states that the Santa Maria Police Department forwarded the case to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, because the alleged crime — contributing to the delinquency of a minor — occurred within its jurisdiction.

Asked for confirmation that the case was handed to San Luis Obispo officials, Santa Maria police Lt. Paul Van Meel said the department stands by its statement, and that a notation on the physical copy of the police report (which was not provided to The Tribune) indicates it was sent via mail on March 24, 2014.

Van Meel said he was unable to provide further information about the case.

Tony Cipolla, spokesman for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, said Thursday that the agency has no record of receiving any information whatsoever about the 2014 complaint to Santa Maria police, but learned of the alleged incident during their investigation into the newer allegations late last year.

While Cipolla would not explicitly say that Santa Maria police provided The Tribune with inaccurate information, he added that in most cases, SLO County investigators would contact past and present school districts following allegations against an educator.

That was not done in this case; both Amy Jacobs, spokeswoman for Lucia Mar School District, and Santa Maria’s Superintendent Platt said they were not contacted by any law enforcement about the 2014 complaint against Magdaleno.

“We were not aware of such allegations,” Jacobs wrote in an email.

Assistant District Attorney Dobroth also said his agency has no record of receiving any information about Magdaleno in 2014.

Allred weighs in

After the DA declined to press charges in July, Magdaleno and the Lucia Mar school district were hit by a lawsuit filed by celebrity attorney Gloria Allred on behalf of one of Magdaleno’s alleged student victims.

The complaint, which seeks unspecified monetary damages, accuses Magdaleno of digitally penetrating the then-teen’s vagina and pressing his erect penis against her through his shorts during wrestling practices, among other graphic allegations. The plaintiff claims to have witnessed abuse of other students, as well.

Magdaleno denies the allegations, and his attorney wrote in a filed response that the alleged conduct was simply part of wrestling, “a sport involving two persons who grab, twist, throw or otherwise force and hold upon each other’s heads, necks, arms, legs, feet and torsos, with the object of forcing the opponent to the mat and pinning their opponent in what usually is an awkward position.”

A court hearing is scheduled for December.

Contacted by phone Friday, Allred told The Tribune that if the Santa Maria Police Department did not forward allegations of improper touching that constitutes sexual abuse, the department could have violated state law.

According to a section of the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, law enforcement agencies “shall accept a report of suspected child abuse or neglect whether offered by a mandated reporter or another person ... even if the agency to whom the report is being made lacks subject matter or geographical jurisdiction to investigate the reported case, unless the agency can immediately electronically transfer the call to an agency with proper jurisdiction.”

The law continues: “When an agency takes a report about a case of suspected child abuse or neglect in which that agency lacks jurisdiction, the agency shall immediately refer the case by telephone, fax or electronic transmission to an agency with proper jurisdiction.”

“Assuming that the Santa Maria Police Department did not forward the allegations to the (neighboring) sheriff’s department to investigate further, then yes, the Santa Maria Police Department would have violated the requirements of the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act,” Allred said.

Though Allred declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, she said that the Magdaleno case shows that when police agencies or school administrators do not follow up on accusations of inappropriate and/or criminal behavior, “it puts children and the community at risk.”

Timeline of events

Here’s a look how events in the Magdaleno case have unfolded over the last decade:

  • August 2007: Justin Magdaleno begins work with the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District as a long-term substitute teacher.

  • Summer 2008: Magdaleno attends a camping trip at Lake Nacimiento, where he allegedly provided teenage students alcohol and “inappropriately touched” one child.

  • June 2009: Magdaleno leaves Santa Maria Joint Union High School District because it “was not a proper fit for me.”

  • September 2009: Magdaleno is hired at Nipomo High School as the wrestling coach and science and government teacher.

  • Fall 2013: Magdaleno forms the school’s first girls wrestling team.

  • February 2014: Student reports the alleged 2008 camp incident to Santa Maria police. Though a memo drafted by the department says the case was referred to the SLO County Sheriff’s Office, that agency says it was never told about the case.
  • October 2017: New allegations of sexual harassment and assault are made against Magdaleno by as many as 10 members of the girls wrestling team.

  • October 27, 2017: Magdaleno is placed on paid administrative leave pending a second Sheriff’s Office investigation as well as an internal Lucia Mar investigation.

  • April 5, 2018: The Sheriff’s Office completes its investigation and forwards its findings to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office, recommending prosecutors charge Magdaleno with child molestation.

  • June 30, 2018: Magdaleno quietly resigns from the Lucia Mar Unified School District, receiving roughly $63,000 in wages and benefits for his time on leave, as well as a $32,000 severance package, and an agreement that the district would not disclose allegations against Magdaleno to future potential employers.

  • July 9, 2018: The District Attorney’s Office declines to file charges against Magdaleno, citing doubt that it could prove the allegations.

  • Aug. 16, 2018: Celebrity attorney Gloria Allred files a lawsuit against Magdaleno and Lucia Mar in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, seeking damages for one of Magdaleno’s alleged victims, a former student athlete. A court hearing is scheduled for December.

  • Aug. 31, 2018: In response to a Tribune public records request, Lucia Mar publicly releases Magedaleno’s separation agreement, as well as a message to parents of students saying the district is committed to student safety.

  • Sept. 17, 2018: The Tribune files a lawsuit against Lucia Mar for the district’s refusal to disclose records of complaints against Magdaleno as well as the district’s response to allegations. A court hearing is scheduled for December.

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Matt Fountain: 781-7909, @mattfountain1
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