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Child sex civil suits being settled


S.F. philanthropist, being held without bail in Mexico pending trial on a teenage boy's accusation of rape, will pay millions in 2 California cases

Elizabeth Fernandez, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, September 11, 2005

As San Francisco financier Thomas Frank White sits in a solitary jail cell near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, awaiting trial for the alleged rape of a teenage boy, two California lawsuits against him are being settled for about $10 million, The Chronicle has learned.

Adding to White's difficulties, U.S. officials are negotiating for his return to his home country to stand trial for alleged sex crimes. A federal grand jury in San Francisco last year indicted White on charges of child sex tourism and conspiracy to sexually exploit children.

It has been a long and costly descent for the wealthy 69-year-old stockbroker and investor. The owner of homes on three continents, White gained respect as a philanthropist in San Francisco, but in Puerto Vallarta he was revered. Amid much-publicized plans for rescuing poverty-stricken street children, he pumped millions of dollars into the construction of an orphanage and school near his seaside villa. His recent imprisonment and the looming settlement of the civil suits serve as long-sought vindication for law enforcement officials, child advocates, private attorneys and a score of alleged victims in Mexico and the United States.

"Thank God,'' said Laura Aguilar, a child advocate and professor at the University of Guadalajara. "It was a lot of years. This problem began in 1999 -- I can't believe it.''

White's life began to unravel in February 2003 with his arrest in Thailand, where he has a home. He spent the next two years in Bangkok Remand Prison, fighting extradition to Mexico.

In May, he lost that legal battle. On July 30, he was flown to Mexico, where he faced federal and state charges of alleged rape, child sex abuse, child prostitution and providing drugs to minors. Soon, all but one of the state charges were dismissed because the statute of limitations had elapsed. The charges stemmed from the testimony of 16 Mexican boys.

On Aug. 10, Jalisco state criminal court judge Arturo Espinoza Baena ordered White to be held without bail and to stand trial on the only remaining charge: the alleged rape of a youth who was 16 at the time of the reported crime.

White's lead attorney for the Puerto Vallarta criminal case, Jose Maria Ortega Padilla, said his client will prevail because there is "ample proof in the trial evidence that the guy who claims to be a rape victim is a sex-seller."

Still pending are Mexican federal charges alleging that White provided narcotics to minors and brought pornography into Mexico, said another White attorney, Stuart Hanlon of San Francisco.

"There are real credibility issues,'' Hanlon said. "The number of victims grows as word gets out that White has money. The man has been in jail for 2 1/2 years and never has been convicted of a crime. He has led an upstanding life and helped many people.'' Meanwhile, two civil suits in California are being concluded. One lawsuit, in San Francisco Superior Court, was settled in mid-July on behalf of Daniel Garcia and Joshua Beam, two Central Valley men who said White sexually molested them when they were minors.

The other suit, in federal court in San Francisco, is on behalf of 20 Mexican boys who say White and others sexually abused them, gave them drugs and photographed them for pornography at White's home. U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer approved settlement of this suit on Aug. 29.

The Chronicle learned that, together, the settlements total about $10 million. In federal court Friday, White's attorney Geoffrey Rotwein revealed that the payment to the Mexican youths will total $7 million. San Francisco attorney David Replogle, who represents both the Mexican youths and the California men, would say only that the money "is a substantial sum -- it will change the lives" of the Mexican youths, many of them illiterate and living in extreme poverty. "But no amount of money can give back the most important thing Mr. White took from them, and that is their innocence," Replogle said.

International child advocates believe White exemplifies an escalating problem: Americans traveling to other countries to have sex with minors. An estimated 25 percent of sex tourists who abuse children abroad are Americans, according to ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes-USA Inc.).

Carol Smolenski, executive director of the organization, said such prosecutions as White's might deter "Americans who believe that it is legal and culturally acceptable to sexually exploit children in other countries.''

Pioneer in online investing White moved to San Francisco from Chicago in the 1970s and made his fortune in investment securities and online stockbroking, which he helped to pioneer. He founded Thomas F. White & Co. in 1978.

White used some of his wealth to buy homes: five in San Francisco, two in the Puerto Vallarta area and one in the resort city of Pattaya, Thailand.

He also started, in 1998, a charitable foundation in his own name. Its largest single contribution was $3.5 million, which White donated in 2000 to build an orphanage, school and adjacent hotel in Mismaloya, a coastal village about equal distance between Puerto Vallarta and White's villa, the "Casa Blanca."

In 1999, Maria Nicolasa Garcia Reynoso, a children's rights advocate in Mexico, began to collect sworn affidavits from poor boys in Puerto Vallarta who alleged that White picked them up from the streets, gave them drugs and sexually molested them at his home. In February 2001, a Jalisco state warrant was issued for White's arrest.

By then, White had taken up part-time residence in Pattaya. A videotape obtained by The Chronicle shows him frolicking with boys at the beach.

At the request of the Mexican government, White was arrested by Thai law enforcement authorities Feb. 13, 2003. Since then, he has not enjoyed a day of freedom.

While White was imprisoned in Thailand, a federal grand jury in San Francisco indicted him in March 2004 on two counts of sex tourism and one of bringing pornography into the United States.

White's personal assistant, Nathan Lovaas, 28, of Modesto, was indicted on similar charges and was sentenced this year to 53 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to distribution of child pornography.

A Justice Department official said the United States intends to extradite White for trial. From Thailand to Mexico

On July 30, White was taken from his jail cell in Bangkok and handed over to Mexican authorities. State prosecutors accuse White of the rape of a minor who is known in court documents as "Roberto.'' According to prosecutor Marco Roberto Juarez Gonzalez, the youth says he was handcuffed to a bed at Casa Blanca during the alleged assault in May 2000, when he was 16.

White's lawyers say that he was out of Mexico at the time and that the youth's alleged work as a "sex-seller'' makes him not credible.

"The alleged victim has told very different stories about what happened or didn't happen,'' said attorney Hanlon. "He voluntarily told us on tape that he was paid by the Mexican lawyers to say it happened when it did not happen."

Prosecutor Juarez countered, "White may have money and lots of lawyers, but ... we have a minor who is making a clear charge along with testimonies from 16 boys to back it up. Our evidence includes a letter supposedly written by the boy that denies the rape took place. Considering the boy can't read or write, it's impossible that he created this document.''

It could take six months to a year for Mexico's legal system to present and weigh evidence, said Ruben Quintino, a legal expert at the National Institute of Penal Science in Mexico City. Quintino said White could face up to 12 years in jail if found guilty.