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‘A slow dive into utter hell’: A Sonoma Academy sexual abuse survivor tells her story

Resources to combat sexual abuse, support survivors

Verity: Sonoma County’s rape, crisis and trauma center, www.ourverity.org, 707-545-7273

Sonoma County Family Justice Center: www.fjcsc.org, 707-565-8255

ValorUS: formerly California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a statewide coalition of rape crisis centers committed to ending sexual violence that has a California Rape Crisis Center Directory, www.valor.us

Redwood Empire Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists: www.recamft.org

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673, online.rainn.org/online

“I started a slow dive into utter hell.

I could not eat. I spent days crying. I was under 100 lbs. I eventually regained some health by living off of adult formula solely for two months.

At this point my nervous system is so fried from carrying everything I've had to carry with this that I react to just about everything. It often feels nearly impossible to live this way. The physical toll of this trauma is immense.”

That is how a Sonoma Academy graduate describes her life today after sexual abuse by a former teacher 17 years ago.

She was 14, and a freshman when they met.

He was 34, a new teacher at the school who was unlike any instructor she’d had before. He was a filmmaker invited by Sonoma Academy administrators to teach a single short class on his craft.

Before coming to the private Santa Rosa college-prep school, Adrian Belic had walked on red carpets, been nominated for an Academy Award for his documentary work and rubbed elbows with a who’s who of Hollywood glitterati.

But to the student, who graduated in 2007, Belic’s legacy is darker: He sexually abused her, she said, when she was 15 and 16, not long after the two were introduced as teacher and student.

The woman is 32 now, and she agreed to speak to The Press Democrat after her experiences were revealed in a 49-page investigative report released Nov. 29 by Sonoma Academy.

The report was commissioned after an investigation by The Press Democrat in June exposed allegations of misconduct by former humanities teacher Marco Morrone spanning much of his 18-year tenure at Sonoma Academy.

One section of the report, titled “Sexual Abuse by Adrian Belic,” details the abuse that the 32-year-old graduate said she suffered from the teacher.

Investigators found “Belic sexually abused the female student on multiple occasions after the intersession course and before the student graduated from SA, including one instance of sexual intercourse to which the student was unable to consent,” the report reads.

“(Investigators) also conclude that Belic sexually abused a second SA student on one occasion, during the same period as his abuse of the first student,” the report states.

The second student mentioned in the report also spoke with The Press Democrat, both to corroborate details of the first graduate’s story and to share her single experience of sexual abuse by Belic. The two graduates were friends as students.

Belic has not been charged with a crime. Sonoma Academy officials confirmed on Dec. 10 they had recently made a report to local law enforcement, with the consent of the first graduate. She told The Press Democrat she has not yet given a statement to law enforcement, however.

Attempts to reach Belic by four Press Democrat reporters since Nov. 29 have been unsuccessful. He did not return numerous calls or texts to his personal cellphone, nor did he respond to emails sent to his personal accounts. Reporters also left messages on a cellphone believed to belong to his brother but received no response.

Messages left with Wadi Rum Films, his production company, were not returned. Belic could not be reached through Ramro Global, a documentary film company that lists him as a contributor, and attempts to reach him through a producer who worked with him on his most recent film, “The Wisdom of Trauma,” were also unsuccessful.

The Sonoma Academy report was prepared by the New York law firm Debevoise and Plimpton, which spent several months investigating students’ and graduates’ experiences. The investigation was launched after The Press Democrat reported seven female graduates of the exclusive $48,000-a-year prep school had made allegations of inappropriate behavior, sexual harassment and grooming by Morrone.

The allegations against Belic had not been previously reported. The Debevoise report also named another former employee — an assistant girls soccer coach in 2002 and 2003 — as having sexually abused a student who was on the team at that time.

The Press Democrat generally does not name sexual assault survivors. The 32-year-old graduate and her family agreed to speak with the paper on the condition of anonymity to protect their privacy.

Multiple instances

In more than five hours of interviews over several days, the graduate said she and Belic formed a relationship that led to multiple instances of sexual contact, including intercourse, over a year and a half. She cut off contact with him when she was 16 and he was 35.

The student said at least three Sonoma Academy staff members indicated they were aware of the inappropriate nature of her relationship with Belic while she was still in school, and that it had crossed ethical and legal lines. She also informed another school official in 2020 about her past relationship with the onetime teacher.

Debevoise investigators documented several instances that support the student’s account in their Nov. 29 report.

Investigators found the staff members involved did little at the time to find out more about what they heard, and investigators could find no record that anyone at the time made a report to law enforcement or Child Protective Services, as California law requires them to do.

“There is also no evidence that anyone from (Sonoma Academy) contacted outside counsel or the Board with respect to Belic’s sexual abuse when the students were enrolled at (the school),” investigators wrote in their report.

Administrators “could or should have asked more questions” about the opportunities Belic and the assistant soccer coach had to interact with students alone, and Sonoma Academy “should have provided support to these students at the time the abuse was discovered,” investigators concluded.

Debevoise investigators have declined interview requests.

Current and past Sonoma Academy administrators and board members have also refused to comment, despite repeated requests from The Press Democrat by phone and email over the past three weeks.

Belic was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000 for his documentary “Genghis Blues.” He has gone on to shoot and contribute to more films, including the 2012 documentary “Happy,” which examined how people around the world find happiness, and “The Wisdom of Trauma,” released in 2021, which turned a lens on mental illness and substance abuse.

Meanwhile, the graduate and her family have continued to deal with the fallout of Belic’s abuse, and the failure of Sonoma Academy leaders and staff members who could have protected her.

“I think the main justice on my mind is to bring the wrongdoing to light,” the graduate’s mother said. “And that may prevent the perpetrators (from) doing more harm to others.”

‘A confusing experience’

When she met Belic, the student wasn’t sure what to make of him.

“There was something about him that was uncomfortable,” she recalled in an interview, something that didn’t seem quite genuine.

But he piqued her interest, she said, because of his experience in a line of work that excited her.

Before she took the film class at age 14, she was struggling at Sonoma Academy. Her parents knew she was depressed, and they didn’t know how to help, the girl and her mother told The Press Democrat.

They were relieved when she showed a sudden enthusiasm for filmmaking after Belic approached the student for one-on-one hangouts under the auspices of friendly mentorship.

“She was in a place that January that was kind of a scary place for a parent,” her mother said. “She was very depressed, and we didn’t know how to help her. It was like she was in the swamps of depression, but then, through the course, she lifted out of that swamp and saw the world with new eyes.”

Belic had dinner with the family on a few occasions. He began taking the student to film screenings in San Francisco and to meet directors in the Bay Area.

“We were doing all this stuff and it was really cool,” the graduate recalled. “At the time, for sure, I was like, wanting his attention and feeling like I wasn’t good enough, all that confusing stuff.”

Her mother and father weren’t, and still aren’t, aware of all the places and purposes those outings began to involve, the woman said.

Mentor activities turned into beach days, a hike to Armstrong Woods, even a day sailing with Belic, which she said included him inviting her to shower and dry off her clothes at his Vallejo home when they got back.

Seventeen years later, the chronology is foggy in her mind, but the individual memories are not. She can rattle off the details of lying on his bed in her underwear, waiting for her clothes to come out of the dryer that day in Vallejo.

She remembers how he held her hand at the beach, and how he once took her to a strip club in the middle of the day in San Francisco. She remembers his friend’s house in Tiburon where some of their sexual encounters occurred.

Though he never told her he loved her, she was infatuated — and confused, she said.

Her journal entries from time reveal the emotional highs and lows she was experiencing. One 2004 entry includes the excerpt, “I do love Adrian. But that’s not OK. I’m not OK.”

A journal entry from a 2007 Sonoma Academy graduate who was abused by Adrian Belic reads, “I do love Adrian. But that's not OK. I'm not OK.”
A journal entry from a 2007 Sonoma Academy graduate who was abused by Adrian Belic reads, “I do love Adrian. But that's not OK. I'm not OK.”

“Now, as an adult who’s starting to understand what he was doing and seeing the big picture of it … he was calculated and he was grooming me,” she told The Press Democrat. “He knew exactly what he was doing, exactly how he was making me feel, and he knew exactly how not to push me to keep me there.”

As the interactions became increasingly sexual, her body gave her warning signs, she recalled. Being around Belic made her body shake uncontrollably, she said.

“I couldn’t identify it at the time, but my nervous system and body was just like ‘danger, danger,’” she said. “It was just such a confusing experience and time, because I was swaying between this infatuation and disgust and euphoria and sadness.”

The two had sexual intercourse once, at her friend’s house.

The student had been raped by another student shortly before that, she said, and was seeking to regain a sense of control around her sexuality. She never reported the rape by the schoolmate to law enforcement or notified the school.

“It was the same bed I had been raped in before,” she said. “The second it started, I wanted it to stop and I couldn’t say anything. … I literally laid there … unable to speak because of the power this person (Belic) had over me.”

The student told some of her friends about her sexual relationship with Belic. The second woman to accuse Belic in the Debevoise report, one of her closest friends, was present for one of those sexual encounters. The experience involved the two students and Belic spending time naked in a hot tub at the house in Tiburon, both women said.

In an effort to corroborate the first student’s accusations about Belic, The Press Democrat interviewed three former classmates at Sonoma Academy and a friend who knew her then and is now her husband. One of the classmates is the second student who reported she was abused by Belic.

All said they were aware of their friend’s relationship with Belic at the time and had had conversations with her about it, but didn’t know how to help her.

They all stated that the relationship was sexual in nature. In addition, one of the students provided The Press Democrat with an entry from her journal that discussed the time she learned about her friend’s experiences with Belic in September 2007.

Suspicions from Sonoma Academy staff

As Belic and his former student continued to spend time together, Sonoma Academy officials made several moves that indicated to the student that they knew something was wrong.

Sometime in late 2004, during that student’s sophomore year, Ellie Dwight, the assistant head of school, made an unexpected phone call to the girl’s mother.

The student’s mother said she was confused about Dwight’s reason for the call.

“It was like, ‘Oh, how’s (she) doing? Has she seen Adrian lately?’” the mother recalled in an interview. “It was like calling to catch up with a friend, and we weren’t friends.”

The school’s investigative report provides support for the student’s account, noting that Dwight had been told there was an issue involving Belic and inappropriate conduct with a student.

Dwight, whose tenure as assistant head of school dated to the school’s 2001 founding, resigned Nov. 30, the day after the Debevoise report was released. In a farewell message to staff and families, she said she was “devastated” by the findings.

“Young people — and our school — have been hurt on my watch and that cannot be excused. Sorry is not strong enough,” she wrote.

She also expressed confidence in the school community’s ability to heal and grow.

Dwight did not respond to requests for comment for this story and did not reply to an emailed list of detailed questions about her interactions with the student and her family.

In the final weeks before the student’s 2007 graduation, another teacher who worked with Belic when he taught at Sonoma Academy in 2004 offered a cryptic apology, the student said.

“We were alone in the classroom, and I was fiddling in my backpack,” she recalled. “And he goes, ‘I’m really sorry if I should have said something.’ It was vague, but I knew what he was talking about.”

About a year after she graduated, the student got a call from a school counselor, Flora Field, she said.

Field, according to the graduate’s recollection, said she had heard the girl and a staff member had had an inappropriate relationship. The counselor told her she would be filing a mandated report, whether or not the graduate agreed to speak with her.

The graduate was at work, and she was not ready to talk about Belic. At that point, she still blamed herself for the sexual nature of their relationship and hadn’t begun to see it as abuse.

“It was very triggering to go there, and I was like ‘No, I don’t want to talk about it,’” the graduate recalled. “And (Field) was like, ‘I have to make a report either way.’”

The investigators hired by Sonoma Academy this year, however, found no evidence that school staff had notified law enforcement about Belic’s relationship with the student.

“Debevoise has not been able to confirm that anyone at (Sonoma Academy) filed a mandated report about Belic, or that any (school) employee contacted law enforcement,” the report read.

Field did not respond to two phone messages requesting comment.

Dwight reached out to the graduate in 2017, the woman said. But she did not respond to the card Dwight left for her at her workplace, asking to meet and catch up.

The approach by Dwight, and what led up to it, was captured in the Debevoise report released in November.

“Dwight recalled one of the school counselors telling her that there might be an issue with Belic and the first student. She also heard that Belic was sexually inappropriate with the student. Dwight did not follow up on this information,” the report states.

“A number of years later, Dwight attempted to contact the student about Belic … but did not hear back from the student,” the report said.

For years, the graduate said, she blamed herself for the abuse — until 2020, when she began talking with other alumni about inappropriate interactions they had with staff members.

“I wasn’t where I am now in all of this,” the graduate said. “I was in a different place.”

A path to recognition

In the fall of 2020, the graduate received a call from Tucker Foehl, the new head of school at Sonoma Academy. His predecessor, Janet Durgin, had been in charge since the school’s founding.

Shortly after his appointment, three women, all Sonoma Academy graduates, approached him with complaints about inappropriate conduct by Morrone. Some had been pressing their concerns with administrators for years, both as students and after they’d graduated.

The school then brought in the first of the two outside firms it would hire to investigate student claims of staff misconduct. Foehl contacted the graduate to ask if she would talk to investigators from the Oppenheimer Group about any experiences she had with Morrone.

The Oppenheimer investigation led Foehl to fire Morrone in October 2020. The school did not publicly acknowledge the reasons for his dismissal until the day The Press Democrat published its first story on the scandal in June. Sonoma Academy has not released the Oppenheimer report; the Debevoise investigation was released in full.

The graduate declined to participate in the Oppenheimer investigation, despite having some experiences with Morrone she considered “definitely not cool and boundary-crossing,” including comments he left on her writing assignments during his class.

Instead, she recalled telling Foehl, “This other thing happened to me there, and it kind of overshadows anything Marco did.”

She told him she’d had a sexual relationship with an intersession teacher — an instructor brought in to lead a short class between semesters at the school.

“He was taken aback, for sure,” she said. “And I think he was trying to be respectful … not knowing how to handle or respond to that.”

The woman spoke multiple times with Debevoise investigators over the summer. In their report, the investigators said the graduate did not tell Foehl Belic’s name.

Foehl “consulted legal counsel, and, at that time, no report was made to law enforcement,” the report said.

Foehl has not responded to repeated interview requests from The Press Democrat, as well as written questions about his recollection of the conversation with the graduate or what actions he took.

After learning from investigators about the abuse allegations against Belic and the former assistant soccer coach, identified in the report as Shannon Rake, school officials alerted authorities.

“Once the alumna identified Adrian Belic as the perpetrator and indicated her willingness to have a report made, a report was submitted to law enforcement,” Lily Thompson, the school’s director of communications, said in a Dec. 10 email.

The school also reached out to Rake’s and Belic’s subsequent employers, “to the extent they later worked with minors and those employers still exist,” the report said.

It’s not clear what employers of Belic’s the school may have notified.

Rake could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts by Press Democrat reporters.

The graduate, meanwhile, decided this summer to tell her mother that her relationship with Belic had been sexually abusive. Reading The Press Democrat’s stories of the first seven women who came forward in June with their accounts of Morrone’s behavior made her feel newly brave and willing to open up about her experience.

“I just realized so deeply that I am going to carry it around with me until I face it,” she said. “And that’s what made me ready to talk about it.”

By then, her already frail physical health had been in decline for months. For years prior, she had struggled with heart palpitations, which seemed to be at least partially linked to various foods. But after Morrone was fired in late 2020 — the campus community learned of his departure in an end-of-year letter from Foehl — and the seeds of conversations about accountability and transparency at Sonoma Academy began to germinate, the stress put her body on overload.

Experts who deal with sexual trauma say those kinds of symptoms are not uncommon.

The graduate stopped eating because of the frequency of her heart palpitations, and she rapidly lost weight. Her anxiety and depression made it difficult for her to do anything, she said.

“I literally would just sit there sobbing because I’d be hungry and have to leave the house and curl up in a ball outside and just sob, because there was no answers and no solution,” she said.

Working with a nutritionist since the spring helped her understand what foods aggravate her illness and how to avoid them. Working with a therapist since August helped her begin to unpack the role abuse plays in her symptoms, she said.

“I have spent so much time checked out from me because it is awful and uncomfortable to be me with my feelings,” she said. “I feel like this has drained my life, my vitality.

“Having that knowledge and that connection there through my writing and through therapy made it better,” she said.

‘I held it all alone’

The woman hasn’t yet given a statement to law enforcement about Belic. Her first conversation with an officer about that legal path didn’t leave her with much hope.

She was contacted by a Santa Rosa police officer on Sept. 14 of this year, she said.

She said the officer seemed unclear about why he was calling her, and he told her because some of the allegations were 17 years old the statutes of limitations might have expired.

Her experiences also spanned three counties, and he told her she would have to file a report in each one.

“It was a joke of a conversation,” she said.

She felt her health was still too fragile after speaking with the school investigators over the summer to risk talking about her experiences more, without a clear sense that it would spur action.

“It seems like the right thing to do, but not getting any help (at Sonoma Academy) and being let down all around by every administration involved in this, I kind of don’t have any hope,” she said.

Sgt. Chris Mahurin, public information officer for the Santa Rosa Police Department, said he couldn’t confirm whether the agency had received a report about Belic specifically. The department had received child sex abuse reports about Sonoma Academy staff members and is investigating, he said.

He would not say whether investigators are investigating Belic or know his whereabouts.

In a 2020 interview with Creative Mornings, an online professional networking forum, Belic said he was under COVID-19 quarantine in the Philippines and had given up a home he had in Los Angeles a decade prior.

He described himself as “pretty much perpetually on the road … living out of my suitcase for a decade.”

Meanwhile, the graduate’s family, including her husband and young son, also have been left to deal with the effects of the trauma she has experienced.

“I don’t know of anything that could have tried a relationship more than this,” her husband said. “It’s changed our life, our marriage. We’re not the parents we should be. Our life is not what it should be.”

Her mother continues to wrestle with her own feelings of guilt.

“I wasn’t there in the way that I should have been,” her mother said. “And I want to show up now as much as I can to support what she’s doing about it.”

By telling her story to The Press Democrat, the graduate said she hopes to find some relief from her pain. She also hopes to find accountability and encourage others with similar experiences that they are not alone.

“I’m happy to have these conversations and talk about it, because I held it all alone this whole time — holding it alone and trying to figure it out alone,” she said.

“I am done. It’s time for other people to take and feel that and have that, because I don’t want it anymore.”

How we reported this story

Press Democrat reporters Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza broke the story in June of seven female graduates’ mission to expose years of misconduct by a longtime teacher at Sonoma Academy.

Since then, they have covered the many updates that followed, including the school’s undertaking of a broader investigation into staff misconduct with New York firm Debevoise and Plimpton, and its establishment of a therapy fund to support victims.

The Debevoise investigation found at least 37 Sonoma Academy students were affected by staff misconduct, including sexual abuse, over nearly two decades.

For this story, Tornay used her connections with Sonoma Academy graduates to establish contact with the first graduate identified in the Debevoise report as having been abused by Adrian Belic.

She interviewed the graduate for more than five hours over several days. Tornay also reviewed dozens of pages of class assignments, journal entries and online instant messaging conversations the graduate shared, all of which were contemporaneous with the period of time during and immediately after the abuse.

Tornay also interviewed two family members and three peers who recounted their memories from 2004 and 2005 of what the graduate told them about her relationship with Belic.

During the course of those corroborating interviews, Tornay also began speaking with the second graduate who was abused by Belic. The two graduates’ stories confirmed each other, and another mutual connection they shared also confirmed details of the second graduate’s experiences in an interview.

Espinoza continued attempts first made by other Press Democrat reporters to contact Belic, including multiple emails and voicemails. He also reached out to the producer who worked with Belic on his most recent film. Espinoza also conducted interviews with sexual abuse and assault experts for this piece.

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If you want to share your story

Tornay and Espinoza are continuing to cover alumni allegations of sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct at Sonoma Academy and claims the school failed to safeguard students.

Here is how to contact them:

Kaylee Tornay: 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com; on Twitter @ka_tornay

Martin Espinoza: 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com; on Twitter @pressreno

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Sonoma Academy coverage

To read more stories and see the PD’s complete coverage, visit: pressdemocrat.com/SonomaAcademy.

Staff Writers Martin Espinoza, Austin Murphy and Mary Callahan contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Resources to combat sexual abuse, support survivors

Verity: Sonoma County’s rape, crisis and trauma center, www.ourverity.org, 707-545-7273

Sonoma County Family Justice Center: www.fjcsc.org, 707-565-8255

ValorUS: formerly California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a statewide coalition of rape crisis centers committed to ending sexual violence that has a California Rape Crisis Center Directory, www.valor.us

Redwood Empire Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists: www.recamft.org

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673, online.rainn.org/online

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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