Weeks before SRJC trustee’s sudden resignation, he was accused of molesting a child

Former trustee Jordan Burns denies the allegations outlined by a 19-year-old man in a lawsuit and police reports.|

Resources for survivors of sexual assault

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can contact:

Family Justice Center of Sonoma County: 707-565-8255

Verity: 707-545-7273

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

Jordan Burns had more than a year left in his term on the Santa Rosa Junior College Board of Trustees when he abruptly resigned three months ago.

In his Aug. 6 resignation letter, Burns said he and his wife had discovered a new freedom during the pandemic to work remotely, and they felt their opportunity to move out of west Sonoma County had come.

A Press Democrat investigation, however, found that just three weeks before Burns resigned, a 19-year-old former Santa Rosa Junior College student had emailed President Frank Chong alleging Burns had sexually abused him as a child, a charge Burns denies.

In his email, Adrian Cardenas said he had previously reported the alleged abuse to Sebastopol police and later filed a lawsuit against Burns. That lawsuit, filed in May 2020, remains active in Sonoma County Superior Court.

The Press Democrat generally does not name victims of sexual assault or child abuse, but Cardenas gave his permission.

In court filings and in response to written questions from The Press Democrat, Burns, 37, denied any inappropriate contact with Adrian, saying the allegations “are absolutely false and without a shred of truth.”

However, he did say the allegations played a role in his decision to leave.

“We have actively been looking for another location to move to for some time, and the letter to the JC was a factor, but was not a significant role in my decision,” he wrote to The Press Democrat.

Allegations reported to police

Chong forwarded Adrian’s allegations to Sebastopol police the day he received them, said Robert Henry, an attorney for the junior college. An ad hoc committee composed of three trustees began a quiet investigation of its own days later.

Sebastopol Police Chief Kevin Kilgore said in a statement to The Press Democrat that his department had received two reports concerning Burns: the first in January 2020 and the second July 14, 2021 — the day that Chong received Cardenas’ email. Kilgore said his department had not discovered sufficient evidence in either case to support recommending criminal charges.

Cardenas and his parents, Melissa and Leo Cardenas, say the police investigation was insufficient and deserves another look.

“Our case went into a file. But they still call it an open investigation,” Melissa Cardenas said. “I feel they let Adrian down and they let us down.”

The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensation for sexual assault, assault and emotional distress. Adrian, who said he kept quiet about the abuse for years and blamed himself, eventually decided to speak up.

“I didn’t tell anyone for so long because I blamed myself and felt like the whole thing was my fault,” he wrote in his email to Chong. “I’ve been depressed and suicidal on and off since 13 and have just started to get better within the last year.”

'A trusted friend’

On a few pieces of their shared story, Adrian and Burns agree. Burns’ mother had been friends with Melissa Cardenas’ mother, and they attended Analy High School together. Melissa and Burns knew of each other growing up, but they didn’t become friends until they were reintroduced in their twenties.

Burns said he got to know the rest of the Cardenas family by tutoring Adrian’s older sister.

He also said he and Melissa Cardenas were romantically involved sporadically across several years, and the end to their relationship was difficult.

“It ended with some jealousy from her and resentment from both her and Adrian as I moved on,” he said.

Burns said he believed the breakup was a factor in the allegations against him, but he did not elaborate.

Melissa denied she and Burns were ever in a relationship.

“Jordan and I were NEVER romantically involved,” she wrote in response to an emailed inquiry about her relationship to Burns.

Leo and Melissa Cardenas both said Burns would frequently offer to help out caring for Adrian, an arrangement that continued while Leo and Melissa were going through a divorce.

“He was a trusted friend back in the day,” Leo Cardenas said.

In middle school, Adrian began volunteering with a nonprofit called Children’s Humanitarian International, which Burns founded in 2010. The organization focused on providing educational opportunities for students in developing nations.

Adrian liked volunteering, he said, and was so dedicated that he was named Volunteer of the Year once.

But in 2014, he said, that Burns began sexually abusing him. He was 12 years old.

At the time, Burns was running for a seat representing the west county on the SRJC Board of Trustees, which governs the largest single education district in Sonoma County. He was reelected in 2018 and served as board president the year before he left.

In interviews, Adrian said he wasn’t comfortable discussing details of the sexual abuse he alleges in his lawsuit.

He said he can’t remember exactly when it started or how many times it happened. But his legal complaint describes the nature of the abuse as manual stimulation and in one case, oral sex.

The abuse happened in a variety of settings, Adrian said. Some instances were at Burns’ former residence in Sebastopol, he said in his lawsuit and in interviews. Other times, Adrian said, it happened during camping trips that Burns took him on, along with other teen volunteers from Children’s Humanitarian International.

Adrian said he could not remember specific dates, locations or other people who may have attended those outings.

He said Burns would supply alcohol and marijuana to the volunteers, who were all minors, during those trips. The Press Democrat has been unable to identify any of the other volunteers or verify those allegations.

The Press Democrat sought to interview Burns, including multiple attempts to reach him by phone and at his home, but he was away on sabbatical. After several weeks, he responded to questions via email.

Burns denied that Adrian ever went on trips with other volunteers, or that he supplied intoxicants to minors.

“That’s also completely false,” Burns said in response to The Press Democrat’s written questions. “When (Adrian) volunteered with us a few times in 2012, we weren’t even going on trips yet. The only CHI sponsored activities that included an overnight with minors was the Summer Abroad trip to Kenya.

“There was a strict no alcohol or drugs policy and no minor was ever left alone with a single chaperone,” Burns added.

Adrian said he never told anyone about the abuse or the exposure to marijuana and alcohol while those events were happening. Even now, he only describes the memory of often feeling “a weird pain in my chest” whenever he thought about his experiences. He would lie face down on the floor to try to make the feeling go away, he said.

When he was 13, Adrian began to see less of Burns, and the abuse stopped sometime in early 2015, according to his lawsuit. His parents said they had no suspicions about what was happening at the time, but they recalled Adrian’s increasing resistance to spending time with Burns as he progressed into his teens.

“We still hung out sometimes, but he would always pressure me to be alone with him,” Adrian said.

Burns said he cut off his friendship with Melissa Cardenas after she “made a rude comment about my then-new marriage.”

When he was 17, Adrian said he told his story of the abuse for the first time to a counselor he was seeing in 2019.

The counselor told Adrian that he would have to file a report with Child Protective Services after hearing what Adrian told him, Adrian said. He said he panicked upon hearing that.

“I was afraid my family was going to find out,” Adrian said. “And I blamed myself.”

But Melissa wouldn’t find out about Adrian’s conversation with his counselor until months later. “Nobody called us,” she said.

Opening up

Adrian told Melissa about the assault in early January 2020, they said.

He had spent the few days before that depressed and restless, Melissa said. She finally confronted him while unloading some items from her car in the kitchen

“And he said, ‘You want to know why I can’t do nothing?’” she recalled. And he told her about the abuse.

They went to police on Jan. 4, 2020, according to Sebastopol police.

Sebastopol police officer Vanessa Murphy took their report and was handling the investigation, Melissa and Adrian said. They worked on crafting “pretext” messages, a common technique in sex abuse investigations.

Burns said he recalled receiving some “strange” text messages, which said they were from Adrian, around that time.

“They made no sense so I ignored them and did not save them,” he said.

According to Adrian, after Burns stopped responding, the investigation lagged. Then, Murphy left the force and the case was reassigned.

It was passed to Officer Ethan Stockton, the family said. Adrian said he and Stockton discussed crafting a script for a pretext phone call. But he never heard back, nor did the officer reach back out to arrange a time to make the phone call together, Adrian said.

Adrian emailed Stockton inquiring about the status of his case on April 22, 2020. He shared the email with The Press Democrat.

“Hello Officer Stockton,” his email read. “I was wondering what happened with the script that you were suppose (sic) to write over a month and a half ago. Thank you very much.”

Adrian said he never received a response.

“We never made the call that we wrote the script for,” he said. “They just made it seem like it was the end of the road.”

Kilgore, who became Sebastopol’s police chief in May 2021, declined to discuss the details of the investigation or confirm the names of the officers involved. But he said officers had “investigated everything that was provided to them and took it as far as they could take it to complete the investigation to determine whether a criminal act had occurred.”

“That could not be confirmed by evidence that was provided and evidence sought through the investigation by the officers,” he said.

Kilgore confirmed the department did not forward any of the information gathered to the District Attorney’s Office.

Another legal attempt

Adrian said he decided to sue Burns as a final effort to hold him accountable and seek recompense for the crimes he’d been subjected to as a child.

“That seemed like the last sort of justice we could get,” he said.

The case has bogged down, however, amid various changes in legal counsel.

Richard Sax, a Santa Rosa-based attorney who represented Leo Cardenas during his and Melissa’s divorce, took Adrian on pro bono, the family said. Sax declined to be interviewed.

Burns represented himself in court until July of this year. Outside of the courtroom, however, Philip Kelly, a Santa Rosa-based attorney, was negotiating settlement terms on Burns’ behalf with Sax through February of this year, when Sax asked to be dismissed as Adrian’s attorney.

Adrian next hired Charles Applegate, based in Petaluma. Kelly and Applegate were in communication through April of this year about proposed settlement terms, according to court documents.

The mediation process seemed to disintegrate, though, when Adrian sent his email to Chong in July.

Adrian said he felt pressured to accept money through a settlement, and he didn’t want to.

“It didn't sit well with me, Jordan paying a little bit of money and then he goes on with his life,” Adrian said. “I would want him in prison or on the sex offender list.”

His July 14 email to Chong, which The Press Democrat obtained through a public records request, described his relationship to Burns, along with the criminal process he had pursued a year and a half earlier and how he came to file the lawsuit in May 2020.

He also attached a copy of his legal complaint along with the settlement agreement that he, Applegate, Kelly and Burns had discussed in April.

The lawsuit was a public document. The proposed settlement agreement, though, was confidential.

“I was dismayed that he chose to disclose confidential privileged information,” Burns said.

Santa Rosa attorney Richard Freeman, who took over Burns’ case from Kelly, said Adrian’s attorney at the time, Charles Applegate, was not aware that Adrian had sent the email with the private settlement agreement to the SRJC. The next day, Applegate requested to be released as Adrian’s attorney.

Applegate declined to be interviewed for this story.

The Press Democrat’s Aug. 30 request to the junior college for records relating to Adrian’s allegations against Burns spurred the campus attorney to inform Freeman, Burns’ attorney.

He turned to Judge Patrick Broderick, who is presiding over the case, and on Sept. 8, Broderick granted Burns an injunction that has temporarily barred the junior college from releasing a copy of the settlement agreement Adrian shared in his email to Chong. Other parts of the email, released by the campus on Sept. 13, five days after Broderick’s order, also were redacted by the campus in response as they were deemed to contain privileged information covered by Broderick’s order.

Henry, the SRJC attorney, said he felt compelled to handle the situation the way he did.

“It’s pretty apparent (those documents) would be of interest and concern to the attorney,” Henry said. “I felt obliged to let (Freeman) know that we had (them).”

SRJC investigates

Adrian’s email had, however, triggered other processes at the junior college, according to Henry, the board’s attorney.

The same day Chong received the email, he made his report to Sebastopol police, Henry said. Chong declined to answer questions about the email or the events that followed and referred questions to Henry.

Chong also contacted Dorothy Battenfeld, president of the SRJC Board of Trustees, Henry said. They began to prepare a committee of up to three trustees to begin investigating Adrian’s allegations, in accordance with the board’s policies.

Henry said the ad hoc committee kept no minutes or notes from its meetings, something the Brown Act allows.

Henry enlisted an independent investigator to reach out to Burns, his attorney Freeman and to Adrian, who was at that point representing himself. Adrian declined to speak with the investigator, Henry said, because he didn’t have legal counsel at the time.

Burns and Freeman also did not speak with the investigator, beyond denying Adrian’s allegations, Henry said.

Burns’ resignation a few weeks later effectively ended the ad hoc committee’s investigation, Henry said. With Burns no longer a trustee, the board had no authority to keep the committee active.

Battenfeld, president of the SRJC Board of Trustees, declined to comment and referred questions to Henry.

Burns said the board’s knowledge of the lawsuit factored into his decision to resign, but he stressed that he had been contemplating resigning for as much as a year before that.

“The JC board was and is still a passion of mine but it’s also extremely time consuming,” he said.

Neither Burns nor the SRJC board made a public announcement about his departure. Burns said he decided to leave the decision in the board’s hands, and Henry said the dearth of information that had been made available to the board led to members keeping quiet.

“Given that the student in question could not be interviewed and given that the board member in question through his attorney denied the allegations altogether, there didn’t seem to be an appropriate reason to make a public statement to the JC community,” he said.

Burns’ quiet departure caught campus community members off guard, though, especially after his popularity as a candidate in both elections.

“It was very surprising to us that he left,” said Sean Martin, president of the All Faculty Association, which donated to Burns’ campaigns in 2014 and 2018. “We anticipated him staying on the board or moving on (to another elected position).”

Henry also had contacted the SRJC’s Title IX office to see if it needed to be involved, since Adrian had been enrolled at the junior college before. He took classes there starting in 2018; they helped him graduate from Analy High School a semester early, he said.

Because none of Adrian’s allegations against Burns were related to Burns’ activities as a trustee and they predated Adrian’s time as a student, a Title IX investigation was deemed unnecessary, Henry said.

“From the very beginning, Frank Chong and the board president’s assignment to me was, ‘We want to do everything we can to deal with this issue appropriately,’” Henry said.

An uncertain future

After Applegate’s resignation as his counsel, Adrian missed his next court date in August. After he failed to file necessary paperwork, Broderick gave the 19-year-old a warning at a September hearing that he was considering dismissing the lawsuit the following month if Adrian did not move his case forward.

He also sanctioned Adrian for the missed hearing and delay in his paperwork. Adrian was ordered to pay $400 to the court and another $250 to Freeman for failing to respond to Freeman’s request for discovery.

In mid-October, Adrian retained Brian Gearinger and Patrick Ciocca, who filed the required paperwork to keep the case going. On Oct. 19, Broderick extended the case, setting the next hearing for Jan. 11.

Gearinger and Ciocca declined to be interviewed for this story.

Burns said he was confident he would clear his name in court.

“Considering that Adrian is now on his fourth attorney says something about the validity of his case,” Burns said. “He has failed to participate in the court proceedings and that has been really frustrating.”

But for now, the lawsuit will proceed, as Adrian pushes ahead with his new legal team.

“I was scared of telling people about this because I didn’t want my name associated with this,” Adrian said. “But I don’t think that Jordan should be off living his life with no consequences.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Resources for survivors of sexual assault

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can contact:

Family Justice Center of Sonoma County: 707-565-8255

Verity: 707-545-7273

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

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