Teacher Accused of Molestations Commits Suicide at Lancaster Home
A teacher accused of molesting five teenage boys in the 1980s killed himself last week at his Lancaster home, a day after the allegations became public, authorities said.
Ronald Eugene Wittlake, 50, had been a music teacher at Monterey Bay Academy, a boarding school run by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in La Selva Beach near Watsonville, when the assaults allegedly occurred, according to court documents.
More recently, he had worked at Lancaster High School as an independent studies teacher. None of the allegations involves students from that school.
Authorities said Wittlake’s wife heard a gunshot Thursday evening and called 911. He died of a single gunshot wound to the chest.
The first news report naming Wittlake as a possible child molester had appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel the day before.
He left a 10-page letter to his wife, authorities said. They would not comment on its contents, but an investigator concluded that his suicide “may have been prompted by a current civil trial,” according to Lt. Fred Corral of the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.
Wittlake was accused in five lawsuits of molesting boys between 1982 and 1986. He was set to be deposed Jan. 23, said Los Angeles lawyer Joseph Scully, who represents the men accusing Wittlake.
In the suits, the plaintiffs allege that church officials should have known that Wittlake and another teacher, Lowell E. Nelson, both sexually preyed on students, giving them alcohol and marijuana before forcing them into having sex.
Church officials have denied the allegations.
Lawyers for Wittlake and his wife, a defendant in one case that alleges she conspired with her husband in an assault, have asked a judge to dismiss the case.
The lawsuits all were filed last year under a state law that lifted the statute of limitations for one year to allow victims of decades-old childhood sexual abuse to sue.
The accusations are too old for criminal prosecution under a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Wittlake worked at Monterey Bay Academy from 1981 to 1989, then joined the Antelope Valley High School District.
He was a special education teacher at Palmdale High School before being transferred to Lancaster High five years ago, where he worked individually with students in the independent studies program, according to Bridget Cook, general counsel for the school district.
Cook said district officials had received no complaints of alleged sexual misconduct by Wittlake and learned of the earlier allegations this week after receiving a letter from Scully, alerting them to safety concerns for other children.
Scully said he doesn’t expect Wittlake’s suicide to affect the civil cases, which target the Central California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. But he said Wittlake’s suicide “looks like an admission.”
Scully said his clients live hundreds of miles apart, attended school in different years and have had no contact with each other.
Four of the suits were filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court; the fifth was filed in Santa Cruz County.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.