Innocence Lost: Survivor’s story of CTC abuse includes sex trafficking, child porn

A woman wearing a blue patterned scarf and black coat.
Jina Penn-Tracy is among the 16 survivors whose claims against the Children's Theatre Company were settled in recent months. She alleges that CTC staff used her in sexual trafficking and child pornography.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Among the stories of abuse that students endured decades ago at the hands of Children’s Theatre Company staff is one that hasn’t been reported until now. At least one student alleges that CTC staff used her in sexual trafficking and child pornography.

The former student, Jina Penn-Tracy, is among the 16 survivors whose claims against CTC were settled in recent months. A theater official confirmed last week that she had learned of the woman’s story two years ago, and was “shocked, stunned and heartbroken.”

A woman in a gray suit speaking
Children's Theatre Company managing director Kimberly Motes at the announcement of the settlements Nov. 1, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“Jina Penn-Tracy's account of what happened to her in the early 1980s by former employees of CTC is truly disturbing and horrific,” said Kimberly Motes, managing director of CTC. “I've told her and will continue to tell her how deeply sorry all of us at CTC are that this happened to her.”

Penn-Tracy moved to Minneapolis from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when she was 14. The Children's Theatre had toured in Iowa, and she was invited to participate in the summer school program in Minneapolis. She attended in the summer of 1982. After a short trip back home, she returned to Minneapolis that fall by bus to attend the Children's Theatre's full-time school.

“Nobody greeted me, so I called the theater from the bus station and went, ‘I'm here,’ and whoever answered the phone went, ‘Who are you?’ They had no idea," she said.

Penn-Tracy said she bounced around among theater families until they found her a room to rent in a house with a former student.

"And so I was just treated like a college kid, and I had no oversight,” she said. “No parental figures in my life at all."

A blurred yearbook shows one person looking at the camera.
Jina Penn-Tracy is seen in a yearbook.
Images from the 1983 Children's Theatre yearbook

Not long after school started, she attended her first CTC cast party. She said John Clark Donahue, the company's artistic director at the time, started hitting on one of her new friends.

"I was like, ‘I'm going to get him out of here,’ and I was trying to talk him into leaving,” she said. “And John didn't want him to leave.”

Penn-Tracy said — and testified in a court deposition — that the next thing she remembers is being raped by multiple people. She said she also remembers Donahue standing there, mocking her, asking if she’d like to call her mother. Donahue died in March.

She said she was abused regularly as a child; that was part of her motivation for leaving Iowa. Over the years she had learned to compartmentalize the abuse, to live with it. So after that encounter with Donahue, she said, “instead of running away terrified, I got up and went to school the next day. That was definitely the moment where he went, ‘I have a use for you.’ And then the trafficking started."


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Penn-Tracy said Children's Theatre actor and instructor Jason McLean began taking her to increasingly wild parties where she was subjected to more abuse, including beatings and multiple rapes.

McLean hasn’t responded to numerous requests to comment for this story. He has never been criminally charged, but was found liable earlier this year in a sexual assault on another CTC student.

Jina Penn-Tracy said her abusers didn’t limit themselves to sex trafficking, but also made pornographic films.

In the 1980s, Children's Theatre filmed many of its plays at a warehouse just down the street, where the business Jimmy Jingle stored its vending machines.

"‘Alice in Wonderland’ was filmed there, and ‘Frankenstein’ I think. And so they would use that equipment and have the access to the equipment and there was no suspicion about bringing children into this building because it was a children's theater,” she said. “And so they would have the ability to do pornographic films for short periods of time under the guise of filming the plays."

Penn-Tracy’s story is completely different from those of her classmates at CTC. But she has something that many victims don't — physical evidence.

In the early 1990s, a few fragments cut from the porn films were posted online. A person close to Penn-Tracy recognized her in the images and confronted her. Penn-Tracy printed out copies and kept them, in part just to remind herself that what happened to her was real.

MPR News has not seen the images or asked to see them, but has spoken to three people who have seen the images: a friend of Penn-Tracy’s who saw them in the ’90s, and Penn-Tracy’s lawyers in the CTC suit, who submitted redacted versions of the images into court evidence. Their descriptions of the images support her account. They say it's clear that Penn-Tracy is a minor, and in one image she is with an adult male who was a performer and on staff at the Children's Theatre.

MPR News is not identifying the man. Penn-Tracy and others say they believe he was himself abused by Donahue at a young age. Despite multiple requests, he has not agreed to an interview. He suggested in an email to MPR News that he might have memory blackouts.

Upon her lawyers' recommendation, Penn-Tracy took her story to the Sex Crimes Unit of the Minneapolis Police Department three years ago. The department told MPR News that, due to the statute of limitations on sex crimes, investigators saw no reason to open a case file.

MPR News spoke to another woman who says she was forced as a young girl to appear in porn films that were made in the old Jimmy Jingle warehouse. She declined to have her interview recorded, for fear that she might be identified, and she was not part of the court proceedings. She said she was taken to the warehouse repeatedly over the course of three years — also in the early ’80s — and was made to do, as she described it, “sexual things” with other small children.

She doesn't remember seeing Penn-Tracy there, but she does remember two people who were there regularly and appeared to be in positions of power. She came to know them by name — Jason McLean and John Clark Donahue. This woman was not a student at the Children's Theatre, but because of the sets and costumes and other children, she says initially she thought she was at the Children's Theatre.

She and Penn-Tracy both said they were regularly given drugs.

Penn-Tracy said Donahue's arrest in 1984 forced the small network of abusers to roll back its operations. By this time she was 17 and, she said, falling apart.

"I don't think I'd be alive right now if the few boys that came forward against John hadn't come forward,” she said. “I don't think I'd be here."

A poem in black and white.
An excerpt of a poem written by Jina Penn-Tracy in 1983.
Image taken from the 1983 Children's Theatre yearbook

In the lull that followed Donahue’s arrest, Penn-Tracy managed to extract herself. She didn't speak of her experience to anyone until years later.

"Jina's story is not that uncommon,” said Dawn McClelland, a licensed psychologist who specializes in trauma therapy. “It's just that she has had the bravery and the strength to speak about it — and she has evidence."

A woman sitting on a couch looks to the right.
Dawn McClelland is a licensed psychologist who specializes in trauma therapy.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

McClelland said people who have been abused early in life are often easy targets for later abuse because they've have had submissive behavior engrained into them. The majority of McClelland's clients are victims of traumatic sexual abuse, human trafficking, organized crime and cults.

"The human trade is billions of dollars, and it’s difficult for people to really wrap their head around and acknowledge this is happening,” she said. “And it’s happening all over. But there's evidence of it in the news all the time. The sex trade is incredibly organized. It's why we can't shut it down."

According to state figures, Minnesota recorded the nation’s third-highest rate of human trafficking in 2015.

“How could anyone do anything like this to a child?” asked Motes, CTC’s managing director. “And yet we know that there are monsters in our society today who abuse children in this way.

“Ms. Penn-Tracy's courage to share her story, as painful as it is for her, as well as for all of us at CTC and in this community to hear, shows her incredible resiliency and strength.”

Motes said she's pleased Children's Theatre was able to resolve Penn-Tracy’s legal case, along with those of the other 15 plaintiffs. She said Children's Theatre is now working with survivors to turn a “reprehensible legacy” into something that can foster recovery, advocacy, healing and growth.

Were you a student at the Children’s Theatre Company and have a story to share? Contact Marianne Combs to share your story.

Edited by Eric Ringham and Laura McCallum. Photos by Christine T. Nguyen and Evan Frost. Production by Sara Porter.

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