Child Savior or Predator in Disguise?
Now Beam and another San Francisco man, Danny Garcia, 20, are suing White for most of his $100 million fortune, claiming the older man had unlawful sex with them when they were minors. Last month a 14 year-old Mexican boy also filed suit, alleging White molested him starting at age 9. In a statement, White's lawyers call their client a "target of false claims brought in the hope of financial gain." But he faces other legal woes: As the result of an investigation spanning two continents, police in Thailand arrested White earlier this year on child-sex charges brought in Mexico. There, 14 boys have accused him of coercing them into having sex and filming some of the acts—all while he was building a $2.5 million school for orphans.
"Behind the curtain of being a philanthropist, he was doing so many dark things," says Maria Nicolasa Garcia Reynoso, 39, a children's rights activist who first reported White to officials in 2000. Child-welfare advocates say the White case is part of a decade long increase in child-sex tourism. In Mexico as many as 16,000 children survive by selling their bodies, often to Americans. "These tourists live double lives," says Juan Manuel Estrada, president of FIND, a Guadalajara missing-children's group. "They come here to live out fantasies."
In California the FBI has seized computer files from White's home, and on Sept. 16 arrested his assistant Nathan Lovaas and charged him with trafficking in child pornography and traveling for sex with a minor. Meanwhile, White remains in Thailand fighting extradition to Mexico, where he faces a possible 20-year sentence (a final hearing is scheduled for Oct. 10). His Mexican attorneys say the prosecution is the result of a vendetta. "White is the victim of a conspiracy by a person who claims to be a human-rights organizer," says lawyer Jose Maria Ortega Padilla. "Most of the boys were pressured by [Garcia Reynoso], and most have made retractions." Garcia Reynoso has countered by suing someone she says is one of White's Mexican legal team, claiming he bribed those who recanted with food, clothes and more. "They were being offered $20 and a bike to change their stories," says David Replogle, the lawyer who represents the California plaintiffs. The accused attorney denies the charges.
In San Francisco—where White was known as a successful businessman and the father of an adopted son—many cannot believe such allegations. A Chicago native, he founded his brokerage firm Thomas White & Co. in 1978. "He started on his dining-room table and ended up with a company worth $50 to $100 million," says a pal, insurance agent John Schwobeda. White bought a multimillion-dollar home and gave generously to the San Francisco Ballet and a local gay and lesbian center. "I've known him to be a decent guy," says Wayne Friday, a police commissioner and newspaper columnist.
For a time White was also admired in Puerto Vallarta, where he bought an estate named Casa Blanca (the White House) in 1998. He won praise by bringing clean water to a poor village and in 1999 broke ground for Los Niños de Vallarta (the Children of Vallarta), a school for 100 orphans, with a pool and computer labs.
By then Garcia Reynoso, an ex-seamstress who works for a group called the Mexican Human Rights Front, had heard tales about the Casa Blanca. "The boys began telling me about this gringo named Tom who asked them to take their clothes off," she recalls. Garcia Reynoso videotaped some of the boys' stories and gave them to officials, who eventually denied White a permit to open the school.
In early 2001 authorities issued an arrest warrant, but White had already fled. Traveling to Russia, Costa Rica, Chile and other countries, he settled in Thailand in May 2002, buying a villa near the beach. "We don't know what to think," says one Thai resort manager about White's arrest. "In my eyes, he is very kind." But to others, like alleged San Francisco victim Josh Beam, White's kindly facade masked sinister motives. "I convinced myself he cared," says Beam. "Now I want to take back what was taken from me."
Adrienne Bard in Puerto Vallarta, Frank Swertlow and Maureen Harrington in San Francisco, John Perra in New York City and Karen Emmons in Thailand