#MeToo movement prompts disclosure of alleged sexual abuse at California stables

  • The disclosure was spearheaded by Michelle Thornton, above, who said she began a sexual relationship with her trainer, John Lipari, when she was 13. TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

The San Diego Union-Tribune
Wednesday, July 11, 2018

SAN DIEGO — On a sweeping bluff overlooking the San Diego coast, a generation of young girls nurtured their love of horses while parents relied on the staff at La Jolla Farms Stables to teach the basics of equestrian competition.

Until it closed in the early 1980s, the training center just west of the University of California, San Diego, campus had some of the best-known horsemen in the business and turned out some of the finest riders in the country.

But according to four women who came forward as a result of the #MeToo movement, John Lipari, the lead trainer at La Jolla Farms Stables through the 1970s, abused his position and began sexual relationships with girls as young as 12 and 13.

“At that age, you don’t understand,” said Kathy Farr, now an adult who lives in in Del Mar. “You have no idea how wrong it is when you’re 14 years old and a 38-year-old man comes on to you.”

Last month, Farr was one of four competitive jumpers who detailed Lipari’s alleged abuse in a letter to The Chronicle of the Horse, a trade magazine that in April published an investigative report about another well-known trainer accused of molesting teenage girls.

They described a culture in which Lipari managed every detail at the stable. They said he targeted girls whose parents rarely attended practices or shows and assigned them his best horses to improve their chances of winning, and to secure their loyalty.

Lipari would visit their hotel rooms during the road competitions, sometimes multiple girls at once, they said, and often provided them with drugs such as cocaine and methaqualone.

“My trainer was like God to me,” Farr said in an interview. “I looked up to him.”

Lipari, 78, when reached by telephone, did not deny the sexual relationships with the four young women — or others enrolled at La Jolla Farms. All the girls approached him for sex, he said.

“They were nice kids, but it’s not what you think. It’s not what everybody thinks,” Lipari said. “Do you know how hard it is to say ‘no’ when they come on so strong? I never messed around with anybody that did not come on to me.”

The trainer said although the sex was consensual, he now understands it may have been inappropriate.

“Looking back, you might be right,” said Lipari, who had late-stage pancreatic cancer and was under hospice care at a Riverside medical facility.

He died last Friday.

La Jolla Farms Stables was on 35 rolling acres high above Black’s Beach, which was a clothing-optional getaway below the historic Torrey Pines Gliderport.

UC San Diego acquired the property as a stable and training center for university equestrian programs, and then leased it privately so horsemen could make the facility available to children and adults interested in show jumping.

With stunning vistas and dots of eucalyptus trees, La Jolla Farms Stables became one of the premier equestrian centers in Southern California. It closed in 1981, after the university decided to offer the property to homebuilders who developed the clutch of multimillion-dollar homes there today.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the stables attracted aspiring competitive equestrians from all over North County. Lipari, who was the leaseholder during most of the 1970s, oversaw scores of horses and hundreds of students.

According to The Chronicle of the Horse letter, the La Jolla center was a bucolic training ground that provided children a place to explore their mutual love of horses and learn the craft of good horsemanship.

“However, the idyllic setting contained a dirty secret,” the women wrote. “John Lipari was a sexual predator.”

The disclosure was spearheaded by Michelle Thornton, one of Lipari’s success stories who said she began a sexual relationship with her trainer when she was 13.

Thornton, who now works as a caretaker at a private residence in Hawaii, read the April report on Jimmy Williams, a Show Jumping Hall of Fame trainer who worked with young women at the Flintridge Riding Club near Pasadena. He died in 1993, and was accused recently of molesting girls at the club.

For Thornton, the revelations about Williams resurfaced painful memories of similar occurrences events at La Jolla Farms Stables. She began seeking out girls she remembered from her riding days and persuaded three of them to go public with their stories.

“The whole time it was happening I never told anybody,” Thornton said by telephone. “I became the star. I got to ride the clients’ horses. My parents attended a few shows, but eventually they were never there. The other girls that were his victims were also a little bit estranged from their families.”

Competitive show jumping depends nearly as much on the animal as it does its master.

The truism, “You’re only as good as the horse you’re sitting on,” grants power to trainers in charge of assigning horses, and Lipari wielded that authority purposefully, his alleged victims say.

Cathy Eischen grew up in La Jolla and began riding horses at La Jolla Farms Stables when she was 12. She said Lipari began grooming her for sex when she was 14. Sometimes he would rub his erect penis against her leg; other times he kissed her square on the mouth.

“It sort of escalated over time,” she said.

Now 59 and living in Encinitas, Eischen said she finally began a physical relationship with Lipari when she was 17, as she focused more on winning.

“Was it consensual?” she said “I want to say it wasn’t like normal consent. It was more like, ‘Be a good girl and you can do this.’ He always played all the girls off each other. This girl got to ride the nicest horses because of what was going on.”

Lipari began taking her to nightclubs and giving her drugs, Eischen said. She had to sneak into The Distillery disco in Solana Beach because she was underage.

Sheri Moser had a similar experience. She said Lipari put her in dangerous situations, taking her to bars when she was a teenager, bringing her along on drug deals and introducing her to sketchy men to push her toward prostitution.

“He made it seem like it was OK, that it was normal, that he cared about me and that he would keep me safe and I believed him,” said Moser, who is 54 now and living in Tarzana. “He was 42 and I was 16. He brainwashed me.”

Lipari made the news in 1984. He was among six people indicted by a federal grand jury for smuggling 1,000 pounds of marijuana, The San Diego Union reported. He previously was put on probation after an arrest for cocaine possession.

By 1995, Lipari was indicted again for his role in a scheme to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana. He was sentenced to 63 months in prison, federal court records show.