Jason McLean fled to Mexico more than two years ago, facing lawsuits that accused him of sexually abusing children at the Children's Theatre Company in the 1980s.

Now, McLean, who faces more than $6 million in judgments, has returned to the United States, resurfacing in Oakland, Calif., where he owns a restaurant and bar called Small Wonder.

Jeff Anderson, the attorney for plaintiffs in cases against McLean and the Children's Theatre, said he was "a little surprised" to learn that McLean had returned to the country, but added, "I've never underestimated his hubris, his arrogance or the danger that he poses."

"I have no intention of letting him escape accountability in any way, shape or form," Anderson said Thursday. "We have and will continue to pursue all legal remedies to both expose this guy for the risks that he presents wherever he is and to do everything in our power to collect the judgments that have been entered against him for rape and sexual assault."

McLean, 65, was never criminally charged for his time as a teacher at the south Minneapolis theater in the 1980s. He couldn't be reached for comment Thursday; a local phone number was disconnected.

But according to a Bay City News Service article posted on SFGate.com, which first reported the news of his return, McLean denied the allegations and said in a statement that the "cost of defense against these unwarranted claims, mostly tried by damaging publicity in the media, destroyed my enterprises in Minnesota and forced me into default."

A former employee of Small Wonder, who declined to be named for fear of retribution, said McLean fled to Mexico in 2017 before a judge returned a $2.5 million judgment against him. For two years, employees ran the bar while McLean continued to own and receive money from the business in Mexico, the employee said. Two weeks ago, McLean showed up at the Oakland bar, fired the employee and staff of 10 and took over the restaurant, planning to reopen, the employee said.

"It's such a surprise," the employee said. "It's like seeing a ghost. No one thought he'd come back to the U.S."

'Baffled' by his return

In 2015 and 2016, six women sued McLean and the Children's Theatre under the 2013 Minnesota Child Victims Act, which extended the statute of limitations on abuse cases. By 2017, McLean sold his two businesses in Minneapolis' Dinkytown neighborhood, the Varsity Theater and the Loring Pasta Bar, and moved to California, where he opened Small Wonder.

The former employee said Thursday that McLean left for Mexico just three months before the $2.5 million judgment was entered against him in a case brought by a Jane Doe who accused him of "unpermitted sexual contact" when she was 15 to 16 years old and he was 29.

Then in 2019, a jury returned a $3.68 million verdict against McLean in Laura Stearns' case — so far the only one to go to trial. The jury also found in her case that the Children's Theatre had been negligent but was not liable for damages.

Stearns, who accused McLean of raping her at age 15 in the 1980s, said she doesn't expect to recover any of the money owed to her in the judgment, despite McLean's return to the United States.

"I'm baffled that he would come back," Stearns said Thursday. "His guilt is so obvious."

Even though he's far from Minnesota, she said the news of his return would alarm many victims.

Twin Cities attorney Marshall Tanick, who has no connection to the Children's Theatre or McLean lawsuits, said Anderson's firm will have an easier time trying to collect the $6 million in judgments from McLean as a result of his return to U.S. soil.

"The fact that he's in the United States and engaging in business is a significant stride forward," Tanick said, adding that attorneys would have to transfer the judgments to California courts and then go through the collection process to find assets that don't have liens or mortgages on them. That could include going after any money McLean has in a bank, or they could shut down or sell Small Wonder.

More cases remain

Several of the lawsuits filed against the Children's Theatre were also filed against John Clark Donahue, the co-founder of the theater who pleaded guilty in 1984 to abusing three boys and served 10 months in jail. Donahue admitted in a deposition that he abused or raped 16 boys since starting the theater. He died in March at age 80.

Anderson says more than 100 victims were abused by 20 offenders. Five other administrators and staff were charged with sexually abusing students or failing to report abuse, but they were acquitted or the charges against them were dismissed.

So far, the Children's Theatre has settled seven cases, but the terms of the settlements haven't been disclosed. Eight cases remain against the theater. Its leaders have said they're trying to reach settlements on the remaining cases and to heal and rebuild trust after the era of abuse and more recent legal and communication missteps.

Stearns, who works at the Guthrie Theater, is also trying to change how sexual violence is addressed in the Twin Cities theater community. She has organized a coalition of about 20 arts leaders who are putting on 10 forums, starting with one at 6 p.m. Monday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.