Warning: The following article contains explicit content and descriptions of sexual assault.
Two women at the heart of a U.S. Center for SafeSport investigation that led to Bob McDonald being first banned for life in June 2020 on allegations of sexually abusing minors and then reinstated months later have filed a civil suit on similar grounds.
The suit was filed Nov. 11 in California Superior Court, but the court only recently approved using the names of the three defendants: McDonald, 74, a former hunter/jumper trainer; his wife Debbie McDonald, 67, the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s dressage technical advisor, both of Hailey, Idaho, and Wellington, Florida; and the 32nd District Agricultural Association, which operates the Orange County Fair Grounds (California) where the alleged abuse took place in the mid-1970s. It seeks damages for allegations of sexual battery, negligence and negligent supervision.
The suit alleges that the two women, identified as Jane Doe 7018 and Jane Doe 7019, were raped by Bob McDonald when they were teenagers while training with him at the Orange County Fairgrounds Equestrian Center in Costa Mesa, California. Specifically, the suit alleges that he subjected Doe 7018, who trained with him from the ages of 14 to 16, to “numerous instances of grooming, sexual abuse and molestation,” which included raping her at least 15 times over a three-year period beginning when she was 14, and that he subjected Doe 7019 to grooming, sexual abuse and molestation, including raping the then-13-year-old once in 1974.
“These two survivors brought this case to show this individual and the equestrian community as a whole that accountability is important, and safety of children is paramount,” said Mike Reck, an attorney representing the women.
Reck and his firm Jeff Anderson & Associates, which specializes in child sexual abuse cases, also represent four other plaintiffs in ongoing cases related to alleged sexual abuse committed by trainers Jimmy Williams and George Morris. “The pervasive problem with perpetrators in equestrian sports has been evident for decades, and now through the use of the court system, these brave women hope to force real change on a sport that has shown time and time again cannot be trusted to police itself,” Reck said.
Doe 7018 previously contacted SafeSport in 2019 to report her childhood experiences with Bob McDonald, and in the course of its investigation SafeSport contacted Doe 7019, the suit says.
In June 2020, as a result of that investigation, SafeSport announced that the trainer would be banned for life from equestrian sport. However, Bob McDonald appealed the decision and asked for an arbitration hearing. Before that hearing took place, SafeSport reversed course, issued an “administrative closure” of the case and lifted all sanctions against him in August 2020.
Neither Bob nor Debbie McDonald responded to requests for comment on the lawsuit. However, at the time the SafeSport case was closed and his ban lifted, he denied the accusations and thanked those who spoke in his defense.
“Last week I provided additional information to SafeSport in advance of my arbitration hearing that was scheduled to take place in October 2020,” he said in an August 2020 email. “On Thursday, Aug. 20, [2020,] I received an email statement announcing all sanctions had been lifted, my name had been removed and my case closed. The accusations are false. They have always been false and are now proven false. My family and I are relieved to have these accusations behind us. To all of you that emailed and spoke up on my behalf, I can not thank you enough.”
The new civil suit describes the administrative closure somewhat differently, saying “prior to the arbitration, SafeSport decided to issue an ‘administrative closure’ because of the two victims’ reluctance to participate in the arbitration process. Upon information and belief, Bob McDonald’s ban was lifted and he was reinstated to equestrian sports; however, he was never officially cleared of all charges.”
The new lawsuit, in accusing the trainer of sexual battery, describes him first grooming Doe 7018, claiming he “would use the guise of training to normalize intimate, inappropriate and sexually abuse (sic) contact” with her, escalating to him cornering her in various places on the equestrian center property—stalls, tack room, inside his truck and in the arena—as well as at other stables and horse shows where her parents believed Debbie McDonald, who was his assistant trainer, was chaperoning the teen. When the plaintiff was still 14, the suit alleges, he took her to his apartment near the equestrian center, “led her to his bedroom and forced her to engage in sexual intercourse. This act of rape stripped Jane Doe 7018 of her virginity and caused her physical injury. [She] was in physical pain following the encounter for a prolonged period of time.”
The incident was the first in a string of sexual assaults that continued for the next three years, the suit alleges, during which time Bob and Debbie McDonald began a romantic relationship. According to reporting from the Southern California News Group based on a trove of confidential SafeSport documents it obtained and interviews with the alleged victims, the teen’s sexual relationship with her trainer continued for three years, ending when she learned he had become engaged to Debbie McDonald.
“[Doe 7018] did not, and was unable to, give free or voluntary consent to the sexual acts perpetrated against her by Bob McDonald, as she was a minor child at the time of the assaults alleged,” the suit states.
The suit alleges the second plaintiff trained with Bob from the ages to 12 to 15 and that he engaged in the same grooming behaviors, ultimately taking her to the same apartment and raping her when she was approximately 13 years old.
“At the stable the next day, Jane Doe 7019 attempted to ride her horse; however, ultimately she was unable to remain in the saddle for more than 10-15 minutes due to the intense pain caused by Bob McDonald raping her,” the suit states.
In accusing Debbie McDonald of negligence and negligent supervision, the suit says the future Olympic dressage rider met her now-husband when she was 14, starting as a working student and eventually becoming his assistant trainer, a role in which she would teach young students and chaperone them when the barn traveled to shows and other events.
The suit does not claim the two teens expressly told her about their experiences with Bob McDonald, but says she “knew or had reason to know that Bob McDonald had previously engaged and was continuing to engage in unlawful sexual conduct with minors, for his own personal sexual gratification, and that it was foreseeable that he was engaging, or would engage, in illicit sexual activities with [Doe 7018], and others.”
Despite such knowledge, the suit alleges, she failed to supervise interactions between him and minors, “failed to provide adequate warning to [Doe 7018] and her family of [his] dangerous propensities and unfitness,” and didn’t take reasonable steps to ensure minors were not sexually harassed or abused.
The suit calls the McDonalds and the 32nd District Agricultural Association “co-conspirators,” each of whom “knowingly gave substantial assistance to each other defendant who performed the wrongful conduct alleged.”
The suit states that, for its part, the equestrian center’s operator “completely failed” to adopt adequate policies or procedures to prevent sexual abuse from occurring on the premises.
“The 32nd District was placed on actual or constructive notice that Bob McDonald had molested or was molesting minors and participants and members,” the suit alleges, adding, “The 32nd District had knowledge of grooming, inappropriate conduct, and molestation committed by Bob McDonald before and during his employment and/or affiliation, yet chose to allow him to remain unsupervised, where he sexually abused [Doe 7018].”
On Tuesday, Nov. 23, a representative of USEF, which employs Debbie McDonald as technical advisor, said the federation was unaware of the lawsuit and therefore could not comment.
It is unclear whether the suit might affect the previously closed SafeSport case against Bob McDonald. While SafeSport does not, as a policy, comment on specific cases, a spokesman confirmed that administrative closures do not mean charges against a subject have been “proven false” and that such cases can be reopened in the future.
“We don’t ‘clear’ individuals, but the closest thing to that would be a full investigation with no findings, not an administrative closure,” SafeSport spokesman Dan Hill said. “Yes, [administrative] closures can be reopened, for a variety of reasons, including new evidence, or previously reluctant participants who are now open to assisting the Center in its process.”
Reck, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said both women have contacted SafeSport to say they are now willing to participate in the arbitration process, if the case is reopened.
“While we cannot force the USEF and SafeSport to do the right thing, these brave survivors hope that the filing of this lawsuit will compel those in charge of equestrian sporting to finally prioritize the safety of children over the reputation of the sport and these trainers,” he said.