CASE OF PROMINENT EAST BAY TEACHER ACCUSED OF MOLESTING STUDENT DANCERS GOES TO JURY
October 19, 2019
He was a renowned ballet teacher who danced in Russia before performing for Diablo Ballet in Walnut Creek — an instructor who many young girls believed could help them fulfill their dreams of becoming professional ballet dancers.
But next week, 56-year-old Viktor Kabaniaev could find himself facing a long prison term instead of a dance stage or studio if a jury convicts him of 14 counts of molesting and raping two young former students.
Prosecution and defense attorneys presented their closing arguments Friday in the two-week trial against Kabaniaev. The jury in Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Mary Ann O’Malley’s courtroom is scheduled to begin deliberations early next week.
Three former students testified against Kabaniaev during the trial, including one who said he forced her into sex at least 30 times when she was just 12 and 13 years old and continued the abuse until she was 16. Another former student accused him of touching her in a sexual way when she was just 14, and a third came forward during the trial to allege he touched her genitalia under the pretext of helping her stretch during a class.
Thirteen of the 14 counts against Kabaniaev stem from accusations of the first alleged victim, who defense attorney Kenneth Wine tried to discredit in his closing arguments.
He told jurors the victim, when 16, sat on Kabaniaev’s lap in her family’s living room and started kissing him. When he could not get an erection she called him “impotent” and laughed at him, then told him to go, Wine said, adding that was the extent of his client’s transgressions.
But prosecutor Kate Jewett told jurors the idea that the victim tried to “seduce” Kabaniaev while in the living room of her family’s busy East Bay home is “unbelievable” and that is “not the way that 15- and 16-year-old girls talk.” Regardless, she was still a child even at 16 and Kabaniaev was 25 years older, Jewett said.
Viktor Kabaniaev works with flashlights during a rehearsal of Diablo Ballet’s premiere of “Touched” in 2000. (Staff Archives)
The victim testified last week that she was only 12 the first time Kabaniaev led her into the women’s locker room at the private Walnut Creek studio where they studied, took off her clothes and had sex with her. It was the first of many times he allegedly raped her.
“I remember being stunned by the whole thing,” she testified. “I don’t think I had time to think in that moment … I just felt like it was all really bad.”
She also accused him of forcing her into oral sex when he was alone with her in the car on the way to group lessons he taught in the South Bay.
One of the two other women who testified against Kabaniaev said that when he began teaching at a dance studio in San Mateo County, he invited her to his new San Bruno apartment during a class break. There, he offered her a massage, but instead of massaging her feet and legs, he lightly touched all over her body, including her breasts and near her vagina. That resulted in the lewd conduct charge.
A third woman emerged after the trial began and testified that during a ballet class in 2007, Kabaniaev reached under her leotard to squeeze her breast and insert his finger into her vagina, according to Jewett. The student was just 13 at the time.
Wine accused all three women of having a “particular motive.”
Because the first victim did not come forward until she was about 30, Wine said he believes she has a “false memory” and “manipulated” the evidence and her family’s recollections to align with her testimony. Police reports show her parents slightly differed in their initial accounts of a family vacation during which the victim contends Kabaniaev raped her, Wine argued.
“She’s lying to you,” Wine told the jury, adding that the victim’s description of herself as a “people pleaser” and her father’s similar portrayal of her showed they had “coordinated” their stories, which they both denied.
Wine called the other two victims’ testimonies “weird” and said “they don’t make any sense,” adding that the second victim “saw the news about his arrest and decided to get even.”
Wine alleged the woman also was upset that Kabaniaev had not taken her back as a student after a falling out. Jewett countered that the victim went on to win prestigious ballet competitions after her training with Kabaniaev ended and held no grudge about her career, which she changed to pursue medical school.
As for the third victim, Wine said, police had investigated her allegation in 2007 that he touched her breast and “found nothing to it,” Wine said.
But that victim testified that she had lied back then to her mother about the extent of the abuse, failing to mention that Kabaniaev also touched her vagina, Jewett said.
Jewett insisted the victims weren’t lying and pointed to earlier testimony from an expert in child psychology about why child victims of molestation and abuse often don’t disclose their experience, or do so much later in life.
The first victim explained that Kabaniaev had told her if she disclosed it to anyone, he’d go to jail for many years.
“I felt like it would ruin my life to expose this,” said the woman, now 31 and no longer living in the Bay Area. “I still hoped to be a professional dancer. … I didn’t want a scandal.”
She said she had felt lucky to have him as an instructor and believed he was the key to helping her achieve her desired career.
She said she didn’t want her family to know about the abuse, but when she searched his name online she was struck by a series of images showing Kabaniaev with little girls in tights and leotards.
“I felt really scared. Like oh, shit, what if you let this person keep doing this?” she testified.
She said she wanted to warn authorities about Kabaniaev but didn’t know, at first, that she’d have to take the stand against him.
“This is my worst nightmare,” she said on the stand.
Similarly, Jewett said in her closing remarks, the other victims came forward to prevent further abuse. They weren’t “piling on,” she said, but doing the right thing.
“There are three victims who don’t know each other, testified extraordinarily credibly and extraordinarily consistently,” Jewett said. “They trusted him to help them in the pursuit of their dreams, and he violated that trust.”
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