Evidence Mounts of Missed Red Flags in Case of Former Tokyo Teacher Facing U.S. Child Rape Charges
By Simon Scott
March 30, 2016
When James France heard the news of the recent arrest of Frank Selas, his former scoutmaster at St. Mary’s International School in Tokyo, on child sex abuse charges in the U.S., he was not shocked. Instead, he felt a mix of regret and curiosity.
“I found myself wanting to know exactly what he had done. What did he actually do to the kids?” he says. “I wanted to know because we were in close proximity to this person, and I think I wanted to know how potentially bad it could have been. It’s like knowing that you were just diving in the proximity of a great white without realizing it.”
Selas, aka Frank Szeles, who was a fourth-grade teacher at the Catholic boys’ school from 1970 until 1972, had been on the run for 37 years when he was finally taken into custody at his home in Bonita, California, on Jan. 25.
Warrants for his arrest were issued in 1979 for two counts of obscene behavior with a juvenile. The alleged abuse took place on a camping trip for boys in Louisiana hosted by Selas, and one boy was reportedly hospitalized. A grand jury indictment in the southern U.S. state last month saw additional charges leveled against Selas — two counts of aggravated rape, three counts of sexual battery and eight counts of felony indecent behavior with juveniles — meaning that police believe there were at least eight victims in total across the state of Louisiana.
This news caused France to reflect on his time at St. Mary’s and his memories of Selas and his interactions with young boys at the school. In retrospect, the episodes he recalls fit in with the profile that police and the media in the U.S. have been building since Selas’ capture. Before the 1979 case and during his time living under aliases while a fugitive, red flags were repeatedly raised by children, parents and various organizations regarding Selas’ inappropriate interactions with boys, yet decisive action was rarely taken.
France, who has asked that his real name not be used to protect his privacy, says that Selas became scoutmaster at the school in 1970 when France was 12 years old and in the seventh grade at St. Mary’s, which is run by the Brothers of Christian Instruction, a Catholic order also known as the De la Mennais Brothers or the Mennaisians.
“The first day he became our scoutmaster, he decided that our first activity would be to go swimming,” he recalls. “St Mary’s had an indoor pool (and) swimming was a part of our weekly school curriculum, but it was not something we did as a part of boy scouts. We protested because we didn’t have our swim trunks, but he insisted, so our only option was to swim in our underwear.
“I don’t know what kids wear today under their pants, but back in my day we all wore Fruit of the Loom underwear,” France says. “If you swim in those you can pretty much see through them, and, speaking for myself, I knew that — therefore it was rather awkward. I just remember feeling weird about running around in the pool in my wet underwear. That was our intro to Mr. Selas.”
France can’t recall any other personal experiences involving Selas that he felt were inappropriate, but he remembers that some of his classmates did after a trip to the world’s fair held in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, in 1970. Selas “handpicked about six boys to go down with him for a weekend at Expo ’70. I was not one of them,” France recalls, “but I do remember they came back freaked out.” The boys’ identical stories about Selas’ unusual behavior during the trip could not be substantiated.
During his time working at St. Mary’s, Selas also ran a number of camping trips for students at the school and other foreign children living in Japan. He was also involved with the Junior Peace Corps in the country, and in 1971 Selas and two or three other men led a group of more than 30 boys between the ages of 8 and 15, mainly students from Tokyo international schools, including St. Mary’s, on a 29-day tour around India and Southeast Asia.
In 1972 he organized a similar monthlong trip in his capacity as Peace Corps director, this time taking a group of around 37 boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 17, many of whom were U.S. military dependents, to a range of exotic locations across Asia. Under Selas’ leadership, the Peace Corps also ran camping trips within Japan, which included one- and two-week camps in August at Inawashiro Lake in the Bandai-Asahi National Park, Fukushima Prefecture.
After the summer of 1972, it is unclear how much longer Selas remained in Japan, although it appears he was no longer working at St. Mary’s, and the circumstances of his departure from the school are murky. An article dated May 30, 1972, in the Stars and Stripes U.S. military newspaper names Selas as a teacher at the school, yet neither his name nor photo appear in the St. Mary’s yearbook for that year. The book was also issued in May 1972, a month before the end of the school year at St. Mary’s, which runs September to June.
In 1977, the year after he graduated, France says he went back to the school to see one of his teachers, Jean Trudel. According to France, Brother Trudel was a gentle, good-hearted man who took his job and religious commitment seriously.
“The fact that I could confide in him about some of this stuff means I trusted him,” France says.
During the meeting, France says he told Trudel about all the stuff that went on at St. Mary’s — specifically regarding the behavior of Selas.
“Brother Trudel did not seem fazed,” France says. “He told me there was a reason Selas did not stick around at St Mary’s.” he says. “So that tells me that St. Mary’s knew about (accusations surrounding) Selas.”
France says that it was this aspect of the situation that made him feel a sense of regret when he heard the news of Selas’ capture.
“My regret is that if St. Mary’s did terminate his employment, they should have contacted the authorities and had him stopped right there,” France says.
Statements by the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office also suggest that Selas’ sudden departure from St. Mary’s was likely linked to allegations of inappropriate behavior with students. To quote: “Throughout the years following their initial investigation, (William) Hilton and (Graham) Hendricks, as well as other law enforcement officers at their direction, continued the search for Selas. During this search, detectives learned of prior allegations levied against Selas in the early ’70s, while employed at a school in Tokyo, Japan.” There is no evidence that Selas worked at any schools in Tokyo except St. Mary’s.
The current headmaster of St. Mary’s International School, Saburo Kagei, says the school is aware of the news about the recent arrest, and he confirmed that Selas did teach at the school from 1970 to 1972.
“As you can understand, with the ongoing legal case in the U.S., we have offered to assist law enforcement officials there but cannot comment further,” he said.
By 1974, Selas had returned to the United States and was working with children again, this time as principal at St. Anthony Indian School in Zuni, New Mexico.
The following advert ran in the classifieds section of a local newspaper called The Gallup Independent on Sept. 5 of that year: “Do you like children? ST. ANTHONY SCHOOL ZUNI has opening for TEACHER AIDS. No special educational requirement. No experience necessary. Apply in person. Ask for Frank Selas, principal.”
Selas reappears on the radar again in early 1978 in Monroe, Louisiana, this time in the high-profile public role he would come to be known for: as children’s TV show host “Mr. Wonder.”
“Mr. Wonder’s Children’s Show” was a popular afternoon program that aired on local Louisiana TV station KNOE-TV in the late 1970s, in which Selas, often in top hat and bow tie, played the role of a ringmaster or magician of sorts to a studio audience of mainly young children, many of whom were local school students.
Then, in spring 1979, as part of an on-air promotional event, the former St. Mary’s teacher sponsored a camping trip for boys aged between 5 and 15. He allegedly sexually abused several of the children that attended.
Similarly to the Peace Corps summer camps Selas had run in Fukushima, this camping retreat was also held at an isolated location by a lake in a national park, in this case Lake Valentine in Kisatchie National Forest, central Louisiana.
According to a statement issued by the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office, following their return from the camp, the children, whom Selas was “trusted to chaperone and protect,” disclosed the sexually based criminal acts to their parents, who contacted law enforcement.
This resulted in two arrest warrants being issued against him for molesting at least two young boys at the camp. According to local media reports at the time, at least six boys were sexually abused, one of whom was hospitalized.
The Rapides Parish detectives assigned to the case, Hilton and Hendricks, then rushed, “warrants in hand,” to Selas’ home and place of business, but he was nowhere to be found. They were later informed by Selas’ wife, Maria Magdalena Aranda Selas Szeles, that “her husband had fled the area to parts unknown in their family vehicle.”
The next day, Selas’ vehicle was found in a suburb of Dallas near the airport, and further investigation verified that Selas had fled to Rio de Janeiro, the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office said. From there the trail went cold, and it would take close to four decades before Selas was finally apprehended.
Fugitive ‘Mr. Wonder’ visited St. Mary’s on return to Tokyo
St. Mary’s International School teacher Frank Selas often boasted about his travel exploits. A 1971 Tokyo Weekender story claimed that Selas had lived and worked in “no less than 31 countries as part of his studies into child psychology.”
Even after becoming a fugitive from U.S. law enforcement, which had issued a warrant for his arrest in 1979 in connection with child sex crimes, it seems Selas couldn’t scratch the travel bug. While on the lam, he even returned to Japan and lived in the country for a while in the mid-1980s. Despite being a fugitive, he visited his former place of work, St. Mary’s, during this period.
American Roger Bruce, now 40, lived in Tokyo for a year from 1984 to 1985 and was a fourth-grade student at the school at the time. He clearly recalls the day Selas visited St. Mary’s.
“Mr. Selas came in one day, seemingly out of nowhere, and quizzed the entire class about world geography,” Bruce says. “He seemed like a lot of fun and quite knowledgeable. I’m not sure what the purpose was or why my teacher … arranged for this visit.”
Bruce, who has asked that his real name not be used due to privacy concerns, believes Selas was not a teacher at the school at the time. This is supported by the fact that neither Selas’ name nor photo appear anywhere in the 1984-85 school yearbook.
Bruce says that although this was the only time he saw Selas at St. Mary’s, he met him on a number of other occasions unconnected to the school while he was living in Tokyo.
“Sometime later, my dad had apparently met Mr. Selas and became friends with him somehow,” he says.
Bruce’s father worked as a salesman for Encyclopedia Britannica at the time, and he believes his father met Selas through his work for the company. News reports in the U.S. since Selas’ recent arrest also mention that he was involved in selling encyclopedias while living in the U.S.
Bruce says he remembers meeting Selas on four occasions in Japan after first seeing him at St. Mary’s. Once, Selas came over to the family home for dinner, and Bruce recalls him talking at length about the vast number of countries in the world he had been to.
According to Bruce, Selas’ family were also living with him while he was in Japan — his wife and two daughters — and he recalls visiting them at their family home before his own family returned to the U.S. Bruce says Selas took him and groups of other young children, including Selas’ own kids, on a couple of excursions, both involving activities centered around playing in water.
“There was a time when he took a bunch of kids to go to a swimming pool one afternoon. My brother and I were there, as were Mr. Selas’ two daughters, Jackie and Tammy,” he says. Bruce says he clearly remembers having a conversation at the time and asking Jackie something like, “Why does your dad do all of this?”
“Her answer was, ‘I don’t know, I guess he just likes kids a lot.’ At the time, I thought absolutely nothing of it,” Bruce says, “but now I see things very differently.”
Gradually, more is becoming known about Selas’ movements and activities while he was on the run. Having fled to Brazil in 1979, he returned to the U.S. in the early 1980s and resided in various locations across the country, including his hometown of Darien, Connecticut; Vermont; Chicago; Massachusetts; and San Diego and Bonita in California.
During this time, Selas used various aliases, such as “Frank John Szeles,” and continued to live together with his wife, who used the same alias surname. Around 1992, Selas legally changed his last name in San Diego County to “Szeles.”
In 1997, Selas was arrested by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for illegally bringing young boys across the border from Mexico to go on trips to Disneyland in Anaheim, California. However, as he was traveling under the name “Szeles,” the authorities didn’t realize he was also the man wanted in Louisiana in connection with the child sex allegations.
One constant in Selas’ life, going back to his period at St. Mary’s, appears to be an interest in watching and interacting inappropriately with young boys in situations involving water, whether it be the pool, beach or showers. The luxurious home in Bonita, California, where Selas and his wife had lived since 1999 was decked out with a large pool, and neighbors say there were always a lot of young children visiting his home to go swimming there.
Selas didn’t just allow local kids to use his pool; he solicited children by offering free swimming lessons and water-based activity programs and trips through an organization he ran called Szeles Enterprises, which he promoted online and through fliers. To put concerned parents at ease, Selas always stressed his expertise in water safety. In a recent U.S. TV broadcast shortly after Selas’ arrest, a local California mother, Cory Zapata, talked about her child’s experience having swimming lessons with Selas.
“My youngest said, who is in first grade, ‘You know this guy is kind of creepy, mom,” Zapata told KNOE-TV. ” ‘Every time, before he puts me under the water, he always kisses my forehead, then he kind of grabs my belly when I’m underneath the water.’ “
As San Diego Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Steve Jurman, one of the law enforcement officers who captured Selas, told reporters at the time: “It’s absolutely shocking the level of access this guy had to children, even now. If there’s a playbook for pedophiles, he checked off every single box.”
A cautionary article published by the Australia-based sexual assault support service Laurel House lays out “sexual offender tactics and grooming” as follows: “Many (offenders) deliberately establish themselves as the kind of person you wouldn’t suspect to be a sex offender because they are ‘too nice’ or an upstanding person in the community who helps a lot of people out. This is a powerful tactic as it allows offenders to become embedded in a community and be involved in a number of socially responsible activities such as youth groups, churches and schools, which can give the offender access to a number of potential victims without ever being suspected. This double life causes parents and others to drop their guards and to allow access to their children without suspecting anything.”
Selas appears to have taken advantage of a wide range of types of organization that put him in positions of authority with children, from schools, cub and scout troops and the Peace Corps to sports clubs and churches of various denominations, although his activities often led to him being removed from the groups or having his access to children blocked.
In Bonita, he was cubmaster of Pack 888 until being expelled from the organization. Shortly after his January arrest in California, The Boy Scouts of America National Council released the following statement: “We can … confirm that (Selas) was removed from our program for noncompliance with our youth protection policies and procedures, following a complaint we received from a non-Scouting parent regarding allegations that were unrelated to Scouting.”
Similarly, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement around the same time saying that Selas, a member of a San Diego-area congregation, had been barred from contact with children due to violations of its “child protection policies,” and that a “parent had expressed a ‘generalized concern’ about the suspect’s behavior toward a child.”
Rapides Parish Sheriff William Hilton believes these types of interactions with children that Selas consistently sought out throughout his life are typical of the way a pedophile grooms children.
“One mother told law enforcement in Bonita that she had had a very jarring experience with Frank Szeles,” he told a Louisiana newspaper. “He would go to the bus stop in the mornings when children were waiting for school buses and would carry a puppy with him. Now what does that tell us? Pedophiles use puppies to entice children to leave and go off with them.
“Up until the day we arrested him, he was still soliciting children through pamphlets and fliers to come to his house for swimming lessons,” said Hilton. “If there was a definition of a sexual predator, this is one.”
On Feb. 25, a grand jury at the 9th Judicial District Court in Rapides Parish, Louisiana — the district where the original 1979 warrants were issued — returned indictments against Selas for two counts of aggravated rape, three counts of sexual battery and eight counts of felony indecent behavior with juveniles. If convicted on all these charges, Selas could face life imprisonment without parole and hard labor.
Although the death penalty is authorized under Louisiana state law for the aggravated rape of a child under the age of 13, it is unlikely it will sought in this case, as the use of capital punishment for crimes other than murder is extremely rare — and controversial — in the U.S.
Extradition proceedings are underway to have Selas moved from California to Louisiana for trial. The Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office says all the paperwork has been filed with their attorney general’s office, and they are now waiting for them to get the governor’s warrant to California.
Abuse accusations linked to St. Mary’s
Frank Selas is not the only former lay teacher at St. Mary’s International School in Tokyo to face child sexual abuse charges after returning to the United States.
Don Andrews, who worked from 1979 to 1984 as a sixth-grade teacher at the elementary school, was charged with second-degree child molestation after an allegation surfaced in 1995 that he had sexually abused a 13-year-old male student who was staying at his house for the night while working at St. Patrick Catholic School in Spokane, Washington.
After the case initially ended in a mistrial, Andrews pled guilty to the lesser charge of third-degree assault against a minor in March 1997, and was sentenced to 90 days incarceration on work release and fined $5,210. He was also ordered not to hold any position of authority over children or frequent areas where children congregate. His Washington state teacher’s license was permanently revoked in October 2000.
Although there is no evidence to suggest Andrews also sexually abused St. Mary’s students, there is evidence that other former teachers at the school did.
Catholic Brother Lawrence Lambert, who, like Selas, also worked as an elementary school teacher at St. Mary’s (Selas taught fourth grade at the time, Lambert sixth), confessed in writing in 2014 to raping an 11-year-old sixth-grade student in 1965, the son of an Australian diplomat posted in Tokyo. Lambert, who is still believed to be alive and living in Canada, has never been charged over this incident and continued to work at St. Mary’s for the remainder of his career, and was even promoted to the position of elementary school principal.
Another Canadian Brother and elementary school teacher, Benoit Lessard, who died in 1980, has also been accused of sexually abusing a large number of boys, mainly under the guise of sex education classes he administered at KEEP, an annual nature camp the school ran in Kiyosato, Yamanashi Prefecture. One of Lessard’s victims, Teja Arboleda, has gone public about the abuse he suffered and is currently raising funds to produce a documentary titled “Ring Around the Collar” about the wider issue of sexual abuse at international Catholic schools and other institutions.