The owner of the bar Small Wonder on Oakland's Grand Avenue, who reportedly fled to Mexico in late 2017 in order to avoid being tried in Minnesota on sexual assault charges, has returned to Oakland, fired the staff of the bar/restaurant, and plans to reopen it under his management.
Bay City News reports that Jason McLean returned to Oakland in mid-September and fired the staff of Small Wonder, some of whom had hoped to take control of the business if and when McLean's assets were seized by a court in Minnesota. Back in January, a civil trial against McLean in Minneapolis awarded $3.68 million in damages to a woman who claimed that McLean raped her in the 1980s when she was 15 years old and he was 29. And the court had previously issued a default judgement against McLean of $2.5 million when he failed to appear in court in 2017, as Eater reported at the time.
McLean was an actor and teacher at the Minneapolis-based Children's Theater Company (CTC) in the 1980s, and Minnesota Public Radio reports that allegations related to sexual abuse at CTC have been against some 20 individuals connected to the theater. Most notably, former artistic director John Clark Donahue pleaded guilty in a 1984 case involving sex abuse allegations brought by three boys who said Donahue abused them in the late 1970s. In total, as Bay City News notes, 17 former students at CTC have filed suits against the theater company since legislation was passed in 2013 lengthening the statute of limitations for sex-abuse civil cases in the state.
The civil case that ended in January represented just one of six suits brought by women who claim McLean raped or abused them at CTC.
McLean went on to found the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis, and a restaurant called Loring Pasta Bar. In 2013, McLean came to Oakland and opened a restaurant with a theatrical bent called Loring Cafe at 37 Grand Avenue — which the East Bay Express called "slightly tacky" and "a cross between a speakeasy, an old-timey carnival, and a scene from Alice in Wonderland" where the food was mostly an afterthought. He would later pivot the space to Small Wonder, a quirky bar and restaurant that often features live music.
McLean continues to deny any wrongdoing, and gave a statement to Bay City News saying, "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. I continue to maintain my innocence and hope that the Small Wonder will continue to provide me with an opportunity to demonstrate to the Bay Area my deserved reputation for integrity and excellence in the hospitality business."
Laura Stearns, the woman who brought the civil case against McLean, tells Minnesota Public Radio that she doesn't ever expect to see any of the $3.68 million judgement — which the court found was McLean's to pay, and not CTC's. "The fact that he has come back makes me believe that he has taken all of his resources and put them in places that we can’t get them," Stearns says.
The magazine Mpls.St.Paul published a damning piece about the allegations against McLean in 2018, and one woman who "dated" him when she was in her teens, Melissa Beneke, alleged that he had a pattern of wooing girls under the age of 18. McLean responded to the reporter's questions with a lengthy email explaining the road he took toward following his passion for cooking, in which he said, "The allegations against me were riding a tsunami of righteous-appearing assumptions, heavily biased in favor of any female who alleges victimization."
No criminal charges related to sexual assault claims have been brought against McLean because the alleged incidents happened too long ago.
News reports about McLean's return to Oakland apparently led to a number of angry posts on the Yelp page for Small Wonder, leading to Yelp temporarily disabling comment posting on the page.
According to signs posted outside the bar, McLean plans to reopen it as soon as he can hire a new staff.