DALLAS — Vann Gilbert billed himself as a father figure and mentor who used dance to teach children how to express themselves. But police now believe the dance studio owner used that access to sexually molest some of his former dance students.
Gilbert, owner of the Mahogany Dance Theatre of Texas, is facing two counts of indecency with a child. He is being held in the Dallas County Jail. His bail totals $200,000. Each charge is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Gilbert is currently accused of molesting a former dance student nearly two decades ago. The former student, now 33, was 14 at the time.
The 53-year-old, who calls himself a “doctor of dance,” was taken into custody Tuesday afternoon, following a 90-minute standoff. Members of the Dallas police metro task force had come there to arrest him. The SWAT team was called in after he refused to come out.
According to his website, Gilbert attended Booker T. Washington High School and started the dance studio in 1978. The site says he worked with many community-based organizations, including the YMCA and St. Anthony Community Center.
He also claims that recording artist Erykah Badu was one of his former dance students.
Gilbert has appeared in news segments on WFAA several times to talk about his “Amazing Grace Program,” which he said helped children express the struggle and passion of the civil rights movement through dance.
“It’s a great form of expression,” he said on Good Morning Texas in an interview about seven years ago. “It allows them, most of the time, to discover a part of themselves that they didn’t know was there. [...] It’s in us innately. That’s a God-given thing to express.”
Police believe that was not all Vann Gilbert was expressing.
Court documents obtained by WFAA show the events that transpired Tuesday represented the culmination of an investigation that stretched for more than six months.
It began in August, when a relative of Gilbert’s sent an email to the Dallas Police Department.
She told investigators that she lived with Gilbert in the 1990s after high school graduation and had performed in his dance program. She said that Gilbert -- who goes by the nickname "Doc” -- had several boys living with him during that time.
“The witness stated the suspect wanted a strong male presence in the community and wanted to build a 100-man army with his dance studio,” the court records say.
Gilbert's relative told police that, at one point, she wanted to date one of the boys, but Gilbert became enraged and yelled that she was not “permitted to date any of the boys.”
“The witness stated after that, [Gilbert] began segregating the boys from the girls, never allowing them to sleep in the same house,” records state. “The witness stated the suspect called the boys 'the gardeners' and the girls, 'flowers.’”
The relative told police that one time, she knocked on his bedroom door and saw him with one of the boys, wearing nothing but boxer shorts. She told police he would use “religion and his own fatherly influence to manipulate and control the boys,” the records state.
Gilbert's relative provided police with the names of former students who had also lived with him. She reached out to some of the former students and she said they told her that Gilbert massaged them in the nude and had oral sex with him. She told police she came forward because she believed some of the boys may have been underage at the time.
Ultimately, police tracked down three former male students who provided accounts to police. Two of them were considered adults at the time of the alleged incidents.
The boy who was 14 at the time told police that that he first met Gilbert in 1997, while he was attending the Greiner Exploration Arts Academy. He said began dancing with Gilbert’s dance program at the Martin Luther King Library.
“The complainant stated the suspect would pick a boy to spend extra time with, and that boy would become his favorite,” the records state. “The complainant stated whoever the boy was would sleep with the suspect in his room and would get ‘special massages’ with anointing oil.”
The former student said that one month, Gilbert picked him as the favorite, taking him into a room and stripping him naked. He allegedly made him lie on a bed and then began rubbing his body -- including his genitals -- with oil.
“The complainant stated he would receive approximately 15-to-20 massages from the suspect, in which the suspect would rub his penis and genitals with oil,” records say. “The complainant stated the suspect used his influence as a father and mentor to seduce and take advantage of the boys in his dance studio. The complainant stated this experience has traumatized him and caused him to use drugs in order to cope with it all.”
Another of the former students, now 36, said that when he was 17, Gilbert recruited him from his church to become involved in his dance program.
“He stated he was shy and didn’t have a father figure in his life,” the records state. “The witness stated the suspect became the father figure he always wanted and presented himself as someone he could respect and trust. The witness stated the suspect used his vulnerabilities against him.”
He said he moved in with Gilbert and a few other boys in Gilbert’s apartment off Davis Street when he was in his mid-20s.
“The witness stated the suspect would talk to him and give him massages, but began seducing him with activity that would become progressively more sexual in nature,” records state.
He said they had about six encounters before he told him he was not was “comfortable doing this with his spiritual leader.”
A third former student, now 35, said he met Gilbert when he was 21 in 1999. He said he told him he was destined to be a part of his dance company. He said Gilbert gave him massages in the nude at his dance studio, then located in the 3900 block of Holmes in south Dallas.
That location is now a church.
Ruby Dean lives across the street and told News8 she remembered Gilbert and his dance studio being located there.
"There was a lot of young guys that would go over there – 2 or 3 women – but I would see mostly guys,” Dean says. "It's sad."
Court documents indicate Gilbert would befriend a different boy monthly and pay extra attention to him.
“The witness stated the suspect would pick a boy to be the special one to ‘keep close to him,’” according to the court records. “The witness stated all of the boys made a joke about it and asked, ‘Who’s on the rotation right now?'"