The McMartin preschool trial was a day care sexual abuse case of the 1980s. Members of the McMartin family, who operated a preschool in California, were charged with numerous acts of sexual abuse of children in their care. After six years of criminal trials, no convictions were obtained, and all charges were dropped in 1990. Accusations were made in 1983. Arrests and the pretrial investigation ran from 1984 to 1987, and the trial ran from 1987 to 1990. It was the longest and most expensive criminal trial of its time, and is believed to have contributed to the satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s and 90s.
In 1983, Judy Johnson, mother of one of the Manhattan Beach
preschool's young students, complained to the police that her son had been sodomized
by her estranged husband and by McMartin teacher Ray Buckey, who was the grandson of school founder Virginia McMartin and son of administrator Peggy McMartin Buckey. The allegation ignored the fact that sexual abuse of a three-year-old in the manner alleged would have resulted in fatal injuries.
Johnson's belief began when her son had painful bowel movements. What happened next is still disputed. Some sources state that at that time, he denied her suggestion that his preschool teachers had molested him. One source stated that a hospital exam confirmed he was sodomized, and that he named a teacher at the school as the perpetrator.
In addition, she also made several more accusations, including that people at the daycare had sexual encounters with animals. Ray Buckey was questioned, but was not prosecuted due to lack of evidence. The police then sent an open letter to about 200 parents of students at the McMartin school, stating that their children might have been abused, and asking the parents to question their children:
September 8, 1983. Dear Parent: This Department is conducting a criminal investigation involving child molestation (288 P.C.) Ray Buckey, an employee of Virginia McMartin's Pre-School, was arrested September 7, 1983 by this Department. The following procedure is obviously an unpleasant one, but to protect the rights of your children as well as the rights of the accused, this inquiry is necessary for a complete investigation. Records indicate that your child has been or is currently a student at the pre-school. We are asking your assistance in this continuing investigation. Please question your child to see if he or she has been a witness to any crime or if he or she has been a victim. Our investigation indicates that possible criminal acts include: oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttock or chest area, and sodomy, possibly committed under the pretense of "taking the child's temperature." Also photos may have been taken of children without their clothing. Any information from your child regarding having ever observed Ray Buckey to leave a classroom alone with a child during any nap period, or if they have ever observed Ray Buckey tie up a child, is important. Please complete the enclosed information form and return it to this Department in the enclosed stamped return envelope as soon as possible. We will contact you if circumstances dictate same. We ask you to please keep this investigation strictly confidential because of the nature of the charges and the highly emotional effect it could have on our community. Please do not discuss this investigation with anyone outside your immediate family. Do not contact or discuss the investigation with Raymond Buckey, any member of the accused defendant's family, or employees connected with the McMartin Pre-School.
Johnson was diagnosed with and hospitalized for acute paranoid schizophrenia and in 1986 was found dead in her home from complications of chronic alcoholism before the preliminary hearing concluded.
Interviewing and examining the children
Several hundred children were then interviewed by the Children's Institute International
(CII), a Los Angeles
abuse therapy clinic. The interviewing techniques used during investigations of the allegations were highly suggestive and invited children to pretend or speculate about supposed events. By spring of 1984, it was claimed that 360 children had been abused with Kee MacFarlane receiving a total of $146,000 to interview and examine the children. Astrid Heppenstall Heger
performed medical examinations and took photos of minute scarring which she stated were caused by anal penetration. Journalist John Earl believes that her findings were based on unsubstantiated medical histories. Critics have alleged that the questioners asked the children leading questions
, repetitively, which, it is said, always yields positive responses from young children, making it impossible to know what the child actually experienced. Others believe that the questioning itself may have led to false memory syndrome
among the children who were questioned. Ultimately only 41 of the original 360 children testified during the grand jury and pre-trial hearings, and less than a dozen testified during the actual trial.
Videotapes of the interviews with children were reviewed by Dr. Michael Maloney, a British clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry, as an expert witness regarding the interviewing of children. Maloney was highly critical of the interviewing techniques used, referring to them as improper, coercive, directive, problematic, adult-directed in a way that forced the children to follow a rigid script and that "many of the kids' statements in the interviews were generated by the examiner. Transcripts and recordings of the interviews contained far more speech from adults than children, and demonstrated that despite the highly coercive interviewing techniques used, initially the children were resistant to interviewers' attempts to elicit disclosures. Recordings of these interviews were instrumental in the jury's refusal to convict by demonstrating how children could create their vivid and dramatic testimonies without having experienced the abuse. The techniques used were contrary to the existing guidelines in California for the investigation of cases involving children and child witnesses.
Some of the accusations were bizarre, overlapping with accusations that mirrored the just-starting satanic ritual abuse
moral panic. It was alleged that, in addition to having been sexually abused, they saw witches fly, traveled in a hot-air balloon, and were taken through underground tunnels. When shown a series of photographs by Danny Davis, the McMartins' lawyer, one child identified actor Chuck Norris
as one of the abusers. Some of the abuse was alleged to have occurred in secret tunnels beneath the school. Several investigations turned up evidence of old buildings on the site and other debris from before the school was built, but no evidence of any rooms was found. There were claims of orgies at car washes and airports, and of children being flushed down toilets to secret rooms where they would be abused, then cleaned up and presented back to their unsuspecting parents. Some children said they were made to play a game called "Naked Movie Star" in which they were photographed nude. During the trial, testimony from the children stated that the naked movie star game was actually a rhyming taunt used to tease other children, and had nothing to do with having naked pictures taken.
Johnson, who made the initial allegations, made bizarre claims about Raymond Buckey, including that he could fly. Though the prosecution asserted Johnson's mental illness was caused by the events of the trial, Johnson had admitted to them that she was mentally ill beforehand. Evidence of Johnson's mental illness was withheld from the defense for three years, and when provided were in the form of sanitized reports that excluded Johnson's bizarre statements, at the order of the prosecution. One of the original prosecutors, Glenn Stevens, left the case and stated that other prosecutors had withheld evidence from the defense, including the information that Johnson's son was unable to identify Ray Buckey in a series of photographs. Stevens also accused the deputy district attorney on the case of lying and withholding evidence from the court and defense lawyers in order to keep the Buckey's in jail and prevent access to exonerating evidence.
In March 1984, Virginia McMartin, Peggy McMartin Buckey, Ray Buckey, Ray's sister Peggy Ann Buckey and teachers Mary Ann Jackson, Bette Raidor, and Babette Spitler were charged with 208 counts of child abuse. In the 20 months of preliminary hearings, the prosecution, led by attorney Lael Rubin, presented their theory of sexual abuse
. The children's testimony during the preliminary hearings was inconsistent. Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder
, co-authors of the now-discredited satanic ritual abuse
autobiography Michelle Remembers
, met with the parents and children involved in the trial, and was believed by the initial prosecutor Glenn Stevens to have influenced the children's testimony. In 1986, a new district attorney called the evidence "incredibly weak," and dropped all charges against Virginia McMartin, Peggy Ann Buckey, Mary Ann Jackson, Bette Raidor and Babette Spitler. Peggy McMartin Buckey and Ray Buckey remained in custody awaiting trial; Peggy McMartin's bail had been set at $1 million and Ray Buckey had been denied bail.
In 1989, Peggy Anne Buckey's appeal to have her teaching credentials re-instated after their suspension was granted. The judge ruled that there was no credible evidence or corroboration to lead to the license being suspended, and that a review of the videotaped interviews with McMartin children "reveal[ed] a pronounced absence of any evidence implicating [Peggy Ann] in any wrongdoing and...raises additional doubts of credibility with respect to the children interviewed or with respect to the value of CII interviewing techniques themselves." The following day the credentialling board of Sacremento endorsed the ruling and restored Buckey's right to teach.
Perjury by confession witness
During the trial, George Freeman was called as a witness and testified that Ray Buckey had confessed to him while sharing a cell. Freeman later attempted to flee the country and confessed to perjury
in a series of other criminal cases in which he manufactured testimony in exchange for favorable treatment by the prosecution in other cases, in several instances creating false confessions of other inmates. In order to guarantee his testimony during the McMartin case, Freeman was given immunity to previous charges of perjury. Under immunity, Freeman admitted to fabricating Buckey's confession.
Acquittal and dismissal
In 1990, after three years of testimony and nine weeks of deliberation by the jury, Peggy McMartin Buckey was acquitted on all counts. Ray Buckey was cleared on 52 of 65 counts, and freed on bail after more than five years in jail. Nine of 11 jurors at a press conference following the trial stated that they believed the children had been molested but the evidence did not allow them to state who had committed the abuse beyond a reasonable doubt. Eleven out of the thirteen jurors who remained by the end of the trial voted to acquit Buckey of the charges; the refusal of the remaining two to vote for a not guilty verdict resulted in the deadlock. The media overwhelmingly focused on the two jurors who voted guilty at the expense of those who believed Buckey was not guilty. Buckey was retried later on six of the 13 counts, which produced another hung jury
. The prosecution then gave up trying to obtain a conviction, and the case was closed with all charges against Ray Buckey dismissed. He had been jailed for 5 years without ever being convicted of any wrongdoing.
, at the time a reporter for the Los Angeles ABC affiliate television station KABC
, reported on the case and the children's allegations. He presented an unchallenged view of the children's and parents' claims. Satz later entered into a romantic relationship with Kee MacFarlane, the social worker at the Children's Institute International, who was interviewing the children. Another instance of media conflict of interest occurred when David Rosenzweig, the editor at the Los Angeles Times
overseeing the coverage, became engaged to marry Lael Rubin, the prosecutor.
The media coverage of the trial was very negative, and skewed towards an uncritical acceptance of the prosecution's viewpoint. A writer for the Los Angeles Times wrote a series of articles discussing the flawed and skewed coverage presented by his own paper on the trial. It was only after the trial that coverage of the flaws in the evidence and events presented by witnesses and the prosecution were discussed.
The McMartin preschool was closed and the building was dismantled and several of the accused have died. In 2005 one of the children (now an adult) retracted the allegations of abuse.
Never did anything to me, and I never saw them doing anything. I said a lot of things that didn't happen. I lied. ... Anytime I would give them an answer that they didn't like, they would ask again and encourage me to give them the answer they were looking for. ... I felt uncomfortable and a little ashamed that I was being dishonest. But at the same time, being the type of person I was, whatever my parents wanted me to do, I would do.
In The Devil in The Nursery, Margaret Talbot for the New York Times summarized the case:
When you once believed something that now strikes you as absurd, even unhinged, it can be almost impossible to summon that feeling of credulity again. Maybe that is why it is easier for most of us to forget, rather than to try and explain, the Satanic-abuse scare that gripped this country in the early 80's — the myth that Devil-worshipers had set up shop in our day-care centers, where their clever adepts were raping and sodomizing children, practicing ritual sacrifice, shedding their clothes, drinking blood and eating feces, all unnoticed by parents, neighbors and the authorities.
In many states, laws were passed allowing children to testify on closed-circuit TV so the children would not be traumatized by facing the accused. The arrangement was supported in Maryland v. Craig
, in which the United States Supreme Court
ruled that closed circuit testimony was permissible where it was limited to circumstances with a likelihood that a minor may be harmed by testifying in open court. The case also influenced how very young children were questioned for evidence in court cases with concerns over their capacity for suggestibility and false memories
. The case and others like it also impacted the investigation of allegations that included young children. Normal police procedure is to record using video, tape or notes, interviews with alleged victims. The initial interviews with children by the CII were recorded, and demonstrated to the jury members in the trial the coercive and suggestive techniques used by CII staff to produce allegations. These interviews were instrumental in the jury members failing to produce a guilty verdict against Buckey, and several similar trials with similar interviewing techniques produced similarly not-guilty verdicts when juries were allowed to view the recordings. Because these records ended up being extremely valuable to the defence in similar cases, prosecutors and investigators began "abandoning their tape recorders and notepads" and a manual was produced for investigating child abuse cases that urged prosecutors and investigators to not record their interviews.
Continued allegations of secret tunnels
An excavation was undertaken in May 1990 by Gary Stickel who claimed he found evidence of tunnels under the McMartin Preschool using ground-penetrating radar
. Others have also disagreed with his conclusions; a 1995 article stated that the concrete slab floor was undisturbed except for a small patch where the sewer line was tapped into. Once the slab was removed, there was no sign of any materials to line or hold up any tunnels, and there would have been no way for the defendants to fill in the tunnels once the investigation began. The article concluded that disturbed soil under the slab was from the sewer line and construction fill buried under the slab before it was poured. Some dated fill material under the slab was from the year 1940. Another report concluded that based on the materials found during the excavation, including bottles, tin cans, plywood as well as the former owner's old mail box, a far likelier explanation than tunnels was a trash pit, dug by the former owner of the lot prior to the construction of the pre-school. Only three small items found near the edge of the concrete slab were dated after 1966, which was the year the pre-school was built. The report's author speculated that Stickel's conclusions were colored by his collaboration with the parents of the McMartin children.
Effects on child abuse research
Shortly after investigation into the McMartin charges began, the funds to research child sexual abuse greatly increased, notably through the budget allocated for the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN). The agency's budget increased from $1.8 million to $7.2 million between 1983 and 1984, increasing to $15 million in 1985, making it the greatest source of funding for child abuse and neglect in the United States. The majority of this budget went towards studies on sexual abuse with only $5 million going towards physical abuse and neglect. Federal funding was also used to arrange conferences on ritual abuse, providing an aura of respectability as well as allowing prosecutors to exchange tips on the best means of obtaining convictions. A portion of the funds also went to the publication of Behind the Playground Walls
, a book on the McMartin families. The book claimed to study the effects of "reported", rather than actual abuse and despite the trial failing to obtain convictions took an unabashedly believing approach to the subject that portrayed the subjects as victims of abuse. Another grant of $173,000 went to David Finkelhor
who used the funds to investigate allegations of day care sexual abuse throughout the country, combining the study of verified crimes by admitted pedophiles and accusations against mentally ill sons of day care operators with unverified accusations of satanic ritual abuse.