The McMartin Preschool Scandal

When I sit down to research a case to blog I generally have at least a little information about the case.  In some case I know quite a lot.  Going into this one I felt like it fell into the latter category but I was very wrong.  As a teenager in the 1980's, especially one that kept up with current events and news, as well as being an adult that some say is obsessed with true crime, I of course know about what is called the "day care sex abuse hysteria" that occurred.  It was kind of hard to miss, especially when you added that to the added Satan Worshiping hysteria that often tied in with it. The McMartin Preschool Scandal fell into these categories and as I said I thought I knew quite a lot about this case, which in all honesty I did, but there was also so much more I did not know.  This turned from what I thought would be a quick case to research into a day and a half of research and one in which I have had to force myself to stop except to answer any questions I may have while compiling it all.

The McMartin Preschool was opened in 1966 in Manhattan Beach California by Virginia McMartin.  By the time of the scandal in the early 1980's Virginia's daughter, Peggy Buckey was the administrator at the school and there were several employees including two of Peggy's children, Peggy Ann and Raymond. Until that time there seemed to be no issues.  In fact, they had won awards for their teaching and care and was considered to be one of, if not the, best in the area and often had a long waiting list just to get in.  That all changed in August of 1983.

On August 12, 1983 a woman by the name of Judy Johnson contacted the police.  She claimed that her two year old son had attended the McMartin Preschool and had been molested by Raymond Buckey.  A few days later she called again claiming that her estranged husband had also molested their son. By most accounts I found the claim against the father was never looked into but the claim against Raymond was.  Judy's son was examined and interviewed. Most accounts say that her son could not pick Raymond Buckey out of a police line up and at least initially denied Raymond had touched him in any way.  That being said, despite any evidence, and the fact that Judy's stories began to not just border but totally cross the threshold of bizarre, Raymond was arrested on September 7, 1983.  By now Judy is claiming her son made claims that teachers had sacrificed animals, taken kids through secret tunnels to other locations to molest them, even to a church where a baby was sacrificed and the children were forced to drink blood.  One story involved children taken up in a hot air balloon on a trip.  It was discovered much later that Judy Johnson had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and suffered severely from mental illness, although in my opinion it should have been suspected much earlier. There will be more about her later as the case progresses.

It seems though that the arrest of Raymond Buckey was hush, hush.... at least for a full day.  The following day the police chief sent out a letter to over 200 past and present families of children who attended the preschool.  Within the letter the parents were informed of possible allegations against Raymond and were asked to questioned their children.  They were even given the questions to ask.   The parents were asked to keep the letter confidential and only discuss it with immediate family members but of course that did not happen and soon the word was out.... Raymond Buckey... and maybe others were molesting children at the McMartin Preschool.  

The media grabbed this and ran.  It has now been described at "Packed Journalism" in which no one really seemed to investigate anything or even get both sides of the story, just simply reported the police and prosecution side of things.  By March of 1984 not only were Virginia, her daughter Peggy, her grandchildren, Peggy Ann and Raymond charged with over 115 counts of child abuse (that would rise later, then drastically dwindle) but so were three other female teachers from the school.  They became known as the McMartin 7.  

So how did this go from one woman making some rather bizarre accusations without anything to back it up to possibly involving over 300 children against 7 people and spanning many many years?  Well, after the letter was sent out by the police chief and the hysteria started the prosecutors brought in  a company called Children's Institute International (henceforth known as CII).  CII was an abuse therapy clinic ran by a woman named Kee MacFarlane.  CII employed many therapists and so called doctors.  CII was asked to examine and interview the children.  For each interview with a child the session was video taped.  By the time CII was done they had over 360 children claiming they had been abused while a student at McMartin.  What became interesting later was that those same video tapes that CII made with the children ended up not only being the downfall of the prosecution and CII themselves but a boost to the defense. But, by then little mattered because the media and the voice of public opinion based on those media reports had spoken.  I would like to tell you that it became very clear what had happened in this case very early on and that all mistakes were fixed and everything was cleared up and everyone moved on with their lives.  Yes, I would like to say that, but I cannot.  The case itself drug on for nearly 7 years total, costing the taxpayers over $15 million dollars only to never convict anyone and have many believe the reports that came from the prosecutors.  Even today there are those who believe that a huge child abuse ring was going on at the McMartin school and that everyone got away with it.

The case did not just seem to drag on and on... it actually did.  Although Raymond was arrested in September and he, along with the six others were not indicted until the following March in 1984 the first big move involved the permanent closing of the school in January.  The following month the Curries (parents of a child) sued Virginia, Peggy and Raymond for assault and battery (among other things) and asked for a million dollars.  My research never said what came of this but I can only assume that it was deferred until a verdict and then dismissed at some point but I have known to be wrong in such matters despite finding no other information on it.  

Before the indictments on March 22, 1984 the impact was already showing as the LA police department conducted a number of raids on daycare centers in the area on March 11th.  This was only the first sign of things to come, not just for daycare workers in LA, or even California, but the entire country.  By December of that year it was a firestorm and as stated earlier the media did not help. That month ABC's 20/20 did an episode based on the prosecution side of the case and seemingly questioned nothing and stated things as facts.

By March of 1985 it seems that the parents of the children were tired of waiting for things to progress.  They spearheaded a project in which they were certain that if nothing else they would uncover the tunnels that some of the children had mentioned in their stories.  These stories varied but were supposedly under the school and had been used to transport the children outside the public eye. Investigators had looked into it a bit but like much of their other information they found nothing and the parents were convinced they would do it.  In fact they employed an archaeologist name E. Gary Stickel.  The information he found, or did not find is sketchy at best.  Some say that he did find those tunnels and substantiate the children's stories while others claim he found nothing.  The latter seems more true because had there been something found it would have been brought into the trial and the prosecution needed as much as they could get as far as evidence.  It was during this same month it seems that Judy Johnson had a major psychotic episode that required hospitalization. By most accounts that I could find the prosecution team knew not just about this episode but of prior issues by this point and had not released it to the defense.  This became an issue later.  

In 1986 a new prosecutor was elected and it was decided that all charges would be dropped against everyone, except Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son Raymond.  I tried to verify with my research to no avail but it appears that most, if not all of them had been in jail since this had began in early 1984, however, if I am wrong about this it was at this point that Peggy was given a bail of $1 million and Raymond was held without bail.  By this time there had already been a few prosecutors who had chosen to be taken off the case because they felt that a) the prosecutor was with holding evidence from the defense (which they were) and b) that the evidence was not there to say a crime had been committed. In late 1986 Judy Johnson would be found dead inside her home.  The cause of death was attributed to chronic alcoholism. Some say she always had a problem, others say that the stress and pressure from the case had caused her to over indulge.  Still there were others who said that due to her medications the alcohol had exasperated the situation.   It is uncertain as to what impact she would have had on the trial had she remained alive.  She was the person who had got the ball rolling in this case but her claims appeared to be outrageous and they apparently continued to get stranger as time went on.  Whether she would have been called as a witness is unclear but after her death her ex-husband, the father of their son, refused to allow his son to testify in the case.

By the time the trial FINALLY began in July of 1987 the case had been in preliminary hearings for almost two years already and it seems the prosecution case was getting weaker and weaker but yet they went on. Of the 360 children who had claimed to be abused in 1984 only 41 of them testified at the grand jury and pretrial.  Less than 12 would testify at the trial.  It seems that the reason the numbers dwindled so much was not because the prosecution wanted to make things easier or bundle things up quickly but because more and more they were apparently finding the children unreliable.  Keep in mind that this was a preschool so the children were all less than 5 or 6 when they attended.  Remember, Judy Johnson's son was only 2 when she made the accusations.  Some of the children were older when they testified obviously but it was still based on things that had supposedly occurred prior to entering regular school.  With this the amount of charges dropped to 65 each. The prosecutors could not just stop this case.  It had already caused a national outcry.  There were day care centers across the country being investigated, many owners and teachers had gone to trial.  Most of those ended in acquittals however, and there were more than a few that I read about that while they were convicted of the charges (almost always child abuse), a few years later the conviction would be reversed and either charges were dropped or acquittals given at new trials.  This was all about the "hysteria" that had been created and this case was the beginning of it all so there was no way it was not going to eventually go to trial.  

In the state's case they called 61 witnesses (9 of them children) and took over 8 months to present their case.  Kee MacFarlane, administrator of CII, herself was on the stand for 5 weeks.  Apparently throughout her testimony even the judge saw her credibility shattered.  Outside the presence of the jury he was quoted as saying that her credibility was becoming more and more of an issue.  But the prosecutors HAD to have her to prove their case.  I mean, it was CII that had not just interviewed the children but had also medically examined them and who better to put on the stand than the woman who ran it all (although there were apparently other therapists from CII that testified).  While on the stand MacFarlane explained the techniques used to interview the children.  Jury members were shown the videos that were made of these interviews. MacFarlane explained that during the interviews they used naked puppets, anatomically correct dolls and a method of telling the children what other children had said so they felt more comfortable in opening up about what they had experienced.  However, that is not necessarily what the jury saw, or that the defense pointed out from the videos.  What they saw was nearly every one of the children initially denying that anything happened to them at all; being given leading questions such as being asked about the tunnels and animal sacrifices and many of the other claims. But most of what they saw was children being led to give the answers the therapists wanted and being offered "rewards" and praise for doing so. One video showed a therapist telling a child that 183 other children had told "yucky secrets" and that all of the teachers at the school were "sick in the head" and deserved to be beaten up.

CII had also medically examined the children and the doctor from the center testified to what she saw.  The defense showed in their cross examination and in their own case that the things the CII doctor claimed were signs of abuse, especially those in the private areas of the children were in fact not signs that other doctors in the field saw as abuse and in fact the doctor from the center was the only one to claim that it was.  Some could argue that this would have been a case of one "expert" against another, something we see in trials every day. However, I have to gander to guess that considering how the case was going for the prosecution at this point they would have gone through hell and high water to find another doctor to collaborate this information and failed to do so.  

Some of the parents got on the stand to testify also.  Most of them stated that they had no reason to suspect that their child had been abused until they received the letter that the police chief had sent out in September of 1983. Even then some were not convinced until after the CII interviews.  At this point it appears that many of the parents decided that everything from bladder infections, to nightmares to even artwork their children drew were all indications that their child had been abused.  The prosecutors, with the help of CII, the media and even a few "experts" on ritual abuse had done their job in convincing these parents their children were abused while at the McMartin preschool. When MacFarlane was questioned by the defense as to how a case of this magnitude, with all of these allegations could have gone on for so many years without being detected her answer was that the children had all been too scared or suffered from what she called "denial syndrome."

One of the big claims that were made by the children was that they had played a gamed called "Naked Movie Star" and that they had been forced to be undressed and pictures were taken of them.  This claim apparently made it into the trial despite the fact that no pictures or proof of this ever happening was found.  They also spoke of the tunnels but once again, despite apparent extreme effort there was no evidence of this happening.  Some say the only tunnels at the school were above ground and part of the playground equipment that Peggy McMartin Buckey's husband had built and were far from being secluded or in any way as the children described.  

The prosecution I am sure thought they had an ace in the hole with a man named George Freeman. But, like so many other things with this case, this too all but blew up in their face.  Freeman had been a cell mate of Raymond Buckey's and testified that he had confessed to molesting the children and basically all the supposed evidence against him.  It was revealed that prior to testifying Freeman was facing many counts of perjury for cases that he had testified in against other inmates in order to garner favors or other things in jail. It was also revealed that a deal had been made that if he testified in the case against Raymond all of the other perjury charges would be dropped.  The question is not who would make that deal because that answer is obvious.  The bigger question is what kind of prosecutor would make this deal thinking that the information would not get out about Freeman's situation.  

The prosecution case took 15 months to present before the defense could start their case.  Their position was that the allegations were not only made up but even too bizarre to even consider and there was no evidence to back up the claims.  Both Peggy and Raymond testified at their trial and of course denied all charges.  In fact, Raymond, who was only a part time employee as it was would claim he was not even an employee during some of the children's enrollment. Now, to play a little bit of devil's advocate I could tell you that his father, Chuck, was also not an employ but since his wife and mother in law owned the place he was there a lot so it is not unreasonable to believe that just because Raymond may have not been an employee did not mean he did not have access to children.  When the prosecution had the opportunity to cross examine Raymond they seemed to focus on the fact they had found adult magazines belonging to him in a search of his home and the fact that he had stated there were times he did not wear underwear.  Neither of these issues had anything to do with the children or the claims that were made.  

The defense had their own parade of experts to present to the jury. They included doctors who claimed that CII had misled parents about the medical examinations and that there were no sign of child abuse, pointing out that some of the things the CII doctor claimed were in fact normal things. Others who specialized in child abuse cases and the interviewing of children showed evidence of how the techniques used by CII to obtain information from the children led to false memories as well as pointed out the children were often told to use their imagination which created false information.   

The jury finally received the case on November 2, 1989 but they took over two months to deliberate the case.  When they returned with their verdicts Peggy was acquitted on all counts.  Raymond was acquitted on all but 13 counts while the jury remained hung on the remaining counts  Raymond was finally freed on bail but of course the prosecution was going to retry him.  He was later retired on 8 of the 13 counts.  Once again there was a hung jury.  After seven years of investigating, having trials and spending and estimated $15 million of taxpayers money for no convictions the prosecutors decided to drop all charges.

This case did not really end in 1990.  There are still lasting effects from the case, both good and bad.  First the McMartin Preschool was never opened again and was demolished in 1991.  Virginia McMartin died in 1995 and her daughter Peggy died in 2000.  Raymond Buckey lost 5 years of his life.  The McMartin family lost jobs, homes and their life savings defending themselves.  The children involved were often put in therapy for years.  Most claim it was not because they were abused but because the parents had been convinced they were and all of the things involved with the trial and investigation.  

The allegations that were made scared day care workers across the country.  No longer were they comfortable with giving children hugs or touching them in any way for fear of being accused of things.  Insurance companies began raising rates for liability and many could not afford them and had to shut their doors. Investigations and charges were filed around the country and day care providers were justifiably scared.  

On the upside this case changed how children were interviewed and questioned in abuse cases.  Prosecutors fought hard to prevent video taping of interviews and only wanted to provide transcripts but for the most part failed in that effort. This case showed us that do not always tell the truth when it comes to abuse, as was once believed.  The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect's budget had become more and more as the McMartin case was moving through. Between 1983 and 1984 it went from 1.8 million to 7.2 million and by 1985 it was up to 15 million. Most of that went to the studies in the area of sexual abuse.  

The case was revisited in 2014 at the 30 year anniversary.  The children who were involved were now obviously adults.  Most that agreed to be interviewed stated they did not remember any specifics of being abuse but in the same respect believed that they had been but that was as far as they were willing to discuss things.  E. Gary Stickel, the archaeologist who would claim to parents that he found evidence of tunnels refused to really talk about this as did the former prosecutor, Lael Rubin.  When asked if she still felt the defendants from the case were guilty Rubin would only say "I'm not comfortable commenting on any of them at this point."  CII is still in the business of providing therapy to children but they no longer interview children, conduct medical examinations or make any determinations on abuse. 

The media spent the entire seven years of the investigation and trials believing everything they were told with little fact checking it seems.  It was later said that Lael Rubin became engaged to be married to a LA Times editor and that another reporter dated Kee MacFarlane from CII.  It has been speculated that at least their reporting was bias but as I said earlier it has been called a "packed journalism" mentality at the time.  Amazingly, or maybe not so, after the trials had ended without any convictions it seems that the media started back tracking and in essence doing their job.  Of course as the trials had gone on it seems that many, absent the prosecutors and many of the parents, began to see the flaws in the case and when it was over needed to take another stance to in effect distance themselves.  

While doing my research on this case I was overwhelmed with all of the information and sites available.  As with every case I try to look at as many as possible to not just piece together a story but to get all sides if I can.  I came across three very interesting sites.  The first was a "Ritual Abuse" site. The more and more I read of this particular site I was realizing just how contradictory it was to everything else I had read up to that point.  To be fair I am unsure who compiled the information for that site for the case or where the information came from but I felt like it was full of conspiracy theories.  On involved the fact of an unsolved murder of a woman from 1976 who's son went to the McMartin preschool.  It pointed out that not long after the indictments of the McMartin 7 were handed down in 1984 the murdered woman's husband had driven off a cliff and apparently killed himself.  The site also claimed that an ex-police officer named Paul Bynum had been hired by the defense as a private investigator at some point.  The site claims that Bynum uncovered evidence leading him to believe the charges were valid so he quit working for the defense.  According to them Bynum was supposed to testify for the prosecution in the trial but "mysteriously" committed "suicide" not long before that was to happen.  Of course they do not come out and say that the man was murdered by a specific person but they leave the idea hanging that he was.  For me the more that I read the less I could get on board with them and to be honest did not finish reading all the "information" they had.

Another interesting site I found was created by the brother of one of the parents who was very active in trying to prove the guilt of the defendants.  He claims on his site that his sister was wholly mentally unstable prior to the allegations that were made.  Now of course his information could be considered to be bias against his sister considering that as you read on you understand the resentment he holds towards his sister but he does make a few very interesting points.  One that stuck out to me was a statement that he made about how the school looked from the outside.  He claims that he walked by this school nearly every day at some point (he indicates it was near the time of when things started) and that the windows were always wide open to where anyone could see through them throughout the day.  He points out and pretty validly (if true) that if the things were going on in the school as was claimed they would have been more secret about things to which he did not see. Sounds like the defense may have had it more right than they thought.  There seems to be no way the things that were claimed could have gone on for as long as they did unnoticed especially if they did not care who saw inside.  The brother claims that his sister was behind most of the information that led to people not only believing that the supposed tunnels were found but also in spreading the "rumor" that several of the children tested positive for STD's.  Neither of these things were presented at trial and the only other place I saw mention of STD's was on the ritual abuse webpage. 

The last interesting site I found was all but an apology letter from one of the children, now adult man, for the role he played in the saga.  According to him, he knows for a fact he was not abused but knowingly lied about it to the CII interviewers.  This man had testified at the preliminary hearing but not the trial. He claims that he told stories not just because he knew that is what the interviewers wanted to hear but because he felt telling these things made him the "good son" basically and he was saving his younger siblings who also attended the preschool.  He claims that he struggled with this throughout the time and at one point actually told his mother that what he had said was untrue but that his mother had not believed him.  He said his mother and step-father still believe today that crimes were committed at the school and that he was involved and blame any issues they had with their family (the couple later divorced) on the McMartin's and their "action."  The man vehemently denies that anything happened at all, at least when it came to him as he correctly refused to speak for any other "victims."   

While the 80's, at least for me was a wonderful time, for many people, young and old they were not.  The issue of Satanic worshiping and abuse seemed to be all over.  Many infamous cases, or people involved in these issues, have been found.  The West Memphis Three case took place in 1993 while stories of satanic worshiping, especially in the Bible Belt south and played a role.  Susan Polk and her therapist husband, Felix, who Susan would later be convicted of murdering, were very much involved in the supposed exposing of Satan worshipers and rituals in the 1980s. Today it seems so arcane to most but it was very real, and very frightening at that time even to those who did not believe the allegations. 

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