Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The McMartin Daycare Case

How it Began

In legal tradition, it is the province of the judge to determine whether an expert witness is truly an expert. In the case of one of the longest trials in American history, a better judgment call on that score could have prevented horrendous damage.

Virginia McMartin
Virginia McMartin

Virginia McMartin, 79, lived in the small oceanfront community of Manhattan Beach, California, just south of Los Angeles. She had opened a preschool on the main drag and hired members of her family and church to help build and run it. Her daughter, Peggy Buckey, 59, was the administrator. The school was considered so exemplary that the town had given Virginia an award.

Then one day in 1983, according to Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker in Satan's Silence, a woman named Judy Johnson dropped off her two-year-old son Matthew at the daycare center. They center was full and had already told Johnson so when she called, but she left him there in the yard anyway. There was discord among the staff whether to accept him, but ultimately they did. It would be the single most regrettable act they would ever do.

Judy, separated from her husband, mentally unbalanced and struggling to make ends meet, became obsessed with Matthew's anus. He said it hurt him to have bowel movements, so she took him to a doctor, who declined to examine him. On August 11, she examined Matthew in the morning and he seemed okay. However, when he returned home from the preschool, she claimed, his anus was red and itchy. She did not associate it with his diarrhea. Instead, she began to perceive something more nefarious: She believed that Ray Buckey, the only male teacher at the school, was abusing her son.

Peggy McMartin Buckey
Peggy McMartin Buckey

Judy confronted Matthew, asking him quite directly if Ray Buckey had done something to him. Matthew denied it. She kept up this line of questioning, which got her nowhere, so she switched tactics.

Since her son was playing doctor and giving people "injections," she asked Matthew if Ray had ever done that to him. Again, he said no. However, he did admit that Ray had taken his temperature, and Judy Johnson jumped to the conclusion that this was a disguised form of sexual abuse. She took Matthew to the hospital for a rectal examination.

From there, reports are conflicting. Some say that there was no evidence of actual sexual abuse, while others say that Matthew admitted that he had seen Ray Buckey's penis and that Ray had photographed him. Judy contacted the police.

This was not the first report about child abuse in a daycare center, so the authorities were determined to find out what was going on. Judy spoke on her son's behalf, claiming that he had been photographed naked and tied up. Not only that, he'd seen this done to other children as well. Judy was told to take Matthew to some specialists in child abuse at Children's Institute International (CII) at UCLA.

Unfortunately, the person who examined him was an inexperienced intern. She saw the redness and accepted Judy's interpretation. Based on no real evidence and on no experience with such injuries, the intern diagnosed penile penetration as the cause of the irritation. Thus began the terrible saga that was to be labeled as America's 20th century witch-hunt.

 

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