Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The McMartin Daycare Case

The Investigation Expands

McMartin Preschool sign
McMartin Preschool sign

The DA's office, led by a passionate assistant DA, Lael Rubin, looked for more children victims of the McMartin staff. The word spread quickly and McMartin family members were often attacked on the street. The Eberles report in The Abuse of Innocence that Peggy Buckey was actually stabbed in the crotch. People wrote terrible graffiti on the school building and then someone set it on fire. Death threats were the norm — even against those parents who had children there but who expressed doubts about the allegations.

In the HBO film made from the records of this case, the grand jury heard the evidence and indicted the entire staff of seven people with more than 150 counts: Ray Buckey, his mother Peggy, his sister Peggy Ann, his grandmother Virgina, and three female teachers, two of whom were over 50. The DA added more counts, bringing the total to 208. They were imprisoned in April 1978. They all depleted their savings to finance defense lawyers.

The prosecutor claimed that the defendants had threatened the parents and children, so that made them a danger to the community. Inexplicably and without grounds, the judge accepted the conspiracy theory and denied bail. Next, she launched the longest preliminary hearing on record — 19 months, at the cost of $4 million. Virginia McMartin was the only person allowed to post bail, and against her was only a single charge: conspiracy.

The defendants were subject to frequent abuse and terror while in prison. (In the hierarchy of convict society, child sexual abusers are at the lowest rung.) Guards overlooked the abuse and sometimes even added to it. Although they weren't convicted, they were treated as if they were.

Back in Manhattan Beach, parents drove their children around and had them point out homes and businesses where they had been taken and abused. Paranoia swept the town and everyone kept an eye on people they didn't know — and sometimes people they did. One woman said that the Mayor's wife was riding with corpses in her car.

More children were gathered and taken to CII for counseling. They were urged to reveal their "secrets," and most said they had none. But no did not mean "no"; rather it was an indicator of repressed memories. The more adults told the children of the accusations about the McMartin staff, the more the children thought about those teachers and even began to dream about them, and to have nightmares. This, too, was taken as a sign of abuse.

They were learning words they never knew and were using them in bizarre contexts, but just the fact that they were talking about nipples, vaginas and penises told the adults — who had supplied them — that the children had been exposed. One child told about eating Ray's feces with chocolate sauce and drinking his urine. Then she was allegedly forced to touch corpses.

Princeton professor Elaine Showalter, in Hystories, her book about social contagion, points out that everything the McMartin children said was common to what children elsewhere were saying about day care molestation. It was fed by television and adults who believed in satanic ritual abuse — an allegedly widespread activity investigated by the FBI. They found no evidence to support a single complaint.

As investigators looked for corroboration for the children's reports, some of the DA's staff were beginning to have a few doubts. They wondered how it could be that the teachers were slaughtering animals as large as horses, taking children into hidden tunnels and locked churches and public markets, and taking so many naked photos without a single piece of hard evidence turning up.

A few people read the letters of Judy Johnson and questioned her mental state, but no one stopped to consider that paranoid schizophrenia might have been the cause of the hysteria. Johnson began to name other people as molesters of her child. Then she claimed that someone had raped her dog. She wrote one letter admitting that she did not know fantasy from reality — something the prosecution marked as a paper to be kept from the defense team. At this point, the authorities just ignored the woman. They wanted her to diminish in significance so they could get on with the more serious work of bringing the child molesters to justice.

An ABC television reporter, Walter Satz, began breaking story after story about the case. No one understood how he got them. He aired the first official report in February of 1984, to the chagrin of his competitors.

Satz had taken the lead in lurid descriptions in Los Angeles during the rampage of the Hillside Stranglers, Kenneth Bianci and Angelo Buono, during the 1970s. He now reported the children's tales of rape and animal sacrifice as truth and he wrote with a presumption of guilt against the alleged perpetrators. He fuelled the hysteria with metaphors of innocence ravaged. Other reporters took up the crusade.

DA Philobosian was quoted in one account that the true purpose of the McMartin School was to procure young children for adult pleasures. An assistant DA insisted that there were millions of pornographic photographs. But no one ever produced them. The FBI searched; the agents found nothing.

Kee MacFarlane
Kee MacFarlane

CII's Kee MacFarlane was now telling the world about her theories of widespread child-molestation rings. Appearing at a congressional hearing, MacFarlane cited a current rhyme children were telling each other, "Naked Movie Stars", as concrete evidence of the child abuse conspiracy. The people in this organization, she said, had great legal and financial resources — in part, from selling children for sex — and were clever enough to conceal themselves.

National magazines and television shows joined the fray, assuming the guilt of the defendants long before trial. The McMartin Preschool was termed a "sexual house of horrors." Television "hosts" exchanged commentary, clucking over the damage to the children and how they would never get over it. In short, irresponsible journalism reigned. It seemed that in cases that involved innocent children, such speculation was justified, no matter who it might harm.

By 1985, children had spread their accusations from the McMartin staff to neighbors, sports coaches and babysitters. But no other arrests were made. The hysteria had fed on itself, facts be damned.


We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'