The McMartin Daycare Case
The True Victims
In the wave of hysteria during the 1980s, hundreds of people were arrested on the suspicion of child abuse, especially people working in daycare centers. In part, this was thanks to the therapists and investigators involved in the McMartin Preschool fiasco who announced on national talk shows and to Congress that a network of well-financed satanic ritual abusers was operating secretly across the country. Despite the fact that children were being coached, even coerced, to describe outrageous stories for which there was no corroborating physical evidence, and some of their tales bordered on the preposterous, suspected adults were convicted based on this testimony alone.
As the hysteria died down during the 90s, order was restored and some of the accused managed to repair their broken lives, but not all. A few people went to prison and there they have remained until recently.
One such man, John Stoll, has been locked up for 20 years. He was one of three men and a woman accused of molesting children at group sex parties in Bakersfield, California.
In that area, 46 people were arrested, alleged to be participating in from four to eight separate child abuse rings. Thirty were convicted, but 22 of them had their convictions reversed for reasons ranging from technicalities to prosecutorial misconduct. Some who were vindicated settled successful lawsuits against the county to the tune of several million dollars.
Of the eight remaining people, one died in prison and the rest served their time. Some were later identified as victims of false allegations, but others were not, despite the fact that a 1986 attorney general's review of many of these cases criticized poorly trained personnel and flawed interrogation techniques. Among those singled out, say news reports, were lead investigators on John Stoll's case.
It was Stoll's contention that his former wife started the allegations as payback over their bitter custody dispute for their son, Jed. While Jed steadfastly maintained that his father abused him, and still does, he cannot offer actual details or names of other children that he allegedly witnessed being abused. He was apparently unavailable for comment to news sources.
According to the Associated Press reports in February 2004, most of the six witnesses against Stoll have come forward to admit that they had lied about him. They were children at the time, never examined by physicians. Now they are adults. When contacted by investigators for the Innocence Project of the California Western School of Law, they admitted their deception. Four of them said they had been manipulated by investigators who nagged them during long interviews until, weary, they fabricated tales that seemed to take the heat off. When questioned recently, they affirmed that there had been no such incidents. A fifth person, who had been in years of therapy for troubles stemming from his alleged abuse, said he simply had no memory of the events either way.
To reporters, former accuser Eddie Sampley said, "I can't fathom what the authorities could have done, what finally pushed me over the edge. I feel this void inside, like a part of my life has been taken away." He believed the police had exploited him to get what they wanted, victimizing him and the other children as much as the adults who were convicted. Recanting his prior testimony was a relief, albeit one mixed with deep remorse as he acknowledged the damage he unwittingly did to Stoll's life.
Stoll, now 60, faces release next year but not vindication, which would categorize him as a sex offender for life and send him to state hospitals. He insisted in an interview that he wants to clear his name. His attorney from the Innocence Project says that absent any evidence, the recanted testimony should be sufficient to prove his factual innocence. His legal pursuit of this should be settled in May.
In another case covered in Boston area papers, prosecutors in Boston announced that they would not extend the imprisonment of a man convicted in 1986 of molesting eight children (some sources say nine). Gerald Amirault, 50, was working at his family's Fells Acre daycare center in Malden, MA, with his mother, Violet Amirault, and sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFavre. They supervised as many as 70 children at a time and had been in business for 18 years without a complaint.
Then one day in April 1984, Gerald, who ran errands and did maintenance for the school, was asked to change the pants of a boy who had wet himself, and that was the source of the initial allegations of abuse. When the boy was later discovered in sex play with his cousin, according to an Internet site (users.rcn.com/kyp/amirault.html), he offered accusations against Gerald.
That triggered a wide scale investigation in which, similar to the McMartin case, the police told parents of children at the school to question their kids. They brought in social workers, therapists, prosecutors, and a nurse to assist. Also similar to the McMartin case, the questions were leading and coercive, and anatomically correct dolls were improperly used. No child made a spontaneous confession but parents were told that they had probably been abused anyway. As one source put it, yes meant yes and no meant yes, so any response was indicative of abuse.
An experiment done in 1990 using the same techniques in the Amirault investigation drew forth false confessions from 75% of three-year-olds and 50% of a group of children ages four to six. The possible implantation of false memories has also been demonstrated in subsequent research.
But no one knew that during the 1986 trial. In fact, the prosecutors against the Amiraults consulted with the McMartin prosecution team for ideas. Eventually the children produced accusations against the Amirault family and three teachers. They also accused an imaginary man and even the nurse who had been questioning them. Only the Amiraults were charged.
The prosecution maintained that the Amiraults were producing and selling child pornography. However no pornographic photos were found. The children said that they had rehearsed their stories, and in court they told about being threatened by robots, killing dogs, being slashed with knives, and swallowing frogs.
All three members of the family were convicted. Gerald received a sentence of 30 to 40 years in prison, while in a separate trial the two women received sentences of eight to 20 years.
Amirault's sister and mother won temporary freedom in 1995 on appeal, and two years later Violet Amirault died from stomach cancer. Then Cheryl's conviction was reinstated in 1999, but a judge ruled that the eight years she had served was sufficient. That gave impetus to the movement to free Gerald Amirault, saying that his extended prison term was unfair. He was granted parole in October 2003 after 19 years served and was released in 2004, but several former witnesses, now adults, claimed that their stories were true. They and their parents were disappointed to learn about his release.
District Attorney Martha Coakley indicated that she lacked sufficient evidence to admit Amirault as a sexually dangerous person, but noted that after release his behavior will still be supervised under strict controls.