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outcomes of high profile day care sexual abuse cases of the 1980s

:McMartin Preschool
(Manhattan Beach, CA; 1986)

Background: In August 1983, Ray Buckey, a teacher at the preschool founded by his grandmother, Virginia McMartin, was accused of sexually abusing a 2-year-old boy. Buckey was released due to lack of evidence, and police wrote letters to notify 200 parents of children who attended the school of the allegation. Upon questioning from their parents and therapists, the children accused not only Ray, but his sister Peggy Ann, and other teachers of sexual abuse. The children also described bizarre satanic rituals in which the McMartins mutilated animals in hidden underground tunnels beneath the school. In 1984, Ray was rearrested, along with his sister, Peggy Ann, his mother, Peggy, an administrator at the school, his grandmother Virginia, and three other teachers.

Outcome: Charges were dropped against Virginia, Peggy Ann and the other teachers in 1986 because of a lack of evidence.

In April 1987, the trial of Ray and his mother Peggy began. It was to be the longest and most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history. Taped interviews of the children's testimony were shown to the jury. The trial ended in April 1989 with acquittals on some of the charges against Ray and a deadlocked jury on others. Peggy was acquitted on all counts. After the trial, members of the jury said that the videotapes of the children's testimony had prevented them from finding a guilty verdict, because although they thought the children might have been abused, they felt the children had been subjected to such suggestive interviewing, they could not discern what really had happened.

In 1990, Ray was tried a second time and the jury deadlocked on all counts. The prosecutors decided not to retry the case. By the time the case was over, Ray had spent five years in jail and his mother Peggy had spent two.

:Fells Acres
(Malden, MA; 1984)

Background: In 1984, a 5-year old boy told his uncle that Gerald Amirault, a handy man and bus driver at the Fells Acres day care center run by his mother, had touched his private parts. The boy's mother contacted state officials and Gerald was arrested several days later. A meeting was held between parents and state investigators, where the parents were encouraged to question their children about abuse at Fells Acres and to be persistent if the children initially did not disclose anything. Some children made allegations similar to the first boy's. The children also told stories which included being abused by a clown or robot in a "magic room" at the day care, and being forced to watch animals being killed. One girl claimed Gerald had penetrated her anus with a twelve-inch knife.

Gerald Amirault was charged with molesting 19 children, and his mother Violet Amirault and his sister Cheryl LeFave were charged with abusing 10 children.

Outcome: In 1986, Gerald Amirault was convicted and sentenced to 30 to 40 years in prison. The following year, Violet and Cheryl were convicted in a separate trial and each was sentenced to 8 to 20 years in prison. At both trials the children testified in an unprecedented seating arrangement, in which they sat directly in front of the jury with their backs to the defendants.

In 1995, after serving eight years in prison, Violet and Cheryl were freed on a successful appeal, claiming they did not receive a fair trial because they were denied the right to confront their accusers. Violet died in 1997.

In 1998, a judge ordered a new trial for Cheryl based on questions over whether the children's testimony had been tainted by suggestive questioning by prosecutors. However, in August 1999, Cheryl's conviction was reinstated by the Massachusetts State Supreme Court, which ruled that the questions over the children's testimony had been resolved at the original trial. In October 1999, based on the agreement of the prosecution and defense, a judge sentenced Cheryl to the time she had already served and she was permanently released.

Citing prosecutorial procedures that have since been discredited and a lack of physical evidence, the Massachusetts Parole Board unanimously recommended the commutation of Gerald Amirault's conviction in a 5-0 vote in July 2001. After an eight-month review, Massachusetts Acting Governor Jane Swift rejected the parole board's decision in February 2002. At a news conference, Swift said that there was no "overwhelming evidence" that contradicted the original conviction, and noted that the Massachusetts Supreme Court had twice upheld Amirault's conviction.

:Wee Care Nursery School
(Maplewood, NJ; 1988)

Background: While being examined at a doctor's office in April 1985, a nurse took the temperature of a 4-year-old boy with a rectal thermometer and the boy remarked, "That's what my teacher does to me at nap time at school." Suspecting abuse, the nurse reported her suspicions to authorities. After a two-month investigation in which police and social workers interviewed other children at the Wee Care Nursery School, and heard allegations of Kelly's forcing the children to lick peanut butter off her genitals and penetrating their rectums and vaginas with knives and forks, they concluded that 23-year old teacher Kelly Michaels had abused 51 students in her care.

Outcome: After an 11-month trial, Michaels was convicted in August 1988 of 115 counts of sexual abuse and sentenced to 47 years in prison. The children testified by closed-circuit television at the trial.

After serving five years in prison, Michaels was released upon a successful appeal in 1993. The following year, the New Jersey State Supreme Court upheld the appellate court's decision and declared that "the interviews of the children were highly improper and utilized coercive and unduly suggestive methods." Prosecutors ultimately decided not to retry the case, and the charges were dropped.

In 1996, Michaels filed a malicious prosecution lawsuit against prosecutors and state officials, arguing that they had violated her constitutional rights by persuading the children to give false testimony in her case. In January 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear her case under a federal civil rights statute; however Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, noting that the court's decision "leaves victims of egregious prosecutorial misconduct without a remedy." Michaels' lawsuit was remanded to Superior Court in New Jersey to seek damages under state law, and has yet to go to trial. Michaels is seeking $10 million in damages, although she has said that she would settle for an apology.

:Little Rascals Day Care Center
(Edenton, NC; 1989)

Background: In April 1989, Bob Kelly, who owned the Little Rascals Day Care Center with his wife Betsey, was arrested and charged with child sexual abuse. Betsey was arrested the following September, and five more arrests followed: Scott Privott, the owner of a local video store and friend of Bob Kelly; Shelley Stone, who taught four and five-year-olds at the day care; Dawn Wilson, a single mother who was the cook at the day care; Robin Byrum, who taught three and four-year-olds at the day care; and finally Darlene Bunch, who had no connection to the day care. (Her ex-husband, a police officer, had accused her boyfriend of molesting their young son and had won custody of the son. Then, apparently, the police showed her picture to some of the Little Rascals children, who identified her as a woman who took pictures of the abuse at the day care center.)

Outcome: Although the defense wanted to try all seven defendants at the same time, the court ordered that each be tried separately. Bob Kelly was first, and at his nine-month trial, 12 children testified not only about the sexual abuse charges, but also said babies had been killed at the daycare, children had been taken out on boats and thrown overboard, and children had been taken to outer space in a hot air balloon. After a three-week deliberation, the jury found Kelly guilty of 99 out of 100 counts, and he was sentenced to 12 consecutive life terms in prison.

Dawn Wilson was the next to go to court. She turned down two plea bargains offered by the prosecution before her trial began. At trial, four children testified against Wilson, and she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

In January 1994, Betsey Kelly, who had already spent two years in prison, accepted a plea of "no contest," and a sentence of seven years in prison. She served one more year in prison before being released.

Six months after Betsey's release, the Appellate Court of North Carolina overturned the convictions of Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson, saying that they did not receive a fair trial because of a series of legal errors by the prosecution. On May 23, 1997, the prosecution dropped all charges related to the Little Rascals case against the two. [Bob Kelly was indicted in April 1996 on a separate charge of sexual abuse against a 9-year-old girl who did not attend Little Rascals; prosecutors declined to pursue those charges in September 1999.]

Charges were eventually dropped against Shelly Stone, Darlene Harris and Robin Byrum. Byrum had spent one year in prison. After serving over three years in jail, Scott Privott had his bond reduced from $1 million to $50,000, and he was released. After a year of freedom, Scott Privott was offered a "no contest" plea which, he told FRONTLINE, he reluctantly accepted.

+Learn more about this case from FRONTLINE's Innocence Lost

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