The McMartin Preschool |
Fells Acres Day School |
Wee Care Nursery
Country Walk |
The Bronx Five |
The McMartin Preschool case was one of the earliest and largest child sexual
abuse cases in this country. Although none of those charged were ever
convicted, the 28-month trial was the longest and costliest criminal
prosecution in U.S. history. This case is often cited as triggering the wave of
pre-school sexual abuse cases during the mid-1980s.
The case began in August 1983 when the mother of a 2 1/2 year-old boy reported
to police that her son had been abused by Raymond Buckey at the McMartin
Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, an affluent community on
Santa Monica Bay. The school had been founded by Ray's grandmother, Virginia
McMartin, in the mid-sixties. His mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, was an
administrator, and his sister, Peggy Ann Buckey was a public school teacher who
helped out at the pre-school during school vacations. Ray was the only male
teacher at the preschool.
After the initial accusation, Ray was arrested, but released due to lack of
evidence. The mother continued her allegations, claiming that her son returned
home from pre-school with his anus red and sore and surmising from that that he
had been sodomized, and claiming that he had witnessed bizarre satanic rituals
at the school. At the beginning of the investigation, police wrote letters to
200 parents of current and former students telling them that the pre-school was
being investigated and questioning them about possible molestation of their
After the letters went out, parents began questioning their children and the
children began telling stories of abuse at the preschool; that they had been
touched inappropriately, that their pictures had been taken, that they had had
been forced to engage in anal and oral sex, and forced to play a game called
"Naked Movie Star."
Dozens of the children were interviewed and examined by therapists
specializing in diagnosing sexual abuse. They implicated Peggy Ann Buckey and
other teachers as well as Ray. As time went on, the accusations mushroomed from
sexual abuse to include stories of bizarre satanic rituals, where the McMartins
mutilated animals and forced the children to touch corpses, in hidden
underground passageways beneath the school. No such passageways were ever
found. Some of the children's interviews were videotaped and shown to jurors
In March 1984, police
rearrested Ray along with his sister Peggy Ann, his mother, Peggy, and
grandmother Virginia, as well as three other teachers. Charges against
Virginia, Peggy, and the other teachers were dropped in 1986 for lack of
The first trial of Ray and his mother began in April 1987 and ended in April
1989 with acquittals on some counts and a deadlocked jury on others. Ray was
tried a second time, and in 1990 another jury was deadlocked on all counts. The
prosecutors chose not to retry him. Ray had spent five years in jail and Peggy
had spent two.
The lengthy and sensational McMartin case drew attention from the national
media, and is still cited today as a symbol of the dangers and difficulty of
using children's testimony. Some jurors in the first trial, when interviewed
after the verdict, said that it was the videotapes of the interviews with the
children that had prevented them from finding the McMartins guilty. They said
that they believed that some of the children had been abused, but that the
interviewing techniques had been so suggestive that they had not been able to
discern what really happened.
Violet Amirault had been running the Fells Acres Day care center for
almost 20 years with her children and five other teachers when her son Gerald
Amirault was accused of abusing children in their care. Gerald was not a
teacher, but helped out at the school as a handy man and bus driver.
The incident that prompted a large scale investigation and two trials with
multiple appeals occurred in 1984, when a 5 1/2 year old boy told his uncle
that Gerald had touched his private parts. According to Gerald, the boy had wet
his pants, and in order to help out the boy's teacher, who was busy, Gerald
took the boy into the bathroom, dried him off and gave him a fresh change of
The boy's mother claims that soon after the incident, he began displaying
disturbing behavior, wetting his bed, baby-talk, chronic masturbation and
acting out sexually with his younger brother. She became concerned and asked
her brother, who had been sexually abused as a child, to talk to her son.
During a walk in the park, the boy told his uncle that while he was at school,
Gerald had pulled down his pants and touched his penis.
The mother started questioning the boy about what
happened to him at day care. Eventually, he told her that Gerald often took him
to a "secret room" with a bed in it, or to the park, where he would undress the
boy and fondle his penis. He also said that Gerald put his penis into the boy's
mouth and rectum and indicated that other children were abused.
The boy's mother called the state's child abuse hot line, and Gerald was
arrested a few days later, accused of raping a child. The school was closed
three days later.
On September 12, 1984, a meeting was held at the town police headquarters.
About 65 parents gathered with police and representatives of the state
investigative agencies to discuss the situation at Fells Acres. Police
encouraged the parents to question their children about what happened at Fells
Acres, and to be persistent if the children did not initially disclose abuse.
They asked parents to question their children about the existence of a "magic
room" and a clown, and advised them of behavioral symptoms beleived to be
consistent with sexual abuse.
After this meeting, more children began to disclose stories similar to the
first boy's. Parents, even some who had not been present at the controversial
meeting, began noticing emotional and physical disturbances and sexualized play
among many of the children who had been at Fells Acres. Children started to tell stories of abuse in a "magic room" by a
clown or a robot. One girl said Gerald had penetrated her anus with a twelve
inch knife. Other children claimed that they had been raped by a clown, tied to
trees while naked, photographed, and forced to watch animals being killed.
Eventually, 41 children aged three to six years old made accusations of abuse
against the Amiraults. Gerald was charged with molesting 19 children, Violet
and Cheryl, his sister, with abusing 10.
The Amiraults were tried in two separate proceedings; Gerald in 1986 and the
two women in 1987. The testimony of nine children was used in Gerald's case;
four children testified against Cheryl and Violet. In both trials, the children
testified in an unprecedented seating arrangement. They sat in special
child-sized chairs and desks directly in front of the jury. The defendants were
placed off to the side, so that the jury could see them but they could not make
eye contact with the children. The unusual arrangment was devised to reduce the
trauma of testifying for the children. Later, members of both juries said that
the children's testimony was a major influence in their decisions to convict
In addition to the testimony of the children, prosecutors also pointed to
physical evidence of abuse on five of the 10 children, citing vulvitis,
vaginitis, a small scar on one girl's hymen and "well-healed anal fissures" on
All of the Amiraults were convicted; Violet and Cheryl were sentenced to 8-20
years in prison, Gerald to 30-40.
In 1995, after 8 years in prison, Cheryl and Violet were released when
the State Superior Court overturned their conviction and granted them a right
to a new trial based on the unusual seating arrangement of the children,
finding that the arrangement had violated their right to confront their
accusers face to face. A different judge, the one who had initially approved of
the seating arrangement in the 1986 trial, rejected a similar argument in
However, in March 1997, two years after their release, the State Supreme Court
vacated the order for a new trial, and reinstated Cheryl and Violet's
convictions, citing the need for finality in criminal proceedings and finding
that the defendants did not sufficiently prove that there had been a
miscarriage of justice. The court did note that some of the original
investigatory practices were unsatisfactory and that the original seating
arrangement violated the Amiraults' constitutional rights, but said that since
the Amiraults did not raise the constitutional issue in the first trial, "the
mere fact that, if the processes were redone, there might be a differing
outcome, or that some lingering doubt about the first outcome may remain,
cannot be a sufficient reason to reopen what society has a right to consider
In April, 1997, the Amiraults' lawyers filed a motion for a rehearing, asking
the State Supreme Court to reconsider its decision. The following month a lower court judge
ordered a new trial for Violet and Cheryl Amirault. They were released on bail, and Violet died of cancer months later.
In 1988, 23 year-old Kelly Michaels was convicted of 115 counts of
sexual abuse against 20 children in her care at the Wee Care Nursery School in
Maplewood, New Jersey.
The case began in April 1985, when a four year-old boy was being examined at a
pediatrician's office. The nurse rubbed his back and took his temperature with
a rectal thermometer. He did not seem upset, but remarked to her
"that's what my teacher does to me at nap time at school." The nurse suspected
that he was being abused at the day care center, and immediately reported her
suspicions to authorities.
Police and social work investigators began interviewing Wee Care children.
After a two-month investigation, they concluded that Kelly had abused all 51
students in her care. The accusations included Kelly forcing the
children to have sex with her and lick peanut butter off her genitals,
penetrating their rectums and vaginas with knives and forks, and forcing them
to eat feces and urine.
In May, 1985, police questioned Kelly about the alleged abuse for nine hours,
after she had waived her Miranda rights. She denied all the accusations and
passed a polygraph test. The investigation continued, however.
Kelly was convicted in August, 1988, after an 11-month trial. She was
sentenced to 47 years in prison and served five of those years before a
successful appeal in 1993. The appellate court ruled that she
did not receive a fair trial, in part because of the way the children were
questioned, both by the judge and the initial investigators. During the trial,
the judge questioned the children in his chambers while the jury watched on
closed circuit TV. He played ball with them and held them on his lap; sometimes
he whispered in their ears and asked them to whisper answers back to him.
Kelly was set free on $75,000 bail after her conviction was overturned to
await the prosecutors' decision on whether to retry her. After a year and a
half, charges were dropped and prosecutors declined to retry her.
In 1984, Frank Fuster and his wife, Ileana, were accused of sexually molesting numerous children that Ileana cared for in their suburban Miami home. The case, known as Country Walk, triggered a string of highly publicized day-care sex abuse prosecutions in Dade County, where the States Attorney was Janet Reno.
The abuse case started when a 3 year-old boy asked his mother to "kiss my body" when she was giving him a bath. He said, "Ileana kisses all the babies' bodies." The mother became concerned, and reported the comments to the Dade County child protection authorities. Frank Fuster, a 35 year old Cuban immigrant, quickly became a suspect. He had previously been convicted for manslaughter (he served four years) and for fondling a 9 year old (he was placed on probation).
Reno brought in Joseph and Laurie Braga, a husband and wife child-development team, to evalute more than three dozen children who had been in Ileana's care. At first, none of the children came forward to implicate the Fusters, but after repeated questioning, the children accused the Fusters of a number of abuses, including anal and oral sex, production of child pornography, forcing the children to take drugs, mutilation of animals and satanic rituals.
Reno's office built its case against the Fusters based on the testimony of children, one specific medical test suggesting abuse and a confession from Ileana. But, serious questions have been raised about all three elements.
The video-taped evaluations of children conducted by the Braga's has received repeated scrutiny from child psychologists who, based on more contemporary research, argue the methods utilized by the Bragas (who were not psychologists) were highly leading, suggestive and unreliable. Another Dade County conviction in which Laurie Braga's evaluations were instrumental, the case of Grant Snowden, was ultimately overturned by a Federal Appeals Court.
The only child who showed physical evidence of abuse was Frank Fuster's son, who tested positive for gonorrhea of the throat. However, the critical lab evidence was destroyed after just three days and before the defense had any opportunity to retest. In addition, a number of questions have been raised about the reliability of the particular testing procedures used by the lab at that time.
For many months, both the Fusters maintained their innocence. When the case was brought to trial, Ileana's attorney decided to sever their cases. Reno's office offered her a reduced sentence in exchange for a confession that implicated her husband. Ileana at first refused, and was subjected to what many critics would later condemn as questionable interviewing techniques in an attempt to elicit a statement of guilt from her. She was kept in solitary confinement for weeks, and visited by a series of psychologists and therapists, including two from Behavior Changers, Inc., who used relaxation techniques to help Ileana "recover memories." Some experts believe such techniques can elicit unreliable hypnotic recollections (testimony from individuals that have been hypnotized is not allowed in Florida).
Billing records indicate that Ileana was visited nearly 30 times by the Behavior Changers during the months of August and September, 1985. At the end of the "treatments," Ileana pleaded guilty, but stated to the court,"I am pleading guilty not because I feel guilty, but because I think it's the best interest ... for the children and for the court and for all the people that are working on the case. I am innocent of all these charges. I wouldn't have done anything to harm any children.'"
Based on the evidence presented at trial, primarily the children's testimony and Ileana's confession, Frank Fuster was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Ileana served three years of a 10-year sentence and was then deported to Honduras.
While in Honduras, however, Ileana recanted her confession. She gave a sworn statement to Frank Fuster's attorney in 1994, describing in detail the "visualization" techniques employed by Behavior Changers to recover her memory and reasserting, as she had originally, that neither she nor her husband had commited any abuse of the children. Shortly after her statement became public, however, Ileana retracted her recantation.
Frank Fuster continues to serve his life sentence, while awaiting appeal to the Federal courts.
One of the biggest, and most recent, child sexual abuse cases occurred in
Wenatchee, Washington, in 1995. Unlike most of the other cases reviewed here,
it did not center around a full-time day care center. However, the case shares
many characteristics with the day care cases.
Wenatchee is a town of 55,000 and is 150 miles east of Seattle. Pastor Robert
Roberson, a lay minister, ran the East Wenatchee Pentecostal Church of God
House of Prayer. He and his wife Connie were arrested on 22 counts of allegedly
raping and molesting children at their house and at during Bible classes at the
The arrests were part of the prosecution of what police and district attorneys
believed to be a huge sex ring in Wenatchee comprising dozens of pedophiles who
preyed on innocent children, forcing them to participate in group sex with
adults and each other, and in exchanging their own children for sex. In
addition to the Robersons, 26 others were charged, including the bus driver for
By the end of a series of trials, nineteen were sent to prison: the 14 who
pleaded guilty and five who were convicted. Three others were acquitted, and
charges were dropped or greatly reduced against five more.
It started in the spring of 1994 when a 9 year-old girl was placed in foster
care with Luci and Bob Perez. Bob was the city's chief sex-crimes
investigator. He was currently investigating a series of sexual abuse cases
which he initially thought were unrelated. The Perez's foster girl had come
from a poor household; her father was illiterate, and her mother had an IQ of
58. She had previously testified in a trial resulting in the conviction of a
friend of the family who had molested her.
In the fall of 1995, she told Perez that her parents had molested her and her
siblings. The story was confirmed by some of the siblings, and the mother
confessed. She and her husband pled guilty and were sentenced to prison. Soon
after they were imprisoned, the girl made further accusations about other
members of the community. She told Perez of child swapping orgies where adults
had abused children in various locations around Wenatchee, including the
Robersons' church, from 1988 to 1994. She said adults would take children six
at a time to a room and took turns having sex with them.
Investigators and the media began to refer to the sex ring as 'The
Circle." It allegedly consisted of two dozen adults who routinely abused 50
children. Eventually, as the charges mounted, The Circle was said to have over
100 members, who were accused of literally thousands of counts of abuse.
At trial, the case against the Robersons was based on the testimony of Bob
Perez's foster daughter, a 13 year-old friend of hers, and a 35 year-old woman
who had been a member of the Robersons church. The woman told prosecutors that
she had participated in the sex ring activities at the church, but later
recanted, telling a Spokane television station that she had been pressured into
the confession by Perez and his investigative team.
On December 11, 1995, the Robersons were acquitted on all 14 counts of abuse.
They had been in jail for nine months. Nineteen of the other defendants
remained in jail, however.
The town, which had been deeply shaken, attempted to recover. However, in June
1996, Perez's foster daughter, by then 13, recanted her testimony. She ran away
from her current foster home to her grandmother's house, where she called
Pastor Roberson and apologized for the accusations she had made against him.
She then called a local TV station and in a 1 1/2 hour videotaped statement
officially recanted her earlier stories of abuse, saying that she had been
pressured by Perez. She denied ever having been sexually abused or witnessing
any buse of anyone else.
Some of the defendants filed appeals based on her recantation. Many of those
acquitted or with charges dismissed filed civil suits for wrongful prosecution
against Perez and other investigative officials.
In a series of trials in the Bronx led by prosecutor Mario Merola, five
men, including Nathaniel Grady, a 47 year-old Methodist minister, were
convicted of sexually abusing children in day care centers throughout the
Grady was accused of sexually molesting 6 three year-olds at nap time at the
Westchester-Tremont Day Care Center run by his church. He was convicted after
a 13-week trial. The primary witness
against Grady was a three year-old boy. There were no
notes or videotapes recording the hours of interviews with the boy. 26
character witnesses testified at his trial, including a bishop, a judge, and
the Yonkers police commissioner. Nonetheless, he was convicted on January 20,
1986, and sentenced to 45 years in prison.
In addition to the case against Grady, Merola pursued investigations against
three men who had worked at the PRACA Day Care Center: Albert Algerin, 21;
Jesus Torres, 29, and Franklin Beauchamp, 27. and Alberto Ramos worked at the
Concourse Day Care Center. In August 1984, a mother approached the DA's
office, claiming that her four year-old daughter had been abused at the center. In interviews with the police, the little girl named the three
men as her abusers. Based on her testimony as well as that of other children, all three men were convicted and imprisoned with
Alberto Ramos was a 21 year-old college student working at the Concourse Day
Care Center. He was accused and convicted of raping a five year-old girl.
Critics of the prosecutors noted that during his trial, prosecutors did not
reveal potentially exonerating evidence to the defense: the fact that in her
first interview, the girl denied that he had raped her, that she often
masturbated at the day care center which could have explained her vaginal
irritation, and the fact that she was often exposed to adult movies on
television, which could have expalined her inappropriate sexual knowledge.
All five men were imprisoned during the summer of 1986, when the family of one
of them - Franklin Beauchamp - brought his case to the attention of attorney
Joel Rudin. Rudin considered his conviction an unfair "product of a very ambitious prosecutor who saw a good story
and jumped on a national bandwagon." Rudin submitted an appeal for
Beauchamp in which he claimed, among other things, that the indictment
had been so vague that it was impossible to prepare an adequate defense. In May
1989, the State Supreme Court overturned the conviction, asserting in the
opinion that the original indictment had been "duplicitous."
The four remaining defendants eventually had their convictions overturned as
well. Grady was the last to be freed, in the fall of 1996, after spending more
than 10 years in prison. In 1987, the prosecutor Mario Merola died, and his
successor, Robert Johnson, declined to re-prosecute any of the cases.
Dale Akiki was found innocent of 35 counts of child abuse and kidnapping in
1993. The highly publicized acquittal was viewed by some commentators as
symbolic of the move away from a national wave of hysteria about satanic and
ritual abuse. Ten years after the McMartin case, the public, and jurors, seem
to be more skeptical of cases based primarily on children's testimony.
Akiki, 36, was recently married when he was arrested in May 1991. He and his
wife acted as volunteer baby-sitters at the Faith Chapel in Spring Valley,
California. On Sundays, they watched the children while their parents were
attending services next door.
Akiki suffered from a rare genetic disorder -- Noonan's syndrome -- which left
him physically deformed. He had droopy eyelids, club feet, a concave chest and
wide, sagging ears. Some of the children were afraid of his appearance, and
parents reportedly had complained that he was an inappropriate choice for a
He was charged with multiple counts of abuse and kidnapping. The accusations
started when a young girl complained to her mother that Akiki, his wife, and
another volunteer sitter had put her in a timeout chair for calling another
girl names. Later, she told her mother that "He [Akiki] showed me him's penis."
The mother reported this comment to the police, and an investigation was
After numerous interviews, nine other children came forth with accusations
that Akiki had killed animals and drunk their blood in front of the children,
and engaged in other satanic and sexual rituals. During the course of the
investigation, there was a meeting of all the parents at the church arranged by
one of the pastors. One parent handed out information about other ritual abuse
cases to other parents.
Akiki's trial began in the spring of 1993. 11 children testified; no physical
evidence was presented. As the seven-month trial went on, a pastor in the
church whose son was supposed to testify, began to get suspicious of the
escalation of allegations, starting with Akiki's supposed exposure of himself
to the young girl and ending with him raping and sodomizing children and
killing animals and babies. He withdrew his son from the case.
The pastor's skepticism was echoed in the publicity surrounding the case. The
sensational trial began to get local and national attention, mostly sympathetic
to Akiki. During the trial, on Aikiki's 35th birthday, hundreds of citizens
gathered outside the courthouse to hold a candlelight vigil.
The jury deliberated less than seven hours before acqutting him on all counts.
Some jurors interviewed after the trial said that they did not believe the
child witnesses were credible. Some parents remain convinced that he is guilty,
The acquittal prompted a grand jury inquiry into the investigatory methods
employed in the case. The panel issued a report denouncing the investigator's
methods and chastising the district attorney for providing too little
supervision for his overzealous staff.
After the acquittal, the District Attorney in charge of the prosecution
admitted in a press conference that "something clearly went awry" in the
investigation and prosecution of Akiki. He instigated a four-month inquiry and
issued a set of guidelines setting out protocols for investigators to follow in
future sexual abuse cases. The guidelines included admonitions not to hold
group meetings with parents or therapists, in order to avoid creating hysteria,
and insisted that therapy sessions be videotaped or otherwise documented.
In September 1994 , Akiki filed suit against prosecutors, therapists and the
church. He claimed emotional distress, slander, libel, false imprisonment,
professional negligence and civil rights violations. The county and other
defendants eventually settled the suit and Akiki received over $2 million.
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