The Little Rascals Day Care Case

  
FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel first arrived in Edenton, North Carolina in the spring of 1990. Seven people - including the owners and staff members of Little Rascals Day Care center - had been arrested and charged with child sexual abuse. They were facing over 400 counts of heinous sexual abuse against 29 children. The indictments involved rape and sodomy, intercourse in front of the children, forcing children to have intercourse with each other, conspiracy, photographing the abuse, urinating and defecating in front of the children, and much more.

Over the next seven years, Bikel and FRONTLINE chronicled the story of the seven defendants, following the investigation, the trials and the twists and turns in the criminal justice process. Bikel produced three FRONTLINE documentaries about the case: "Innocence Lost" (1991); "Innocence Lost: The Verdict "(1993); and "Innocence Lost: The Plea" (1997). Little Rascals became one of the largest and most well-known in the wave of child sexual abuse cases in day care settings that seemed to sweep across the country during the 1980's and early '90's.


Edenton   Edenton, North Carolina, a small, rural community nestled on Albemarle Sound, was settled in the late 17th century. Once the unofficial state capital, it is filled with historic markers and lovely colonial homes. Approximately 6000 people live in the town. It's a tightly-knit community, made up of families who have known each other all of their lives and whose grandparents knew each other.

Betsy Kelly was born and grew up there. Her father, Warren Twiddy, was a successful local businessman in Edenton, who prided himself on being able to provide whatever was needed for his two daughters. In 1988 he bought and renovated an old bottling plant for Betsy and her husband, Robert (Bob) Kelly, so they could relocate their business, the Little Rascals day care center.

Betsy and Bob had been running the day care out of a rundown, rambling house that had become too small. In late September 1988, Betsy and Bob, their employees, and the children moved in. It was the most prestigious day care in town, filled with the children of Edenton's most established families.

The beginnings of the Little Rascals case......

The case started in the winter of 1988-89, just months after the new day care had opened. According to the prosecution, one of the mothers, Audrey Stever, told local police investigator Brenda Toppin that she was concerned about her three year-old son, Kyle. Evidently, several months earlier, while Audrey was giving the boy a bath, Kyle had said to her "Stick your finger in my butt, mommy." Around the same time, she had discovered him masturbating, and when she asked about where he had learned this, he told her he had "played doctor" with an older neighborhood boy. "Playing doctor," according to the child, meant "sticking something in your butt." The boy had also been very unhappy at Little Rascals, and did not want to be left there.

After conferring with police investigator Toppin, Audrey Stever questioned the child again. This time, she said, he told her that "Mr. Bob" (Bob Kelly) had "played doctor" at the daycare, and that other little boys had been involved. At that point, the county Department of Social Services and police investigator Toppin began to interview Kyle as well as some of the other children who attended the daycare, and an investigation was launched.

Betsy Kelly's family and the defense, have a more complex version of the origins of the case - one that is rooted in the tangled friendship between Betsy and her very close friend, Jane Mabry.

In September of 1988, just days after the new day care opened, there was an incident involving Jane's four year-old son, who attended the day care. The child complained that Bob Kelly had slapped him. Jane, for some reason, went to pieces saying, "my world has just crumbled...I just knew that life as I knew it would never be the same." Crying and furious, she demanded an apology. Betsy Kelly claimed she did apologize. Jane claimed whatever apology she did get, was not adequate. Bob Kelly claimed the slap had been an accident, but did not deny that it had happened.

Furious, Jane pulled her son out of the day care, waiting for him to be called back by the Kellys. He wasn't. As weeks turned into months, Jane told FRONTLINE that she started asking parents discreet questions about how their children liked Little Rascals. As it happened, Audrey Stever, the first parent to officially complain about abuse at the daycare, had a conversation with Jane Mabry on the very day that she had spoken with the police investigator Brenda Toppin. It is also known that Brenda Toppin had attended not too long before these events, a seminar on child sexual abuse-- as did district attorney H.P. WIlliams. After the conversation with Toppin, Audrey Stever went home to question her child about Little Rascals, as she had been advised to do by Toppin.

Jane Mabry   Jane Mabry maintains that she had very little, if anything, to do with the development of the case against Little Rascals. Betsy's family believes that she had everything to do with it; it was Jane who directed Audrey Stever to "the proper legal channels that would blow this thing sky high."

However it happened, in January of 1989, Bob Kelly was informed that someone had gone to local officials with a complaint of sexual abuse at the day care. The next morning, Kelly met every parent at the door of Little Rascals and informed them of the charge personally. Most of the parents told FRONTLINE that their first reaction was shock and disbelief. "Who could be doing this to Bob and Betsy? was my first thought" said parent Lynne Layton. "These wonderful people." Other parents said they assumed the charge was the result of a grudge, perhaps from Jane Mabry. And according to Betsy Kelly's sister Nancy Smith, most people reacted with an outpouring of support, sending food and flowers to the daycare and defending the Kellys.

But gradually things changed. As the investigation continued, there were two or three sets of parents that became suspicious - and then convinced - that their children had been molested by Bob Kelly. These parents began to confer together, and later testified that they felt ostracized by the majority of the others who still supported the Kellys. Several of their children were sent to therapists at the recommendation of the prosecution and the police. One of these therapists, Judy Abbott, had a group meeting with four sets of parents in Edenton in February of 1989.

Bob Kelly, who had been barred from working at the daycare, hired a lawyer, Chris Bean. Bean was the most prestigious lawyer in town, who also happened to have a child attending the day care. He told FRONTLINE that when he took Bob's case "I believed completely that he was innocent and that this was a terrible charge that had been made against him."

But after Bean took the case, he and his wife told FRONTLINE they began losing their friends. "People who had known us for years would not look at us, would not speak to us," Bean told FRONTLINE. And then, just before the first preliminary motion hearing in the case, in late April of 1989, the prosecutor, H.P. Williams, told Bean that his son had been named by other children as having been sexually abused by Kelly.

Bean and his wife had already questioned their son about the day care, but he had insisted that nothing had happened, and they had believed him. Now, the news from the district attorney, combined with the talk of other parents, decided the issue. Bean withdrew from representing Kelly, and became one of the accusing parents.

Chris Bean's change of heart had an impact on other Little Rascals parents. Bean was not only a leader in the community, and a respected lawyer, he was also Kelly's defense lawyer who now had left his client. After he withdrew from the case, many began to wonder if something might have actually happened at the daycare.

mr. bob   The First Arrest....

Bob Kelly was charged and arrested in April of 1989 and his bond was set at $1.5 million dollars. The day care closed on April 28th. By May, the steady stream of children entering therapy had become a flood. Children named other children, who in turn named more children. Eventually, ninety children-- almost every child who had attended the daycare-- had been sent to therapists. The vast majority of them saw one of four therapists recommended by the police and the prosecution, and who were being paid for by the state. It was in therapy, according to later testimony in the trial of Bob Kelly, that most of the children made their first allegations of abuse, and began naming people other than Kelly as having been involved.

In the end, close to 30 people would be named by the children, even though the children initially denied any abuse at the day care when first asked by the police or their parents.

On September Ist, 1989, Betsy Kelly, 34, was arrested and sent to prison to await trial. Betsy's bond started at $1 million and would eventually reach $1.8 million. Betsy and Bob's five year old daughter, Laura, was sent to live with Betsy's sister Nancy.

More arrests followed, beginning with Scott Privott the former president of the Edenton country club, and a friend of Bob's and the owner of a local video store. Then Shelley Stone, mother of two, who taught four and five year-olds at the day care; Kathryn Dawn Wilson, (23) a single mother who cooked the food at the day care and also helped with the children; and, Robin Byrum, (19), who taught three and four year-olds and who herself had a small infant. The last arrested was Darlene Harris, who, like Scott Privott, had no previous 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 was taking pictures of the abuse.)

As fall of 1990 turned to winter, there was an atmosphere of panic in the town that seemed to engulf everyone even remotely connected to the daycare. Those few day care employees who had not been arrested (most of whom had had their own small children enrolled at Little Rascals) lived in fear that they too might be next.

Brenda Ambrose worked at the day care and also had a child there. She told FRONTLINE she trusted Bob, Betsy and the others, and that all the time she worked at the day care, she never saw anything suspicious."I still lie awake at night thinking how could they have done it. How could they have done it with me in the room right across the hall?" Even after Brenda sent her own child to therapy and came to believe that she, too, had been abused there, she felt she, as a day care employee, was under suspicion. In her interview with FRONTLINE, she described a meeting of all the parents at which one parent got up and said that everyone who worked at the day care should be in jail.

Another worker, Betty Ann Phillips, had an even harder time. Betty Ann had a son, Daniel, at the day care. At first, she believed the charges, and sent Daniel to one of the recommended therapists, Judy Abbott, to be evaluated. But soon, she and her husband John began to have serious doubts about the case. Betty Ann overheard a therapy session in which she felt the therapist was leading her child. She began to wonder if in fact all the questioning by the police, the therapist, and herself had caused her son to begin to believe things had happened to him that hadn't-- to say "yes" because he was being pushed so hard by adults to "admit" what had gone wrong at the daycare.

Around the same time, Betty Ann found out that the prosecution had filed a series of indictments against Bob Kelly in her child's name, without having consulted her. Deeply upset, Betty Ann went to talk to the district attorney, H.P. Williams, who was prosecuting the case. She told FRONTLINE that when she told Williams how upset she was about the indictments, he warned her not to make her doubts public, because many of the children had told their therapists that Betty Ann herself had been the "lookout" for the Kellys while the abuse was going on. "It was a threat," Phillips told FRONTLINE.

Betsy Kelly would spend over two years in prison before her bond was reduced and she was released pending trial. Scott Privott would spend three and a half years in jail, Dawn Wilson almost a year and half, and Robin Byrum a year.

Most of the defendants had court-appointed attorneys, except for Betsy Kelly and Shelley Stone. The defense asked that all seven defendants be tried together, but the court ruled that they be tried separately. Bob Kelly would be the first one.

Bob Kelly's Trial

The trial was held in Farmville, North Carolina, sixty miles from Edenton. It lasted eight months. There were twelve children who testified in the trial, selected out of the 29 involved in the original indictments.

The day care workers, neighbors, and townspeople testified, but there were no eyewitnesses to any sexual abuse. No one had seen anything and it became clear as the trial progressed that none of the children had said anything about abuse at the day care before the investigation began in 1989 and they were directly questioned about it by parents, police, and therapists.

There were medical experts for both sides. The prosecution's experts testified they had found evidence consistent with sexual abuse on some of the children, and evidence they deemed "definite" for sexual abuse on a few of the little girls. However, the defense's medical experts, who examined slides of the children taken from their examinations, disagreed. They testified that the results the state's experts had found were far too subtle and that they showed no evidence whatsoever of sexual abuse.

The children's therapists themselves did not take the stand. Their notes were analyzed by experts for the defense, who testified about leading and suggestive questioning techniques. Brenda Toppin, the police investigator who led the investigation and was the first person to interview most of the children, testified that she had not kept her original handwritten notes from the interviews, and had lost or misplaced every single audiotape of every interview with the children. Therefore, there were no audio or visual records of the first statements the children had made, two years earlier, about abuse at the day care. Many of the therapists notes were not verbatim transcripts of their interviews with the children, but brief summaries of the interviews, recorded after the fact.

The children's parents testified. All spoke of changes in the children's behavior around the time of the alleged abuse: nightmares and bedwetting, babytalking, resistance to going to the bathroom alone, and much more. However, the defense challenged most of these recollections because at the time the abuse was allegedly going on, none of the parents had mentioned any changes in their children's behavior to their children's doctors (who they saw routinely) or,to anyone else.

Ultimately, the children's testimony would be the centerpiece of the case against Kelly. But their testimony, too, was problematic. Although all the children testified to the acts alleged, many also testified to many other things bordering on the fantastic: babies killed at the daycare, children taken out on boats and thrown overboard, sharks in the water, and children being taken to outerspace in a hot air balloon. In addition, though all of the children had been to "court school" and were well-prepared for the questioning process, many had to be led very carefully by the prosecution before they recounted the acts involved in the actual indictments.

The jury deliberated for over three weeks. They finally came in with a verdict. They found Bob Kelly guilty of 99 out of the 100 indictments against him, and sentenced him to twelve consecutive life terms in prison. The case was said to be the longest and most expensive criminal trial in the history of North Carolina.

After the verdict, Ofra Bikel interviewed five of the twelve jurors (and included these interviews in her second report about the case, a four-hour special called "Innocence Lost: The Verdict.") Of the five jurors interviewed, only two were fully comfortable with the verdict they had issued. In both cases, it was the children's testimony that had convinced them.

The other three jurors were troubled and said they regretted their verdict and had serious doubts about Bob Kelly's guilt. Two jurors, Mary Nichols and Marvin Shackelford, said that worries about their personal health (Shackelford had had two heart attacks, and Mary Nichols was very ill with leukemia) had driven them to vote guilty just to resolve the endless deliberations and go home. Roswell Streeter, who at 28 was the youngest member of the jury, said he felt intimidated and confused, and finally lost all sense of perspective.

The jurors also revealed several serious instances of jury misconduct to FRONTLINE. One juror had confessed to the others while in deliberations that he had been sexually abused as a child and had never told anyone. This same juror had denied knowing anyone who had been sexually abused when asked the question in jury selection.

In another instance, jurors said that a Redbook magazine article listing attributes of pedophiles was brought into the deliberation room, and according to one juror, the items in the article were listed on a blackboard and compared to the personality traits of Bob Kelly. This violated the judge's orders that no outside material was to be brought into the jury room or used in the deliberations. Finally, juror Dennis Ray told FRONTLINE that although the judge had forbidden the jurors to conduct their own research and visit the day care, he had driven twice to Edenton to check out the location for himself.

In November 1993, four months after the broadcast of FRONTLINE's "Innocence Lost: The Verdict," Kelly's defense attorneys filed a motion for dismissal of the case based on these and other instances of alleged jury misconduct. The motion was denied.

Dawn Wilson's Trial

The second defendant to go to trial was Kathryn Dawn Wilson, known as Dawn, who had spent seventeen months in prison before being released on bond in December 1990. Soon before her trial, the prosecution offered Dawn a plea bargain: if she pleaded guilty to several of the charges against her, she would receive a vastly reduced sentence: no more than a year or two in prison. (She was facing multiple life terms if convicted.) She turned it down. She was offered a second plea while her jury was being selected. This one offered her months, instead of years in jail, but she turned it down as well.

Dawn's trial was similar to Bob Kelly's, but much shorter, and involving only four children. The other principal difference was that in Dawn's trial, the therapy reports were introduced into evidence and shown to the jury. But the outcome was the same. Dawn was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The Other Defendants.....

Betsy Kelly would be next. Before her trial, she too was offered a plea bargain. But her perspective on the offer was different. Betsy had spent over two years in prison, and seen the first two defendants to be tried in the case convicted and sentenced to life terms - one of whom was her husband. She had an eight year- old daughter - who was living with her sister - to think about. In January, 1994, Betsy accepted a plea of "no contest" meaning she would not have to officially admit guilt. She accepted a sentence of seven years in prison, which, with two years and two weeks credit for time served, meant she was eligible for probation almost immediately. She served one additional year in the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, and then returned home to be with her daughter, who was now ten years-old.

Six months after Betsy was released, Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson's convictions were overturned by the Appellate Court of North Carolina because of a series of legal errors by the prosecution.

By the end of 1995, Bob Kelly was home. Not long after that, Bob and Betsy Kelly separated. Years of separation, prison, and the agony of trial had finally done too much damage.

Charges were eventually dropped against Shelly Stone, Darlene Harris and Robin Byrum. Scott Privott, after serving over three years in jail, 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 took.

In April 1996, the state indicted Bob Kelly on new charges - accusations of sexual abuse that had happened ten years earlier (1987), were not related to Little Rascals and involved, at the time, a nine a half year-old girl.

On May 23, 1997, state prosecutors dropped all charges against Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson in the Little Rascals case, but anounced they will proceed against Kelly on the 1987 (Overtone case) accusations. If convicted on these charges, Kelly could receive several life sentences.


May, 1997

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