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
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 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.
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
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
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.