The Crazy True Story Of The Most Expensive Trial In American History

The McMartin Preschool trial ended up becoming the longest and most expensive trial in the history of the United States. Overall, the case lasted seven years, from 1984 to 1990, but in the end there wasn't a single conviction. Even the retrial ended in a majority acquittal. The scandal is considered to be a part of the moral panic that swept the United States during the 1980s and 1990s. And many of the allegations of abuse seemed to come out of the Satanic Panic, another one of the moral panics of the time.

The trial was repeatedly criticized for the inconsistencies in its testimonies, the coercion of witness testimonies, and for withholding exculpatory evidence. Afterwards, one of the jurors said that they "now realize how easily something can be said and misinterpreted and blown out of proportion." The media also played a big part, showing heavy bias towards the prosecution and "providing sensational headlines day after day, almost never seriously questioning the allegations."

Unfortunately, in the end it would be too late. Hundreds of children were left emotionally affected by the trial, staff at McMartin had their careers ruined, and innocent people spent years in jail. The McMartin Preschool trial has been appropriately called a fiasco, but in response to the fiasco, new investigative techniques in dealing with child abuse victims were established. This is the crazy true story of the most expensive trial in American history.

The enrolment

In the spring of 1983, Judy Johnson tried to enroll her 2-year-old son at the Virginia McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, but she was told that unfortunately, the school was full and they weren't accepting new applicants. Nevertheless, Johnson took her son and left him in the preschool yard with a note in his pocket explaining who he was.

According to We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, Peggy McMartin, the administrator of the school, believed that Johnson must have been experiencing "enormous stress to do something so rash." McMartin hadn't met Johnson or her son previously, but she decided to let him stay.

Johnson had recently separated from her husband and things seemed to stabilize after she was able to find a job in retail and her son had a preschool to attend. But in the summer of 1983, Johnson took her son to the doctor multiple times and although the doctors didn't find cause for concern, by August, Johnson was convinced that her son had been subject to sexual abuse.

A call to the police

In August 1983, Judy Johnson placed a call to the police claiming that her 2-year-old son had suffered sexual abuse at McMartin Preschool. According to The Day Care Ritual Abuse Moral Panic, Johnson claimed that her son had come home with "a reddened anus and spent the night restless and whiny, finally responding to his mother's relentless questioning by saying the Buckey had taken his temperature recently." Johnson believed that taking a temperature with a "thermometer" must have represented a penis, and concluded that 25-year-old Ray Buckey, the only man working at the preschool, must have sodomized her son.

But according to Elephant Executed for Murder, the story told by Johnson's son wasn't so straightforward. When Johnson initially questioned her son about the potential abuse, he denied that anything had happened the way that his mother was suggesting. But as Johnson continued to question her son, he "admitted that he thought Ray had once taken his temperature."

Although Johnson's son wasn't able to identify Buckey from a series of photos, the police searched Buckey's home and confiscated a graduation robe, a rubber duck, and Playboy magazines as "evidence." And on September 7th, the police arrested Buckey under suspicion of child abuse.

Released on lack of evidence

Although Ray Buckey was released the same day he was arrested based on lack of evidence, since Judy Johnson claimed that her son had provided the names of two other children at the school who were being abused, the police decided to reach out to parents for further evidence.

On September 8th, Harry L. Kuhlmeyer, Jr., Manhattan Beach Chief of Police, sent a letter to 200 families of children previously or currently enrolled at McMartin Preschool. The letter asked parents to ask their children about potential sexual abuse and suggested that photos may have been taken of naked children. It also asked "if they have ever observed Ray Buckey tie up a child."

Although the letter underlined that there was no evidence to suggest that the management of the preschool had any knowledge of the potential abuse, and according to The Day Care Ritual Abuse Moral Panic, told parents not to discuss the investigation with anyone outside of their immediate family, Manhattan Beach and the Los Angeles metropolitan area was soon flooded with rumors and panicked parents.

The claims of Judy Johnson

Judy Johnson continued sending her son to the preschool, and almost every afternoon would phone the police claiming to have discovered "new evidence of abuse." Johnson's claimed that in addition to sexual abuse, her son had been forced to kill a dog and "chopped living rabbits into pieces."

According to The New York Times, Johnson even wrote a letter to the district attorney claiming Peggy and Ray Buckey had taken her son to an armory to a "ritual-type atmosphere" where a "goatman" was also present. Johnson's claims became "increasingly bizarre," ranging from blood drinking to baby beheadings, but the satanic elements captured the attention of a public immersed in the satanic moral panic.

Judy Johnson continued reporting until March 6th, 1985, when she was taken to a hospital for psychiatric examination after threatening her father and brother with a shotgun. Worrying about her deteriorating mental condition, Johnson's father and brother sought to have her committed to a psychiatric hospital. After a 12-day examination, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. During this time, she lost custody of her son. In December, 1986, Johnson died of alcohol poisoning, less than a year before the first McMartin trial began. Her son would never testify at any of the trials.

Struck by panic

Although few children corroborated the allegations of abuse, those who did embellished Judy Johnson's stories. Children told their parents stories of "having been flushed down toilets and transported through the plumbing to hidden rooms where they were sexually molested." Some children claimed to have been photographed nude after being taken on a hot air balloon ride. Satanic rituals and secret dark tunnels were also described.

According to The Day Care Ritual Abuse Moral Panic, a social worker named Dr. Kee MacFarlane was assigned to conduct interviews with the children in the fall of 1983. By the time she was finished, over 350 out of the 400 children she interviewed made allegations of abuse against people who worked at McMartin preschool. Dr. Astrid Heger also concluded that 80 percent of the children had been abused, though this conclusion wasn't based on physical evidence.

To say that these allegations were coerced is an understatement. Using puppets to communicate, children were "led, begged, bribed, cajoled, shamed and intimidated" during the interviews until allegations were finally made. One example can be seen during an interview about the "Naked Movie Star Game," claimed to be a pretense for taking nude photographs of the children. When the child said that they hadn't seen any naked children, the interviewer retorted "You must be dumb!" It appears the "game" was actually a rhyming taunt, "What you say is what you are, you're a naked movie star," in the vein of "I'm rubber, you're glue."

Indicting the preschool

On March 22nd, 1984, three McMartin teachers, Mary Ann Jackson, Bette Raidor, and Babette Spitler, were indicted along with Ray Buckey, Peggy Buckey, Ray's sister Peggy Ann Buckey, and Virginia McMartin (pictured), who founded the preschool 30 years earlier.

According to The New York Times, the "McMartin seven" were initially hit with 115 counts of child abuse, and two months later 93 counts were added resulting in "321 counts involving 48 children." District Attorney Robert Philibosian added the 93 counts mostly as a strategy to help him win in an upcoming primary election for governor of California. By the time preliminary hearings were beginning in August, prosecutors were telling the media that almost 400 sexual crimes had been committed and that at least 30 additional people at McMartin Preschool were under investigation, neither of which were true. Ray Buckey was held without bail, and would remain incarcerated for five years during the length of the trial. Peggy Buckey's bail was set at $1 million.

After the indictment, it was asserted that child pornography was the motive behind the allegations of molestation. But neither Interpol nor the FBI would ever find any evidence of child pornography associated with McMartin Preschool.

Inconsistencies at the preliminary hearings

During the preliminary hearing, the case started to unravel. The leading questions and puppets used to pressure children into supporting allegations were revealed in videotaped interviews.

The testimonies of the children were also repeatedly contradictory and inconsistent. One of the strangest testimonies came from one boy who claimed that the McMartin teachers had forced the children to use shovels and pickaxes in order to dig up coffins. According to the Los Angeles Times, the boy claimed that after getting the coffin out, the teachers would cut the bodies up. They were reportedly forced to dig up one body per day. By the end, even members of the prosecution were beginning to have their doubts about the case. One of the prosecutors was quoted as saying, "Kee MacFarlane could make a six month old baby say he was molested."

The preliminary hearing lasted 20 months and cost $4 million. In December 1985, the decision was made to drop the charges against everyone except Ray and Peggy Buckey.

Investigations turning up empty

In addition to finding no evidence of child pornography, all of the investigations associated with sexual abuse at McMartin Preschool turned up empty. Although many of the stories involved repeated claims of secret passageways under the school, archeological excavations found nothing.

At least 11 children told stories of secret rooms separated by tunnels, often underground and without windows. And according to the Institute for Psychological Therapies, there were repeated attempts to find evidence of these secret rooms. On March 4th, 1985, several parents went to McMartin Preschool and dug random holes "two to three feet deep in the ground."

On March 15th, 40-50 McMartin parents went to the school with a backhoe and hand-digging tools looking for the secret room as well as the allegedly mutilated animals. Parents were reportedly upset because they thought that the police had done a poor job of investigating the alleged tunnels and rooms. The only animal found was a tortoise shell, but there's evidence that the shell was a fraud and was "deliberately planted by someone wishing to incriminate Ray Buckey." Otherwise, there was nothing to suggest the veracity of the alleged tunnels and secret rooms.

Glenn Stevens's interview

In 1986, one month before the trial began, a taped interview with Glenn Stevens, a McMartin prosecutor, was given to the defense attorneys and the California Attorney General's office. In the interview, Stevens acknowledged that they "had no business being in court" and admitted that the children had been "embellishing and embellishing" their allegations. According to The New York Times, Stevens admitted that they were aware that "the evidence was so bad and so weak" but they decided to push ahead with the case anyway. He even acknowledged the leading nature of the questions asked of the children, stating, "They were all contaminated."

During this time, defense attorneys were also repeatedly asserting that the prosecution was withholding information about Judy Johnson's mental health. The videotape of Stevens' interview confirmed the prosecution's role in actively withholding this information, in addition to various other exculpatory evidence.

In light of the tape, defense attorneys tried to get the charges against Ray and Peggy Buckey dropped, but the motion was denied by Judge Pounders.

Testimonies at trial

Most of the testimonies at trial mirrored those given the preliminary hearing. According to The Witch-Hunt Narrative, there were initially 41 "actual complaints" in the trial. During the preliminary hearing, 14 children participated, and during the actual trial the number had dwindled to nine.

The defense asserted once more that the whole thing was "driven by the suggestive and overzealous interview techniques of the crusading therapists of Children's Institute International," like Dr. MacFarlane, who was a key witness in the trial. Meanwhile, the prosecution tried to prove that sexual abuse had been occurring at a widespread level.

Overall, there was also lack of medical evidence and criticism of interview techniques. Prosecutors tried to bolster their side by providing testimony from George Freeman, a jailhouse informant, who claimed that Ray Buckey had admitted to him that he'd abused children at McMartin, but during his own testimony, Buckey claimed that he wasn't "teaching at the school during many of the times in which he was accused of abusing children." However, the prosecutors often tried to use the lack of evidence as proof of the profound deviousness of the defendants, who were so thorough as to leave absolutely no trace of their horrific activities. Medical evidence was also repeatedly contradictory.

The trial began on July 14th, 1987 and lasted until November 2nd, 1989. It took another two-and-a-half months for the jury to return with their verdict.

Twice acquitted

The jury ended up acquitted Peggy Buckey of all charges. Ray Buckey was acquitted on 39 of 52 charges and the rest resulted in a hung jury. One juror told reporters, "Whether I believe he did it and whether it was proven are very different."

After the verdict, upwards of 500 people marched through Manhattan Beach demanding a retrial. But parents and child protection groups weren't the only ones up in arms. One poll showed that 87 percent of respondents thought that the Buckeys were guilty.

Ray Buckey was tried once more, but the second trial was a comparatively expedited version of the first trial, "involving only eight counts of molestation and three children." The prosecutor's case was presented in 13 days and the trial lasted three months rather than 30. According to PBS, in 1990, the trial ended once more in a mistrial. With the words "All right, that's it," the judge dismissed the charges against Ray Buckey, and the District Attorney decided not to charge Buckey for a third time.

The overwhelming cost

The human and economic cost of the trial was staggering. According to Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions, during the course of the scandal Peggy Buckey was "stabbed in the crotch by a stranger," had her preschool torched, and at one point, "accusing parents located a hit man willing to bomb her car." Peggy Buckey ended up serving two years in jail, while Ray Buckey served five. All of their savings went to lawyers' fees and according to Peggy, they "lost everything."

Some of the children came forward years later and revealed how they knew that they were lying with their allegations. But all of the children involved in the trial were victims of the moral panic, whether or not they were also victims of sexual abuse.

There were also nationwide effects. Daycare providers started physically distancing themselves from children out of fear that their actions could be construed as abuse. Countless centers ended up closing because insurance companies raised liability insurance rates out of a fear of potential molestation lawsuits. There were also several other day care providers that were accused of abuse, but many were proven to be "unsubstantiated."

The trial was also outrageously expensive, costing taxpayers over $15 million.