News cameras rolled as jackhammers and bulldozers took cracks at the huge slab of concrete. Dozens of bystanders watched from under shade trees cordoned off with long ribbons of police tape. Sheriff’s deputies milled about near a mobile crime lab as traffic slowed to a crawl on the nearby San Gabriel River Freeway.
The scene last Friday, in a former church yard on Flatbush Avenue, was part of the search for evidence in a child-molestation case that has baffled investigators for more than a year and has torn apart the working-class neighborhood of Planter Street in Pico Rivera.
Beginning May 18, parents of the alleged victims dug at the site and uncovered hundreds of bones they attributed to satanic sacrifices of humans and animals. The parents said their children had reported being taken there and watching rituals in chambers beneath the church.
According to the parents and police reports, at least a dozen Planter Street children have described being molested and, in some cases, threatened with knives and guns to keep them quiet.
Last April, four residents of Planter Street were arrested and charged with 19 counts of kidnaping and child molestation. The charges against them were dismissed at a preliminary hearing in July, however, after several children recanted their stories and the judge ruled there was insufficient evidence. A fifth resident, arrested in September, has been bound over for trial on two counts of molestation and two counts of kidnaping.
Called a ‘Witch Hunt’
Defense attorneys have described the case as a “witch hunt” cooked up by conspiring children, crusading parents and the recent media uproar over child molestation in general.
“This is the kind of case we all read about . . . where (lives) are ruined by absolute fabrications,” one attorney, Peter Gwosdof, said in an interview. “I just can’t believe that such a case exists.”
Former suspects have filed multimillion-dollar damage suits against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the city of Pico Rivera, which contracts with the sheriff for police services. The suits charge false arrest, civil-rights violations, defamation and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Parents, meanwhile, have carried on a search for evidence while at odds with sheriff’s investigators. Some parents have criticized the Sheriff’s Department for taking what they said was only a cursory look at the allegations involving ritual sacrifices that surfaced last summer.
Led by Vicki Meyers, mother of three of the alleged victims, a small band of parents began digging at the former site of the Old Molokan Christian Spiritual Church in Norwalk, which they claim the children identified as the scene of the rituals. The church was used by its small religious congregation for much of last year, but was razed in recent months to make way for the Century Freeway.
“The kids told us there was a basement under this church,” Meyers said. “We rented a jackhammer and decided to dig up the bottom.”
Although sheriff’s deputies halted the excavation on the state-owned property last week, Norwalk Mayor Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez, urged investigators, city officials and parents to begin working together to look beneath the building’s concrete foundation. By Tuesday, the quest had produced a haul of about 500 bones--most or all believed to be animal remains--and conflicting conclusions about what the bones might mean.
Parents Point to Bones
To the parents, the bones helped confirmed the allegations, but a sampling of the bones examined last week by the coroner’s office was determined to be nothing more than soup bones and poultry bones--perhaps left over from some long-ago meals, a coroner’s spokesman said.
A member of the Molokan Church said the 20-member congregation began burying its garbage there during the late 1970s.
“We used to throw our trash in the rubbish bin, but most of our services were on weekends and the rubbish (trucks) came toward the end of the week,” church member Mike Treguboff said. “We had flies and maggots . . . so we said, ‘The land’s open, we might as well bury the bones.’ ”
The bones were mostly the remains of meals served at weddings and other occasions, Treguboff said.
Lt. Bill Stonich, a member of the county’s child-abuse detail, said more than 100 bones and bone fragments would be examined this week by both the sheriff’s crime lab and a county paleontologist, to determine their age and origin.
But so far, he said, none of the bones has promised a breakthrough.
“At this point, we are leaving literally no stone unturned,” Stonich said Tuesday. He said investigators have done their best to check out every allegation.
“The children have told us many, many things. We have spent thousands of hours investigating. . . . If (we) had human bones, certainly that would be something to look at in depth.
“We don’t have that. We have chicken bones, steak bones and so forth. We are no closer to prosecution (now) than we were prior to digging.”
Parents disputed the coroner’s findings, arguing that some of the excavated bones were not cut in the manner of soup bones. The parents said the bones supported the charges even though searchers have yet to find the underground rooms where the rituals allegedly occurred.
“My son told us where to dig . . . " Meyers said. “We dug in a 6-by-8-foot area and found approximately 500 bones. The kids in the neighborhood know what’s going on.”
Despite medical evidence that some children were molested, investigators acknowledge they have had difficulty from the start sorting out the scores of detailed and sometimes confusing stories told by the alleged victims, whose ages range from 3 to 11. Deputies conducted a three-day investigation before arresting the four original suspects last April.
Allegations Recanted Later
After the arrests, investigators continued to gather testimony, interviewing children at the Pico Rivera sheriff’s station. The children later began recanting their stories, however, and prosecutors based their case at the preliminary hearing on the testimony of two 8-year-old boys. Under questioning, one said he had lied, and another was accused of lying by Whittier Municipal Court Judge Patricia J. Hofstetter.
The impact of the case has caused at least three families to move from Planter Street and turned the once-close-knit neighborhood into a place of factions and broken friendships, residents said.
Amid widespread television and newspaper coverage last week, rumors circulated about the religious rites carried on at the Old Molokan church. One story had it that church members marched up and down Flatbush Avenue carrying coffins.
Meyers, who mocked her own reputation by wearing a jersey with the initials “H.A.P.P.” (Hysterical and Paranoid Parent), said the word “moloch” has religious significance: Webster’s unabridged dictionary defines it as “a tyrannical power to be (appeased) by human subservience or sacrifice.”
But church member Treguboff said his is a Christian sect that separated from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1600s. The Russian word “molok,” which means milk, distinguished members of the sect because they used milk, rather than wine, in religious ceremonies. Treguboff said members wear tunics during services, and the men generally wear beards.
“I feel for the people who went through this ordeal with their children,” he said, "(but) people just jump to conclusions.”
Parents criticized investigators Tuesday for halting their work at the site after they had dug only one long, sharply angled trench into the church’s concrete slab. Parents said the 3-foot-deep trench was not enough to determine whether there were underground rooms.
“They quit,” complained one parent who requested anonymity. “The kids told them (the entrance to the cellar) had been filled in . . . they were going to have to dig quite a ways to find anything. The kids . . . felt they were getting pretty close.”
Stonich, however, said children did not indicate the entrance had been filled until after the digging failed to uncover a stairway. He said workmen found no areas that appeared to have been filled in. He also said no further digging is planned unless the studies of the bones support the children’s allegations.
“The children told us there was a tunnel and a basement below the foundation,” he said. “There was no indication to me or to anyone else that (the basement) exists or ever existed.”