For the last eight months, a 20-man sheriff’s task force has been investigating one of the most bizarre cases in California history--a cluster of alleged child molestations in the South Bay area.
Working out of the basement of a Los Angeles County lifeguard station, the task force, established in response to the McMartin Pre-School molestation case, has spent nearly $800,000 probing allegations that children at several South Bay preschools were molested by their teachers, local townspeople and a variety of strangers.
Investigators have not made a single arrest, a fact that Lt. Richard Willey, who heads the task force, says is as frustrating to him as it is to the community of Manhattan Beach, where parents complain that people accused by their children of having molested them still move freely about the neighborhood and where nursery school teachers and baby sitters claim that they are innocent victims of a witch hunt.
Both sides complain that preschools, teachers and people who authorities refer to as “uncharged suspects” are in a sort of limbo, neither cleared nor formally charged.
More than a year ago, seven teachers at the Virginia McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach and a playground aide at the nearby Manhattan Ranch Pre-School were charged with molesting scores of children left in their care, and state licensing officials closed both schools.
Searching for Evidence
One-fourth of California’s community-care licensing investigators were assigned to the South Bay, and the state soon closed four more local nursery schools and announced investigations at two others, one of which closed last week. In all, 40% of the nursery schools and day-care centers that state investigators have moved to close during the last year have been in the Manhattan Beach area.
Police searched dozens of homes and businesses looking for child pornography materials, witchcraft paraphernalia or evidence of child sexual abuse. Yards and lots were dug up in an effort to unearth underground tunnels and animal bones to support children’s accounts of secret sexual games and rituals conducted by their teachers.
In Manhattan Beach alone, 242 child molestation, abuse and neglect crimes were reported to police last year, a tenfold increase over the previous year.
And the sheriff’s special task force, officially known as the Sexual Exploitation of Children Task Force, doubled in size as the number of allegations in the beach towns soared. Its members were specially selected for their expertise as investigators: Combined they have 150 years of investigative experience, much of it in the area of sex crimes or child abuse.
In August, as the trial of Manhattan Ranch aide Michael Ruby began and the McMartin defendants completed a full year of preliminary hearing proceedings with no end in sight, frustrations in the South Bay reached the boiling point.
Parents tacked posters to telephone poles that read “Wanted: a judicial system that will prosecute child molesters . . .” and pictured teachers from the now-closed Children’s Path Pre-School in Hermosa Beach, none of whom have been charged.
McMartin defendants, their attorneys and supporters banded together as “the Friends of the McMartin Pre-School Defendants” and, after several months of secret meetings, went public with a series of newspaper advertisements and press conference-like meetings to protest their treatment and proclaim their innocence.
One ad compares the Manhattan Beach of 1985 to the witch hunts of 1692 in Salem, Mass., laments the ruin of innocent lives, lists the police actions the group says have yielded no evidence and asks the reader to consider: “If you thought this could never happen in America, especially today, think again. It could happen to you. All it takes is someone to point a finger.”
A second ad, which appeared in local papers last week, pictures children dancing to the music of a piper wearing a doctor’s coat and reads, “The recent appearance of the Pied Piper of Manhattan Beach has resulted in a crop of tales that has grown into a field of utter hysteria.
“There isn’t anything as fertile as a child’s imagination. All it takes is the seed of an idea, carefully placed and nurtured by adults, and a child can be led to say anything,” the ad says, referring to the children’s fairy tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
The McMartin Friends group--which has drawn as many as 100 people to its evening meetings--claims that they have been harassed by police, separated from their children, searched without cause, misrepresented by the media and accused by youngsters who were “prompted” by adults.
Meeting secretly in various South Bay hotel rooms during the last few months, they compare notes on their mistreatment and plan strategies for getting out their message.
Debate Fell Through
The group scheduled a debate last month between two child psychiatrists and possibly some parents of children who attended one of the preschools involved in the investigations. Plans for the confrontation fell through at the last minute, with each side claiming that it had been misled by the other. The meeting was to have been sponsored by the Easy Reader, a Hermosa Beach weekly that carries a subjective column called “McMartin Watch” that takes the defendants’ guilt for granted; the paper’s publisher, however, has attended several of the Friends’ meetings.
“The real story is that 1,000 children were led into making accusations. . . . I know none of them were molested,” insisted Patti Rusth, an active member of the McMartin Friends group and former director of a Torrance preschool.
Rusth, who briefly owned a preschool in Lawndale, said people need to know that “there’s a Nazi Germany, police-style state going on down here.”
“We don’t know who is behind all this, but it has the earmarks of a witch hunt,” said Walter Urban, attorney for McMartin defendant Betty Raidor. “We don’t know what started the whole thing, but it has snowballed out of control.”
Urban said the Friends group is considering asking “the grand jury, the attorney general or somebody” to conduct “an investigation of the investigation.”
Willey acknowledged that the McMartin case has created some hysteria and false allegations. But after eight months of investigation, he said, he has “no doubt” that multiple molestations have occurred in the South Bay.
Certain of Arrests
And although he said he is sure arrests will be made, Willey, 46, added:
“We are not going to be pressured into making premature decisions or taking premature action. We want to do a competent, professional, in-depth investigation. And that takes time. We’re not going to base a multivictim, multisuspect case on the ability of one or two children to qualify (as witnesses in court).
“A major problem is that we’re dealing with 3- and 4-year-old kids, because some of the preschools have only been open a short period of time. . . . At one (preschool) where 16 children were allegedly molested, 12 who were examined by different physicians had positive findings of sexual abuse, but none can qualify to testify in court. . . . We can determine who did it, but the children are not capable of telling the adult world the necessary details and sustaining (them under) cross-examination. . . . And adult corroboration is not there.
“So (in some cases) we have two choices: sit and wait till the children are older, or change the laws” (to allow, for example, children’s statements to people they trust to be used as evidence).
Willey said he believes that the alleged perpetrators at several of the schools knew each other, that information “absolutely” was exchanged and that those involved may be “ritualistic . . . pedophiles or demonics or a combination of the two,” using children to satisfy a variety of needs.
He also confirmed that no relevant child pornography has been found, despite an international search involving the FBI. There is very little new commercial child pornography around, he said, although pedophiles continue to hoard, and sometimes share, photographs of their victims.
Willey said, however, that he has yet reached a sweeping conclusion about what really happened at McMartin and the other South Bay preschools or about whether or how the nursery school cases are linked.
“It’s not over till it’s over,” he said. “It’s going to take a long, long time to find out what actually occurred.”
Combination of Factors
Manhattan Beach Police Capt. John Wehner, commander of the department’s operations division, attributes the South Bay activity to “a combination of factors: little bit of paranoia, a whole bunch of media, some evidence and some hysteria.”
Some authorities say, however, that neither heightened awareness nor hysteria is sufficient to explain what they describe as “an inordinate number” of child sexual abuse allegations in the South Bay.
“There does seem to be an atypical pattern of allegations centered in the South Bay,” said John Hagerty, who heads the state Department of Social Services’ community-care licensing division. He said 40% of the nursery school and day-care center license revocation actions filed by the state in the last year have been in the Manhattan Beach area, although revocations of licenses to run at-home day-care centers do not follow the same concentrated pattern.
Hagerty said he can think of no other instances of similar clusters elsewhere in the state and does not believe that similar investigative efforts elsewhere would uncover similar numbers of allegations.
There is no shortage of speculation as to why the South Bay area has become the focus of so much activity. A number of theories emerged in interviews with scores of investigators, parents of nursery school children, preschool owners and teachers, therapists, child-abuse experts and attorneys close to the cases.
Several scenarios once dismissed by skeptics as too bizarre to be believed now appear to be seriously embraced by those in a position to know the details of the McMartin and Manhattan Ranch preschool cases:
- Pedophiles may have been attracted to the area, through a loosely organized underground network, by the easy, tolerant life style and small-town law enforcement. They would have gained a foothold in new preschools opening to accommodate the increasing numbers of young children in the area, some close to the cases have suggested.
“California has had more pedophile organizations than any other state,” said Bruce Selcraig, an investigator in Washington for the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations. “The Childhood Sensuality Circle is in San Diego, the Rene Guyon Society is in Beverly Hills, NAMBLA (National American Man-Boy Love Assn.) has chapters in Los Angeles and San Francisco and Better Life and several other publications in the late ‘70s flourished in California. There is a large community of pedophiles and active organizations based in California.”
- An influx of families made up of affluent professional couples in their 30s having children may have resulted in a disproportionately large number of working mothers, preschool children and nursery schools to care for them--and a correspondingly large number of sex-abuse allegations.
Low Adult Sex-Crime Rate
Demographic studies, however, suggest otherwise. Manhattan Beach is somewhat richer, whiter and more middle-aged than Los Angeles County as a whole, but it does not have more young children or working women. Nor does it have a higher rate of reported adult sex crimes, such as rape, according to state Department of Justice criminal statistics. In fact, its sex crime rate is surprisingly low, police say, given that the town’s resident population of 33,000 swells to as many as 100,000 at the beach on sunny weekends.
There is no higher concentration of preschools in the beach area than elsewhere, and those in operation are not unlike those found elsewhere in California. However, state licensing investigator Bill Keating said he has noticed two things about the South Bay preschools that are different: They have an extremely high staff turnover and they sometimes share grounds with other nursery schools or are located in community buildings where a variety of people not connected with the school come and go.
Willey, a 21-year-veteran of the Sheriff’s Department who has headed its child abuse unit for the last five years, said he does not believe that the South Bay has a disproportionate share of molesters: “The microscope is on the South Bay because of the hot media coverage. A lot of others (preschools elsewhere) are being investigated too.”
The Los Angeles Police Department’s child sexual exploitation unit reports that 90% of its complaints involving nursery school molestations--there are two or three each week--turn out to be groundless. Keating attributes increased complaints to heightened awareness of child sexual abuse in general and of the McMartin case in particular.
- A cult of satanists may be based in the South Bay area, indoctrinating children into its dark beliefs and exploiting them sexually. Although the evidence to support this possibility is sketchy, investigators are taking it seriously and have attended conferences on cults and brought in experts on satanism to educate them about what to look for.
On the witness stand in the McMartin case, children have described being taken to cemeteries to dig up bodies, being forced to watch animal mutilations and sacrifices on church altars and being surrounded by moaning chanters in ritualistic dances. Such disconcerting findings as a makeshift altar at a construction site covered with a black cloth and set with children’s toys, satanic symbols spray-painted on walls and stories of youngsters obsessed with a fear of the devil have fueled speculation about satanism.
It is impossible, however, to know whether any satanic “signs” are simply pranks. There is no evidence of a local satanic settlement, despite the mention of “quite a respectable bunch of devil’s disciples . . . in nearby Manhattan Beach” in a 1972 book, “The Occult Explosion.” And an “occult bookstore” remembered vaguely by residents was apparently only a psychedelic “head” shop no longer in existence.
- A large child pornography ring may be based in the area, providing young children for the sexual gratification of pedophiles and marketing pornographic photographs of them. McMartin children have testified that they were photographed nude and that the films were sold in their presence.
Massive Ring Doubted
Despite exhaustive searches, such pictures have not been found, and authorities say they doubt that preschools were linked to any massive, nationwide pornography ring. Los Angeles police specialists say there is little market for pornography involving children under 10, although pedophiles informally trade photos.
Manhattan Beach Police Sgt. Jim Noble, supervisor of the department’s detective bureau, said recently that even two years after the first arrest, “There is nothing we would rule out. . . . Straight pedophilia, pornography, satanism--all these theories perhaps apply.”
A private attorney representing several alleged preschool victims said he has come to view the molestations as the work of “a network of pedophiles who share kids or ideas and who may or may not be engaged in darker pursuits like satanism or doing it for profit (pornography and prostitution).”
“Who knows why they picked the South Bay to start with?” asked a therapist who has interviewed most of the victims. “But kids are talking about abuse 10 or 12 years ago, so (the molesters) have been there a long time. It may be that the original victims are grown up and continuing what they were taught.”
One thing is clear: Even formerly skeptical investigators and therapists who initially viewed the molestation cases as separate, isolated incidents now talk about the possibility that the South Bay cases are linked not only with each other but with similar cases in other parts of the country and that they may be part of a wider conspiracy combining child sexual abuse with satanism and pornography.
Several therapists and preschool teachers in the area say children talk of being taken to other preschools and describe the same houses, cars and perpetrators, even when they have no known connection to the other schools or to each other:
“They tell of being taken to the same houses (for sex) and describe the same cars as driven by their molesters,” said Colleen Mooney, director of the South Bay Center for Counseling, where many of the families have sought help. “And usually these are not children or families that know each other.”
‘Jolted’ by Similarities
Kee MacFarlane, a therapist at Children’s Institute International in Los Angeles, said she was “jolted” at a recent meeting on sex rings she attended in Washington by the apparent similarities among seven current major preschool cases across the country: Pornography, satanism or rituals and people who are strangers to the children appear to be involved in each.
Dr. Roland Summit of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, a nationally known psychiatric expert on child sexual abuse who is involved in the South Bay cases, said he is reluctant to go so far as to label the ritualistic abuse described by the children as “satanism.”
“One intelligent theory holds that a group of covert satanists--or at least persons out to destroy the forces of good--used their skills to develop markets in pornography and child prostitution,” he said. “They reached out to perversely inclined individuals, discreetly initiated them into religious circles, demoralized kids and used the money they raise to stage ever even more elaborate kinds of unbelievable experiences.
“It may be a small core of religious zealots--with women prevalent but a male designated as cult leader--meeting secretly, enlisting others at the periphery who buy into the voyeur experience or participate in sexual contact or sadistic ceremonies. . . .
“The current suspects may not have been the religious core,” he continued. “They may have been playing games for perverse reasons--dabblers, if you will--with someone else behind them.”
“They counted on bizarreness,” said a nursery school teacher whose own child once attended one of the now-closed preschools, meaning that if any of the children told, the wild details of their stories would undermine their credibility, especially because the alleged perpetrators appeared to have unassailable reputations as solid citizens.
Some believe that ritual sacrifices described by the children--the mutilation and killing of animals, cemetery visits, church ceremonies involving black-robed chanters and being forced to drink blood--were merely tools to frighten them into silence. Others insist that they were attempts to alter their thinking, using religious symbolism and rituals that would be meaningful to their largely Roman Catholic victims.
Vehicle to Infiltrate Self
“The goal was not just to scare them,” Mooney said. “They would kill an animal, rub blood on the kids, saying that animal ‘died for you, and you are part of us.’ It was an attempt to move into the inner core of the child, and sex abuse was only a vehicle to try to infiltrate their fundamental sense of self.”
Manhattan Beach police, the Sheriff’s Department and state licensing investigators insist, however, that they have found no evidence of a link between the local cases and any satanic involvement. As the McMartin preliminary hearing has progressed, prosecutors have attempted to play down or avoid testimony about the rituals, saying it only muddies their molestation case and invites disbelief.
As the cases unfold, the residents of Manhattan Beach appear to have sorted themselves into opposing camps. “There are still people who do not believe anything ever happened, that it’s a witch hunt, an evil plot hatched by a couple of kooks,” one observer said. “And there are people who are looking for something behind every door. There is very little middle ground.”
The Manhattan Beach police are unfazed by suggestions that its seaside town may have had special attraction for perverts.
“It’s not just Manhattan Beach,” Noble said. “Pedophilia is all over. But it’s been exposed here, and we’re further ahead than the rest of the country in digging it out.”