DA Drops Charges Against 5 in McMartin School Case : Only Raymond Buckey, his mother to Stand Trial
In a stunning development that outraged parents of alleged victims, charges against five of the seven defendants in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case were dropped today by prosecutors, who declared that they had insufficient evidence to prove the five guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Dropped from the case just days before their scheduled Jan. 23 arraignment were school founder Virginia McMartin, 78; her granddaughter, Peggy Ann Buckey, 29, and three former teachers at the now-closed Manhattan Beach nursery school, Mary Ann Jackson, 58; Betty Raidor, 66, and Babette Spitler, 37.
The two remaining defendants are McMartin’s grandson, Raymond Buckey, 27, who now faces 79 molestation counts, and Ray’s mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 59, who stands accused of 20 child molestation charges.
Buckey and his mother--the only defendants who remain in jail since their arrests about two years ago--are also charged on one count of conspiracy to commit child molestation.
Today’s action by Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner further reduced a case that had begun with more than 300 counts of molestation and conspiracy and had been called the largest child sexual abuse case in U.S. history.
14 Children’s Testimony
At the preliminary hearing--the lengthiest and costliest in state history--14 children testified that they had been raped, sodomized, fondled, drugged and forced by their teachers and others to play “naked games,” to witness the mutilation and killing of animals and to participate in satanic rituals involving churches, cemeteries and corpses.
The children’s allegations stunned Manhattan Beach, where the McMartin family was well known and respected, and drew nationwide attention. The case spawned a wide-ranging investigation of preschools in the South Bay that resulted in the closure of eight schools.
The five former defendants, who had been ordered to stand trial last week by Municipal Judge Aviva K. Bobb after a record 18-month preliminary hearing, were charged on a total of 29 counts of sex abuse and conspiracy to commit child molestation.
“We’ve completed a very exhaustive, in-depth evaluation of the entire case, and based on all the evidence . . . these are the charges against the defendants that warrant prosecution in Superior Court,” said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Gilbert Garcetti, shortly before prosecutors filed court papers for the arraignment.
The decision to drop the charges was blasted by a group of about 25 tearful and outraged McMartin parents who had come to the downtown Criminal Courts Building for the announcement by the district attorney’s office.
‘How Can We Explain’
“After the long preliminary hearing at which the judge used the word guilty about all seven defendants, how can we explain to our children that five are being set free? I wish that Reiner had some answers,” one McMartin parent said.
“I think the district attorney is chicken,” said another, adding that the parents intend to appeal to state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp to reopen the case against the five.
“It would be easy to file against all the defendants,” Reiner told reporters as a dozen parents maintained an angry vigil outside his office. "(But) we have an ethical and moral obligation to not file criminal charges where the evidence is not sufficient. . . . There clearly was insufficient evidence.”
Asked why the decision was not reached before the preliminary hearing, Reiner said: “As you know, we did not file this case. The case was inherited (from the administration of former Dist. Atty. Robert H. Philibosian).”
The chief prosecutor in the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lael R. Rubin, insisted this morning that prosecutors have the continued support of most McMartin parents, including those of the 14 child witnesses who testified at the preliminary hearing.
The forthcoming trial should take six months, predicted Rubin, who added that 13 victims will testify--either in person or through videotapes made at the preliminary hearing. Other former McMartin students may also be called to the witness stand to provide corroborating evidence, she added.
Rubin will be assisted in prosecuting the trial by her boss, Roger J. Gunson, who serves as head deputy of the office’s sexual crimes and child abuse division.
One Prosecutor Removed
Reiner aide Garcetti said Deputy Dist. Atty. Christine L. Johnston, who also prosecuted the case in the preliminary hearing, asked to be released after the hearing, and another prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Glenn E. Stevens, was removed from the team.
In dropping the five defendants today, prosecutors said they had made no determination on whether the five are actually innocent of the charges that had been lodged against them.
“Our review was directed at . . . whether there was sufficient evidence to convict them,” said Gunson. " . . . We feel it is unfair to the suspects to say, hey, we believe them guilty but we’re not going to proceed with them. It is unfair to the children to say, hey, they’re innocent. We did not make that decision.”
Prosecutors, however, insisted that based on Bobb’s ruling and on the initial March, 1984, indictment of the seven defendants, there was clearly sufficient evidence to show probable cause that crimes had been committed. Although “probable cause” is enough to hold defendants for trial, guilt must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt,” at the trial, Reiner said.
Thus far, the McMartin investigation and prosecution--which has become a nationwide focus of attention--has cost more than $4 million.
The attorney for Betty Raidor, Walter R. Urban, reacted bitterly, calling the past proceedings a clear “civil rights violation” against his client and indicating that he may file a civil lawsuit.
“To take two years out of somebody’s life and to then tell her, ‘Sorry, we’re dropping the charges . . . ,’ ” he said.
Reiner, at a noon press conference, declared that his top staff attorneys spent “hundreds of hours reviewing the evidence” before the final decision was reached.