The key child witness in the McMartin Pre-School molestation trial Monday recanted testimony given at the preliminary hearing that she had been sexually abused by former defendant Betty Raidor.
Although the 11-year-old girl insisted she had been forced to submit to various sex acts with defendants Ray Buckey, 29, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 60, she testified under cross-examination that Raidor only watched while "naked games" were played.
Under questioning by defense attorney Dean Gits, the girl said Raidor, called "Miss Betty" by pupils at the school, never stripped, never penetrated her with her fingers and never pressed her genitals against the child's.
At the preliminary hearing two years ago, the child testified that Raidor, now 67, had molested her "the same way" as Peggy Buckey, whom Gits represents.
"Today," Gits asked slowly and carefully, "you told us Betty never touched you. Is that what you remember today?"
"Yes," the girl answered.
Asked to explain the contradiction, she said, "Today, I don't remember any time that she touched me."
Raidor, the Buckeys, school founder Virginia McMartin and three other teachers all had been ordered to stand trial after the preliminary hearing during which 14 children testified that they had been molested at the now-closed Manhattan Beach nursery school.
However, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner decided to prosecute only Buckey and his mother, citing "incredibly weak" evidence against the other teachers.
On the witness stand Monday, the girl insisted the change in her testimony about Raidor was not the result of her knowing that charges against the former teacher had been dropped last year.
Outside the courtroom, Gits called the girl's testimony "evidence of more contamination. This child is fully aware of what happened at the preliminary hearing and she is aware Betty is no longer being charged. Whether because of what someone told her or what she figured out herself, she's concluded she must have been mistaken.
"And if she's wrong about Betty, then she's wrong about Peggy," he said, referring to his client.
The girl, who with her younger brother, represents more than one-third of the case against the Buckeys--37 of the 99 molestation counts with which they are charged.
Gits said he was surprised by Monday's testimony, having received no indication from prosecutors--who are required to give all interview notes with witnesses to the defense--that the girl had had a change of mind.
He said he noticed the absence of any reference to Raidor during direct examination, and the girl's answer to a question he posed to her last week about Raidor's presence during one of the games led him to pursue the subject further.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lael Rubin said she was aware that the girl no longer remembered Raidor's participation, but declined to say when she had learned of the change.
"I don't have any explanation," Rubin said. "What's important is for all witnesses to be very certain about what they do remember and be very truthful."