Seven preschools closed during the wave of child molestation allegations that swept through the South Bay, five of which never reopened.
The concern began in August, 1983, when a Manhattan Beach woman told police that her 2-year-old son had been sexually abused by Raymond Buckey, a 25-year-old teacher at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach. He and six women at the nursery school were subsequently charged with more than 200 counts of sexually molesting 42 children.
Other preschools came under suspicion. At the height of the highly publicized McMartin case in 1985, authorities said they had identified as many as 1,200 alleged victims of sexual abuse and 56 uncharged suspects. Scores of others were accused by preschoolers and their parents.
“For at least a decade, organized groups of molesters operated like an undetected plague against the South Bay’s children,” a columnist wrote in the Easy Reader, a beach cities weekly.
But only two more preschool teachers, both males, were arrested; one was never charged and the other’s trial ended in a hung jury.
Child molestation cases are difficult to prove: Parents may be unwilling to subject their children to the trauma of testifying about abuse, and jurors may doubt the reliability of child witnesses. Normally, the only adult witness is the alleged molester.
At the same time, McMartin defense attorneys say, it is just as difficult to prove that a child was not molested, or that a molestation suspect is undeniably innocent.
In January, 1986, after an 18-month preliminary hearing in the McMartin case, the defendants were bound over for trial. But Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner dropped charges against all but two of the original seven defendants.
Reiner said that the McMartin case had been “massively blown out of proportion to make it the crime of the century” and that it is “altogether probable” that the five women freed were innocent.
However, a “few children” were molested over a period of years, Reiner said, in explaining his decision to prosecute Raymond Buckey, now 29, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 61. Their trial in Los Angeles Superior Court is entering its second year, and Raymond Buckey remains in jail, his bail set at $3 million.
Here are the seven preschools, in the order in which they were closed:
- Virginia McMartin Preschool, Manhattan Beach--Closed Jan. 11, 1984, after most of the parents, alarmed by accusations against the school staff, withdrew their children. Today, the small, L-shaped building on Manhattan Beach Boulevard sits empty and unused, its modest, placid appearance belying the lurid images of the past, when it was denounced as the center of a satanic cult and child-pornography ring.
At the front of the fenced yard, passers-by can see two abandoned playhouses. At the back, several wooden animals rear up from the weeds and debris with frozen expressions of seeming dismay. The animals, along with wooden airplanes, plywood tunnels and a train, were made by Charles (Chuck) Buckey, Raymond Buckey’s father.
A portion of a vacant lot adjoining the preschool, which had been in operation for 17 years, was once leased by the McMartins to provide expanded playground space for the school’s 50 children. A heavy growth of weeds hides any remaining signs of the holes and trenches dug by McMartin parents, frustrated by the slow pace of the investigation, and later by an archeological research firm hired by the district attorney.
They were looking for underground tunnels leading to a secret room, where children said they were taken to be molested, and also the remains of rabbits, turtles and other pets that McMartin teachers allegedly slaughtered to terrorize the children into silence. A couple of turtle shells and several unidentified animal bones were uncovered in a weeklong dig, and that line of investigation appears to have been abandoned.
The deserted preschool, which survived attacks by vandals and an arsonist, was spruced up a year or so ago to make it more attractive to a potential buyer. It is owned by a McMartin family attorney, Daniel Davis, who obtained it as payment for legal work, and has been for sale for more than two years.
- Manhattan Ranch Preschool, Manhattan Beach--Closed Aug. 2, 1984, by the state Department of Social Services a week after police arrested Michael Ruby, a 17-year-old playground aide, on charges of molesting eight toddlers. Search warrants were served at the preschool and at the homes of the school director and eight teachers.
Daniel Lewis, an attorney with the state agency, said that children had been swapped, since at least 1979, between the school and the McMartin nursery a mile away, for child prostitution and pornography. Other preschools in the area then came under suspicion of being involved in those alleged activities.
Ruby’s trial in Torrance Superior Court ended in a hung jury, and prosecutors dropped the charges.
Manhattan Ranch was sold and is today a part of the Der Kinder Garten chain of preschools.
- Children’s Path preschools, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach--The owner of both schools, Jill Schwartz, voluntarily closed the Hermosa branch in October, 1984, at the request of local police, who announced that they were investigating a “potentially very large” molestation case at the nursery. The police, joined by a newly formed sheriff’s task force, appealed to the public to come forward with any information on possible child abuse at the preschool. Crude, unofficial “wanted” posters, showing photographs of 10 current or former teachers and calling for their prosecution, appeared on telephone poles and other locations in the beach cities.
Loyal parents encouraged Schwartz to reopen the Hermosa nursery with a new teaching staff, and in February, 1985, after the state approved, plans were announced to do that. But a few days later, Schwartz called off the plan, citing vandalism at the school and threats of violence against the teachers.
About two weeks later, the state suspended the licenses of not only the Hermosa school but also Schwartz’s nursery in Manhattan Beach, which previously had not been implicated. Investigators said they were working on new and more detailed accusations, but no arrests were ever made at either school.
In April, 1985, the state agency yielded to determined lobbying by parents and allowed Children’s Path in Manhattan Beach to reopen under a new license granted to one of the teachers, and eventually the school changed its name to Creative Kids. Schwartz, who was meanwhile ordered by the state to stay off the premises, sold her interest to the new owners. Friends said she moved out of the state.
- Peninsula Montessori, Rolling Hills Estate--Closed Dec. 10, 1984, by the state licensing agency seven months after deputies arrested Moshen Dornayi, a 28-year-old teaching intern, on suspicion of molesting four children. Additional accusations against him and other teachers followed, and at one point investigators dug up the playground in search of dead babies, which teachers were accused by children of killing.
Claudia Krikorian, owner of the Peninsula school, said she spent $300,000 defending that preschool and another that she operates in Torrance. She said she also fought her insurance company’s decision to pay $1 million to settle claims made by 10 children that they had been molested. Even though the intern was never charged, the company said it would be cheaper to settle than to fight the claims.
Today, Krikorian continues to operate a licensed elementary school at the Peninsula location, in addition to the Torrance preschool.
“Through it all, enrollment was never a problem,” she said. “Most of my parents have been tremendously loyal and supportive.”
- Learning Game, Manhattan Beach--Closed Dec. 12, 1984, nine days after police raided the 22-pupil school and the homes of seven employees. The searches failed to uncover any evidence to substantiate allegations that five children--three of them purportedly swapped from the McMartin school--had been sexually molested at the Learning Game.
In a statement after their school was closed, owners Helen and John Stearns said, “We know in our hearts that when all the facts and the full truth are known, we will be shown to be innocent.” Their school never reopened.
- St. Cross Episcopal Church Preschool, Hermosa Beach--The church nursery, begun 12 years earlier by parents, was drawn into the cross fire of allegations in early February, 1985, as a result of testimony at the McMartin preliminary hearing. A 10-year-old former McMartin student said that, six years earlier, he and other children were taken several times to the church by members of the McMartin staff and forced to participate in demonic rituals involving hooded men and animal sacrifices on the altar.
Investigators checked out the altar, but sophisticated testing methods failed to detect any blood. A month later, investigators disclosed that children at the church preschool, which had an enrollment of 108, were making accusations of sexual abuse against current and past teachers there.
The preschool director resigned under what the church pastor, the Rev. Jack Eales, called the “hideously unbelievable pressures on those delivering child care in the South Bay.”
After an extended Easter recess, the preschool reopened with a new director and operated until the following October, when St. Cross’ governing board decided that the school, which had lost three-quarters of its enrollment, could not go on. It closed and has not reopened. No arrests were ever made.
By the end of 1985, the tide of allegations began to recede, and the district attorney’s office said no additional prosecutions were anticipated. The sheriff’s 22-member task force quietly ended its yearlong effort, which included searches of at least 60 homes and businesses in the South Bay and questioning of nearly 700 families but produced no arrests. Among suspects identified by the children from 49 photographic lineups--and quickly exonerated by authorities--were movie star Chuck Norris, Los Angeles school board member Roberta Weintraub and Los Angeles City Atty. James K. Hahn. Forty-eight locations in the South Bay were pointed out by the children as places where they allegedly had been molested.
Richard Furukawa, a regional licensing supervisor for the state Department of Social Services, based in Culver City, said his office still receives complaints of child sexual abuse at South Bay preschools. “But it’s nothing like the McMartin period,” he said. “Not even a tiny ripple of what it was then.” Nor does the South Bay generate more complaints than other areas, he said.
One of the most recent cases to surface was at a preschool operated by the South Bay Center for Counseling in Manhattan Beach. In that case, which is now in the juvenile courts, a male teen-age teacher’s aide was arrested and charged in November after a 5-year-old girl accused him of molesting her the summer before, Detective Jane Hoag said.
The suspect, according to several sources, had once made allegations that he was sexually molested in another Manhattan Beach preschool.
Hoag is no stranger to such investigations. Back in 1983, she investigated the first incident in the McMartin case--the complaint by Judy Johnson that Johnson’s 2-year-old son had been molested by Raymond Buckey--and she subsequently participated in other preschool investigations as a member of the sheriff’s task force.
The counseling center’s preschool was established in 1984 to care for children allegedly molested at other South Bay preschools. Colleen Mooney, the center’s executive director, took a prominent role in efforts to guard preschoolers against molestation and in supporting the prosecution of suspects in the McMartin and other cases. She has been active in the I Believe the Children group, among other child advocacy organizations.
“The important thing to remember,” Mooney said last week, referring to the case at her preschool, “is that the child was believed. (Child sexual abuse) can happen anywhere, any time.”