Not Guilty! : Both Buckeys Cleared in Historic McMartin Case : Trial Cost $15 Million in 6 Years
Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin Buckey were found not guilty today of molesting children at the family-run McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach.
The eight-man, four-woman jury--10 of the members parents themselves--acquitted the Buckeys of 52 counts of molestation and conspiracy after nine weeks of deliberations. It was deadlocked on 13 remaining counts, and a mistrial was declared on those allegations.
Several jurors said later that they believed children had been molested but that the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Buckeys were responsible.
Buckey and his mother, who both spent years in jail as the case progressed through the judicial system, sat silently as the acquittal was announced by the court clerk. Their eyes rimmed with tears.
As the verdict was delivered, a single scream was heard in the courtroom of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Pounders.
Ray Buckey left the courtroom without comment but his mother reacted angrily.
“I’ve gone through hell and now we’ve lost everything,” she said outside the court. “My concern was for my son and what they’ve done to him . . . because my son would never harm a child.”
The acquittal concluded the end of the longest criminal trial in U.S. history, a case that stemmed from a 2-year-old’s report to his mother six years ago that he had been sodomized at his school by a “Mr. Ray.” The case ultimately cost taxpayers $15 million, altered scores of lives and careers, and provided a national focal point for the issue of child abuse.
Afterward, in the courthouse hallways, parents of alleged victims reacted bitterly in the crowded courtroom hallways. They lashed out at the prosecutors for bungling the case and insisted that their children had not been well served by the judicial system.
“The system doesn’t allow us to protect kids,” said John Cioffi, the father of two alleged victims. “I have no doubt these children were abused.”
Jurors were critical of the prosecutors’ methods, in particular their reliance on videotapes of controversial pretrial interviewing of the young witnesses at a Los Angeles child-abuse center.
“We did not get in the children’s own word their stories,” said juror John Breese.
Prosecutor Lael Rubin said: “We ultimately must respect the jury’s decision even though I personally disagree with it.” She defended the decision to bring the case to trial.
The case--which included allegations not only of rape, sodomy, oral copulation and other sex crimes, but also of pornographic photography sessions, “naked games,” field trips away from the school for illicit purposes, animal mutilation, threats and satanic-like ritual and sacrifice--began in the fall of 1983.
The mother of a 2-year-old complained to Manhattan Beach police that her son had been sodomized by “Mr. Ray,” and subsequent physical examinations indicated he had been sexually abused.
Buckey was arrested in September of that year but was released as the investigation continued and widened to include six other teachers at the Manhattan Beach nursery school, among them his grandmother, dozens of “uncharged suspects,” and eight other South Bay nursery schools.
The Manhattan Beach Police Department sent a form letter to hundreds of McMartin school parents asking for information, and a wave of hysteria swept through the affluent beach town. Many parents took their youngsters to Children’s Institute International, a Los Angeles child-abuse diagnostic and treatment center, for evaluation. The majority were told that their children had been victimized.
In March of 1984, Ray Buckey was rearrested, along with his sister, Peggy Ann Buckey; his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey; his grandmother, Virginia McMartin, and teachers Betty Raidor, Babette Spitler and Mary Ann Jackson. A county grand jury had indicted them on 115 counts. That indictment was superseded in May by a criminal complaint charging them with 208 counts involving 41 children.
The case was hastily filed, and it was flawed from the beginning. Then-Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, running for reelection, and the media, which caught wind of the investigation, were pressing for action.
Children’s Institute International, deluged with concerned parents, enlisted untrained therapists to assess the children, resulting in videotaped interviews filled with leading and suggestive questions that would later prove embarrassing to the prosecution and provide the defense with grounds for claiming that the alleged victims had been programmed to believe that they had been molested.
Hysteria grew. Hundreds of South Bay children had fallen victim to a nationwide conspiracy and pornography ring, it was alleged, and an angry mob spray-painted “Ray Must Die” on the walls of the nursery school and began digging up an adjacent vacant lot in search of animal remains.
The 18-month preliminary hearing, which began in the fall of 1984, was marked by frequent shouting matches among three prosecutors, nine defense attorneys and Municipal Judge Aviva Bobb and lengthy questioning of child witnesses that lasted in one instance for 16 days.
Los Angeles was riveted by the daily images of youngsters clambering atop a booster chair in their Sunday best to face their alleged molesters. They munched cookies, swigged root beer and sometimes sobbed as they told of their experiences at McMartin.
Perhaps the most poignant moment came when an 8-year-old girl told in a wispy voice of having been raped, photographed, tied up and placed in a dark closet by her teachers five years earlier.
“When Ray touched you, did you tell him it hurt?” asked Deputy Dist. Atty. Rubin.
“Yes,” the girl answered.
“What did he say?” Rubin asked.
“That it doesn’t matter,” the girl said softly.
In the end, Bobb ordered all seven defendants to stand trial on 135 charges, telling each, “The court believes there is sufficient cause to believe you are guilty.” The remaining charges had been dropped after only 14 of the scheduled child witnesses came forward to testify. One child was allowed to testify by closed-circuit television under a state law passed especially for the McMartin case.
But a week later, in January of 1986, the new district attorney, Ira Reiner, who had inherited the case from Philibosian, dropped charges against five of the seven defendants, citing “incredibly weak evidence” and deciding to proceed only against Buckey and his mother.
The trial began with jury selection in April of 1987. Testimony began in July. The scope of the trial was narrowed again when several parents decided not to allow their children to testify. Eventually nine of 11 named victims took the witness stand, all sticking to their earlier accounts, except for minor inconsistencies.
Toddlers at the time of their alleged abuse and now nearing adolescence, they described in graphic detail the abuses they said they suffered at the hands of the Buckeys. Their testimony was often raw and unsettling. The children’s allegations were supported by medical evidence testified to by physicians.
But both Buckey and his mother also took the stand and staunchly maintained their innocence. And fellow teachers, including former defendants, testified that no improprieties in the small school could have occurred without their knowledge.
The prosecution sought to show that the children had repeatedly been abused sexually but silenced for years by threats, and also that their child-like efforts to tell their parents that something was wrong had been ignored or misinterpreted.
The defense contended that nothing untoward happened at the school but that the children were programmed by therapists to believe that something bad had happened to them. It claimed that their stories defied common sense and that the medical evidence was unreliable and perhaps fabricated.
The six-year-long case was marked by twists and turns and tragedies, prompting the judge to comment that it had “poisoned” everyone it had touched. Day after day, it was punctuated with the unexpected and bizarre:
- Ailing family matriarch Virginia McMartin, now 82, wrote poetry, conducted colorful hallway interviews and tested the judge’s patience with such outbursts as, “This awful court. These awful people. These awful lies.”
- Therapist Kee MacFarlane, who conducted many of the interviews in which children first disclosed that they had been molested, came under fire when it was revealed not only that she had minimal previous experience in the field but also that she was involved romantically with the television newsman who broke the story.
- Former prosecutor Glenn Stevens became a key defense witness after leaking information that he believed that the defendants were innocent and signed a movie contract to tell his revised version of events.
- A 10-year-old boy, testifying at the preliminary hearing, identified everyone from the city attorney and a movie star to a priest and four nuns as among his molesters and painted a picture of marching with his classmates to a cemetery where they dug up corpses with shovels and pickaxes.
Witnesses’ personal lives were probed, allegations of sexual perversity and affairs between participants were made by the defense, the prosecution accused the defense of “outrageously slimy conduct,” and at least three people involved in the case died under suspicious circumstances.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.