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Last-Ditch Search : Crew Looks for Clues Below McMartin School Site

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jackie McGauley stood, arms folded, eyes open wide, peering expectantly into a six-foot-deep chasm that workers had dug beneath the concrete foundation of the abandoned McMartin Pre-school in Manhattan Beach.

Down below, a hodge-podge gathering of professional archeologists, soils experts and curious volunteers used picks and shovels Sunday to sift the sandy soil in a strange urban excavation--searching for remaining clues to the child molestation crimes that parents such as McGauley, insist occurred at the now-infamous preschool.

The digging, McGauley hopes, will soon reveal a labyrinthine network of tunnels many parents believe were secretly burrowed to spirit away dozens of children to become participants in a weird Satanic ritual that included both human and animal sacrifices.

Ray Buckey, 31, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 63--the former operator of the family-run school--were acquitted in January of a total of 52 counts of molestation and conspiracy. Ray Buckey, a former McMartin teacher, is now being retried on eight molestation counts stemming from the alleged abuse of three girls between 1979 and 1983.

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But even though authorities have long finished their examination of the site, parents say the school still has a story to tell. For weeks, they have held a silent vigil--drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, whispering among themselves--while a team of hired professional excavators digs through the site.

Recently, workers uncovered a small dinner plate bearing a pentagram parents believe could be connected with a Satanic ritual. Digging beneath the building’s 24-year-old foundation, they have also located at least one crudely built tunnel they suspect was used to transport children to the yard of an adjacent apartment building.

But their efforts to uncover more tunnels--and the secret underground room where they believe the rituals took place--have become a battle against time.

On Tuesday, construction crews will begin bulldozing the Manhattan Beach Boulevard site to make way for a three-story office building and underground parking lot, forever sealing any possibility of finding further clues in the molestation case that has provided a national focal point for the issue of child abuse.

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And so, for the parents, the last days at the McMartin Pre-school have brought confusing emotions of frustration, anger and an unlikely sense of hope that a significant clue will still be found.

“I don’t expect anything we find here to turn the case around,” McGauley said. “We’re doing this for our children and their credibility. That’s the most important thing.”

The district attorney’s office said it would be happy to examine any new evidence found at the site. “If someone presents us with some substantive, credible, evidence, we’ll certainly take a look at it,” spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said Sunday.

The most recent digging began last month when a group of parents broke through the concrete floor of a classroom, looking for tunnels that more than a dozen former McMartin students reportedly described to prosecutors.

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However, Ted L. Gunderson, a former Los Angeles FBI chief and self-proclaimed Satanic expert, persuaded parents to stand by while a team of experts took over.

Since then, Gunderson says, he has spent 12 hours a day at the site, supervising an effort that is costing more than $1,000 a day--paid for mostly by donations. Gunderson said he has donated $2,000 of his own money.

“My interest is just finding out, once and for all, what went on here,” he said.

Gunderson said workers have uncovered what appears to be a series of tunnels that may have been filled in in recent years--possibly after the investigation of the case began in the early 1980s.

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“The district attorney’s office should have been out here doing this job six years ago after the case broke in 1983,” he said.

Dr. Gary Stickel, an archeologist, said the team has found what it believes is a network of tunnels.

“But a lot of it appears to have been filled in in recent years,” he said. “And that makes the work difficult. If this site had been sealed off and we had been brought in by the authorities years ago when this came to light, who knows what we may have found?”

“We have people driving by on the street all the time yelling ‘Praise Satanism,’ ” said one parent. “But we also have people coming by to volunteer just because they believe that something terribly wrong went on here--something that the authorities have just glossed over.”

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For parents such as Jackie McGauley, driving by the office building that will eventually fill the site won’t be as painful--as long as they know they’ve tried their best to uncover what in recent years has become one of the most enduring mysteries around.

“Actually, I’m glad they’re not building another school here,” she said. “I’m grateful that it’ll be something completely different. When the bulldozers come to tear this place down, I’ll be here.

“Getting rid of this school is like having a boil removed. They’ll have to dig way down to remove it. It’ll be painful. But, in the end, it’ll be gone.”


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