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Parents Dig Persistently for Evidence : McMartin school: Despite skeptics, they insist they have found underground network. With the site razed for an office building, the questions may never be answered.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former FBI agent Ted L. Gunderson believes it. So does Jackie McGauley and several other parents of former students at the McMartin Pre-school in Manhattan Beach.

And in recent days, Gunderson and the parents have tried to make the public believe that a long-rumored network of underground tunnels where children may have been taken and terrorized was discovered last week in the final hours before the now-infamous preschool was razed.

The ex-FBI Los Angeles bureau chief, who was hired by the parents, has appeared on radio talk shows to tell of the tunnels and criticize Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner’s office for failing to take seriously the parents’ findings. He offers boxes and boxes of artifacts--more than 2,000 at last count--gathered during the excavation as further proof that the preschool operators maintained and then tried to cover up a tunnel system by stuffing trash into the narrow openings. He says that tiny paint chips, curtain rod rings, charcoal and electrical wiring dug from under the foundation support the theory.

But skeptics abound. They say the McMartin parents and a team of experts they hired to poke and burrow under the abandoned school site for more than a month produced nothing but more conjecture about cramped earthen passageways where Satanic rituals and animal sacrifices could have been carried out in the presence of children. Hard evidence, they say, is still lacking.

Attorney John J. Wagner, who represents Ray Buckey, the lone McMartin defendant still on trial, labeled the so-called tunnel discoveries “ludicrous,” adding that the parents “will believe what they want to believe.”

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An investigator for the district attorney’s office who inspected the excavated school site last week told parents upon emerging from one of the crawl spaces that the openings hollowed out with picks and shovels “could be anything.” Sewer or water lines, for example.

Even the archeologist hired by Gunderson and the parents qualified the findings, saying workers came across “two probable tunnels. . . . But we can’t be 100% certain.”

Now that the school has been leveled to make way for a three-story office building, the debate over the existence of tunnels, and the parents’ contentions of strange goings-on at the preschool, may never end.

Parents say they intend to closely monitor construction crews as they dig the foundation for the building’s underground parking garage. For weeks, the sight of parents camping out at the school site and pawing at the earth in search of clues to the child molestations they say were committed there has formed a curious backdrop to the retrial of Buckey, a former McMartin teacher.

Buckey, 32, and his mother, Peggy Martin Buckey, 63--the former operator of the family-run school--were acquitted in January of 52 counts of molestation and conspiracy.

But Buckey, the grandson of the school’s founder, Virginia McMartin, is being retried on eight molestation counts stemming from the alleged abuse of three girls between 1979 and 1983. The excavation of the school site by McMartin parents has not been an issue, nor is it expected to become one, in Buckey’s retrial because the three girls were not among those who earlier told prosecutors about a secret room and underground tunnels, said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office. No mention was made of tunnels or underground rooms by prosecutors before they rested their case Friday after three weeks of testimony.

In fact, only one child testified during the first trial about the existence of a secret room used for molestation and he did not describe it as being underground. Word of the subterranean chamber came from about a dozen students, none of whom were called to testify.

Acting on the childrens’ descriptions, the district attorney investigators surveyed the school property in the spring of 1985. Using special sonar equipment, they took soundings both around the buildings and in the classrooms for “soft spots” under the foundation that might indicate soil had been disturbed or moved or that there were hollow areas, consistent with talk by some children of a nine-foot-wide chamber. Investigators even examined the flooring to determine if any of it had been removed or patched to cover up a trap door leading to the underground. Nothing odd turned up, they insist.

“The entire site was investigated and we were satisfied,” said Gibbons, adding that “nothing has changed and we stand by that study.”

But McMartin parents, such as Jackie McGauley, say they have never been satisfied. In mid-April, the parents jumped at their first--and only--chance to personally plumb the site when the current property owner, a Hermosa Beach developer, gave permission. The district attorney’s office was told of the effort, financed solely by the parents, after it had begun.

Gunderson said prosecutors showed little interest, fueling the belief among parents that Reiner’s office, criticized for its handling of the first case and under fire again for its performance in Buckey’s retrial, is not committed to the case. The level of mistrust is so high that Gunderson, who headed the Los Angeles FBI office from 1977 to 1979 before becoming a private investigator, said artifacts gathered by the parents from the school site will be taken to a secret location to be studied, catalogued and eventually dated.

“We are not turning any of it over the D.A.'s office,” Gunderson said. “I don’t trust them, and besides I don’t think they wanted to find tunnels, so who knows what they might do with our evidence.”

Gunderson is viewed with suspicion in some quarters, partly because of his longtime reputation as a maverick and because of his personal involvement with one of the McMartin parents.

McGauley, the parent who helped instigate the dig, has acknowledged a romantic relationship with Gunderson that predates the parents’ project.

Much of the so-called evidence unearthed by the parents is simply debris, pulled from several veins of loose dirt that Gunderson and archeologist Gary Stickel believe are man-made tunnels. The debris, Gunderson said, included dog, lamb, pig and chicken bones, wood and tar paper. Also recovered was a saucer with a pentagram and a plastic bag dated 1982 from Disneyland. The date is important, Gunderson said, because it suggests that the tunnel was used during the time the preschool, which was built and opened in 1966, was operating.

Stickel, who has a doctorate in archeology from UCLA, said workers found numerous trenches around and under the school, and all but two have been explained as construction- or utility-related. The two are a 45-foot-long opening underneath two classrooms and a crawl space running from the school’s front office to a triplex east of the preschool site. Once workers removed the debris that filled the two openings, Stickel said he concluded that the passageways were handmade. Each was about four feet high, and the opening under the two classrooms varied in width from 2 1/2 to nine feet.

At the point where the two tunnels passed under the foundation, Stickel said the foundation was “even arced as if someone had attempted to shape it.”

Attorney Danny Davis, who also represents Buckey, said the parents “are grasping at straws.”

He said the preschool site, acquired by Virginia McMartin in 1966, had been a horse stable and was inhabited by all sorts of farm animals. The presence of bones, he said, “should surprise no one. My understanding is all sorts of animals were buried there, as well as trash and other debris. There were outhouses all over that property.”

Davis called the parents’ dig a “cathartic exercise to bury the issue once and for all. They refuse to even consider that maybe, just maybe they were wrong; that somehow they bought into a story that turned into a circus that has never been based in fact.”

Davis predicts that the parents’ excavation, carried out against the deadline for demolition of the site, will simply become part of the “witch-hunt folklore” surrounding this case. “It will become a paragraph or two in the voluminous story of McMartin Pre-school.”

McMartin school parent McGauley disagrees:

“We didn’t do this for the case. We did it for the kids. . . . All I know is in our hearts we found those tunnels.”


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