Trial May Be Over--but McMartin Will Never End
Nightmares, fears, shadows on the nursery wall. Imprisonment and bankruptcy. Suicide. Exploitation. Careers and friendships destroyed. Childhoods lost. A cloud over the sun-drenched beach town that spawned the largest molestation trial in history.
The McMartin Pre-School case was, in the words of one parent, “a seven-year walk through hell” for everyone involved. The Manhattan Beach school is gone, the trial is over, and the toddlers who could barely see over the witness stand are now gangling teen-agers.
Friday’s mistrial, declared after jurors deliberated for 15 days without deciding Ray Buckey’s guilt, still leaves unresolved the central question: Were any children molested at McMartin? All counts against the 32-year-old nursery school teacher are expected to be formally dismissed Wednesday. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner has said he will not try Buckey a third time. “I’m convinced this case will never end,” said lawyer Eli Gauna, who represents a McMartin teacher against whom criminal charges were dropped. “It will always be there until everyone who was ever involved gets to old age or dies.”
The participants agree. The ghosts of McMartin will continue to haunt them, they say, for the rest of their lives. From suburban parents to hard-driving attorneys to seasoned politicians, to the children, no one escaped.
“The case has poisoned everyone who had contact with it,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Pounders said at one point during Buckey’s three-year trial. “By that I mean every witness, every litigant and every judicial officer. It’s a very upsetting case.”
During seven years of criminal proceedings that focused on Buckey and three members of his family, the case involved federal and county grand juries, a preliminary hearing, two trials, 36 trial jurors, 17 attorneys, six judges, and hundreds of witnesses and alleged victims.
McMartin reverberated miles beyond the pale green nursery school walls and its play yard of wooden animals. Eight other South Bay preschools were eventually shut down and the case changed the way child molestation is viewed and prosecuted across the country.
The numbers and broad policy implications do not begin to tell the story of the personal anguish, guilt, self-examination and ruined lives that are the McMartin case’s legacy.
The Manhattan Beach mother who alleged that “Mr. Ray” had sodomized her son, triggering the longest, costliest and arguably the most acrimonious criminal case in U.S. history, was apparently driven mad by McMartin and drank herself to death during the Christmas holidays in 1986. She was found dead in her bedroom--an empty bottle of Bacardi rum in the next room--before the trial even began.
“They say I’m crazy,” she told a Times reporter shortly before her death. “But maybe you have to be a little crazy to even imagine that your child could be molested.” Her former husband termed her “a courageous heroine and tragic victim.”
Other lives were lost too. A defense investigator committed suicide the night before he was to testify. A young man who was implicated early in the investigation by several children died of an apparent drug overdose after authorities had seized a pair of rabbit ears, a black cloak and a black candle from his girlfriend’s apartment.
Those who lived were pushed to their emotional limits.
The case took an enormous toll on the accusers and the accused--on the children who alleged that their teachers had committed a heinous crime, and on the teachers whose reputations were destroyed.
Theirs was a sad and twisted notoriety, as both sides fought to maintain their privacy, yet appeared on talk shows across the country. A mention in Manhattan Beach of “the children” needed no further identification. Graffiti sprayed on the preschool wall reading, “Ray must die!” needed no last name.
“My son continues to have nightmares and traumas, and he’s going to be 14,” said a McMartin father, whose two children testified. He said he moved his family to another city because of the case.
“In Manhattan Beach, it was always ‘Those McMartin kids--those tainted McMartin kids,’ ” he said.
The McMartin teachers were tainted too.
Buckey’s sister, Peggy Ann Buckey, a former defendant, lost her Orange County teaching job and regained it only after lengthy legal proceedings. The other teachers, including Buckey’s grandmother, school founder Virginia McMartin, found themselves hauled off to jail, lost their life savings, and ultimately found it difficult to return to their lives even after charges against them were dropped.
At the end, only Ray Buckey stood accused.
Buckey, meanwhile, says his ordeal has made him “a stronger person,” although he is bitter about the loss of his family’s school, home and good name.
After two trials and five years in jail, he said: “I’ve gone from probably one of the most hated people you could ever mention to a point of where everybody that comes up to me now is very sympathetic, and they’re saying ‘I always thought you were innocent.’ ”
However, only last week, he was reportedly accosted in a South Bay supermarket by several teen-agers who recognized him.
With his jail and courtroom days behind him, he said Friday: “I would just like to be left alone. I’d like to move out of the city and find a little fresh air.”
Others had their own battles to fight:
A juror whose wife died during the first trial pressed on without interrupting the proceedings to mourn. Judge Pounders said the stress of the case affected both him and his family, while defense attorney Danny Davis developed back problems.
In one acrimonious exchange, Pounders told the attorney, “I’m going to conclude this case, even if it’s over your dead body.” He said he meant it literally, adding that if one of them should have a heart attack, “So be it.”
St. Cross Episcopal Church in Hermosa Beach was pelted with eggs and vandalized intermittently for years after a McMartin child identified it as a site of satanic ritual and animal sacrifice. The church is still struggling to rebuild its congregation in the aftermath of the allegations. Days after the first trial ended, its pastor resigned and left town, blaming McMartin in his farewell sermon.
Former Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, who filed the case, was defeated by Ira Reiner. For his part, Reiner was tarred by McMartin in his unsuccessful run for the Democratic state attorney general nomination in June.
“Obviously, it had a major political impact,” Reiner said Friday. “That’s one of the prices you pay . . . when you hold a position where there are difficult decisions that have to be made.”
Former prosecutor Glen Stevens--who changed his mind about Buckey’s guilt midway through the case--was fired from the district attorney’s office, worked briefly as a defense attorney, and testified for the McMartin defense. He went on to sell real estate in Beverly Hills.
Other careers benefited. The case made defense attorneys Davis and Dean Gits, who represented Buckey’s mother, media stars. Deputy Dist. Atty. Lael Rubin, one of the original prosecutors, was promoted to handle special trials. Her co-prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Roger Gunson, now heads the Special Investigations Division, a prosecutorial plum. Judge Pounders was awarded a three-month temporary assignment on the Court of Appeals.
Relationships were forged, strained and severed. Participants’ private lives often became public.
Davis was married during the trial, as was prosecutor Rubin. The therapist who interviewed the alleged child victims had a brief romance with the television newsman who broke the story. He lost his job and she went on to marry a child abuse prosecutor in San Diego. Some McMartin parents clung to each other for support; others separated or divorced under the stress.
McMartin provided a new career path--child advocacy--for many of those involved. An entire cottage industry of organizations sprang from the publicity surrounding child abuse.
Unindicted suspects in the South Bay area child sex abuse cases, as well as family and friends of those accused, banded together in VOCAL, or Victims Opposed to Child Abuse Legislation. Their purpose, besides moral support for each other, is to actively combat what they consider “witch hunts.”
Police departments, child abuse clinics, day-care centers, and courts were rocked by fallout from the McMartin case. Authorities analyzed archaic procedures and created guidelines that became role models for the nation. The California attorney general released recommendations for preventing and prosecuting child abuse, noting that young victims were “re-victimized by the system as a result of clumsiness or insensitivity.”
New laws allowed children to testify by closed-circuit television, and afforded protection of child witnesses from harassment and repetitive cross-examination. Police academies revised their curricula and law enforcement manuals were changed. Day-care centers tightened their hiring standards and training, and parents shopped more carefully for child care.
Those changes, however, did not come cheap.
The case cost county taxpayers $14 million. The McMartin family and other defendants lost everything they had to their lawyers, and were repeatedly evicted from rentals when neighbors found out their connection to the alleged scandal.
Davis got the school property as part of his legal fees; the school was shut down, picketed, written on, painted over, sold and eventually torn down to make way for an office building.
For the children, the price has been the loss of their innocence.
One little girl, now 11, mused in the aftermath of Friday’s mistrial that more than half of her short life has been wrapped up in the case. Asked about her first memories, she countered, “You mean besides McMartin?”
A 17-year-old boy whose brother testified, but who could not himself because the statute of limitations had expired by the time the case broke, said he has felt the effects in subtle ways throughout his adolescence. There were arguments with his mother when she agreed to be interviewed by the news media about the case, he said. And he worried about how his classmates would react after his brother appeared on the Oprah Winfrey TV show.
He wondered, too, about the case’s impact on his personal life.
“I noticed that I was real timid with sex,” he said. “With girls, I felt it was rude and intruding to take their clothes off and touch them. But that could be normal, I guess. I don’t know. I never talked about it with my friends.”
Paula Daniels says her son, now 14, seems well-adjusted and has needed very little therapy since he testified. Still, she said, he carries with him a “phobia” about being called a liar that she traces directly to his cross-examination on the witness stand.
When Daniels’ daughter, now 9, walks to the corner mailbox, Daniels said, she catches herself worrying whether the child will be safe.
“We’re lucky to have gotten through it,” she said.
Another mother, Marymae Cioffi, added: “Whatever any jury says isn’t going to change what’s happened to our lives. We have children who have gone through therapy, who have had nightmares, who feel they’re inadequate and not like other kids. The kids seem OK now at school, but at quiet moments they’ll say something out of the blue.”
Even McMartin jurors complain of flashbacks.
Sally Cordova, a 27-year-old Burbank grocery store clerk, cannot shake the images. Visiting a church with a sandstone altar, she recalled the allegations one child made of animal sacrifice.
“Forever, I will be reminded unintentionally of the case,” she said. “I’m sure it will happen again and again.”
Even though the historic McMartin Pre-School trial finally has ended, a host of other civil lawsuits generated by the case conceivably could keep the issue alive in courts for decades, legal experts say. Among them, civil rights suits filed by former suspects against their accusers, against a television station, and against the school’s insurance carriers.
Under state law, children who allege abuse have until they are 19 to file lawsuits on their own. However, some courts have held that child abuse victims can file at any time in their lives. In the so-called delayed discovery theory, a statute of limitations does not take effect until the victim actually becomes aware of molestation.
But it remains to be seen whether any of these avenues will lead to a resolution of the McMartin question. Dist. Atty. Reiner said he had hoped Buckey’s second trial would provide the answers so many have sought for so long.
“The parents felt it was important there would be a resolution,” he said. “I think it’s clear now there cannot be.”