The children had a story to tell that horrified Bakersfield residents and sparked one of the biggest investigations in county history. Dozens of people, a group of children claimed, were members of a satanic cult that molested and then murdered 27 infants, dismembered them and drained their blood.
This lurid story, which began in 1984 with a frenzied investigation and extensive publicity, soon fizzled as no evidence of any cult surfaced, no bodies were found, no infants were known to be missing and no one was ever charged with murder.
Now, seven men and women who were convicted of molestation in another sensational Bakersfield case during the mid-1980s contend that they, too, were falsely accused by overzealous investigators. Because their conviction was overturned last week by an appellate court, they may have the opportunity to prove their innocence during another trial.
Sexual abuse investigations were a high priority in Kern County in the mid-1980s. The county's rate of arrests for child molestation during that period was three times the state average in those days.
By 1985, the focus on child molestation reached a peak, with the two sensational cases receiving extraordinary media attention. In one case, the seven defendants were on trial for running a child pornography business. At the same time, authorities were investigating the satanic case, which resulted in charges being filed against 77 individuals, who children had claimed participated in an enormous molestation ring.
When the satanic case was discredited, some residents began questioning the methods of local investigators. They wondered whether those charged in other Kern County molestation cases also could have been unfairly accused.
"The whole county was gripped in hysteria during that time," said Glen Cole, foreman of the Kern County Grand Jury in the mid-1980s. "I certainly think that anyone accused of child molestation during that time had a very difficult time proving their innocence. Because of all this hysteria, I think there are innocent people in jail right now."
The case against the seven defendants was overturned by the 5th District Court of Appeal, primarily because of misconduct by the prosecutor during the trial. The defendants say that because some of the same investigators worked on both cases and because of the hysteria in Bakersfield during that period, the charges against them are suspect and should be re-examined.
The seven defendants, who received the longest combined prison sentences for child molestation in California history, were accused of a number of crimes, including molesting their own children, nieces and nephews, forcing them to take drugs and filming sexual acts. Like the satanic case, there were no adult witnesses to the crimes, and investigators never found any videotapes.
"This is just like other cases of hysteria where kids were pounded on by investigators until the kids told them what they wanted to hear," said Richard Power, an attorney for one of the seven defendants. "When you've got investigators and prosecutors going after people with a religious fervor . . . that's what happens."
The "witch hunt" investigation, Power said, resembled the McMartin Pre-School case. Prosecutors claim there is an enormous difference: In this case, the jury believed investigators and all defendants were convicted. Although the case was overturned, the appellate court did not rule on the guilt or innocence of the defendants, who are serving combined prison terms of more than 2,600 years.
After the satanic case was discredited, Kern County investigators were widely criticized by the grand jury and in a state attorney general's office report on the case. In the second Bakersfield case, the appellate court never criticized how the case was investigated, said John Somers, Kern County deputy district attorney.
"This was a solid case with a proper investigation . . . this was not a case of hysteria with fabrication of charges," Somers said. "We never had any doubt about their guilt then and we don't have any doubt about their guilt now."
The case against the seven defendants began when Ricky Pitts, now 37, and his wife, Marcella, 35, were accused of molesting Marcella's son from a previous marriage. The child was the subject of a custody dispute between Marcella and her ex-husband.
"Marcella told her ex-husband she was going to fight for custody of the boy . . . that's when the ex-husband's wife called the cops and claimed the kid was molested," said Cynthia Thomas, attorney for one of the defendants. "The whole case took off after that."
By the time the investigation was complete, authorities had arrested Grace Dill, 56, her daughter, Marcella, and Pitts; another of Dill's daughters, Colleen Bennett Forsythe and her husband, Wayne; Dill's son, Wayne, and a family friend, Gina Miller.
At the trial, six children testified that they were sexually abused while several cameras recorded the scene. Some said they were injected with drugs and forced to drink alcohol and engage in sex acts with adults and other children.
The children contended the acts took place in a small green house in Oildale, just outside Bakersfield, that the Pittses rented. All of the adults were considered "Oakies," Thomas said, white working people, struggling to survive on limited incomes.
One of the most dramatic incidents at the trial was when one 5-year-old girl was asked by the prosecution to identify the defendants. When she spotted Ricky Pitts, she froze.
"Then she began screaming . . . and, sobbing, she ran over and jumped into the judge's lap," Thomas said. "Several jurors ended up with tears in their eyes. Tat kind of thing is pretty difficult to counteract."
The defense attorneys contend that some of the same investigators who were involved in the satanic case, and whose techniques were criticized by the attorney general, also investigated the Pitts case. These investigators, the attorneys said, turned the children against the adults in the Pitts case by pressuring them and persuading them that the charges were true. They point to the fact that three of the six children who testified against the defendants have since recanted their testimony.
Somers said this is not unusual in cases where family members are involved in the molestation. There is considerable "pressure on the children to recant" from other family members whose sons and daughters are serving long prison sentences, Somers said.
Inconsistencies were evident during the trial when a physician testified for the prosecution that he found medical evidence of molestation in two children, both of whom claimed they were not molested, said Somers, who was not involved when the case was tried, but who has responded to subsequent appeals.
Former Kern County Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrew Gindes was a member of the prosecution singled out by the appellate court, who called him "an overzealous prosecutor, who, in his blind quest to convict, forgot or ignored his constitutional and ethical duties as a representative of the people."
The appellate brief criticized Gindes for frequently trying to introduce inadmissible evidence to prejudice the jury. Superior Court Judge Gary T. Friedman was accused of being "one-sided" for favoring the prosecution in many rulings.
The case is now in the hands of the attorney general, who has 60 days to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. No decision has been made yet. If the appellate court's decision is upheld, the district attorney can then retry the case.
The attorney general is in the unusual position of defending a molestation case in Kern County. Four years ago, after the bungled satanic molestation investigation, the attorney general released an 80-page report that concluded Kern County law enforcement and social service agencies over-interviewed children, pressured them, and allowed them to share information. Investigators asked the children, "overly leading questions," the report stated, "and did not question those statements. . . . Deputies' efforts to obtain corroborative evidence were limited and poorly documented."
The investigation, the attorney general's report concluded, "foundered in a sea of . . . bizarre allegations that in some instances were proven to be false and raised serious questions about the victims' credibility."
Of the 77 adults who were charged in this case, only two were eventually convicted of "lesser charges of molestation," Somers said, and one of those cases was overturned.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Tom Gede said there are "no parallels in how the two cases were investigated."
In the case that was recently overturned, the jury "rejected the notion that these kids were brainwashed . . . and, after reviewing the court transcripts, we agree," Gede said. "We still think that the record demonstrates that all the defendants are guilty."