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Child Abuse Charges at Day-Care Center Divide Formerly Close-Knit Community : Courts: Most of the North Carolina town’s 5,300 people are touched by the case. The separate trials for seven defendants have faced long delays.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

First came the shocking tales from the Little Rascals day-care center, told by children to their parents: rape, sodomy, getting shoved into a microwave, forced to watch sex acts and threatened with snakes.

Then came the sex abuse charges filed by authorities: 429, involving as many as 90 youngsters. Of the seven defendants, three have been jailed for almost two years. All will be tried separately, ensuring a courtroom marathon.

The case with striking parallels to the McMartin Pre-School case in Los Angeles is dragging toward trial. But unlike Los Angeles, this coastal town is home to only 5,300 residents, most of whom are somehow touched by the case. The abuse charges, which surfaced in the spring of 1989, have strained relations in this historically close-knit community and spawned fears among some parents--even those whose children were not at Little Rascals.

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“I have this nightmare,” said Debbie Jones, mother of two children, ages 4 and 1, as she watched her younger child, Logan, play in a park on a recent steamy day. “My daughter is playing in the yard and somebody comes down and takes her. I feel like some kind of animal in the jungle protecting my young. I’m crazy over this.”

Robert Kelly Jr., who owned the now-defunct day-care center, was to have been the first to go on trial, on June 3. But the date was postponed as defense lawyers challenged rulings on how much evidence they should be allowed to see. Only the prosecution has the tapes and transcripts of conversations between the allegedly abused children and therapists. Those sessions apparently are the cornerstone of the prosecution’s case.

Kelly faces 248 counts of child abuse. Because of the large number of counts, his bond was set at $1.5 million. Elizabeth (Betsy) Kelly, his wife and co-owner of the center, also is in jail, facing a $1-million bond, the same as Willard Scott Privott, who, according to prosecutors, ran a video store and shoe repair shop. All three have been imprisoned since 1989.

Robin Byrum and Kathryn Wilson, two center employees, were jailed until recently, when they were able to make bond. Two other workers, Darlene Harris and Shelley Stone, had fewer charges and were able to make bail.

Sensitive to criticism, prosecutors blame the defense for the absence of a speedy trial, citing defense efforts to gain access to the prosecution evidence and to get all seven cases tried together.

Jeffrey Miller, a defense attorney, said his clients are “doing as well as innocent people can do for being in jail.”

That contention of innocence divides the town. On the one hand, the children’s claims seem so real. How could they make these things up? And yet how could it go on for so long, to so many children, without anybody suspecting?

Parents especially are unwilling to give the day-care people benefit of doubt because that would mean doubting their own children.

One mother whose daughter was at the center grew visibly angry as she reluctantly discussed the case with a visitor. The stories her daughter told were disturbingly convincing, she said, adding: “I could not have described it the way she did.”

Like many who are directly involved in the case, the woman did not want her named used. The town is small, she explained, everybody knows everybody, and feelings run high. Tension grew recently, after PBS broadcast a “Frontline” documentary about the case that prosecutors and some townsfolk claim was sympathetic to the defendants, making some of the accusing parents look gossipy and vindictive.

Several residents said viewers around the nation telephoned and wrote angry letters to people here, charging that the defendants were being framed.

The mother, like others here, still must do business with people on both sides of the case--the relatives and friends of both the accusers and the accused.

However, she asserted: “Our day is coming. Once the trial has started, we can talk.” Meanwhile, the town warps, and splits.

Settled in the 17th Century, Edenton once was the capital of the North Carolina colony, attracting wealth and grace that still are reflected in its architecture. It became a classic American small town, where everyone knew your business and people greeted each other on the street.

Now, “we cope with it one day at a time,” said the mother.

Several residents who moved here for the good life talk about moving away. Others just lament the change.

“It’s hard to imagine that something so horrible would happen here,” said a teacher as she watched over about a dozen children cavorting during lunch hour. “But it does happen. It doesn’t just happen in Los Angeles. It happens in every town. This has touched the town completely. I’m sure it’ll be long-lasting.”

Just what the truth is will be hard to determine, perhaps impossible to prove. As in the McMartin case, experts will testify for the prosecution, citing awful stories told by children, but the defense will counter that the children were coached.

In the McMartin case, which took six years to play out and cost taxpayers $15 million, two defendants were acquitted of charges that they molested children. Afterward, jurors criticized the prosecution for relying on videotaped sessions of pretrial interviews of the children.

For a time, there were rumors that the prosecution here had secret videotapes of lewd acts--allegedly committed at the day-care center and other places where the children were taken--and that these would be sprung at trial.

“We do not have any tapes,” said H. P. Williams, Chowan County district attorney. He refused to discuss the evidence the prosecution does have, but said: “It is my desire to have this (first) case tried this summer.”

Like the town itself, the building at the center of the case seems an unlikely place for such terrible tales.

It is red brick, with plate glass windows on the front. The two-story structure is located on East Eden Street, amid mostly modest one-family homes, oaks, azaleas and crape myrtles, just a few blocks from the beautiful bay and downtown.

The neighborhood is quiet now, but as the case unfolded during the last two years, journalists from time to time set upon the area, seeking eyewitnesses to the alleged incidents. Several residents recently told a visitor they had seen none of the alleged acts.

For some, hindsight is powerful in the wake of the allegations. Lenora Smith, who lives next door to the center, voiced “surprise” at the charges but does remember that “a few things I saw were kind of unusual.”

What?

Well, Robert Kelly owned a plumbing business, but “at times he stayed over there (at the day-care center) a lot,” she said.

Andrea Blount, a black middle-aged woman who has lived here 33 years, said she has a friend who had two daughters in Little Rascals. Now they are in therapy, she said, adding that their stories “shocked me.”

Blount believes the stories. Eight times a grandmother, she said: “A child can’t fabricate something like that. That child is going to tell the truth.”

Some people here admit to being a bit jumpy since the allegations surfaced.

Debbie Jones said, “I get paranoid.” Extending her hand, palm down, she made it tremble, saying: “I’m like this if I’m with my kids in a public place.”

In a building on the town’s main thoroughfare, South Broad Street, a young boy who looked about 5 years old, bolstered her point. As he walked out of an office into a hall, apparently heading for the bathroom, he looked over his shoulder and said stoically to a woman: “If I don’t come back, call the police.”


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