HBO Reopens the McMartin Pre-School Case : Television: Parents and former students of the old Manhattan Beach school protest the move but the film's producers, including Oliver Stone, maintain the only victims in the molestation trial were the Buckeys.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly five years after the longest and costliest criminal trial in American history was put to rest, the sensational McMartin Pre-School child molestation case is being reopened for a TV movie. Falling on unsympathetic ears are the cries of protest from parents and former students of the old Manhattan Beach preschool, who have worked hard to close that painful chapter in their lives.

The producers, including Oliver Stone, argue that their HBO movie will tell the story of the real victims in that case: primarily Raymond Buckey, who spent 1984 to 1989 in county jail without bail, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, who spent two years in jail before her bail was set. Although Raymond Buckey was tried again after the first trial ended in only a partial verdict, neither he nor anyone else at the school was convicted of any crime.

The $6-million movie, starring James Woods and Mercedes Ruehl, wraps shooting this month in Los Angeles for a May premiere.

Writer and executive producer Abby Mann and his wife, Myra, who helped research the project, believe the McMartin trial was a modern-day witch hunt. They got involved in the case before the first trial, locking up the defendants' story rights and even sharing information with the defense lawyers.

They hope the movie and a book they are writing will result in a national debate over how children are interviewed for alleged sex-abuse cases such as McMartin. In their opinion, the McMartin students were abused by the legal system, not by the Buckeys.

The McMartin children interviewed for this story, all young adults now, passionately stick to their stories of abuse at the hands of the Buckeys. They and their parents wish the Manns would just let it go, they say.

"I don't understand what the point of bringing it up again is," said one former student, now 18, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

"It was done and over with, with the acquittals," said the girl, who first testified before the grand jury when she was in second grade, and then twice more at the trials of Raymond Buckey. "Everyone went through so much then. Obviously, they want to make money, but I don't see why they have to drag it all back up. We've already gone through so much."

But Stone, who stirred up his own national controversy by presenting his vision of popular history in the film "JFK," warns against putting the victim hat on the wrong head.

"The only ones who were victims at this point in time are Raymond and Peggy and the other McMartin teachers," said Stone, who was approached by Mann to produce the film through his company, Ixtlan, and Woods' company, Breakheart Films.

"They (the defendants) went through hell," Stone said. "In the American system, they are innocent until proven guilty, and they were not proven guilty. That's what we have a jury system for. I think these people went through hell, they were victimized and their story deserves to be told."

While on the set filming the movie, the Manns became victims themselves when their Hollywood Hills home burned to the ground. Authorities have declared it a case of arson. As a result, the Manns, who are now operating out of a Beverly Hills hotel, are under tight security.

"We know a great deal about (the fire), but we can't talk about it at the moment," Abby Mann said. He did, however, suggest that the blaze, now under federal investigation, might be tied to his McMartin involvement.

"Because of (the fire), we may change the focus of the book," he said cryptically, referring to the nonfiction account of McMartin events that he and his wife have been researching for years without a publisher.

The McMartin case began simply enough in 1983, when Judy Ann Johnson filed a complaint with the Manhattan Beach Police Department that accused Raymond Buckey, a 25-year-old teacher at the school, of molesting her 2 1/2-year-old son. Johnson was later found to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and died of alcohol-related liver disease in 1986.

Four hundred children were interviewed on videotape by child therapist Kee MacFarlane, who concluded that 369 of them had been molested. The media jumped on the story, with reports of naked movie star games, satanic rituals and animal sacrifices. At one point, the police said they believed that 1,200 South Bay children had been sexually abused, resulting in the closure of nine South Bay schools and leaving many more teachers tainted.

Seven McMartin teachers were indicted in 1984 on 115 charges of felony child molestation involving 42 preschool children. Without corroborating evidence to substantiate the children's testimony, however, charges and witnesses were whittled away until all that remained were 11 children and two defendants--Raymond Buckey and his mother, school co-owner Peggy McMartin Buckey.

She was acquitted in the first trial; he was acquitted of 40 counts but was retried on eight counts that the first jury had been unable to decide. He was released in 1990 after the second jury was "hopelessly and irreversibly" deadlocked.

The entire case took seven years and cost $16 million.

HBO denies any sensationalistic motives for dredging up the notorious McMartin case.

"When I think of sensationalism, I think of tabloid journalism, tabloid television, tabloid media--instant, superficial, simplistic," said Bob Cooper, president of HBO Worldwide Pictures. "It's like instant coffee. That's not the case here."

The script took three years to develop, Cooper said, because HBO wanted to get the facts straight. An independent researcher was contracted to annotate every point in the still-untitled script.

Cooper's goal of making "quality noise" with HBO movies has sparked harsh criticism before, but it has also produced Emmy Award-winning films, including "And the Band Played On," focusing on the AIDS epidemic, and "Barbarians at the Gate," a biting look at the RJ Nabisco takeover. HBO revels in the controversy these films generate.

"You say that we dig up stuff that's dead--yes! We absolutely deal with stuff that's dead," said Cooper, who then ticked off the subjects of several HBO docudramas. "Roy Cohn is dead. Stalin is dead. Many people in '(And the) Band Played On' are dead. We're not headline-chasing here. We're not careless in what we do. We didn't decide to do the media frenzy around the O.J. Simpson trial, which would be wrong and exploitative. We took a story that had its completion, that we've had time to reflect on and think about."

One former McMartin child, a college student now in Northern California who prefers to remain unidentified, believes the producers have another motive for waiting so long to retell their story.

"The general public--their memories have faded," he said with a sigh. "They're not going to be as clear as to what the situation was. Now, five years later, everyone has had time to forget and (the producers) have had time to manipulate the truth in their favor."

The McMartin parents and children can live with the HBO movie, they say, they just want a fair television retrial. They doubt they will get it with Abby Mann, a filmmaker who calls himself a "crusader for the truth" and who was so closely aligned with the defendants throughout the case.

He believes the children were misled in their testimony by an inexperienced social worker and an over-eager prosecution.

Mann has received numerous critical nods for his work--an Academy Award for writing 1961's "Judgment at Nuremberg," and Emmys for writing HBO's "Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story" and "The Marcus-Nelson Murders" on CBS, which inspired the series "Kojak."

But he was roundly slammed by TV critics in 1985 for his CBS miniseries "The Atlanta Child Murders," in which he cast doubt on the double-murder conviction of Wayne B. Williams, who was linked by authorities to the slayings of an additional 23 young blacks in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981. When an irate delegation of politicians and community leaders from Atlanta flew to New York to try to stop CBS executives from airing what they perceived to be Mann's unbalanced account, CBS agreed to label the broadcast with the first network docudrama advisory that alerted viewers to the fact that it was a movie, not a documentary.

When recently asked about that project, Mann produced a 1986 "Nightline" broadcast supporting his take on the case, and he obtained a fresh statement of support Wednesday from Williams' attorney, Alan Dershowitz, who is seeking to reopen the case at the behest of murdered victims' parents.

Mann's personal involvement in the McMartin case is well documented. Early on, he secured story rights from the McMartin defendants and Glenn Stevens, a prosecuting attorney who quit the case because he had personal doubts about the defendants' guilt. Myra Mann personally sat through courtroom proceedings for almost three years. The first national TV interviews with the defendants on a "60 Minutes" broadcast, criticized for being wholly sympathetic to the defense, took place in the Manns' living room.

Abby Mann's critics have suggested that he handed the defense 30 hours of interview tapes with Stevens, revealing damaging evidence against the prosecution, in hopes of acquitting the Buckeys. According to published reports, Stevens and Mann say in the tapes that their project's success depends on an acquittal. They even drink a toast to it. Stevens says, "I'll tell you something, you get an acquittal, and then this project comes out and we're all just sitting on top of the world." "Absolutely," Mann responds.

Mann vehemently denies that he sought to sway the outcome of the case for his own benefit, explaining that he turned his interviews with Stevens over to the California attorney general's office and to the defense to avoid obstructing justice. And Stevens, who was hired as a consultant by HBO, says that the interview tapes were never submitted before the jury and therefore had no effect on the trial.

"I hope what this movie does is educate the public that there are times people get prosecuted based on insufficient evidence or wild accusations with no basis in fact," Stevens said. "This happens time and time again in history. If we can learn something about the fact that the prosecution is not always right, and accusations like this should be carefully investigated before they're filed in court, then this story has accomplished something."

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