Prosecutors dropped all charges Friday against the last two defendants in the Little Rascals scandal--one of the most lurid cases of mass child molestation of the 1980s and the latest to fall apart.
Assistant Dist. Atty. Nancy Lamb said prosecutors decided not to retry Robert F. Kelly Jr., 48, and Kathryn Dawn Wilson, 31, in order to "allow wounds to heal." She said parents were reluctant to let their children testify again.
Kelly and Wilson were among seven people originally charged with molesting 29 children who attended the Little Rascals Day Care Center in this small town on Albemarle Sound.
Kelly, the center's owner, was convicted in 1992 after the longest, most expensive trial in North Carolina history--nine months and more than $1 million--and was given 12 life sentences. Wilson, a cook at the day-care center, was found guilty the next year and sentenced to life.
An appeals court in 1995 reversed the convictions, and the two had faced a retrial on 106 charges--99 for Kelly, 7 for Wilson.
Kelly, who spent a total of six years behind bars, was charged with eight new counts of sexual abuse last year involving a girl who did not attend Little Rascals. Dist. Atty. Frank Parrish said that case will go forward.
"There are other charges that are still pending," Kelly said in a telephone interview from the Cary, N.C., motel where he now lives. "Until all of them are off of me, I really can't celebrate."
Wilson, who spent four years in prison, had no immediate comment.
"I'm at peace with the decision. I don't feel like the system has let me down," said Susan Small, whose to children were among the alleged victims. "I can't say enough good things about the way the state prosecuted the case."
Of the other defendants, Kelly's wife, Elizabeth, who ran the center, and Willard Privott, a friend of Kelly's, pleaded no contest and served 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years behind bars, respectively, before being released. Charges against the three other defendants were dropped last year.
Little Rascals represented the latest in a string of abuse cases at day-care centers to disintegrate in the courts. Others included the McMartin preschool case in California, the Margaret Kelly Michaels case in New Jersey and the Fells Acres case in Massachusetts.
Defense lawyers said parents in Edenton became hysterical over rumors of sexual abuse at Little Rascals, then badgered children into making allegations and pushed authorities into bringing charges.
Lamb, a prosecutor who has worked on the case since 1989, said the decision to drop the charges did not mean that the state had a weak case. But she noted: "The ability to put the truth before the jury is hampered because memories fade."
In throwing out both convictions, the state Court of Appeals ruled testimony by parents of alleged victims in Kelly's trial was inadmissible.
In Wilson's case, the court ruled the prosecutor made "gross improprieties" in closing arguments by referring to witnesses who weren't allowed to testify about allegations that she stole money from a friend.