Twenty-one years ago, a child then known as Kyle Sapp told police that he had been the victim of sexual abuse at the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach. Sapp, who attended the preschool from 1979 to 1980, was 8 when he first talked to authorities in 1984. He and hundreds of other South Bay children made allegations against the family who ran McMartin and against the employees who worked there. School administrator Peggy McMartin Buckey, her son Ray, daughter Peggy Ann, mother Virginia McMartin and three female teachers were accused of fondling and raping youngsters over a period of years, and of threatening them with death if they told. The scandal eventually resulted in criminal trials against Ray and his mother. By the time the trials came to an end in 1990--with acquittals and hung juries--"McMartin” was a household word. The case had turned into one of the longest and costliest criminal proceedings in U.S. history.
By the spring of 1984, Kyle and scores of other children were talking about school employees who had drugged them and touched their genitals, made them play sex games in the nude, used them as models in kiddie porn, and forced them to watch pet rabbits, mice and turtles being killed. By the time the trials began more than three years later, many of these children’s stories had grown even more bizarre--they now included being taken to local businesses or flown to faraway places to be molested in satanic rituals. Prosecutors feared that their case would be hurt by such testimony, and they dropped many children from the witness list. Others were pulled from the witness list by parents who worried about causing further psychological trauma.
Ultimately, fewer than a dozen children testified at the trials of Ray Buckey and his mother. Kyle was not among them. Earlier, though, he had played an important role in moving the case forward. A police report had noted that his stories of abuse were so detailed and uninhibited that he would make an “exceptional witness.” The district attorney’s office apparently agreed: Of 360 McMartin students who claimed to have been abused, just 41 were picked to testify at the grand jury and the preliminary hearing. Kyle was one of them.
In the decade and a half since the defendants were set free, research psychologists have shown that it’s easy to pressure children to describe bad things that never happened. False memories can feel real, though, not just for preschoolers but for older children as well. But Sapp, now known as Kyle Zirpolo, says he never had false memories: He always knew his stories of abuse were made up. The adults at the McMartin Pre-School “never did anything to me, and I never saw them doing anything,” he says today. “I said a lot of things that didn’t happen. I lied.” Why? Now married and with young children of his own, he feels the need to explain publicly.--D.N.
My mother divorced my father when I was 2 and she met my stepfather, who was a police officer in Manhattan Beach. They had five children after me. In addition, my stepfather has three older children. In the combined family, I’m the only one of the nine children he didn’t father. I always remember wanting him to love me. I was always trying excessively hard to please him. I would do anything for him.
My stepbrothers and stepsisters and a half-brother and half-sister went to McMartin. So did I. I only remember being happy there. I never had any bad feelings about the school--no bad auras or vibes or anything. Even to this day, talking about it or seeing pictures or artwork that I did at McMartin never brings any bad feelings. All my memories are positive.
The thing I remember about the case was how it took over the whole city and consumed our whole family. My parents would ask questions: “Did the teachers ever do things to you?” They talked about Ray Buckey, whom I had never met. I don’t even have any recollection of him attending the school when I was going there.
The first time I went to CII [Children’s Institute International, now known as Children’s Institute, Inc., a respected century-old L.A. County child welfare organization where approximately 400 former McMartin children were interviewed and given genital exams, and where many were diagnosed as abuse victims], we drove there, our whole family. I remember waiting ... for hours while my brothers and sisters were being interviewed. I don’t remember how many days or if it was just one day, but my memory tells me it was weeks, it seemed so long. It was an ordeal. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m not going to get out of here unless I tell them what they want to hear.”
We were examined by a doctor. I took my clothes off and lay down on the table. They checked my butt, my penis. There was a room with a lot of toys and stuffed animals and dolls. The dolls were pasty white and had hair where the private parts were. They wanted us to take off their clothes. It was just really weird.
I remember them asking extremely uncomfortable questions about whether Ray touched me and about all the teachers and what they did--and I remember telling them nothing happened to me. I remember them almost giggling and laughing, saying, “Oh, we know these things happened to you. Why don’t you just go ahead and tell us? Use these dolls if you’re scared.”
Anytime I would give them an answer that they didn’t like, they would ask again and encourage me to give them the answer they were looking for. It was really obvious what they wanted. I know the types of language they used on me: things like I was smart, or I could help the other kids who were scared.
I felt uncomfortable and a little ashamed that I was being dishonest. But at the same time, being the type of person I was, whatever my parents wanted me to do, I would do. And I thought they wanted me to help protect my little brother and sister who went to McMartin.
Later my parents asked if the teachers took pictures and played games with us. Games like “Naked Movie Star.” I remember my mom asking me. She would ask if they sang the song, and I didn’t know what she was talking about, so she would sing something like, “Who you are, you’re a naked movie star.” I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I ever heard that: from my mom. After she asked me a hundred times, I probably said yeah, I did play that game.
My parents were very encouraging when I said that things happened. It was almost like saying things happened was going to help get these people in jail and stop them from what they were trying to do to kids. Also, there were so many kids saying all these things happened that you didn’t want to be the one who said nothing did. You wouldn’t be believed if you said that.
I remember feeling like they didn’t pick just anybody--they picked me because I had a good memory of what they wanted, and they could rely on me to do a good job. I don’t think they thought I was telling the truth, just that I was telling the same stories consistently, doing what needed to be done to get these teachers judged guilty. I felt special. Important.
It always seemed like I was thinking. I would listen to what my parents would say if they were talking, or to what someone else would say if we were being questioned at the police station or anywhere. And I would repeat things. Or if it wasn’t a story I’d heard, I would think of something in my head. I would try to think of the worst thing possible that would be harmful to a child. I remember once I said that if you had a cut, instead of putting a Band-Aid on it, the McMartin teachers would put on dirt, then put the Band-Aid over the dirt. That was just something in my head that was bad. I just thought of it and told [the investigators].
I think I got the satanic details by picturing our church. We went to American Martyrs, which was a huge Catholic church. Every Sunday we had to go, and Mass would last an hour, hour and a half. None of us wanted to go: It was kicking and screaming all the way there. Sitting, standing, sitting, standing. What I would do was picture the altar, pews and stained-glass windows, and if [investigators] said, “Describe an altar,” I would describe the one in our church. Or instead of, “There was a priest in a green suit"--someone who was real--I would say, “A man dressed in red as a cult member.” From going to church you know that God is good, and the devil is bad and has horns and is about evil and red and blood. I’d just throw a twist in there with Satan and devil-worshipping.
I remember going in our van with all my brothers and sisters and driving to airports and houses and being asked if we had been [abused in] these places. I remember telling people [that the McMartin teachers] took us to Harry’s Meat Market, and describing what I thought the market was like. I had never been in there before, and I was fairly certain I was going to get in trouble for what I was saying because it probably was not accurate. I imagined someone would say, “They don’t have that kind of freezer there.” And they did say that. But then someone said, “Well, they could have changed it.” It was like anything and everything I said would be believed.
The lawyers had all my stories written down and knew exactly what I had said before. So I knew I would have to say those exact things again and not have anything be different, otherwise they would know I was lying. I put a lot of pressure on myself. At night in bed, I would think hard about things I had said in the past and try to repeat only the things I knew I’d said before.
I remember describing going to an airport and Ray taking us somewhere on an airplane. Then I realized the parents would have known the kids were gone from the school. I felt I’d screwed up and my lie had been caught--I was busted! I was so upset with myself! I remember breaking down and crying. I felt everyone knew I was lying. But my parents said, “You’re doing fine. Don’t worry.” And everyone was saying how proud they were of me, not to worry.
I’m not saying nothing happened to anyone else at the McMartin Pre-School. I can’t say that--I can only speak for myself. Maybe some things did happen. Maybe some kids made up stories about things that didn’t really happen, and eventually started believing they were telling the truth. Maybe some got scared that the teachers would get their families because they were lying. But I never forgot I was lying.
My stepdad was a police officer who had guns in the house. I remember when all of this was coming down, he was put on a leave of absence from work because he was being investigated for supposedly threatening the McMartin family. He was cleared of that accusation--apparently it wasn’t true. But being only 9 years old at the time, I thought my dad was saying he would kill the McMartins. So in my mind, I figured no one from the school was going to dare mess with him because he would have hurt them first. That made me feel secure. It could be a reason I never mixed up reality and fantasy and always knew I was lying.
But the lying really bothered me. One particular night stands out in my mind. I was maybe 10 years old and I tried to tell my mom that nothing had happened. I lay on the bed crying hysterically--I wanted to get it off my chest, to tell her the truth. My mother kept asking me to please tell her what was the matter. I said she would never believe me. She persisted: “I promise I’ll believe you! I love you so much! Tell me what’s bothering you!” This went on for a long time: I told her she wouldn’t believe me, and she kept assuring me she would. I remember finally telling her, “Nothing happened! Nothing ever happened to me at that school.”
She didn’t believe me.
We had a highly dysfunctional family. We argued and fought all the time. My mother has always blamed anything negative on the idea that we went to that preschool and were molested. To this day, she believes these things went on. Because if they didn’t, how can she explain all the family’s problems? To this day, I can’t open up with her about my personal problems. She’s always asking me why I never do. That one night skewed our relationship.
Once the case was over, it was just over, in the past. The defendants were set free and that was it. The kids’ parents never asked, “Why were they innocent? Why were they unable to find evidence to convict these people?”
My family has not seen the movies or read the books questioning the prosecution. It’s like skeletons in a closet that you just don’t want to take back out. I’m the only one who ever brings the topic up and who admits nothing ever happened to me. I’ve said I lied about everything, but I’ve never gotten a real response from my mother and stepfather. It seems really strange, seeing their reaction to the fact that nothing happened to me. If I had gone my whole life thinking my child was molested, I would be elated to find out that he or she wasn’t. I’d like to think learning that your child was not molested would supersede anything. After all, all you have is your next day. It would be a shame to live the rest of your life thinking molestation had happened when you could think it didn’t.
McMartin is something negative in my life and I’m trying to make it a positive. I’ve got two little kids I love dearly--they’ve changed the priorities in my life. My goal is to raise them as best as I can and try to lead by example. I want to be totally honest with them, to say, “This is something that happened to me. I did something dishonest, then at some point I was able to be honest about it.” I want my children to be able to come to me like I wish I could have with my parents.
I’m a supermarket manager, and the thing I like best about my job is the interactions I get to have with customers’ kids. I love talking and listening to them. I’ve been told I would be perfect for opening a children’s day care. That’s very ironic. I would love to look at the defendants from the McMartin Pre-School and tell them, “I’m sorry.”
How and Why Kyle Came Forward
By Debbie Nathan
I first heard from Kyle Zirpolo via e-mail early this summer. He contacted me because I appear in the documentary film “Capturing the Friedmans,” which he had just seen.
Members of the Friedman family were accused of mass child molestation in Long Island, N.Y., in the 1980s. Research I did years ago suggested that many or all of the allegations were false, and in the film I talk about this. I also discuss the McMartin case. I looked into it, while coauthoring “Satan’s Silence,” a book about the national panic over sex abuse in day-care centers and schools in the 1980s.
Zirpolo found my website and wrote that he was chilled by the film’s depiction of the Friedman family being destroyed by children’s false accusations: “It was basically the same as the McMartins. I did that. I feel very ashamed.”
Nothing he told police and prosecutors about being abused was true, he added. He had regretted it for years. Now he wanted to apologize to the defendants in person. I told Zirpolo I wanted to hear his story. I also offered to put him in touch with the McMartin defendants.
Some are dead, including Virginia McMartin and her daughter Peggy McMartin Buckey. Ray Buckey and his sister, Peggy Ann, as well as a former McMartin teacher, Babette Spitler, declined to meet with Zirpolo. They’ve always staunchly proclaimed their innocence, and say they don’t need apologies from former students, who were children and couldn’t help themselves. Peggy Ann has said that they would rather hear from the police, social workers, therapists, prosecutors, doctors and parents who fueled the case.
Zirpolo says his mother and stepfather divorced years ago. I couldn’t reach his stepfather, and when I contacted his mother for comment, she declined. Zirpolo says she “doesn’t agree” with his decision to tell his story. As for his stepfather, all Zirpolo will say is that he’s very ill.
How Kyle’s Story Snowballed
James M. Wood, a research psychologist at the University of Texas at El Paso, has studied the McMartin interviews done by Children’s Institute International. Giving children dolls and puppets during a forensic interview encourages them to pretend and fantasize instead of sticking to facts, Wood says. When an interviewer refuses to take “no” for an answer, this implies that another response is required--even if it’s not true. Saying that a defendant such as Ray Buckey is being followed by undercover police implies that the accused is dangerous and that the children should help lock him up. And, says Wood, telling children that “everyone’s talking” about the crime “creates conformity pressures that are highly improper.”
A few years ago, Wood did an experiment in which children were questioned using McMartin interviewing techniques. After two or three minutes, most of the kids started to make up bizarre stories. According to Maggie Bruck, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University and a researcher of children’s memory and suggestibility, Wood’s experiment and others have led to a consensus among psychologists. They agree now that CII’s methods in the McMartin case were inappropriate.
CII Senior Vice President Steve Ambrose says his organization is “not in the business of promoting false allegations and never has been. McMartin was the first case of its type. [Experts have] learned a great amount [since then] about how to interview children about sexual abuse in ways that meet the needs of the criminal justice system. This remains very difficult. But we’re more sensitive now about making sure that the way we interview kids will stand up in court and that what we say will not be taken out of context.”
The following is a condensed transcript of a March 10, 1984, CII interview with Kyle Sapp, now known as Kyle Zirpolo. Sapp was interviewed by two CII staffers.--D.N.
Kyle: Mr. Ray [Ray Buckey] didn’t work there when I was in there.
Interviewer 1: What do you mean?
Kyle: Yeah, he didn’t go there.
Interviewer 1: A long time ago some of the kids ... said that there were some secrets from that school--some crummy things happened. And, um, we told ‘em about our secret machine right here, and our puppets who are real smart guys like Mr. Snake Here’s Pac-Man And, um, we told ‘em how smart our puppets were and how they helped kids talk about some stuff sometimes and we’ve been playing detective
Interviewer 1: We can talk about those secrets now, Pac-Man. And you can help Kyle ... everybody’s talking about it now.... You know what? We’re going to tell you one of our special secrets ‘cause we have a secret that we’ve been telling all the kids, and this one is--you’re going to like this one, Pac-Man, ‘cause Kyle’s dad is a policeman.... We know that sometimes Mr. Ray was at that school. He wasn’t a teacher then, but we know that he was at school. Do you remember that, Pac-Man?
Kyle: He didn’t work there, but I know that when [another child] was there, it happened.
Interviewer 1: Well, you know what? We know that even before Kyle was there [Ray] was there. And we know that he was there when Kyle was there too.
Kyle: They said on TV that he did something.
Interviewer 1: We know this about Mr. Ray: That sitting outside Mr. Ray’s house is a special policeman in a regular car. He doesn’t wear a uniform or anything like that, but he, um, sits in a regular-looking car outside Mr. Ray’s house.... He watches all the time, and if Mr. Ray goes out of his house, then the secret policeman follows him.... He’ll be right behind him and he won’t even know he’s there....Think that’s a good idea, Pac-Man?
Interviewer 1: We got a mountain of dolls here. Here’s a little girl. Easy to tell she’s a girl. She has a bow, and her vagina’s underneath.... Kids throw ‘em, beat ‘em up, and everything. You should’ve seen [another child] beating ‘em up. Boy we had a good time--
Interviewer 2: Beating up Mr. Ray doll.
Interviewer 1: And, um, let’s see. I wonder, Pac-Man, if you remember any of the games that you used to play at that school.
Interviewer 1: Yeah? Like which ones do you remember?
Kyle: Like Mr. Ray--he would--he would get his camera, and then he--they would--they would--he would take their pants off, and--and then they would go in their pool and they--then he would take pictures.
Interviewer 2: Your mom and dad already know that game ‘cause they heard it from other kids’ moms and dads.
Interviewer 1: Did any other teachers play, Pac-Man?
Kyle: Yeah ... they took pictures too.
Interviewer 1: Oh, boy. Gee, we’re really figuring this out. What a big help you are. My goodness.