|Date||August 1983 - July 1990|
|Location||Manhattan Beach, California|
|Interest of||Ross E. Cheit|
|Description||The day care scandal that started the so-called "satanic panic" of the 80s. Covered up.|
The McMartin preschool trial was a Satanic ritual abuse case in the 1980s. Members of the McMartin family, who operated a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, were charged with hundreds of acts of sexual abuse of children in their care. Accusations were made in 1983, arrests and the pretrial investigation took place from 1984 to 1987, and trials ran from 1987 to 1990. The case lasted seven years and by the case's end, it had become the longest and most expensive in American history. It ended with no convictions.
In 1983, Judy Johnson, mother of one of the preschool's young students, reported to the police that her son had been sodomized by her estranged husband and McMartin teacher Ray Buckey. Ray Buckey was the grandson of school founder Virginia McMartin and son of administrator Peggy McMartin Buckey. Johnson's belief that her son had been abused began when her son had painful bowel movements.
Ray Buckey was questioned, but was not prosecuted due to lack of evidence. The police then sent a form letter to about 200 parents of students at the McMartin school, stating that their children might have been abused, and asking the parents to question their children. The text of the letter read:
September 8, 1983
This Department is conducting a criminal investigation involving child molestation (288 P.C.) Ray Buckey, an employee of Virginia McMartin's Pre-School, was arrested September 7, 1983 by this Department.
The following procedure is obviously an unpleasant one, but to protect the rights of your children as well as the rights of the accused, this inquiry is necessary for a complete investigation.
Records indicate that your child has been or is currently a student at the pre-school. We are asking your assistance in this continuing investigation. Please question your child to see if he or she has been a witness to any crime or if he or she has been a victim. Our investigation indicates that possible criminal acts include: oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttock or chest area, and sodomy, possibly committed under the pretense of "taking the child's temperature." Also photos may have been taken of children without their clothing. Any information from your child regarding having ever observed Ray Buckey to leave a classroom alone with a child during any nap period, or if they have ever observed Ray Buckey tie up a child, is important.
Please complete the enclosed information form and return it to this Department in the enclosed stamped return envelope as soon as possible. We will contact you if circumstances dictate same.
We ask you to please keep this investigation strictly confidential because of the nature of the charges and the highly emotional effect it could have on our community. Please do not discuss this investigation with anyone outside your immediate family. Do not contact or discuss the investigation with Raymond Buckey, any member of the accused defendant's family, or employees connected with the McMartin Pre-School.
THERE IS NO EVIDENCE TO INDICATED THAT THE MANAGEMENT OF VIRGINIA MCMARTIN'S PRE-SCHOOL HAD ANY KNOWLEDGE OF THIS SITUATION AND NO DETRIMENTAL INFORMATION CONCERNING THE OPERATION OF THE SCHOOL HAS BEEN DISCOVERED DURING THIS INVESTIGATION. ALSO, NO OTHER EMPLOYEE IN THE SCHOOL IS UNDER INVESTIGATION FOR ANY CRIMINAL ACT.
Johnson was found dead in her home in 1986, before the preliminary hearing concluded. The stated cause of death was alcohol related liver failure.
Astrid Heger, M.D., examined the children and found evidence of molestation and blunt force trauma consistent with sexual abuse. She reported her findings to the district attorney's office. Ray Buckey, Virginia McMartin, and four teachers were arrested.
Elizabeth Cioffi was two going on three years old when she started at the school. She remembers multiple instances of abuse, including:
- Being in a room with a three year old girl who was made to stand naked in front of everyone and have pictures taken of her
- Going into a dark basement and seeing devilish imagery and candles
- Being brought to other locations away from the preschool. When asked how she got there by her parents, she replied through the tunnels.
- Being taken by car and abused at an older Victorian house with multiple teachers or adults and multiple other children present
- Being threatened by Ray Buckey that if she told their secrets, her family would be murdered and she would be taken away forever with the abusers
Many children took the stand during the trials and told their stories of being abused, describing sexual crimes that children wouldn't have the capacity to make up. Several pointed directly to Ray Buckey as the source of their abuse.
Children told stories of being forced to butcher animals, cutting ears off rabbits, and going through secret tunnels. Several told of a "naked movie star" game, where they were forced to be on stage naked while having their pictures taken.
The prevalence of victim testimony about having their photos taken leads some to suspect it was part of a larger child pornography ring. Police checked known illicit material for evidence of the children but found none.
Ray Buckey was cleared on 52 of 65 counts, and freed on bail after more than five years in jail. Nine of 11 jurors at a press conference following the trial stated that they believed the children had been molested but the evidence did not allow them to state who had committed the abuse beyond a reasonable doubt.
Victims, parents, and supporters were devastated by the lack of convictions. The children didn't understand why they were not believed. They were left terrified that the abusers were going to come after them and be free to abuse more children.
Raymond Buckey changed his name and relocated to the Pacific Northwest.
Underground tunnel excavation
In 1990, after the trial, parents of the victims at the preschool hired archeologist E. Gary Stickel to investigate the site. Ted Gunderson, who worked a lot on this case, joined in the excavation. In May 1990, Stickel found evidence of tunnels, consistent with the children's accounts, under the McMartin Preschool using ground-penetrating radar.
An FBI FOIA release regarding a group of sexual traffickers called "the Finders":5 includes a report discussing underground tunnels found at the McMartin preschool. In the report, hand-dug tunnels were described stretching under Classrooms 1, 3 and 4, and under a bathroom off the office. It was also reported that "Children described entrance and exiting tunnel in triplex yard exactly where tunnel and exit were found," possibly substantiating the children's testimonies. More than 2,000 artifacts, including over 100 animal bones, were also reportedly found under the school floor. Redacted versions of these documents were released by the FBI in 2019.:48–49
Page 49 of the FBI release describes preliminary findings on the tunnels, including:
- Multiple tunnels
- A tree root cut in such a way that it was determined to have happened about 5 years prior
- A Disney bag with "copyright 1982" written on it.
- A plate with a pentagram on it, hand drawn by an adult
- No doorknobs on Classroom 3, only a deadbolt lock. This was one of the classrooms above a tunnel
- Fire alarm switches that didn't connect to a fire station, but was used as an alert system within the school
- More than 2000 artifacts under the school floor, including over 100 animal bones
It also shows a map of the school with two tunnel entrances.
The case was the longest and most expensive criminal case in American history. It took 7 years and cost $15 million. The case was admittedly drawn out as long as possible by the defense attorney, Danny Davis, so that people's emotions would die down over time and he would be more likely to win.
The case if often cited by child abuse apologists like the False Memory Syndrome Foundation as the consequence of implanted memories and Satanic moral panic.