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Accusations of child sexual molestation and Satanism at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, resulted in one of the longest, costliest and most controversial criminal trials in U.S. history. The case began in 1983, when a woman went to police, claiming that her 2-year-old son had been molested by Raymond “Ray” Buckey, a teacher at the school. Police then notified current and former students’ parents about the possibility of abuse, igniting a local panic that spread nationwide.
Hundreds of preschool students were subsequently interviewed by employees at Children’s Institute International, a local non-profit that provides social services, with controversial techniques that were later criticized for planting ideas in the children’s minds. The interviews pressured children to admit abuse, even if they initially said there was none, according to experts. The children recounted bizarre stories in the interviews — including descriptions of Satanic rites and animal sacrifice — leading to the arrests of Buckey and six other staff members on hundreds of counts of child molestation. Charges against five of them were later dismissed due to lack of evidence. Ray Buckey and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, were brought to trial, but neither were ultimately convicted.
Children claimed they were molested in a number of locations, and that Buckey would murder and mutilate animals in front of them to scare them into silence, according to The Washington Post. Some said they were led through tunnels or flushed down the toilet to secret rooms underneath the school. Once there, they said they were sexually molested by men and women dressed in hooded black robes, according to The Los Angeles Times.
Some parents reacted hysterically and became obsessed with the idea of secret rooms and tunnels beneath the McMartin Preschool. In March 1985, the Associated Press reported that 50 parents descended on the property with shovels and a backhoe to dig for evidence. They found the remains of a tortoise and broken toys, which they believed corroborated the claims of animal sacrifice and intimidation. Police had to secure the area to preserve the potential crime scene, frustrated by the parents’ extra-judicial investigation.
In January 1990, the Buckeys were found not guilty. The entire affair lasted six years and cost $15 million, according to the Los Angeles Times. But after years of sensationalistic press coverage and some parents’ unwavering belief in their children’s stories, there was a massive public outcry. This resulted in Ray Buckey being retried on 13 counts of molestation and conspiracy in March 1990, and yet more digging at the former site of the McMartin Preschool.
In February 1990, the property on which the McMartin Preschool building sat was sold to real estate broker Arnold Goldstein for $320,000 by Buckey family attorney Danny Davis, who had acquired the property to cover his legal fees, according to the Los Angeles Times. Goldstein planned to demolish the school and erect a three-story office building. He gave the parents of the alleged victims until May 10 to do their digging, telling the New York Times, “I’m permitting these people to go on the property to find whatever they want and get it out of their system.”
Parents hired former FBI agent Ted L. Gunderson, who worked as a private investigator, and archeologist Gary Stickel to aid in the dig. Gunderson claimed he found a “subterranean opening, ” under one classroom, and another underneath a bathroom. Gunderson said that the “tunnel” may have been dug by a utility company, according to the news service UPI.
The McMartin Preschool building was torn down on May 29, 1990. Investigators had used sonar trying to detect “soft spots” under the building’s foundation, which possibly could indicate hollow areas, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, no conclusive evidence was ever found at the site. On Aug. 1, 1990, Ray Buckey were dismissed after a second jury become deadlocked on eight counts of child molestation against him.
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