In the summer 1983, mother of two Judy Johnson made a complaint to the Manhattan Beach Police Department that would ignite one of the most infamous criminal investigations in U.S. history.
Speaking with an officer, Johnson said she was calling to “report a crime.”
“My 2-year-old son has been molested at the McMartin Preschool,” explained Johnson in an audio tape airing on the documentary special “Uncovered: The McMartin Family Trials,” premiering Saturday, July 27 at 7/6c on Oxygen.
The preschool, a premiere education center beloved by the community of Manhattan Beach, California, was run by several members of the McMartin family, including founder Virginia McMartin, her daughter, Peggy McMartin Buckey, and her grandchildren Raymond “Ray” Buckey and Peggy Ann Buckey.
Johnson’s son had been attending the preschool when Johnson noticed he had developed a rash on his bottom and rectal bleeding, reported The New York Times. Worried that he had been sexually abused, Johnson took her son to a pediatrician and alerted local police.
Johnson’s son was then interviewed by Detective Jane Hoag, and he told the Manhattan Beach Police officer that he had been molested by 25-year-old McMartin employee Ray Buckey, who had been teaching at his family’s school for almost two years. The toddler was examined at UCLA Medical Center, and a doctor “found something consistent with molestation,” reporter Kevin Cody told “Uncovered.”
Based on the examination, Ray Buckey was arrested on Sept. 7, 1983. Due to a lack of evidence, however, he was released on the same day, reported The Washington Post. Following Ray’s release, Johnson wrote a letter to the district attorney claiming that her son had taken part in ritualistic activities with McMartin employees. She went on to allege her son was taken to a church where ''Ray flew in the air” and “Peggy drilled a child under the arms,” reported The New York Times.
During her interview with law enforcement, Johnson mentioned that her son had told her that two other children were abused, Cody said on “Uncovered.” To obtain additional evidence, the Manhattan Beach Police Department wrote a letter that was sent out to more than 200 parents of both current and former McMartin Preschool students.
“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,’” read the letter. “Also, photos may have been taken of children without their clothing.”
The letter mentioned the suspect by name, saying, “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.”
In the following year, almost 400 children were interviewed by Children’s Institute International, a local non-profit that provides social services, and 41 were listed as victims in the State’s complaint, reported The Washington Post.
On March 22, 1984, seven employees of the McMartin Preschool were indicted, including Virginia McMartin, Peggy McMartin Buckey, Peggy Ann Buckey, Ray Buckey, and employees Mary Ann Jackson, Babette Spitler, and Betty Raidor. They first faced 115 charges, then later 321 charges, according to The New York Times.
At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, charges were dropped against Virginia McMartin, Peggy Ann Buckey, Jackson, Spitler, and Raidor. Prosecutors determined there was insufficient evidence to prove them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Johnson never testified at the hearing or during Ray and Peggy’s trial. On Dec. 19, 1986, she was found dead in her home, and the coroner’s office listed her cause of death as “fatty metamorphosis of the liver” associated with alcoholism, according to The New York Times.
According to Times’ reporting, Johnson’s mental stability was a major focus of the preliminary hearing. It was revealed that Johnson had also claimed that her dog had been sodomized and that her estranged husband molested one of their children, according to The Washington Post.
In 1989, a jury found Peggy and Ray not guilty on 52 counts of child molestation, but remained deadlocked on 12 molestation charges against Ray Buckey, and a single count of conspiracy against Ray and Peggy, according to the Associated Press. Ray was retried on molestation charges, but again, the jury deadlocked, and a mistrial was declared, according to the Los Angeles Times. All charges against Ray were dismissed. Since then, many commentators have expressed misgivings about the case and have questioned whether the techniques used to interview the children were overly suggestive.
To learn more about the case, watch “Uncovered: The McMartin Family Trials" on Saturday, July 27 at 7/6c on Oxygen.
Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxygen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for our Crime Time Newsletter and subscribe to our true crime podcast Martinis & Murder for all the best true crime content.