McMartin Preschooler: "I Lied"

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McMartin Preschooler: "I Lied"

Newspaper article

By: Kyle Zirpolo and Debbie Nathan

Date: October 30, 2005

Source: Zirpolo, Kyle, and Debbie Nathan. "McMartin Preschooler: 'I Lied.' Los Angeles Times (October 30, 2005).

About the Author: Kyle Zirpolo is a California grocery store manager. As a child, he was involved in the McMartin Preschool child molestation case. He testified at the grand jury hearing that brought the initial indictments against most of the center's staff, but was not a witness at any of the trial proceedings. Now a parent himself, Zirpolo has admitted he made false accusations and offered fabricated testimony as a child.

INTRODUCTION

The McMartin Preschool case is unique in American history. The investigation and trial lasted for nearly seven years, the longest on record; it cost more than $15 million taxpayer dollars; and when it was all over, no convictions were handed down, although Raymond Buckey had served five years in prison, and his mother Peggy had been incarcerated for nearly three. It was also among the earliest multivictim-multioffender (MVMO) cases.

Ultimately, hundreds of children were involved in questioning, examinations (both physical and psychological), and in trial testimony. It launched what appeared to be a chain reaction of MVMO and child sexual abuse cases involving preschools and day care centers across the country over the next decade. Among the many startling revelations of the McMartin Preschool trial and cases like it was that children's memories can be strongly and easily influenced.

The psychological examiners in the original case were from a behavioral health firm called the Children's Institute International (CII). To coerce the subjects into giving desired responses, they asked leading questions, telling those being interrogated that other children from the preschool had already revealed abuses. "Correct" answers were then rewarded in various ways. Ultimately, more than 350 children were deemed to have been abused. A physician examined 150 of them and concluded that about 120 had been victimized, despite the lack of any physical evidence.

The accusations were eventually leveled at more than 100 teachers and staff at a church and eight other preschools and day care centers in the Manhattan Beach, California, area. Seven adults—the McMartin Preschool owners, four teachers, and Raymond Buckey—were charged with more than 200 counts of child abuse involving forty or more children. In 1986 the district attorney dropped charges against all the adults involved except Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son Raymond. Evidence was presented for more than three years in their criminal trials. By early 1990 Peggy Buckey had been acquitted of all charges; Raymond was acquitted on all but thirteen counts, retried on some of them, and ultimately acquitted as well.

In the end, nine preschools and day care centers went out of business, and the lives and professional reputations of those accused or prosecuted were enormously affected. Legal costs were devastating, and even worse for those who went to trial. Peggy McMartin Buckey and Raymond Buckey spent years in prison before being acquitted, and will suffer repercussions of their incarceration for the rest of their lives.

After the McMartin case, there was a barrage of MVMO cases against preschool and day care centers across the United States, all with similarly sensational accusations. Those wrongly accused with molestation or child sexual abuse suffered professional and financial losses—since it is extremely difficult to obtain employment in a child care or service-related field subsequent after such an accusation, regardless of its veracity, since acquittal is not always synonymous with exoneration.

PRIMARY SOURCE

"McMartin Pre-Schooler: 'I Lied'"

A long-delayed apology from one of the accusers in the notorious McMartin Preschool molestation case.

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 feeling 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.

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 any-thing 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'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.

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.

SIGNIFICANCE

False accusations damage the accused, the accuser, and anyone who encourages the accusations. During the height of the MVMO cases in the 1980s and early 1990s, those gathering data for the cases asked children leading and targeted questions, such as: We already know that you were forced to play the horsey game, because all of the other children have told us. Tell me what room you were in when she made you take off your clothes and play it. It was also quite common to ask the same or substantially similar questions repeatedly until the desired responses were given.

At that time it was believed that children were uncomfortable disclosing abuse by trusted adults, and that they would try to hide or deny its occurrence. Children were thought unlikely to lie under oath, and that memories were fairly concrete—that is, they were unlikely to change over time and weren't particularly affected by suggestion.

Although research supports the desire of children to tell the truth, even more indicates that memories can be implanted, or created; that they will take cues from the words and emotions of trusted adults; that they have trouble distinguishing the boundary between reality and fantasy; and have only a limited understanding of the absolute nature of truth. Cornell University Psychology Professor Steven Ceci, in his work on the suggestibility of children in the realm of false allegations of sexual abuse, has concluded that children can not only be influenced to incorporate false memories, but are likely to broaden and deepen them over time, adding improbable details as they reinforce the created "memory."

Another prevalent belief among the investigators at that time, explicitly stated in court and public records, was that they fully believed that the abuse had, in fact, occurred. Several said that the children could only begin to heal if they detailed the explicit and graphic nature of the abuse perpetrated upon them and did their part to ensure that those who had allegedly committed these acts would be punished and never again allowed work with children.

Truthful testimony is difficult for young children who are questioned in a directed or coercive manner. They may testify to a memory that has been "given" to them by directed and repeated questioning, then reinforced by praise and rewards over time. This makes them compelling, if not accurate, witnesses. One of the most critical elements in the MVMO abuse allegation cases is the manner in which the information was initially elicited: In virtually every instance, an adult suspected abuse and questioned the child, who initially denied any sexual abuse. Far more credible is the situation in which a child comes to a trusted adult and spontaneously details abuse or mistreatment without being led in any way. It has now become standard practice to audio- and videotape interviews with alleged abuse victims, to ascertain that they have not been led or coerced.

The effect of false accusations is both enormous and long-lasting. Many wrongfully accused defendants have been made to stand trial, erroneously convicted or imprisoned, lost visitation or custody of their children (particularly in acrimonious divorce and child custody battles), been financially devastated by legal costs; lost jobs or livelihoods as a result of allegations or convictions—even though they have been exonerated or had their records expunged.

It is quite likely that the young accusers from the MVMO cases during the last two decades of the twentieth century will live not knowing if they were actually victims of heinous child sexual abuse, believe that they were irrevocably harmed, or bear the burden of knowing that they falsely accused trusted adults of behavior that did not occur. When it comes to false accusations, everyone involved suffers.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Books

Bjorklund, David J. False-Memory Creation in Children and Adults: Theory, Research, and Implications. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000.

Tong, Dean. Elusive Innocence: A Survival Guide for the Falsely Accused. Lafayatte, Louisiana: Huntington House Publishers, 2001.

Baker, Robert A., ed. Child Sexual Abuse and False Memory Syndrome. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Campbell, Terence W. Smoke and Mirrors: The Devastating Effect of False Sexual Abuse Claims. New York, New York: Insight Books, 1998.

Web sites

PBS Online. Frontline. "Innocence Lost: The Plea. Other Well-Known Cases Involving Child Abuse in Day Care Settings." 〈http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/innocence/etc/other.html#3〉 (accessed February 9, 2006).