What You Need To Know About The Bizarre McMartin Preschool Satanic Sex Abuse Trials

Inside the 1980s ritual cult sex abuse case that ignited a nationwide panic and ended with all charges being dropped.

July 25, 2019
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April 19, 1989-A developer has purchased the McMartin PreSchool in Manhattan Beach. He hopes to raze it and build and office building on the and adjacent site. (Photo by Lacy Atkins / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Photo by: The McMartin PreSchool in Manhattan Beach, California [Lacy Atkins/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images]

The McMartin PreSchool in Manhattan Beach, California [Lacy Atkins/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images]

By: Mike McPadden

MANHATTAN BEACH, CA — In 1983, the mother of a two-year-old student at the McMartin Preschool alleged that a teacher there had sodomized her son. Eventually, hundreds of children reportedly described being abused, often in fantastical situations involving human sacrifice, child pornography, and Satanic rituals.

As news of the McMartin case spread, a multitude of similarly bizarre ritual abuse claims reportedly arose against other teachers, childcare workers, and parents nationwide. Since then, many analysts have attributed a number of those incidents to a cultural phenomenon that’s come to be called the “1980s Satanic Panic.”

More than three years of pretrial investigations into the McMartin Preschool allegations were followed by multiple trials between 1987 and 1990, reportedly at a cost of $15 million — the most expensive such process in American history at that point. Ultimately, no criminal convictions were obtained and, in 1990, the state dropped all charges against the defendants.

The McMartin Preschool case continues to fascinate and horrify observers for numerous reasons, ranging from behavioral experts who allege that many of the underage witnesses had been manipulated, to conspiracy theorists who, despite copious amounts of evidence to the contrary, continue to suspect a cover-up was undertaken.

Here are five crucial facts to know about this complex landmark event in both the U.S. legal system and American culture.

1. Allegations Against A Single Teacher Set Off A Groundswell

In 1983, a 39-year-old mother named Judy Johnson reportedly claimed that her two-year-old son complained about painful bowel movements, after which she found blood in his diaper. Johnson allegedly said her son told her that Ray Buckey, one of his teachers at the McMartin Preschool, had sodomized him.

Johnson reportedly contacted police and further alleged that Buckey had dressed her son in women’s clothes and played “doctor” with him. In addition, she allegedly said she heard still more claims of abuse involving other children. Authorities then launched a massive investigation into the McMartin Preschool.

The school was founded in 1966 by Virginia McMartin. No claims of misconduct at the McMartin Preschool had ever been brought to the police prior to Johnson’s.

Ray Buckey was Virginia’s 25-year-old grandson. In 1983, he worked at the school under the management of his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, who had taken over the operation from her own mother.

Police reportedly sent a letter home to parents of McMartin Preschool students stating that Buckey had been arrested on suspicion of committing crimes against their children. Among the allegations mentioned were “oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttock or chest area, and sodomy, possibly committed under the pretense of 'taking the child's temperature.’” The police note also indicated that Buckey might have used their kids to create child pornography.

Understandably, panic reportedly set in among the letter’s recipients. It would only intensify as allegations increased in both the number of victims and the severity of the alleged abuse. [People]

2. Bizarre Claims Regarding Satanic Orgies, Grave Robbing & Sex Tunnels

Authorities reportedly interviewed more than 400 children connected to the McMartin Preschool abuse claims. In the course of the investigation, media outlets reported an array of startlingly strange allegations attributed to the children. Among the abuse-related claims were:

  • Ray Buckey “flew” in the classroom, took one child to meet a “goat man,” and took another child to a house where he let lions roam free.
  • Animal sacrifices were committed involving a horse, rabbits, and other classroom pets.
  • A series of tunnels under the school were connected to secret chambers for sex rituals and other abuse.
  • Teachers and students visited a cemetery to dig up bodies.
  • Teachers took children to orgies at a car wash and an airport.
  • Children were “flushed” down toilets to sewer rooms for abuse.
  • Children were transported to off-site abuse locations via hot air balloon.
  • One child identified Hollywood actor Chuck Norris from a photograph, claiming he had had been present for some of the abuse.

Regardless of the seemingly impossible nature of many of these claims, detectives reportedly took some of them seriously enough to warrant full investigations.

In respect to the tunnels, for example, authorities reportedly excavated the schoolyard but found only a series of plywood boxes that the children allegedly crawled through during playtime.

Overall, in response to the children’s reported allegations, authorities are said to have searched 37 cars, 11 residences, seven businesses, three churches, two airports, and a farm, only to come away with no physical evidence. Still, charges were filed and convictions were pursued. [Crime Library]

3. Controversy Over Interviewing Children & Possibly “Implanted” Memories

While a rallying cry of “We Believe the Children” became popularly associated with the McMartin investigation, it was later revealed that law-enforcement officials and therapists allegedly used interview techniques on the children that many critics later described as manipulative or even coercive.

The District Attorney’s office reportedly consulted with Children’s Institute International, an organization said to be dedicated to helping abused children, to help with getting the kids to talk about the alleged abuses.

Kee McFarlane, a social worker with the institute described by some as an “unlicensed therapist,” reportedly conducted many interviews by using controversial techniques that involved puppets, stuffed animals, and anatomically correct dolls. She allegedly told the kids she wanted them to share “yucky secrets.”

According to the 2017 book We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s by investigative journalist Richard Beck, when one boy said he had never seen the supposed child porn game “Naked Movie Star” being played at the school, Macfarlane used a puppet to respond, “Well, what good are you?” and, later, “You must be dumb.”

The book also alleges that when another five-year-old boy denied ever being abused or seeing abuse, Macfarlane told him, “You’re just a scaredy cat!”

In addition, Beck writes that police interviews were also crafted to get the answers that law enforcement wanted, with one detective reportedly saying to a child, “Did he take your underpants off? Can you say yes? Say yes.” [Daily Beast]

4. More Than Six Years Of Investigations & Multiple Trials Led To No Convictions

Eventually, authorities reportedly filed more than 100 charges of child abuse against seven staff members from the McMartin Preschool: Virginia McMartin, Ray Buckey, Peggy McMartin Buckey, Peggy Ann Buckey, Mary Ann Jackson, Babette Spitler, and Betty Raidor.

The trials commenced in 1987 and went on for three years. On January 18, 1990, a jury acquitted the defendants on 52 counts, but jurors were reportedly split over 13 other charges, allegedly claiming that they seemed true, but that prosecutors hadn’t successfully proven them beyond a shadow of a doubt.

After the other defendants were let go, Ray Buckey was retried in 1990, which resulted in another hung jury. The judge declared a mistrial and set Buckey free. At that point, Buckey had reportedly spent five years in jail over crimes for which he was never convicted and with which he was never charged again.

In 1991, three McMartin defendants — Virginia McMartin, Peggy McMartin Buckey, and Peggy Ann Buckey — filed a defamation suit against one parent who had stated on TV that they committed Satanic sex crimes against children. The women ultimately won the case, but the judge awarded them one dollar apiece in damages. [New York Times]

5. The McMartin Preschool Trial Has Since Come To Be Viewed As Part Of A Larger “Satanic Panic”

While the charges of Satan worship and occult rituals stood out among the allegations made against the McMartin Preschool staff, such details were not uncommon during a great deal of sensationalistic crime reporting of the era.

In fact, it ultimately played in to what has come to be called the 1980s “Satanic Panic” in which true crime, horror fiction, frightened flights of fantasy, and popular culture all seemed to collide into a strange societal pile-up.

Other high-profile elements of the Satanic Panic are said to have included the crimes and capture of “Night Stalker” serial killer Richard Ramirez; the “Say You Love Satan” murder on Long Island in 1984; Tipper Gore spearheading the Parents Music Resource Center hearings in Congress to decry heavy metal music in 1985; and Geraldo Rivera’s live NBC Halloween special, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground in 1988.

More specifically, the McMartin Preschool trial reportedly led to an explosion of ritual-abuse allegations against teachers and other school workers that ultimately proved to be unfounded.

As examples, The New York Times cites the case of Margaret Kelly Michaels, a nursery-school teacher arrested in 1988 for abusing children with forks and spoons and urinating in their mouths, despite a complete lack of physical evidence. It took six years for Michaels’ conviction to be overturned.

The Times also mentions Little Rascals Daycare in North Carolina where, in 1989, workers were arrested based on claims they had murdered babies and thrown children into pools filled with sharks. The defendants were initially found guilty but, in 1995, their convictions were overturned and all charges were dropped. [iO9]

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