As part of the Crimes That Changed Us series, Investigation Discovery is examing the child sex abuse allegations that surrounded the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, during the 1980s.
The case lasted a whopping seven years and is, to date, the longest criminal trial to have run in the US. It also cost the taxpayers an estimated $15 million, and yet it ended in zero convictions.
The case has since become infamous for the panic it caused to parents in California and the wild and bizarre accusations leveled at the defendants, many of which were sensationalized and published by the media.
There were stories about child prostitution, and massive child pornography rings, and stories about children being exchanged between preschools for sexual purposes.
Some allegations claimed that the McMartin Preschool had secret tunnels hidden underneath and that toddlers were “flushed” into secret caves where sexual abuse occurred before they were cleaned up and given back to their parents.
It got even weirder still; there were allegations of mutilated corpses, animal sacrifices, the drinking of horses’ blood, satanic rituals, and even an accusation that a baby was sacrificed in a church.
A study by the Los Angeles Times found that the media had acted like a pack and had abandoned their “skepticism and doubt” in their willingness to publish wild claims without any evidence.
It all began in the summer of 1983 when Judy Johnson claimed that Ray Buckey, son of Peggy McMartin Buckey, the school administrator, had sodomized her young son. She then followed up with accusations against Peggy herself.
The authorities attempted to gather evidence by sending out letters to 200 parents telling them their children may have been molested and that they should question their children. The letters caused absolute panic, and hundreds of concerned parents came forward.
The police conducted interviews with hundreds of children and decided that their testimony indicated that the school staff had been engaged in some kind of sexual abuse. In 1984, Ray and Peggy, along with four teachers, were arrested on 115 counts, later expanded to 321 counts involving 48 children.
Were the McMartin preschool allegations all made-up?
The defense argued that the whole case was a made-up fantasy. The FBI investigated allegations of child pornography, but none was found. A search of the school found no secret tunnels and rooms. And above all, there was no evidence that any of the children had actually been abused.
The charges against all but Ray Buckey and Peggy McMartin Buckey were subsequently dropped.
The first trial lasted from July 1987 until January 1990 and ended with all charges against Peggy dropped, and Ray was cleared of 52 of the 65 counts against him. Ray was freed on bail after spending five years in jail. The jury had been unable to reach agreement; all except two had voted to clear Ray of all charges.
A second trial began a few months later, which sought to get a conviction against Ray for the charges he was not cleared on. However, once again, it ended in a hung jury. The prosecution decided to give up and closed the case. All charges against Ray Buckey were dropped.
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McMartin Preschool Trial: The Crimes That Changed Us airs at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery.