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The fenced-in school yard is empty now, save for a rusting slide and the wooden giraffes and camels that preside over piles of rotting leaves and trash. A forlorn red lunch box is visible through hazy windows that have been pelted with eggs and bottles. The school was shut down in 1984, but every so often a new coat of pale green paint masks the latest rash of graffiti. On one wall, in black spray paint is the grim declaration RAY WILL DIE. Two weeks ago, as if for emphasis, there was an addendum; in darkness, someone had sprayed the single word DEAD.

Where children once played in the upscale oceanside community of Manhattan Beach, Calif., the Virginia McMartin Preschool's desolate little yard with its hate-filled epithets now stands as a symbol of one of the country's most agonizing judicial endeavors, the child molestation trial of Raymond Buckey, 31, and his 63-year-old mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey. Widespread allegations by McMartin students that the Buckeys raped, sodomized and terrorized them with satanic rituals had led to a 33-month, $15 million criminal trial, the longest and costliest in U.S. history. On Jan. 18, after nine weeks of deliberation, an exhausted and emotionally drained Los Angeles Superior Court jury acquitted the Buckeys on 52 counts—and found itself deadlocked on 13 others.

It was an outcome that seemed to leave everyone hurt—and no one satisfied. In a press conference immediately after the trial, seven jurors admitted they believed that at least some of the McMartin preschoolers had been molested but that the prosecution had failed to prove where, when and by whom. "The Buckeys were not proven innocent," said juror John Breese, 51, a biomedical-equipment technician and father of eight "We just found them not guilty, based on the evidence."

But that acquittal came late indeed for the defendants, whose lives lay in tatters. Peggy Buckey had spent 22 months in jail and her son nearly five years before supporters raised more than $1.5 million in bail to set them free. Legal fees estimated to be in the millions have left them virtually bankrupt And the reputation of their once-prestigious preschool, founded by Raymond's grandmother, Virginia, in 1956, was irrevocably tarnished. "I've gone through hell," said Peggy as she left the Los Angeles County criminal courthouse, "and now we've lost everything."

Even more wrenching was the stunned disbelief of the children who claimed—and were surely convinced—that they had been molested. Many of these boys and girls had spent more than half their lives in a nightmarish legal battle that ended, for them, in despair. "There was a little scream of terror in the room when the verdicts were read," said Kyle Daniels, 14, one of nine children who testified at the trial. "Then I felt like I lost something in my stomach. I had never considered the possibility of a not guilty verdict." Said K.C. Wachs, 11, who told Manhattan Beach police in 1983 that she had been forced to perform sex acts by the Buckeys: "I was mad at the verdict. The jurors believed we were molested, so why didn't they let their conscience be their guide? I'm angry they let those guys off and angry at the Buckeys for what they did. They are perverts and now they're back on the street."

For many, the case stood as a sad indictment of a legal system that had neither the experience nor the sensitivity to deal with profoundly disturbing sex abuse charges on so great a scale. After 63,000 pages of testimony, 917 exhibits and 124 witnesses, there was only one thing that the opposing sides seemed to agree on: Police and prosecutors had made serious errors preparing and presenting their case. What never emerged, according to some observers, was the truth. "Either some guilty people got off, or some innocent people were put through hell," says Phillip E. Johnson, a University of California at Berkeley law professor. "After such tremendous effort by so many people, and at such cost, there's more mystery at the end of this than there was at the beginning." It was in August 1983 that Manhattan Beach resident Judy Johnson, 39, claimed she noticed rectal irritation on her 2½-year-old son and blood in his diaper. After she took the child to the UCLA medical center, doctors confirmed her worst fears: Her son had been sodomized. When she asked him who was responsible, he said simply, "Mister Ray." That, Johnson knew, meant Raymond Buckey, a teacher at the McMartin Preschool, where she had enrolled her son three months before.

Though Johnson was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic in 1985 and died the following year of alcohol-related liver disease, her action was the first step that launched the McMartin case. Questioned by local police, her son named other children whom he claimed were also present during the sexual abuse at the school. As authorities began looking into the allegations, word spread quickly among alarmed parents, some of whom called the school to find out what was going on and—as critics would later charge—alerted Buckey to the fact that he was under suspicion.

On Sept. 7, based solely on Johnson's complaint, Buckey was arrested, only to be released the same day on bail. Within 24 hours, Manhattan Beach police made a strategic error: They sent 200 letters to other McMartin parents, not merely inquiring about possible cases of oral sex, fondling of genitals and sodomy, but also naming Ray Buckey as their primary suspect.

That touched off a panic. Many anxious parents bypassed police and normal investigative channels and rushed their children to therapists. Most chose Children's Institute International (CII) in Los Angeles, where authorities had referred the first few children who made allegations of abuse, in order to determine if they would reveal suspected molestation and would be competent to testify.

But as more and more parents sent their children to CII, therapists there were pressed into the role of investigators. Understandably, their expertise was in minimizing the children's trauma rather than amassing ironclad legal evidence—and that, say experts, was one of the gravest failings of the case that was brought. To preclude repeated questioning by investigators, therapists made videotapes of their interviews; later, defense attorneys would cite the tapes as evidence that the children had been brainwashed.

At CII, the bulk of the interviewing fell to staffer Kee MacFarlane, who held a master's degree in social work and had worked in child abuse treatment programs for more than a decade. But she, like her colleagues, was inexperienced in eliciting the kind of evidence that would stand up in court. On videotape MacFarlane, using hand puppets and anatomically correct cloth dolls, appeared to encourage children to make accusations of abuse. At times, she praised those who claimed they were molested and chided those who denied it. By March 1984, CII had interviewed 400 children; therapists there concluded that at least 350 of them had been abused.

That same month, a grand jury returned indictments against Buckey, his mother, sister, grandmother and three teachers at the McMartin school on 115 counts of abusing children. The charges involved accusations of "lewd and lascivious acts" against children over a five-year period. Meantime, the police investigation was hardly keeping pace. Not until eight months later was a Los Angeles County sheriffs task force formed to help the overburdened Manhattan Beach Police Department. By then, enough time had passed for any possible evidence—such as pornographic photos or animal remains from the ritualistic killings described by some of the children—to have been destroyed.

In addition, the prosecution had problems of its own. Initially, the McMartin case had been assigned to Jean Matusinka, a deputy district attorney in charge of the child sexual abuse unit. Shortly after the grand jury indictments, she was replaced by another deputy, Lael Rubin, who had little experience in child abuse cases but was media-wise and more adept as a trial lawyer. In an attempt to consolidate the case, Rubin added 208 counts to the indictment—a move, critics would later charge, that only created more confusion and undermined the more compelling evidence.

In April 1984, Rubin lumped all seven defendants together in one preliminary hearing. Still, the result was that child witnesses had to endure agonizingly protracted questioning from seven defense attorneys; one 10-year-old boy was on the stand for 16 days, 15½ of which he was cross-examined by the defense. Outraged at the harrowing interrogations, some parents pulled their children out of the case, depriving the prosecution of some of its most articulate witnesses. "The cracks and comments [by the defense] were just incredible," says one father. "At first I was involved with the system. Then I said, 'This is BS. This is going to go nowhere.' " After 19 months of the preliminary hearing, newly elected L.A. District Attorney Ira Reiner dismissed charges against all the defendants except Ray and his mother, citing "incredibly weak evidence."

When the trial finally began in April 1987, much of the children's testimony, both on tape and on the stand, was profoundly disturbing. Kyle Daniels said Buckey had sodomized him orally and anally in the preschool bathroom; another boy said he and a group of children were taken to a car wash, where Buckey molested them one by one in the bathroom; still others said they had been raped in the back room of a meat market. Some also described games of "Naked Movie Star" and "Tickle," in which they said they were forced to undress and then were either fondled by Buckey or made to perform sex acts while being photographed. But other tales told before the court—of digging up human corpses at a cemetery or jumping out of airplanes—seemed farfetched and cast doubt on the children's credibility.

For nearly three years, the ordeal continued as children, therapists and experts took the stand. Weeks of testimony were spent on the meaning of turtle shells that children claimed were part of threatening rituals used to keep them quiet.

Finally the four-woman, eight-man jury filed into a packed courtroom on Jan. 18 and brought the legal marathon to its conclusion, acquitting the Buckeys on all but 13 counts. Moments later, in the hallway outside, parents and children clung to one another, sobbing. "How could they do such a thing?" asked one blond teenage boy. "I know what happened. I don't care what the jury says."

In fact, several jurors seem to agree with him. "Some children were molested somewhere," says juror Brenda Williams, "but the prosecution never proved it was Ray." Foreman Luis Chang agrees. "What it all comes down to was the lack of a smoking gun," he says. "We felt there was evidence of molestation in some cases, but that by and large we really don't know if the children's remarks were true or if they were being led by adults. There's some truth in there somewhere, but we couldn't find it."

Such criticisms of the prosecution's case were not lost upon Daniel Davis, Ray Buckey's defense attorney. "I did not win this case by pluck or brilliance," he says. "The prosecution was never ready. They never conducted an organized, methodical investigation of the case before going to trial. This case was exceedingly easy to defend."

For her part, Lael Rubin blames her defeat on an "excruciatingly long" legal process that caused witnesses to drop out even before the trial and led to jury deliberations that came a full year and a half after the last child testified. "One of the many good things that will come out of this case," she says, "is that hopefully there will be changes in California law that will not permit trials to last so long."

Kee MacFarlane, whose interviewing techniques were said by jurors to have destroyed the prosecution's case, is also optimistic that some useful lessons have been learned. "It would be great," she says, "if we could have children walk into our offices and say, 'Sit down, I've got something to tell you. Don't ask me any questions. I'm here to tell it straight out.' But I've never seen it. And if that's going to be our standard of what we require from child victims—that they not be inconsistent, that they name the dates and times—then we're not going to ever see what's really happening."

But even if the McMartin trial leads to much-needed reforms, they will have come too late for the disconsolate parents and children who were involved in the case. "There were times when I thought maybe it was all a bad dream," says Kyle Daniels. "Then I would remember details." Adds the boy's mother, Paula: "All children have nightmares now and then. But Kyle was waking up screaming several times a week, and we couldn't comfort him. We couldn't end the dreams." Even now Kyle fears that Ray Buckey could retaliate against him for testifying. "The thing I'm scared about," he says, "is that Ray could come waltzing down our street anytime he wants—and we can't do a thing about it."

Eleven-year-old Rebecca, who is afraid to disclose her full name, told police in 1984 that she had been molested and that she watched other McMartin children perform sex acts with Peggy and Ray Buckey. She is still grappling with her fears as well. "In the beginning, when the trial started, it slipped from my mind for a while," she says. "But when my mom told me about the court decision, I started getting really scared. That night, I was lying in my bed, and I got all the bad pictures in my head. I ran into my mom's room and slept with her, and I made my sister come in too. Then I started screaming. I stood up and knocked over my mom's dresser. I was just so mad I could have killed someone."

Other children hope for a kind of revenge. Susanne, 11, testified at the preliminary hearing that Ray Buckey inserted objects into her anus and vagina. "I know this is kind of mean," she says, "but I'd like to see someone get really furious at Ray and do something bad to him. I don't know what it would be, but just something bad."

Meanwhile most of the McMartin parents are trying to channel their rage into something constructive. Marymae Cioffi and her husband, John, whose daughter Elizabeth was one of the original complainants but was not selected to testify at the trial, are launching a letter-writing campaign urging District Attorney Reiner and Judge William Pounders to retry Raymond Buckey on the 13 counts on which the jury was stalemated. The judge will make that decision at a hearing scheduled for this Wednesday, Jan. 31. And though a retrial seems unlikely, the parents remain undaunted. "It may be over in the courts, but it's not resolved," says Marilyn Salas, whose son Bobby filed a molestation complaint with police. "We will push to change the judicial system and how our kids are handled in court."

The Buckeys, too, are waging a campaign of sorts. The day after the verdicts, Peggy McMartin Buckey announced that she was filing a multimillion-dollar suit against Manhattan Beach police, Los Angeles County, Kee MacFarlane and others for malicious prosecution, defamation and violating her civil rights. Her son may file a similar suit. Ray and his mother, who received death threats after the trial, are living together at an undisclosed address in Southern California. Ray, who has avoided the press for the most part, is expected to follow attorney Davis's advice to negotiate a book or movie deal for "the highest price he can get."

The children of the McMartin case, as ever, see nothing to be gained by silence. On a recent chill morning in New York City, two young girls, meeting for breakfast in a hotel coffee shop prior to their appearance on a syndicated television talk show, carried on the kind of surreal conversation that has become, for them, part of life's daily fabric.

"I don't tell my friends at my new school," said the 11-year-old.

"Only my best friend," the other girl, 10, replied.

"You know, this could never happen to me again," said the first. "I'd know how to handle it."

"How?"

"I'd start screaming and run for the door. And I would never take off my clothes."

Pause.

"Did they make you kill the rabbits?" asked the first girl.

Her companion, unsmiling, nodded. "And cut off the ears," she said quietly.

—Susan Schindehette, Jack Kelley, Doris Bacon, Lee Wohlfert, Robin Micheli in Los Angeles and Civia Tamarkin in Chicago

  • Contributors:
  • Jack Kelley,
  • Doris Bacon,
  • Lee Wohlfert,
  • Robin Micheli,
  • Civia Tamarkin.