The McMartins: the 'Model Family' Down the Block That Ran California's Nightmare Nursery

updated 05/21/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Manhattan Beach, Calif. nursery school that 76-year-old Virginia McMartin founded 28 years ago stands empty now. Firebombed in April, it is circumscribed by a yellow plastic tape that warns, "Police lines, do not cross." Its white-haired, wheelchair-bound proprietor is in seclusion, and her daughter and two of her grandchildren are being held in county jails while they await what promises to be one of the year's most sensational trials. The charges: That for at least 10 years, McMartin, her three family members and three of her teachers drugged, fondled, raped, sodomized and otherwise sexually abused as many as 125 children, some as young as 2 years old.

The McMartin case is hardly an isolated one. Tiny Jordan, Minn. (pop. 2,600) was shaken recently by the arrests of 17 adults on more than 135 counts of sexual abuse involving more than two dozen children. The founder of the Children's Theater School in Minneapolis was arrested last month and charged with sexually molesting three teenage boys. A worker in a Greer, S.C. day-care center pleaded guilty to charges of sexually abusing seven youngsters, and the head of a private elementary school in North-ridge, Calif. was charged with seven counts of molesting three of his students.

But for sheer shock value, nothing has equaled the Manhattan Beach tragedy. Not only has it polarized the affluent Los Angeles suburb of 31,500 residents—some of whom staunchly defend the accused—but it has marked the ruin of one of the town's first families.

Once the recipient of Manhattan Beach's most prestigious civic awards, "Miss Virginia," as McMartin is known, is now prey to death threats and obscene phone calls. She and daughter Peggy McMartin Buckey, 57, are selling their neighboring oceanside homes (worth, together, at least $500,000) to help foot their legal bills. The matriarch who wrote in a 1982 autobiography, "I have been very blessed with a grand family, wonderful teachers, great parents and townspeople and adorable children," now says bitterly, "I've lived here 52½ years, and you can have the town."

Of all the questions surrounding the McMartin case, the most compelling is the enigma of the family itself. Just who are the people who stand accused of using their nursery-school students as prostitutes and models for the most revolting pornography? Of tying the children to chairs in an S&M version of cowboys-and-Indians? Of smashing turtles and hacking up rabbits to frighten the children into silence? Virginia faces a single count of child molestation, as does granddaughter Peggy Ann Buckey, 28. But Virginia's daughter, Peggy, has been charged with 15 counts of sexual abuse, including oral copulation and penetration with a foreign object. And grandson Raymond, 25, could draw a 156-year prison sentence if convicted of the 75 counts of molestation with which he is charged.

Most who still profess faith in Virginia and her family speak of them as a close-knit, rock-solid clan of Christian Scientists. Friends say that she is an inveterate do-gooder who bakes icebox cookies, reads the Constitution every Fourth of July and remembers the name of every child she has ever taught. They describe Peggy as a sharp businesswoman who never drinks, smokes or curses, and Peggy Ann as a high achiever who has devoted her life to teaching children with physical and intellectual impairments. Raymond is remembered as a quiet health-food devotee. And Virginia's son-in-law, Charles Buckey, age 60 (not named as a defendant), is known as a hardworking husband who bikes nine miles to his job as a maintenance engineer and who crafted the whimsical wooden playthings still scattered about the deserted play school.

McMartin herself has told of a life dominated by hard work and, occasionally, hard luck. Born in Venice, Calif., Virginia Steely had "a girlhood [blessed] with an abundance of material things," according to her 13-page typewritten autobiography. Marriage to Canadian-born Charles McMartin, a handsome, dark-haired boy three years her elder, came when she was 18, and daughter Peggy was born later that year. With the 1929 arrival of son Glen (who died in 1981), their family was complete. While the teetotaling Charles labored as an engineer at the gas company, Virginia devoted herself to domestic life in Manhattan Beach. "Peggy, Glen and I went to the beach each day, walked and rode tricycles...," she later wrote. "We used cardboard boxes to slide down the sand hill at the end of our street, and we'd go visit the mink farm. We had taffy pulls, popped corn, made cookies, had water fights, etc. What fun!"

"Virginia's house was always full of kids," remembers Jeannie Wooley, Peggy's best friend when the two were classmates in elementary school. "She would take a carload of us to the park or to company baseball games, where we'd watch Mr. McMartin play. They were all quite athletic.

"The thing I remember most about her was her warmth," Wooley adds. "I remember her looking at me and listening to me—not treating me as the other adults did. I remember so well walking along the beach, having her arm resting on my shoulder." She pauses. "That sounds funny now, but there was never any hint of her being sexual with us. It was all very casual and warm."

Charles McMartin was less of a storybook parent, according to his daughter's friend. Although he was a Sunday school teacher at the Christian Science church, and a scoutmaster, "he was always a bit grouchy and not really familyish. He only tolerated having all those kids around, and he seemed a little stern. Virginia was crazy about him, but I had the feeling that she liked everybody."

The illusion of domestic tranquillity was shattered in 1946, when Charles (who died in the early '60s) left Virginia for a younger woman. Brokenhearted, she secured a series of odd jobs and began taking childhood education courses. "I always remember her because she was such a good student," reports Liz Lieberman, a Long Beach City College staffer who taught McMartin. "Not necessarily because of her grades, but because of her attitude, which seemed just right for nursery-school education."

At 49, Virginia was able to buy an existing downtown preschool—risking, she said later, everything she had on the venture. Her school soon had a waiting list, and by 1966 she had opened a second and placed Peggy in charge. As her mother's health became more delicate (arthritis forced Virginia to adopt crutches in 1967), Peggy assumed virtually all the responsibility for the business. It was she who supervised the day-to-day operation at the nursery schools, which were merged in 1976, and who was a familiar figure to the parents who now contend that their children were used as sexual chattels.

To some, Peggy seemed a more flamboyant version of Virginia. Garrulous, obese, she favored gaudy muumuus and flashy jewelry. "She was the kind of person who never stopped talking," observes one acquaintance. Adds another, "Peggy turned people off sometimes. She could be domineering."

One mother who brought her son to the preschool for an interview—and decided to enroll him elsewhere—came away feeling distinctly uneasy about Peggy. "She disciplined a child while we were observing a class, and it was creepy," says the woman. "All she did was make him stand in a corner, but it seemed like she enjoyed it."

Some parents who claim their children were molested at the preschool now feel that Peggy's behavior may have had a previously unsuspected sinister aspect. They remember her detailed inquiries about their schedules, and say that when parents appeared unannounced, she kept them in her office with soliloquies about etiquette and religion that may have been designed to keep drop-ins from interrupting the alleged sexual games.

Ironically, one of the subjects that she touched on in her chats was that of child molestation. She informed some parents that, as a girl, she had been molested by a neighbor, and that she felt particularly protective of her charges as a result. Otherwise, there seems to have been no direct evidence of a sexual undercurrent in the lives of Peggy and her kin. Says a childhood friend of Peggy Ann's, "It was just a loving, supportive family that lived in a house that was always full of kids and dogs. They never even argued."

Still, Peggy's husband, Charles, and their son, Raymond, struck many as enigmatic introverts overshadowed by the more assertive females in the family. "Both are loners who live in their own worlds," reports one neighbor. "Charles is very sweet, but he walks around with his head down, like the whipped husband. And Raymond was a mystery man who worked on cars when he wasn't hanging out in his room or surfing." Like his father, Raymond seems to have spent a great deal of time alone. When, as a teenager, the lanky, square-jawed Raymond encountered strangers, he gave the impression of being painfully shy. "He obviously had a problem," says one young neighbor. "But there were reasons why this guy didn't have friends. If they'd gotten him under control earlier, all this wouldn't have happened."

Unlike his sister, Peggy Ann, an exemplary scholar who earned a B.A. at the University of California at Irvine and a Master's of Education at USC, Raymond had a checkered educational career and two previous brushes with the law. He enrolled at San Diego State in 1980 (that year he was arrested for possession of marijuana, but the charges were later dismissed); he took diet and nutrition courses and worked as a volunteer maintenance man at the university's child-care center. After just six months he moved back to Manhattan Beach and took up teaching at the family's preschool, where he had been a part-time aide since the age of 15. There he found his niche, according to his grandmother. In her 1982 Christmas letter to friends and family, she wrote, "Raymond has a special insight with children, does well with them and they love him."

Sources close to the current investigation tell a different story. They say that Raymond, who was convicted of drunken driving last year, changed radically after he dropped out of college. Children who attended the preschool at that time have told investigators that he occasionally set fire to bushes with a flare gun, telling them, "I can do that to any house in Manhattan Beach."

Some parents disapproved of the newly hired "Mr. Ray," with his muscleman magazines and his bent for wearing shorts with no underwear. Often seen with a child on his lap, he was viewed by some as a dim mama's boy. A few parents became actively suspicious of Raymond even before police announced in September that he was the object of an investigation. One mother reportedly confronted Virginia several weeks before the scandal broke, saying she feared he had sexually abused her child. Although the parent is said to have told McMartin she would take no further action if Raymond were removed from the school, Virginia reportedly ignored the conversation. After her grandson was arrested and named in five civil suits by parents of his alleged victims, Virginia defended him as a "very sensitive, very fine young man" who was devastated by the accusations and "sobbed like a baby" while watching a news report on the case.

Sister Peggy Ann who was not drawn into the case until March, when the grand jury returned indictments against the rest of the family, seems to have been one of the few who offered solace to Raymond after he was initially arrested and released on bond. If Raymond was cast in the role of the misfit, Peggy Ann was cast as the good girl. Although she worked as a substitute teacher at her family's preschool for two months in 1978, most of her career was spent teaching high school and junior high students, some of whom brought her little gifts. "At night," says Orange County Register reporter Jean Olswang, who lived with Peggy Ann from January through mid-March after answering a roommate-wanted newspaper ad, "she would sit around in a flannel nightgown and work on quilts or school-related things. She spent a lot of time on the phone with her parents and stayed at their house several nights a week."

By now Raymond, who had been banned by police from the preschool, had left his apartment above his parents' garage and was living for a time with his sister. Parents claim he returned to the school during this period and molested another child before he was jailed again in April. Olswang remembers him as polite, reticent and slightly eccentric: "He had brought just a backpack, and he was growing wheatgrass on the patio. He always listened to the rock group Genesis on his Walkman; I came home once and found him dancing on the sidewalk."

At that time, Olswang says, Raymond was aware he was under police surveillance. "Peggy Ann was very concerned about him. He was so thin, and there was the health-food fanaticism. She said he had been very outgoing, but that he was crushed by the accusations."

Raymond would not be the only member of his clan to buckle under the pressure. Since she has been jailed, Peggy Buckey has suffered from claustrophobia, a respiratory infection and frequent fainting spells. Her husband is reported to be devastated by the scandal: Neighbors say he has verbally assaulted reporters and curiosity seekers who have come to peer in the windows of the Buckey house, a neat brick cottage with a front yard populated by ceramic squirrels, deer and dogs. At an April hearing, during which a Superior Court judge revoked bail for Charles' wife and children, the elder Buckey broke into tears and sobbed into his clenched fists. Virginia McMartin was the one who reached out to console him.

For Virginia's part, she seems to be weathering the public disgrace with the same slightly self-congratulatory stoicism that marks her autobiography and the brief family history that she composed in 1981. "You learn at 76," she said last month, "that nothing can hurt you." Free on bail awaiting trial, she is living in the garage apartment behind the Buckeys' house with two cats as her only companions. But her personal history is all around her: From her second-story perch, she can spy the rooftop of the 16th Street house that has known four generations of McMartins. It is the same house that inspired one of her most effusive—and ironic—lines: "It's been a grand life," she wrote in The McMartins. "Just think of the tales this house could tell!"

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