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UPDATED 06/02/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/02/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

>Innocence Lost: The Plea


AS FILMMAKER OFRA BIKEL TELLS IT, all she had set out to do was profile a small American town for PBS's Frontline. But how to focus the piece? After a colleague alerted her to the growing scandal of daycare sexual abuse, Bikel (who was once wed to actor Theodore Bikel) zeroed in on Edenton, N.C. (pop. 5,300), where, by 1990, seven people, including five staffers at the Little Rascals Day Care Center, had been charged with conspiring to sexually abuse 29 children. "I thought, 'Here is my little town, and here is a story,' " says Bikel.

The saga consumed the next seven years of Bikel's life. During that time she produced three TV reports on the case, the latest of which, Innocence Lost: The Plea, airs May 27. The programs have had a profound effect on both Edenton and Bikel. The first, 1991's Innocence Lost, "created a complete uproar," says Bikel. "People, the defendants in particular, got a tremendous amount of hate mail."

After separate trials for Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson, juries found both guilty of sexual abuse. An appeals court later overturned their convictions. In 1994 two other defendants, including Kelly's wife, Betsy, pleaded no contest in exchange for reduced sentences. Charges against the remaining three defendants were eventually dropped.

Bikel now believes it's impossible to determine what, if anything, happened at the daycare center. Much of the children's testimony, she says, "wasn't plausible.... One of them said she was baked in a microwave. I'm not sure the courtroom is the place to decide if sexual abuse occurred." Adds Bikel: "I have lots of questions. I wish I could tell you I have the answers."

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