01/08/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
In August 1983 a Manhattan Beach, Calif., mother contacted police with an appalling charge: that her 2½-year-old son had been sexually abused at his preschool. Within months a grand jury would indict the school's director, Peggy McMartin Buckey, then 57, her son Ray, 25, and five others on 115 (later increased to 208) counts of molesting dozens of children. So chilling were the allegations and so notorious the case—the longest, most expensive criminal prosecution in U.S. history as of then—that by the time Buckey died Dec. 15 from a heart attack at 74, many had forgotten that neither she nor anyone associated with the case had ever been convicted. "Nothing ever happened," says her daughter Peggy Ann, 44, against whom one charge was filed but later dropped. "It was a tragedy for our times."
Buckey, a onetime dancer, had run the school since her mother, its founder, had turned the operation over to her in the '70s, and she had built a reputation as a conscientious director. But with children telling bizarre tales of satanic rituals and sexual games—encouraged, defense lawyers claimed, by overzealous therapists and prosecutors—she and her son were jailed for two and five years respectively. Then, in January 1990, they were acquitted of all counts of molestation, except for 13 charges against Ray, on which the jury was deadlocked. (At a subsequent trial another jury failed to convict him.)
Though in later years Buckey volunteered in soup kitchens, the primary youngsters with whom she had close contact were Peggy Ann's two children. "To the last minute," says Myra Mann, who cowrote an HBO film on the case, "she was waiting for the parents or kids to knock on her door and say, 'Peggy, we're sorry.' "