It's been 28 years since charges were dropped in the McMartin Preschool trial, but two writers have recently released a book about the case that sheds new light on what became the costliest trial in US history.
The book, “They Must Be Monsters: A Modern-Day Witch Hunt,” has been decades in the making. It details inside information on what captivated the nation and became part of sex-abuse hysteria and alleged Satanic rituals at day care institutions in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Authors Matthew LeRoy and Deric Haddad, students at San Diego State University at the time, were drawn into the case in the spring of 1987. Haddad's mother and step-father, experts in child sexual abuse, were consultants for defendant Ray Buckey, one of seven preschool workers falsely accused of molestation and satanic rituals.
College students Haddad and LeRoy gained access to Peggy McMartin Buckey, Ray's mother, while becoming "juvenile detectives." The two went to work investigating, but it would take them decades to pick up where they left off.
Manhattan Beach split
In the 1980s, the McMartin investigation and subsequent trials split Manhattan Beach in two. Many in the South Bay were convinced the McMartin/Buckey family, who ran the preschool, were Satan worshiping cult members. Others supported the family who had been pillars of the community for many years.
In January 1990, the first McMartin trial ended in a majority acquittal with a partial hung jury, and then in July 1990, the second McMartin trial ended in a hung jury on the nine remaining counts. The charges were then dropped after six years and $15 million spent on the trial.
Haddad said he and LeRoy were able to talk to people on both sides of the debacle because they were unassuming college kids. And even though they weren't a threat, he said it was a “very intense” time.
“You’re dealing with people who were told by experts, by the district attorney, by specialists, their children had been horribly abused in some kind of secret conspiracy,” Haddad said.
"They were very distraught; they really did believe that something happened."
Haddad said they thought the parents had some sort of obligation to believe the abuse because their children needed them to believe it.
"The DA and therapists convinced the parents that if they didn’t believe it and if they treated their children with rejection or with disbelief," said Haddad, "that would even do more damage to their children who were trying to come to grips with their past abuse and trying to heal.”
LeRoy said they were “just two college kids trying to find the truth.”
“We were incredibly naive to think we would ever even get close to (the truth)," said LeRoy.
"We knew we couldn’t interview everybody in Manhattan Beach and everybody involved in the case, but we definitely had a hit list and that hit list became sort of the starting point for connecting the dots," said LeRoy.
As victim advocates, Haddad’s mother and step-father, were usually on the side of the prosecution. But, defendant Ray Buckey's attorney Danny Davis wanted them to be consultants for the defense in 1985.
According to LeRoy and Haddad, Davis wanted the consultants to "prove his client guilty" and if they did, he in turn would not defend him, which was truly just a rhetorical challenge by an attorney who believed his client had been falsely accused. The consultants investigated the case from the fall of 1985 into 1987 and “determined the defendants were likely innocent.”
According to Haddad, his step-father theorized that if any child was abused it was the son of Judy Johnson. Johnson's allegation that her son was molested started the initial investigation.
But Haddad said there still was no collaborating evidence that showed that any child had been abused at McMartin or any of the schools that were drawn into the frenzy.
“From the beginning when Matt and I began researching the case and shortly thereafter, we really were always focusing on Judy Johnson being the answer and the mystery,” Haddad said.
Haddad said he and LeRoy studied the case for about a year and then moved to Los Angles to follow the trial.
"We really found that there was a major uncovered, untold story, kind of a tapestry within Manhattan Beach… that nobody was really reporting," said Haddad.
'Witch hunt' begins
Virginia and Charlie McMartin arrived in Manhattan Beach in 1931 with children Peggy and Glenn.
According to the book, Charlie left Virginia for a younger woman in 1946, leaving her to take care of her children. Virginia got a job at Metlox pottery painting ceramics before working at a nursery in Manhattan Beach.
Virginia opened McMartin Preschool in 1956 and a second school in 1966. She ran both schools for 10 years until the first school was closed. Over a 20-year stretch, the McMartins had taught more than 5,300 children and employed 30 instructors.
Virginia and her family won numerous honors for their work in the community. There were no legal issues in the family but Ray, a Mira Costa High 1976 graduate, had a drunk driving arrest.
Judy Johnson was a divorced mother of two boys, Mark who had cancer, and Mitchell whom she had enrolled into McMartin Preschool.
On Friday, Aug. 12, 1983, Johnson called Det. Jane Hoag, a 11-year Manhattan Beach police veteran. She reported a persistent redness on Mitchell’s bottom and she believed that Ray Buckey had molested her son.
Johnson then told some parents she believed Ray Buckey had molested her child.
The story snowballed and investigations began.
Then, on Feb. 2, 1984, KABC-TV Channel 7 reporter Wayne Satz broke the "story." He reported as many as 60 children were “victimized, and that the ultimate number could be much greater.”
The report featured therapist Kee MacFarlane claiming the children had told her they were taken to off-site locations and had guns waived at them, small animals were maimed, and the children were molested. It was later reported that Satz and MacFarlane had entered into a romantic relationship.
The following day “Manhattan Beach became the epicenter of a media frenzy,” and every major network “put a team on the ground.” On March 22, 1984, Ray and his mother Peggy McMartin Buckey were arrested.
Shutting out the world
In February 1988, LeRoy was entering his senior year and Haddad was just starting at San Diego State. They met because they were fraternity members of Delta Upsilon. Though they didn't know each other well, LeRoy said Haddad showed him a magazine article on the McMartin trial. Both thought the trial could be a good subject for student papers.
Originally from Downey, LeRoy had heard about the story when it broke in February 1984. LeRoy said the chance of meeting Haddad's parents “got the juices flowing.”
Haddad asked LeRoy if he could stay at his parents house in Downey because the wanted to attend the trial and he would take a semester off to do so. While LeRoy was researching and conducting interviews in Manhattan Beach, Haddad was attending the trial. They converted the garage into an office that became their “war room” and spent the next two years investigating the case.
While LeRoy was interning at a law firm, a paralegal introduced him to Lexus Nexus, an information system for attorneys, because he “bought into that I was passionate and doing my paper.” LeRoy then printed out more than 900 articles that had ever been written on the McMartin case.
For the next six months, LeRoy said, they “pretty much shut out the world” and studied the case inside and out. They began to see similarities of what happened in Salem in 1692.
One day in January 1988 at lunch during the trial, Peggy Buckey approached Haddad and introduced herself.
Peggy Buckey sat down and started talking to him. She did not know he was the son of one of her defense investigators. Not telling her may have been why she “very openly” talked to him, said Haddad.
They soon developed a friendship at the trial, which became a “big moment” during their investigation. Haddad called Peggy Buckey a “very loving woman.”
“It let me form an objective opinion of her as this is how she would talk to a stranger,” Haddad said. “If she’s going to be this open and candid with a stranger and emphatic about her innocence, it says a lot about her character.”
Haddad said that Peggy Buckey was “adamant the case was absurd.”
“How could anyone think that me and my fellow teachers could play naked games with these kids in these classrooms on the busiest street in Manhattan Beach with big open windows? It just defies logic,’” Buckey told Haddad.
Johnson's garbage bag of letters
All along, LeRoy and Haddad said they believed Judy Johnson was the key to the investigation. The problem was she died in December 1986.
In 1983, less than a month after she accused Ray Buckey, he was released for insufficient evidence. In January 1984, Johnson told police that Buckey took her son to Manhattan Ranch Preschool where he was molested by strangers.
In March 1984, Ray Buckey, Peggy McMartin Buckey, Virginia McMartin, Peggy Ann Buckey, as well as Babette Spitler, Betty Raidor and Mary Ann Jackson, were indicted by a grand jury of 115 counts of child molestation.
A day after the McMartin preliminary hearing began, Johnson accused her husband of sexually abusing their son. In April 1985, Johnson went under psychiatric evaluation and was released two weeks later after being diagnosed as “paranoid schizophrenic.”
On Dec 19, 1986, Johnson was found dead in her home. The cause of death was later determined to be acute hemorrhaging as a result of extreme alcohol poisoning. She had developed “acute esophagitis, acute gastritis and chronic pancreatitis,” according to the book.
But on April 27, 1989, while still conducting interviews, Haddad and LeRoy met with Pastor Myrus Knutson, Johnson’s father, who gifted them a garbage bag filled with letters and calendars that “embodied” her experience and “symbolized her mindset—a jumble of disbanded thoughts and emotions.”
But it wasn’t until nearly 30 years later that the contents of that garbage bag have been released in “They Must be Monsters.”
“Her diaries really trace back to the origin of the original sin, original mistake of her false accusation and goes back and sheds light on that and provides authentic documents that help prove that theory,” LeRoy said.
LeRoy added, “When we got back together, which was four years ago, after not talking to each other for 20 years, it was amazing what we discovered in our investigation and in particular what we gleaned in analyzing Judy’s notes and in particular her calendar. It all came together, all the pieces, enabling us to tell the true and complete story of what really happened."
A few decades later
By 1989, the two would-be authors had run out of funding and were selling shoes at Nordstrom.
“After spending a couple of years living with my parents and running out of money it was time to get back to our lives,” LeRoy said.
They had an agent in La Jolla interested in the story who liked the “Hardy Boys” angle, but LeRoy said “society wasn’t ready.” They also admit the quality of the writing was not “quality that I would publish,” LeRoy said.
“It seems like people needed to sort of forget before they wanted to remember,” said LeRoy who conceded that he and Haddad needed to grow up and have more life experience before processing the mountain of McMartin material they had amassed.
“We couldn’t understand what it was like to be a parent," said LeRoy. "Couldn’t understand what it would be like to say your kid was molested. We couldn’t understand so many aspects that comes with being an adult and having a family and working full time.”
Decades intervened. LeRoy and Haddad went about their lives. Then, about four years ago, LeRoy called Haddad and said “let’s get this thing done.”
They revisited many of the people they interviewed previously, but some wanted to leave the past behind.
“Ray Buckey has no interest in being involved in this, he's moved on with his life,” LeRoy said. “He has not read the book. Everybody else we’ve been in contact with and have incredible support and amazement. It's been so many years, but we still ended up doing what we said we were going to do. A lot of the people have passed and that's an unfortunate aspect of it.”
In the End
The Buckey's lives were not the only ones upended during the “witch hunt” in Manhattan Beach. Other schools such as the Learning Game Preschool closed because of unfounded allegations.
Haddad and LeRoy also tell the story of Michael Ruby, a 17-year-old Mira Costa student, who in July 1984, was arrested for child molestation at Manhattan Ranch preschool. His case ended in a hung jury on all counts after spending months in jail. He could have spent decades in prison if found guilty, but declined to take a plea deal because he was adamant about his innocence.
After spending years in jail, Ray and Peggy Buckey were acquitted on 52 counts. Buckey was retried on eight counts but that trial ended in a hung jury in July 1990, and all charges were eventually dropped.
Ray Buckey is alive. Virginia McMartin died in 1995 and Peggy Buckey died in 2000.
Haddad said he hopes “people can heal from this.”
But he also hopes, even after all of these years that someone would say they were sorry for what happened.
“I don’t blame the kids for what happened,” Haddad said. “There was so much pressure on them to say what they said and do what they did that they really had no choice.”
Haddad added. “I think it's really important that these adults now, who were children then, can see this information, and if any of them can come to grips and go, 'You know what, maybe we weren’t telling the truth, maybe we were programmed to say these things, maybe a lot of pressure was put on us that we just said what the adults wanted to hear.'”
LeRoy said they tried to stay objective and stick to the facts when writing.
“The injustice of it to me....I mean nothing like this has happened in the history of our country that compares so closely to Salem,” LeRoy said.
“Everyone in this country thinks they were guilty and that the media had …. called them literally monsters and had portrayed them as the nightmare nursery school down the street.”