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McMartin Defendants Not Guilty on 52 Counts; 13 Others Declared Mistrial

January 18, 1990 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Jurors today acquitted the operators of the McMartin Pre-School of 52 counts of child molestation in the nation’s longest and costliest criminal trial. The judge declared a mistrial on 13 remaining counts.

Raymond Buckey, 31, and Peggy McMartin Buckey, 63, were found innocent of lewd and lascivious conduct with minors under 14.

Mother and son cried as the verdicts were announced. Buckey left the courthouse without making a comment, but his mother reacted angrily.

″I’ve gone through hell and now we’ve lost everything,″ Mrs. Buckey said outside court. ″My concern was for my son and what they’ve done to him ... because my son would never harm a child.″

″They’re making a big mistake,″ said Chris Collins, 18, who as a child was a student at the preschool in Manhattan Beach. ″When I woke up this morning, I thought they would be going to jail the next day. The justice system has let us down.″

The panel deadlocked on 12 molestation charges against Buckey and a single count of conspiracy against both defendants. Superior Court Judge William Pounders declared a mistrial on those counts. It was not immediately announced whether prosecutors would attempt another trial on the counts.

The jury spent nine weeks deliberating on the 65 molestation and conspiracy charges against the pair, who were accused of molesting 11 children during a five-year period at their family-owned preschool.

The highly publicized case at one point involved seven defendants and included allegations that teachers threatened to kill children and mistreated animals in order to make the children too scared to report sexual activity.

Buckey and his mother strongly denied abusing anyone, and the defense argued that the allegations from the children were a result of leading questions and coaching from well-meaning therapists and law enforcement officials.

Buckey spent nearly five years in jail without being convicted until his release on $1.5 million bail last February.

The trial ran nearly three years at a cost of $15 million. More than 1,000 pieces of evidence were entered and 124 witnesses testified, including nine of the children.

Charles Buckey, father of Raymond and husband of Mrs. Buckey, said, ″I feel wonderful.″

But a parent, Bob Curry, said: ″This is somebody else’s system. In baseball, it’s never over till it’s over. In child molestation, and this is a good example of it, it’s never over when it’s over.″

Several jurors talked to reporters after the verdicts were announced. ″I believe that the children believed what they were saying was true in the courtroom,″ said juror Julie Peters.

Another juror, Brenda Williams, said, ″Even if you accept that the children were molested, it didn’t necessarily mean they were molested at the McMartin Pre-school. We did the best job we could do with the information that was given us.″

A single scream was heard in the crowded courthouse hallway when the verdicts were read. An unidentified woman wept into her hands and another looked distressed. Friends or relatives shielded the women from TV cameras.

Prosecutor Lael Rubin said, ″We ultimately must respect the jury’s decision even though I personally disagree with it.″ She said the children and their families ″cannot be forgotten or overlooked.″

Buckey and his mother were required to stand trial after an 18-month preliminary hearing. But five women teachers who worked at the preschool had charges against them dismissed. Among those were Buckey’s sister, Peggy Ann, and his grandmother, Virginia McMartin, who founded the once prestigious but now defunct nursery school.

The McMartin investigation ignited a wave of hysteria about child molestation in Southern California and nationally. It produced widespread fear among working parents that their children might not be safe in the private schools they chose to care for them.

Other child molestation cases surfaced in the wake of McMartin but none received as much publicity.

A jury of 12, plus six alternates, began the trial in April 1987. As months and years passed, job problems and illness took its toll, leaving the bare dozen panelists needed to deliberate and avoid a mistrial on all 65 counts.

The McMartin case began in August 1983 when Judy Johnson, mother of a child at the school, called Manhattan Beach police. She told the department’s sex abuse and juvenile investigator that her son’s bottom was red and that he had spoken of a man named Ray who worked at the school. Letters were sent alerting parents to check their children for signs of molestation.

Mrs. Johnson, suffering from alcohol and mental problems, died at the age of 44 a few months before trial began. Defense attorneys contended she was unbalanced and that the case that emerged was largely the result of her increasingly bizarre allegations.

On the basis of her complaint, Buckey was arrested, released and later rearrested. By 1984, when indictments were handed up, prosecutors alleged Buckey, his mother, sister, grandmother and three other women teachers had molested hundreds of tots at the school during a five-year period.

Children gave investigators accounts of satanic rites and animals tortured to frighten the youngsters into silence.

When Buckey and his mother finally came to trial in 1987, the focus of the prosecution had narrowed. What had originally been hundreds of counts of child molestation was pruned to 64 counts and a shared count of conspiracy. The 41 children once said to have been abused came down to 11 alleged victims.

Pounders summed the case up at one point. ″The case has poisoned everyone who had contact with it,″ he said. ″By that I mean every witness, every litigant and every judicial officer. It’s a very upsetting case.″