“And When Did You Last See Your Father?” by William Frederick Yeames, 1878
depicting English Puritan inquisitors grilling the child of a Royalist family
How hysterical parents, incompetent therapists and malicious prosecutors
destroyed the lives of seven innocent North Carolinians – and
have yet to admit they were wrong
Seeking corroboration isn’t disrespectful – it’s useful
Dec. 10, 2014
“More than a decade ago, I wrote about the McMartin preschool case, and other satanic ritual child abuse accusations that turned out to be false. Back then, the slogan many supporters of the accusations brandished was, ‘Believe the Children.’ It was an antidote to skepticism about real claims of child abuse, just as today, ‘Believe the Victims’ is a reaction to a long history of callous oversight of rape accusations.
“ ‘Believe the Victims’ makes sense as a starting presumption, but a presumption of belief should never preclude questions. It’s not wrong or disrespectful for reporters to ask for corroboration, or for editors to insist on it. Truth-seeking won’t undermine efforts to prevent campus sexual assault and protect its victims; it should make them stronger and more effective.”
– From “Reporting on Rape” by Margaret Talbot at newyorker.com (Dec. 7)
prosecution’s strategic secrecy,
the pursuit of corroboration in the Little Rascals case presented an enormous
challenge. But news coverage could been far more skeptical and revealing –
perhaps even game-changing. The editor of the News & Observer
News media newly skeptical about sex allegations?
Dec. 3, 2014
“I was in graduate school in Southern California 30 years ago when the McMartin Preschool scandal erupted, featuring tales of Satanic rituals, underground tunnels, group sex with animals and children, and various acrobatic acts that would challenge Cirque du Soleil, all believed credulously by the media and California prosecutors....
“There was something so literally incredible about [such] ‘Satanic ritual abuse’ cults that serious doubts and questions should have been raised right at the outset.
“Some hard questions are starting to be asked about the latest sequel to the Salem witch trials – the college campus ‘rape culture’ hysteria.... The Rolling Stone story about an especially brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia is provoking considerable backlash – with a few critics suggesting the entire story might be a hoax ....
“It took years for the ‘Satanic child abuse crisis’ to collapse, and several months for the Duke lacrosse scandal to turn around. What is interesting about the UVa story is how quickly it is facing credible challenge....”
– From “The
Spirit of Salem Lives On” by Steven Hayward
at powerlineblog.com (Dec. 2)
Can Edenton squeeze in one more historical marker?
Nov. 27, 2014
“Of the dozen or so historical markers clustered in the town of Edenton, only one – recognizing novelist Inglis Fletcher – postdates the 1800s.
“The North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Committee now has the opportunity, 25 years after the first arrest in the Little Rascals case, to add to that number a 20th Century event inarguably significant in the legal and social history of not just North Carolina but also the nation.”
– From my application proposing
“history on a stick” recognition for
the Little Rascals Day Care case
The marker committee, composed of historians from four-year colleges across the state, will meet in December to decide which pending applications meet its criteria.
‘Show me the evidence of guilt, or release the guy’
Nov. 22, 2014
“The governor should step up to the plate and say, ‘Look, show me the evidence of guilt, or release the guy [Junior Chandler] unconditionally.’
“[Chandler’s case seems similar to] the case of Duke lacrosse team members supposedly raping a woman; the local community got all up in arms, with prominent speakers publicly damning the boys to hell, before it was determined the girl lied to get some publicity.... The local DA [Mike Nifong] was disbarred over that one.
“My point is, if you're not privy to the actual facts, don't join in just because your neighbors are blowing things out of proportion. Don't assume that because they panic, there's something to be upset about.”
Bruce Van Deuson’s online comment about my column
on the Chandler case in the Asheville Citizen-Times (Nov. 15)
Mr. Van Deuson’s advice may sound simple to follow
almost a truism
who among us hasn’t rushed to judgment? Less excusable: the unwillingness
of public officials even to reconsider that judgment.
Lessons of ‘ritual abuse’ era still relevant today
Nov. 19, 2014
“While [‘The Witch-Hunt Narrative’ author Ross] Cheit... admits that there was some ‘overreaction’ and injustice to innocent people – including ‘five, possibly six, of the seven defendants’ in the McMartin case – he argues that the ‘Satanic panic’ hysteria is a myth rooted in exaggeration and distortion....
“Whether the book succeeds in making a dent in the witch-hunt narrative depends, to put it bluntly, on whether we can trust Cheit to give a fair and accurate account of this material. A close look reveals enough evasions, highly tendentious interpretations, and verifiable inaccuracies to conclude that we cannot....
“It is ironic, or perhaps symbolic, that this book has arrived in the midst of a new wave of sex-crime hysteria. Just recently, in the impassioned debate over the sexual molestation charges against Woody Allen, such feminists as Jessica Valenti and Roxanne Gay revived the call to ‘believe the survivor.’ The same mind-set also appears in the current campus climate of pressure to accept virtually all allegations of sexual assault regardless of evidence. Despite Cheit’s attempted debunking, the lesson of the witch-hunts still stands: Emotion-driven, faith-based crusades against repellent crimes are a grave danger to justice.”
– From “The Return of Moral Panic: A scholar tries – and fails – to rehabilitate the sex-abuse hysteria of the ’80s” by Cathy Young at reason.com (Oct. 25)
Young contributes a welcome follow-up to Debbie Nathan’s
from the National Center for Reason and Justice. She is especially effective
in pointing out Cheit’s fact-fudging and cherry-picking in the McMartin and
Kelly Michaels cases.
How one young reporter changed his mind
Nov. 8, 2014
“In the summer of 1989, I accepted my first job at a daily paper when The Daily Advance hired me to cover a two-county beat – Chowan and Perquimans. When I arrived, Bob Kelly had just been arrested and charged in about a dozen cases. My editor told me about it, almost in passing, and said, ‘You might want to keep an eye on it.’ I did, and for the next two years it consumed my life.
“I was 24 years old with a wife of two years and no children. I had no experience reporting on police and courts and was very naive as to how the system worked. As the case expanded I became convinced of the defendants’ guilt. Their lawyers wouldn’t let them talk and they were hard to reach in jail. Prosecutors were also tight-lipped, but some of the parents couldn’t stay that way.
“For two years all I had to go on were the stories of parents and what I believed to be a mountain of evidence in the hands of prosecutors. Shortly before Bob’s trial began, three important things happened. I finally got to interview two of the defendants [Robin Byrum and Scott Privott]. Their stories were very convincing and I was no longer certain of their guilt. I was also promoted to an editing position and was no longer actively reporting on the case. I was in charge of the reporters who would. Also at this time the ‘Frontline’ show came out, pretty much blowing the lid off the prosecution’s case.
“As Bob Kelly’s trial unfolded, I found that the prosecution had little to no evidence. My faith in the case was weakened and I was surprised when Bob was convicted. Then another defendant [Dawn Wilson] fell and Bob’s wife Betsy Kelly pleaded no contest. That upset me because I was convinced she was innocent and I wanted her to fight and prove it.
“At this point in my life, I had become a parent and soon my first marriage would end. I returned home to Colorado but continued to follow the case from afar. I was happy when the convictions were overthrown and the other charges dropped. As a parent I could now see and understand that what was normal childhood behavior was being grossly misinterpreted as signs of child sex abuse.
“In hindsight, I feel bad for everyone involved in the case. Both sides went through hell. Most of all, though, I feel for the children. Their lives were altered and family and community dynamics changed by forces beyond their control and beyond reason.”
– Joe Southern, recalling his experience covering the Little Rascals case for the Elizabeth City Daily Advance
This 1991 piece, reprinted in a Del Rio, Texas, paper, seems to be reporter Southern’s lone Little Rascals story to survive online. He is now managing editor of The Sealy News in Sealy, Texas.
More recently, the Daily Advance has shown far less interest in the case – well, none, actually – or in Nancy Lamb’s responsibility for pursuing and prolonging it.
Nancy Lamb loses bid for district attorney
Nov. 5, 2014
Andrew Womble 24,357 votes (53 percent)
Nancy Lamb 21,411 votes (47 percent)
I'd like to attribute Nancy Lamb's defeat to her misbegotten role in the prosecution of the Edenton Seven. But voters in the First Judicial District probably gave more weight to her being a Democrat and to her having allowed a backlog of cases during her time in the DA's office.
Little Rascals? Doesn’t ring a bell, says local daily
Nov. 2, 2014
“For District Attorney – Nancy Lamb: Two equally motivated and capable candidates, Democrat Nancy Lamb and Republican Andrew Womble, have mounted compelling political campaigns to claim the job of district attorney of the 1st Prosecutorial District.
“While both have strong credentials for practicing law and for public service, they are nevertheless significantly divided by experience. Lamb’s three decades as a practicing prosecutor is an overwhelming advantage for ensuring that the office of district attorney is guided with seasoned wisdom and trade knowledge.
“Additionally, Lamb’s long trial experience and prosecutorial insight is critically important to lead an office of assistant DAs....”
– From “Our View: TDA endorses Lamb....” in the
Elizabeth City Daily Advance (Nov. 1, paywalled)
Although The Daily Advance gushes over Nancy Lamb's "long trial experience and prosecutorial insight" and her “seasoned wisdom and trade knowledge,” the paper somehow neglects to offer even a single example.
How about the Little Rascals Day Care case?
But TDA apparently doesn’t consider Lamb's nationally-notorious courtroom star turn worthy of even a mention, either in its endorsement or – this belongs in journalism’s “Believe It or Not!” – in the 17 news stories it wrote about her campaign.
Lamb not only unrepentant prosecutor facing voters
Oct. 24, 2014
“As Middlesex County [Mass.] district attorney, [Martha] Coakley defended the convictions of Fells Acres day-care center operator Violet Amirault and her two children, Gerald Amirault and Cheryl Amirault LeFave. The Amiraults are now widely recognized as victims of the mass national hysteria in the 1980s over supposed child sexual abuse in day care centers....
“In 2000, as the case against the Amiraults had all but collapsed, Coakley opposed the 5-0 decision by the Massachusetts Governor’s Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Gerald Amirault’s sentence. To this day, Gerald lives with an ankle bracelet and strict probationary conditions, despite a growing number of people who recognize not only that he committed no crime, but that no crime was committed....”
– From “When
Prosecutors Seek Higher Office, Questions Often Remain”
by defense attorney Harvey Silverglate at Forbes (Oct. 22)
“Coakley... refuses to acknowledge what any rational person should know, that once again [after the Salem witch trials] Massachusetts had indulged in irrational hysteria. Just what we need, a governor who can't admit she made a mistake....”
– From “Struggling to find the truth behind all the political
by Barbara Anderson in the Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, Mass. (Oct. 19)
At the same time voters in Massachusetts will be be deciding whether to elect Martha Coakley governor, those in the First Judicial District of North Carolina will be deciding whether to elect fellow “satanic ritual abuse” prosecutor Nancy Lamb district attorney. Lamb may share with Coakley not only the inability to “admit she made a mistake,” but also the appetite for higher office.
A familiar story of day-care sex abuse – too familiar?
Oct. 16, 2014
“A 38-year-old man from Statesville has been accused of molesting children as young as 3 years old at the day care where he worked in the 1990s....
“Police said a girl came to them in 1999 and said [Joshua Maurice] Young had molested her at the day care between 1994 and 1995, when she was 3 years old. The alleged assaults happened in a part of the building away from the other children....
“The Statesville Police Department investigated then, according to Capt. David Onley... but no charges were filed....
“In June of this year, another alleged victim came forward, Onley said. This one said she was molested by Young at the day care between 1995 and 1997. The earliest incidents happened when she was 3, she said.
“ ‘We had a female tell us exactly the same story – same place, same details as (the first) one,’ Onley said. ‘It gave validity to that (first) one. And then we had to go track down that first victim.’ ”
Is Joshua Maurice Young guilty as charged? I have no idea. But given the history of day-care sex abuse prosecutions, the case against him certainly warrants a skepticism by police not indicated in this account.
What white people believed that black people doubted
Oct. 14, 2014
“[Bob] Kelly’s father-in-law, Warren Twiddy, says that blacks are the only people in Edenton who still treat him like a human being.
“One black woman, calling the whole episode a Salem witch hunt, told me she was so ashamed she had removed the Edenton license plates from her car.”
– From “Nursery witch hunt” by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the
Sunday Telegraph of London (Aug. 3, 1993)
Veteran journalist bought into Believe the Children
Oct. 4, 2014
Among those journalists who fell for the “satanic ritual abuse” storyline, none fell harder than Civia Tamarkin.
She not only stage-managed an embarrassingly credulous episode of “Nightline,” but also testified earnestly at a Believe the Children convention alongside Little Rascals prosecutor H. P. Williams Jr. and supposed ritual-abuse survivor Laura Buchanan ("“ was told that a surveillance device would be inserted into my brain....”).
In 1993 Tamarkin delivered a lengthy address on “Investigative Issues in Ritual Abuse Cases” to the Fifth Eastern Regional Conference on Abuse and Multiple Personality in Alexandria, Va.
Like Ross Cheit two decades later, she had no trouble detailing numerous flaws in the prosecution of McMartin and other ritual abuse cases but inevitably came up frustrated in her search for a smoking gun or two. Most striking, after recounting all her journalistic fault-finding, was her unquestioning gratitude to SRA snake-oil theoreticians Roland Summit and Bennett Braun for “[taking] the time to teach me what they could.”
Prior to her affiliation with Believe the Children, Tamarkin had reported commendably for Time, People and the Chicago Sun-Times and had coauthored a book with Chicago educator Marva Collins.
More recently, she has directed a documentary on the aftermath of a soldier's death in Iraq....
So what happened in the 1990s? How did an experienced reporter lose her
skepticism in the face of “ritual abuse” claims?
I’ve asked Tamarkin what she was thinking then – and what she believes today – but haven’t received a response.
The Little Rascals case in brief
In the beginning, in 1989, more than 90 children at the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, North Carolina, accused a total of 20 adults with 429 instances of sexual abuse over a three-year period. It may have all begun with one parent's complaint about punishment given her child.
Among the alleged perpetrators: the sheriff and mayor. But prosecutors would charge only Robin Byrum, Darlene Harris, Elizabeth "Betsy" Kelly, Robert "Bob" Kelly, Willard Scott Privott, Shelley Stone and Dawn Wilson – the Edenton 7.
Along with sodomy and beatings, allegations included a baby killed with a handgun, a child being hung upside down from a tree and being set on fire and countless other fantastic incidents involving spaceships, hot air balloons, pirate ships and trained sharks.
By the time prosecutors dropped the last charges in 1997, Little Rascals had become North Carolina's longest and most costly criminal trial. Prosecutors kept defendants jailed in hopes at least one would turn against their supposed co-conspirators. Remarkably, none did.
Another shameful record: Five defendants had to wait longer to face their accusers in court than anyone else in North Carolina history.
Between 1991 and 1997, Ofra Bikel produced three extraordinary episodes on the Little Rascals case for the PBS series "Frontline." Although "Innocence Lost" did not deter prosecutors, it exposed their tactics and fostered nationwide skepticism and dismay.
With each passing year, the absurdity of the Little Rascals charges has become more obvious. But no admission of error has ever come from prosecutors, police, interviewers or parents.
This site is devoted to the issues raised by this case.