McMartin Preschool Is Embroiled in Child-Abuse Case Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The McMartin Preschool was at the center of one of the costliest and longest criminal trials in American history after its owners and several teachers were accused of sexually abusing the children in their care. The case, which initiated public hysteria over child sex-abuse, ended with no convictions but altered public views of child-abuse cases and pressured the justice system to modify how it handles such cases.

Summary of Event

The child-abuse allegations that emerged against McMartin Preschool owners and teachers in 1983 led to one of the longest and costliest trials in American history and initiated public hysteria over child sex-abuse in schools. Located in Manhattan Beach, near Los Angeles, California, the family-owned and operated preschool was a popular and acclaimed school with a long waiting list. The preschool’s strong reputation contributed to the magnitude of the shock and outrage felt by the Manhattan Beach community—and all of Southern California—when the scandal surfaced. [kw]McMartin Preschool Is Embroiled in Child-Abuse Case (Aug. 12, 1983-July 27, 1990) [kw]Child-Abuse Case, McMartin Preschool Is Embroiled in (Aug. 12, 1983-July 27, 1990) McMartin Preschool[MacMartin Preschool] Child abuse;at McMartin Preschool[MacMartin Preschool] Johnson, Judy McMartin, Virginia McMartin Preschool[MacMartin Preschool] Child abuse;at McMartin Preschool[MacMartin Preschool] Johnson, Judy McMartin, Virginia [g]United States;Aug. 12, 1983-July 27, 1990: McMartin Preschool Is Embroiled in Child-Abuse Case[02060] [c]Law and the courts;Aug. 12, 1983-July 27, 1990: McMartin Preschool Is Embroiled in Child-Abuse Case[02060] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Aug. 12, 1983-July 27, 1990: McMartin Preschool Is Embroiled in Child-Abuse Case[02060] [c]Families and children;Aug. 12, 1983-July 27, 1990: McMartin Preschool Is Embroiled in Child-Abuse Case[02060] [c]Education;Aug. 12, 1983-July 27, 1990: McMartin Preschool Is Embroiled in Child-Abuse Case[02060] [c]Sex crimes;Aug. 12, 1983-July 27, 1990: McMartin Preschool Is Embroiled in Child-Abuse Case[02060] Buckey, Raymond Buckey, Peggy McMartin Buckey, Peggy Ann MacFarlane, Kee

The investigation began on August 12, 1983, when Judy Johnson, the mother of a two-year-old boy who attended the school, filed a complaint with police. Johnson reported that she had taken her son to a pediatrician after he complained of rectal discomfort and pain. She claimed that her son had been sexually abused and sodomized by the preschool’s only male teacher, Raymond Buckey, during satanic rituals at the school.

Buckey was arrested on September 7 but soon released because of a lack of evidence. The following day, the Manhattan Beach Police Department issued a letter to two hundred parents whose children had attended the preschool, explaining its investigation into the allegations. The letter informed parents that Buckey was under investigation and that parents should speak with their children to learn whether or not their child had been victimized, had witnessed a classmate being abused, or had any other information about Buckey’s activities at the preschool.

Knowledge of the McMartin investigation quickly spread throughout the community, caused mass panic, and led to death threats against the McMartin Preschool owners and teachers. It also led to the collective withdrawal of children by their parents from McMartin and neighboring preschools. The number of abuse reports soared after parents began to interrogate their children.

In October, 1983, McMartin parents were instructed to take their children to the Child Sexual Abuse Center at Children’s Institute International (CII) for further evaluation. The review was headed by CII investigator and center director Kee MacFarlane. CII therapists Video evidence;and McMartin Preschool[MacMartin Preschool] videotaped their interviews with the children and used dolls to help the children articulate the alleged sex acts. Most of the children first denied being abused, but many later recanted and began to tell stories of sex abuse. The children’s descriptions gradually transformed into incredible stories of satanic rituals, blood drinking, animal mutilation and sacrifice, corpse desecration, naked games, child Pornography;child pornography, hidden underground tunnels and rooms, and flying witches. From a lineup of photographs, the children named the preschool owners and teachers as their abusers, but they also selected from the photos community leaders, celebrities, and other public figures, such as actor Chuck Norris, as abusers.

The children also were evaluated by medical doctors for physical signs of sex abuse. By November, CII investigators determined that more than three hundred sixty of the four hundred children they interviewed had been sexually abused, a claim that intensified public hysteria and incited violence, including vandalism against the preschool building. The findings also led to a rise in child sex-abuse reports from other preschools. After nearly thirty years in the preschool business, the McMartins closed the school on January 13, 1984, as the scandal began to dominate national headlines.

On March 22, McMartin owners and teachers were arrested and initially charged with one hundred fifteen counts of child molestation, despite weak evidence. The accused included the McMartin family—founder Virginia McMartin, Peggy McMartin Buckey, Raymond Buckey, Peggy Ann Buckey—and three of the preschool’s teachers—Betty Raidor, Babette Spitler, and Mary Ann Jackson. By April, the scandal prompted other states to investigate their own growing reports of child sex-abuse. In May, the charges against the McMartin defendants included more than two hundred counts of child molestation and one count of conspiracy involving more than forty children.

During the pretrial from August, 1984, to January, 1986, the court examined the testimony of CII interviewers, doctors, child psychologists, child sex-abuse experts, and child witnesses. The case weakened as witness testimonies conflicted and McMartin parents kept their children from participating in the court’s interrogations. In March of 1985, enraged parents protested the court’s actions by attempting to uncover, as a group, the tunnel at the preschool that had been described by their children. A private archaeological firm contracted by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office on March 20 continued the excavation, but workers found no evidence of a tunnel or entryway.

On January 17, the court dropped charges against five of the seven defendants because of insufficient evidence. In preparation for the trial, prosecutors charged Raymond and Peggy Buckey with more than one hundred counts of child molestation. The exoneration of the other five defendants drew public protests, as crowds displaying signs in support of the McMartin children gathered outside the courthouse. On December 19, Judy Johnson, the mother who first alleged the child abuse at McMartin, died of liver disease; she had been an alcoholic. Prior to her death, she also had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and although her condition may have been a factor in the abuse allegations, the McMartin trial continued in full force nevertheless.

On July 14, 1987, four years after the investigations began, the trial commenced with opening statements. Witness testimony and Video evidence;and McMartin Preschool[MacMartin Preschool] videotapes of the children’s interviews were once again reviewed, but the evidence against the two defendants—Raymond and Peggy Buckey—remained weak and unclear. The Buckeys continued to proclaim their innocence throughout the trial.

Peggy Buckey was acquitted on January 18, 1990. She had spent two years in jail during the investigation and trial. All but thirteen charges against Raymond Buckey were dropped. Jurors cited the weak evidence and the suggestive and coercive manner in which evaluators obtained child testimonies as reasons for their deadlocking. Following her acquittal, Peggy Buckey filed a defamation lawsuit and Raymond Buckey prepared for his second trial (on the remaining thirteen charges), scheduled for May. For the second trial, the prosecution made a thorough excavation of the preschool grounds. Several collapsed tunnels were found underneath the preschool. However, research into when the tunnels had been built remained inconclusive. On July 27 the jury again deadlocked on the charges against Raymond Buckey, forcing the judge to declare a mistrial. District Attorney Ira Reiner decided not to pursue a third trial.

Raymond Buckey had served five years in jail during the investigation and trial. The McMartin case lasted for seven years, cost taxpayers sixteen million dollars, and ended without a single conviction. In 1991, the preschool was demolished.


The McMartin Preschool scandal—along with its hysteria, panic, and media coverage—convinced the public that child sex-abuse was a significant social problem. Although the case was referred to as a contemporary witch Witch hunts hunt that destroyed the lives of many people and saw death threats, vandalism, and physical attacks, the McMartin trial also inspired changes in the justice system. The courts, first of all, gained a new perspective on child-abuse allegations. The testimonies of children are now viewed with more caution and skepticism. The guidelines for conducting child interviews and utilizing child testimony during trials have been revised to reduce the harmful psychological and emotional effects the process may have upon children. Finally, defendant liberties have been reduced to avoid long trials. McMartin Preschool[MacMartin Preschool] Child abuse;at McMartin Preschool[MacMartin Preschool] Johnson, Judy McMartin, Virginia

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Butler, Edgar, et al. Anatomy of the McMartin Child Molestation Case. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2001. A comprehensive overview of the case, from the initial criminal charges to pretrial publicity to the juries to the rights of alleged victims and perpetrators.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carlson, Margaret. “Six Years Trial by Torture.” Time, January 29, 1990. A brief overview of the McMartin case. Argues that the children were victimized by the criminal justice system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eberle, Paul, and Shirley Eberle. The Abuse of Innocence: The McMartin Preschool Trial. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2003. Provides a scandal time line and presents excerpts from the pretrial investigations and trial testimony.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reinhold, Robert. “How Lawyers and the Media Turned the McMartin Case into a Tragic Circus.” The New York Times, January 25, 1990. Discusses several mistakes made by prosecutors that led to the exoneration of all seven defendants and how the media shaped the public’s views toward child abuse.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Talbot, Margaret. “The Devil in the Nursery.” The New York Times Magazine, January 7, 2001. Offers a brief analysis of the effects of mass panic and hysteria on legal proceedings, using the McMartin case as an example of that panic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vieth, Victor I., Bette L. Bottoms, and Alison Perona, eds. Ending Child Abuse: New Efforts in Prevention, Investigation, and Training. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 2006. Social scientists and legal scholars examine concepts in the field of child abuse prevention as well as training methods, prosecution strategies, and other issues.

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