McMartin: Digging Deeper below the Surface

The resources for this article include the aforementioned paper by John Earl, W. Joseph Wyatt‘s “What Was Under the McMartin Preschool? A Review and Behavioral Analysis of the ‘Tunnels’ Find,” published in the journal Behavior and Social Issues, vol. 12 (2002), and the three-part YouTube documentary “The McMartin Preschool Case: Tunnels” by Godlesspanther.

To a number of researchers, Dr. Gary Stickel’s report validating a tunnel complex beneath the surface of McMartin Preschool seems compelling. But upon closer examination, one can see numerous flaws in its basic assumptions, methodology and execution. When compared to the dig arranged by Scientific Resource Surveys, Inc., the firm retained by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office to find evidence of tunnels, Stickel’s effort seems at best amateurish, and at worst heavily biased. Worse, the SRS came to a definite conclusion about the cavities found at the site which is actually consistent with much of what Dr. Stickel observed, despite the fact that their conclusions contradicted.

Starting with Dr. Stickel’s nine criteria for establishing the tunnels’ existence, a close reading reveals a pronounced vagueness about them. Six of them contain the words “or” or “and/or,” which has the effect of broadening the definition of ‘tunnel’ itself. For example, criterion number two states “Tunnel architecture should be linear or curvilinear (i.e. an elongated passageway leading in a definable direction(s).” Thus if you could discern any pattern of cavities, such would define ‘tunnelness,’ without having to explain why they would have curved or stayed straight. Other language lacks sufficient methodological explanation. While one can understand why compaction due to foot traffic (criterion 5) would be significant, Dr. Stickel provides us no means of determining this.

There’s also a lot of qualifying language in them that would make the criterion useless, because any possible observation would yield evidence of a tunnel. Criterion six, for example, states, “The tunnel could be open (i.e. traversable and unfilled).” Then again, it might not. So it wouldn’t matter if one found an anomaly opened or closed. Both circumstances would validate the existence of a tunnel, according to criterion six. As worded, almost anything you could observe would validate the existence of a tunnel in terms of meeting a number of these criteria.

Figure 1. W. Joseph Wyatt’s diagram of McMartin Preschool

Dr. Stickel’s report also failed to address something that the SRS excavation took seriously: specifically the history of that particular plot of land. This would clear up a lot of mystery concerning the artifacts found at the site. Mark Morris purchased the house that once occupied the plot next door to the McMartin Preschool in 1942. In the deal, he also bought the land upon which the school would occupy starting in 1966. For the most part, this was a vacant lot, although the Morris family once had a greenhouse located on the grounds, and at another point had a stable where the school would later sit. As was common on rural properties of that time (and in 1942, this was rural property), Morris would have disposed of his garbage by digging a trash pit. Once that pit filled up, he would have simply dug another adjacent to the old one. Earlier inhabitants of the property would have done the same thing. After decades of digging holes in the ground next to each other, the resultant pits could look somewhat tunnel-like. As Dr. Stickel noted on his own excavation, there were areas that had the “scars,” or marks of shovel digging. That’s certainly consistent with digging a bunch of trash pits.
Moreover, most of the items Stickel found were things that someone would find in a used trash heap–pots, plates, roofing tiles, etc.. Whereas Stickel concluded that somebody surreptitiously brought in the bottles, cans and other debris after the Buckeys’ arrest in order to (1) fill in the tunnels before anyone could detect them and (2) to make any tunnel-like features appear as trash dumps if discovered,* most people would consider that preposterous. After all, from the moments after the arrest of school personnel, parents, police and prosecutors closely watched that property in the hopes of obtaining evidence. Given the extensive nature of the tunnels as ‘described’ by the children, filling them in would require a massive undertaking in broad daylight–a project not conducive to going on unnoticed. It’s highly unlikely that anyone could just casually sneak up in the middle of the night with a few tons of earth, a busload of collectable bottles and cans, and slip it all in quietly. Seeing that the bottles dated almost exclusively from 1930s and 1940s, and the other artifacts date from an appropriate era, then it’s highly unlikely that someone artificially introduced these items during the 1980s. Thus, everything here points to a trash dump, not a tunnel.

The mailbox was one of a few artifacts that Dr. Stickel dated sometime after the preschool’s construction. He based this on the fact that the house it belonged to was demolished in the early-1970s. But he made this estimate based on the assumption that the Morrises actually used that box up until the time of their departure. Still, Dr. Stickel himself noted that its flag didn’t work properly. So it makes more sense that Morris simply didn’t want to spend time repairing it. He therefore dumped the old box (in a trash pit, no doubt) and bought a new one.

The sandwich bag dated 1982 might, at first, seem like the most difficult item to explain under the grounds of McMartin, but is in fact one of easiest. Burring rodents (e.g., moles) often take such light items as sandwich bags underground with them. The technical term for this is ‘bioturbation.’ Dr. Stickel demonstrates his cognizance of bioturbation in a couple of places in his excavation: once when he noted a piece of cellophane that he believed entered the ground because of it; and earlier when he noted that a piece of pig iron pipe could not have been subject to it. Given its commonness, bioturbation provides the best explanation for the Disney bag–assuming that a parent or someone else simply didn’t plant it there.

Trash pits also explain the animal remains. After all, cattle bones were among the items found.  Even if you believed the McMartin tunnels existed, you’d have a real tough time explaining how the Buckeys got a whole living cow down there for sacrificial purposes. More to the point, almost all of the bones featured standard butchers’ cuts: not surprising considering that people commonly eat fish, sheep, goats, beef, pork, rabbits, chicken and other fowl. Butchered dog bones might strike us as unlikely, but one would have to keep in mind that these trash pits encompass a time span between 1890 and 1960. They would therefore have been operational during the worst two depression eras of American history: the early-1890s and the 1930s. Hunger was a real issue then, and there are a number of stories about the family pet looking mighty tasty after awhile.

Animals not demonstrating standard butchers cuts included the tortoises found on the property. Their presence isn’t as easily explained, but one could speculate that they just fell into open trash pits and died. Whether that’s the case or not, we can dismiss the possibility that they were used for animal sacrifice, especially as described by the children. SRS consulted with a herpetologist who found neither evidence of torture in these animals, nor death by human hands for that matter. At the first trial, the herpetologist testified that it would have been extremely difficult for a human being to stab a tortoise to death because of the animal’s hard shell.

Other artifacts found by Stickel, specifically the stainless steel clamps on the pipes beneath the school, could have very well placed there after the schools construction after 1967, given their condition. While this sounds somewhat sinister, it’s really not. The pipes in question were located close to the western wall of classroom #4. So someone working on those pipes would have probably dug outside the building to get out them, instead of through the twenty-nine inch concrete foundation.

Speaking of foundations, the floor itself provides the best evidence against another of the major claims of tunnel advocates. The children declaring the existence of the tunnels said that they entered them through trap doors located in a number of places. Bob Currie’s son, for example, located the tunnel entrance under the sink of the office bathroom. Jackie McGauley’s daughter and another child located the tunnel entrance in the northwest corner of classroom #3, while other children affixed them at other corners of the room. Two kids put the tunnels in classroom #4, one in the northwest corner, another in the southwest corner. One kid reported a trap door at the northwest corner of classroom #1, while others said the trap doors were actually outside the building.

It’s certainly conceivable that more than one trap door existed inside the school itself. Someone could have possibly punched through the foundation to create a trap door. Same person could have presumably plugged the hole back up, and then hidden his or her handiwork by floor tiling. The problem with this is that the floor underneath the tiles consisted of a poured concrete slab. While it’s possible to cut a hole through cement, one couldn’t plug it up discretely. A poured concrete slab has a unique texture. Plugs are obvious because their texture, their markings, and sometimes even their color won’t match (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Example of a concrete plug

When SRS examined the site in 1985, they immediately went to the sites singled out by the children as possible locations of trap door. The company pulled the floor tiles around these sites.  Except for a small plug way to small for human passage, they otherwise found an undisturbed concrete slab. So they stopped looking for entrances in the building. While some of the children located the entrances outside of the building, the fact that there could have been none in the building diminishes the credibility of this claim.
The credibility of child witnesses would come under further scrutiny. While Dr. Roland Summit made it seem as though “Joanie” demonstrated an accurate description of the tunnels that could have only come from first-hand knowledge, Jerry Hobbs flatly contradicted this assessment. In an interview he gave to John Earl, he characterized the pre-teen as desperately trying to remember, but being massively confused:

There was also one girl who described grabbing a hold of this pipe in the tunnel and swinging and seeing these silver bands. When I asked her to create — we recreated the direction she went and everything. But she didn’t remember right from left. We found where the tunnel turned where she said — because I asked her how far. She was about 11 years old — and she said, ‘well far, but not too far.’ I mean, you know, she was only like 4 when this happened. It was hard for her to determine, especially underground — distance. So she said she turned this way, and she pointed to the right, and we followed down there . . .[and came to] the profile of a turn. We followed that about 10 feet. We came across two stainless steel bands that were like new. They were the bands that they had described.

Dr. Summit who gave life to the Joanie story seems to have even contradicted himself on how helpful she was. In a lecture given on 27 July 1990 (the day of the verdict in the second trial), he said:

One of the children, never a witness in the case, but someone who had told her mother all kinds of hair raising stories about her victimization as a child, as this dig was proceeding, and when she saw the pipe she said, ‘Oh, that’s the pipe,‘ and I’m paraphrasing. I didn’t hear her say this, ‘that’s the pipe that I would reach up and swing on. . . .’ Okay, that’s when the dig was just as deep as the pipe and only that far….

In other words, it would seem that Dr. Summit didn’t actually hear what he claimed to later in “The Dark Tunnels of McMartin.” So this appears to be a case of an adult putting words into a child’s mouth. More important, it doesn’t demonstrate first-hand knowledge on the part of Joanie. She saw the pipe during the excavation. That doesn’t mean she saw it at any other time, although one could posit that she might have seen it if people had done work on it while she attended the school (that would also explain the presence of the new stainless steel clamps).

One of the most persuasive arguments against the tunnels’ existence came from Dr. E.D. Michael, a geologist retained by former FBI SAC Ted Gunderson. Dr. Michael concluded that a tunnel complex that extensive required massive shoring in order to keep from caving in–especially in any secret rooms, as described. The only evidence that the Stickel dig could offer that any shoring at all existed consisted of four damaged wooden posts. That wouldn’t come close to doing the trick. Worse yet, Spectrum, the company hired by the Manhattan Tunnel Project to conduct the GPR survey, reported no evidence of tunnels or rooms at a depth of between eight and ten feet.

A final nail in the coffin: even if the Buckey’s et al managed to sneak several truckloads of dirt during the year between the initial allegations by Johnson and the end of their access to the property, they still would not be able to keep the tunnel filled for very long, even if they managed to cram in dirt up to the ceiling. As SRS geophysicist Bob Beers explained:

If you have a large tunnel, big enough for a person to crawl through, no matter how much you throw dirt in it, and you’re talking about trying to fill it to the brim, and compact it given one or two rainy seasons, that dirt is going to compact and you’re going to end up with a little air gap between the natural soil between the top of the tunnel . . . You would visually see it.

None of this was mentioned in the Stickel report.

In Dr. Stickel’s defense, both Professor Wyatt and John Earl noted that his complete 186-page report was missing a page describing methodology. There could be a number of qualifying or explanatory statements on that page that would put his study in a far better light. But as it stands now, we have to say that what we see in his study does not give an accurate account of the McMartin grounds. When we take into account the fact that every artifact found in three excavations had a reason for being there, the absence of things that would have had to have been there but weren’t (e.g., concrete plugs, shoring), the demonstrated unreliability of eyewitnesses, and the lack of corroboration from other professionals, we have no reason to think that there were underground tunnels at McMartin.

*As Jerry Hobbs reported to Stickel, “To me this is conclusive that with the inconsistent soil area, the plastic bag dated 1982 [see next paragraph] and the old bottles, cans and debris, were put in the ground after 1982, and it was not an old dump area as it appeared.”