Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son were acquitted in the sensational Manhattan Beach case. When it was over, Peggy McMartin Buckey spoke bitterly of the price she had paid in the longest and costliest trial in American history–one which, from a legal standpoint, she had won.
“I’ve gone through hell and now we’ve lost everything,” she said in 1990 after she and her son, Ray Buckey, were acquitted of child molestation charges in a case that had opened the door on one of society’s deepest taboos.
Buckey, who was 74, was pronounced dead Friday at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance after paramedics found her unconscious in the nearby home where she had lived before and after the three-year trial.
The cause of death was not immediately available. Buckey had been a driving force behind the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach, which became the focus of a fast-spreading investigation into alleged child molestation in the fall of 1983.
The school had been founded by her mother, Virginia McMartin, a feisty, plain-spoken woman who died in 1995. But it was Buckey–a quieter, more overtly spiritual woman–who hired her son to work at the school and who carried out much of the administrative oversight.
Peggy McMartin Buckey, Ray Buckey and Virginia McMartin were among six people indicted in 1984 on 115 counts of child molestation. Ultimately, after ballooning to 208 counts involving 41 children, the case was whittled down to 65 counts of molestation and conspiracy against Buckey and her son.
Nothing about the McMartin case was simple, easy or fast. It cost taxpayers more than $13 million. The preliminary hearing alone took 18 months. The entire case took seven years to wind through the courts, and involved six judges, 17 attorneys and hundreds of witnesses, including nine of the 11 children alleged to have been molested.
The case made and ruined careers, and changed the way police departments, day care centers, schools and courts deal with child molestation charges. It was made into a TV movie–and no wonder. With its allegations of animal sacrifice, pornography and satanic-type rituals, it led not a few observers to compare it to the Salem witch trials.
Of all the figures in the case, including McMartin and Raymond Buckey, it was Peggy McMartin Buckey who lost the most, said Ray Buckey’s attorney, Danny Davis.
“Peggy was spiritual, and she never seemed concerned specifically about what would happen if they were convicted,” Davis said Saturday. “But she lost everything. . . . Now that she has passed away, [I] would say, that’s one we should be ashamed of.”
Buckey had derived much of her self-esteem and identity from her job as a teacher and administrator, Davis said. When that was stripped from her, she never fully recovered, he said.
Buckey appeared cheerful and friendly during the trial, and passed the long hours crocheting, drawing pictures and reading religious literature. But she reacted indignantly during 11 days on the witness stand when she was asked about claims that she and her son had molested and threatened children.
“Never!” she said repeatedly. She did testify that she had been molested as a child, but she was not asked to describe the circumstances under which it occurred. She also testified that her son had been a troubled young man who was “trying to find himself” before and during the three years he worked at the preschool, and that he felt more accepted by children than by adults.
After the trial ended, Ray Buckey was retried on eight counts on which the first jury had deadlocked, but a mistrial was declared when the second jury also deadlocked.
A number of jurors in both trials said they believed that children had been molested, but that the prosecution had failed to prove that the Buckeys were the ones who had molested them.
Some said the children appeared to have been led by questioners to claim they had been molested. Others said that so much time had passed that the memories of the children–who passed from toddlerhood to adolescence in the course of the legal proceedings–couldn’t be trusted.
The Buckeys, McMartin and Peggy Buckey’s daughter, Peggy Ann Buckey, successfully sued the parent of one child at the school for slander in 1991, but they were awarded only $1 in damages.
Survivors include Buckey’s husband, Charles Buckey; Ray Buckey, who went to law school after the trial; and Peggy Ann Buckey, who resumed her teaching career.