Virginia McMartin, who founded a preschool that became the center of the longest and most expensive criminal case in American history, died on Sunday. She was 88. Mrs. McMartin had recently suffered a series of strokes and died soon after arriving at the Little Company of Mary Hospital in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance, the authorities said.
From the original accusation to its dismissal after a second trial ended with a hung jury in 1990, the Virginia McMartin Preschool case, which involved charges of bizarre child molestation, lasted seven years and cost Los Angeles County at least $15 million.
The case was one of the earliest and most sensational involving charges of mass child molestation in preschools, day care centers and other settings. Dozens of people around the country were charged in similar cases after the accusations in the McMartin case surfaced in 1983. Publicity surrounding that case helped focus attention on what many experts saw as a long-neglected problem.
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But since the case collapsed, more than a dozen guilty verdicts in similar cases have been overturned as the methods of prosecutors have become subjected to harsh criticism and the foundations of many of the accusations have been cast into doubt.
As the McMartin case dragged on, through two trials involving scores of witnesses and testimony that ran to thousands of pages, it came to symbolize the dangers involved in prosecuting defendants based on the testimony of children.
Many experts believe that children’s accounts of molestation are likely to be true, because the children would have no reason to invent such episodes. But in the McMartin case and others, many critics contend, overzealous prosecutors and poorly trained social workers coerced children, either deliberately or inadvertently, into saying that they were abused.
Some accounts of the youthful witnesses in the McMartin case, many of whom took the stand years after the supposed events, seemed too strange to believe. There was testimony, not just of rape and sodomy but also of animal sacrifice and satanism.
And the stories of some children were demonstrably untrue: There were no hidden underground passageways at the school in the Los Angeles suburb of Manhattan Beach, although some children vividly recalled being spirited through them.
Mrs. McMartin, who was a defendant in the first case with her daughter, who ran the school, and two grandchildren who worked there, always denied the accusations.
But some parents said later that they still thought their children had been molested, despite the skepticism of jurors who said the children sounded as though they had been led on by the police, parents and social workers.
The case began one day in August 1983, when the mother of a 2 1/2-year-old boy called the police to say she believed he had been molested by Raymond Buckey, Mrs. McMartin’s grandson. Mr. Buckey was arrested but was soon released for lack of evidence.
The boy’s mother persisted, telling the district attorney that her son had witnessed strange rituals at the school. That account prompted the police to write letters to some 200 parents of current and former pupils seeking information on molestation or other improper acts.
It came to light later that the mother whose accusations started the case had emotional problems. Years later, observers suggested that the letters touched off a panic among parents and contaminated the case from the start. In any event, the letters prompted interviews with several hundred children.
On the basis of the testimony of 18 children and doctors’ testimony of physical signs of abuse, but with little corroborating evidence, a grand jury in March 1984 indicted Mrs. McMartin; her daughter, Peggy McMartin Buckey; Raymond Buckey and his sister, Peggy Ann Buckey, and three teachers.
Charges against Mrs. McMartin, Peggy Ann Buckey and the teachers were dropped in 1986 for lack of evidence. The first trial began in April 1987 and ended in April 1989 with acquittals for Mr. Buckey and his mother on some charges and deadlocks on the others.
Mr. Buckey was tried again, and in July 1990 a jury declared itself hopelessly deadlocked. Prosecutors chose not to retry him.
Mr. Buckey spent five years in prison before raising bail to obtain his freedom, and his mother was behind bars for two years. The school is no longer in operation. Mrs. McMartin is survived by her daughter, granddaughter and grandson.