The Innocent and The Damned
In 1992, Fran and Dan Keller were sent to prison for sexually abusing a child in the suburban Austin day care center. But parents have convinced themselves that the couple is guilty of much worse. They believe the Kellers belong to a cult that tortured and brainwashed their kids and turned them into Satan’s slaves.
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An update from the author on Fran and Dan Keller appears at the end of this story. (March 2009)
Most of the people in the small meeting room at Cicada Recovery Services in South Austin were therapists, and all of them had patients who had been diagnosed as victims of satanic ritual abuse—including some of the children allegedly savaged at an Austin day care center two years earlier. In the fall of 1993, the therapists met monthly at Cicada to discuss Satanic ritual abuse (SRA), which they regarded as the most menacing evil of our age. Most victims are children, though in some cases they are women, who, in the course of therapy, have recovered memories of abuse twenty or thirty years earlier. The stories that the victims relate to their therapists—stories now being discussed and analyzed at the meeting—are strikingly similar and seem to have boiled up from a Stephen King nightmare.
The tales of satanic ritual abuse usually started with touching or fondling, then progressed to oral, genital, and anal penetrations; forced injections of mind-altering drugs; monsters or witches enacting bizarre rituals that included defecating and urinating on their victims’ heads and forcing them to eat feces and drink blood and urine; and finally torture, mutilation, and murder. The rituals were almost always filmed. The victims were forced to participate in the murders and often made to eat the flesh and drink the blood of those who had been sacrificed. These were not merely the sadistic acts of pedophiles but the sophisticated techniques by which devil-worshiping perpetrators programmed and controlled victims, ultimately turning them into Manchurian Candidate-style robots. The perpetrators were often the parents or grandparents of the victims. The cults went back many generations and were as powerful as they were secretive, including among their ranks doctors, lawyers, the clergy, police officers, and prominent business and political leaders.
“They have infiltrated the legal, medical, and law enforcement professions with their agents,” reported Karen Hutchins, one of the therapists at Cicada. “The male agents tend to end up in the criminal justice system and the females in state hospitals.” Hutchins is the secretary-treasurer of this watch-dog group, which calls itself the Travis County Society for Investigation, Treatment, and Prevention of Ritual and Cult Abuse. It is part of a statewide organization headed by Dallas psychologist Randy Noblitt. Hutchins and the others believe that satanic cults are widespread throughout Texas and the United States. They believe that cults induce multiple personality disorders in their victms to control them. These cult-created alternate personalities, or alters, behave like mental robots, programmed to follow orders. Robots have been strategically placed to sabotage our institutions and to recapture and return to the cult those who have somehow escaped—in other words, those whom the therapists are attempting to deprogram. This is nothing less than a battle to the death for the soul of America.
Psychologist Pam Monday had brought to the meeting copies of secret CIA documents supplied by Cory Hammond, a Utah psychologist and leading theorist on the satanic menace. The documents, which Hammond had gotten through the Freedom of Information Act, were lists of names of people connected to a satanic-influenced mind-control experiment that the CIA conducted following World War II called Project Monarch. “This will give you some sense of how big the cover-up is,” Monday said, passing the lists around. “Some of these names will blow your mind.” They included Albert Einstein, Wernher Von Braun, Lyndon Johnson, Fidel Castro, Karl Marx, and Mao Tse-tung.
Hammond frequently lectured at seminars and had convinced many therapists—including those at this meeting—that satanic ritual abuse was an international conspiracy involving the CIA, former Nazi scientists, and a mysterious Dr. Greenbaum. According to Hammond, Greenbaum was a young turncoat from the Nazi death camps who saved his own life by giving the Nazis the secrets to the cabala. After World War II, the CIA brought Greenbaum and the Nazi scientists (who were Satanists) to this country and hid them at military bases. In the years that followed, the scientists continued to perfect the mind-control techniques they had started in the death camps. Greenbaum was educated in psychiatry and positioned at the centerpiece of the satanic order. What was the purpose of all this activity? “My best guess,” Hammond told audiences, “is that they want an army of Manchurian candidates—tens of thousands of mental robots who will do prostitution, engage in child pornography, smuggle drugs, engage in international arms smuggling, snuff films. All sorts of lucrative things. Robots who will do their bidding. And eventually the megalomaniacs at the top believe they will create a satanic order that will rule the world.” Hammond thought that the Satanists had already penetrated high levels of government. Part of his evidence was the frequency with which the name “Greenbaum” was spontaneously and independently mentioned by patients being treated for multiple personality disorder in therapy sessions across the United States.
Karen Hutchins had several patients who had spoken of Dr. Greenbaum and who recalled being subjected to mind-control experiments on military bases. Patients suffering from multiple personality disorder sometimes appeared quite normal, but their alters were capable of amazing and often supernatural feats. A client of Hutchins’, whacked-out on drugs almost to the point of being comatose, was driven to the Cicada Recovery Center one night by one of her alters, who turned out to be completely drug-free. It was common for an alter to have different-colored eyes from its host’s. Scars that appeared on one personality could not be detected on another. During therapy, rope burns might suddenly appear like stigmata on wrists or necks. Therapists referred to these apparitions as body memories—an evolving theory asserting that memories could be stored not only in the brain but in cells of the body. In Michelle Remembers, the 1980 book that introduced satanic ritual abuse, a photograph of an asymmetrical rash on Michelle’s neck was labeled a body memory of the “devil’s tail.” The book was written by a former Catholic priest who is now a psychiatrist and his wife and former patient, Michelle. Under hypnosis, Michelle recovered bits and pieces of memories in which the former priest discerned satanic motifs. Though there was no evidence that anything Michelle remembered was true, the book became a nonfiction best-seller. Within a few years, the FBI was getting reports from women all over the country who claimed that they had escaped from devil-worshipping cults.
Ritual abuse cases usually involved day care centers, which seemed only logical in the opinion of the members of the Travis County Society for Investigation, Treatment, and Prevention of Ritual and Cult Abuse. “You start with preschool-age kids,” said Hutchins. Everyone in the room was familiar with the November 1992 prosecution of Fran and Dan Keller, the middle-aged couple who operated Fran’s Day Care Center in the rural Oak Hll area south of Austin: Hutchins was now treating two of the three children allegedly abused in that case. Fran and Dan were each serving sentences of 48 years, and two Travis County law enforcement officers had also been indicted and were awaiting trial. Dozens of additional conspirators were still at large, the therapist believed.
Although the allegations of torture, mutilation, and murder in the case of Fran’s Day Care Center seemed unbelievable—and indeed there was hardly a trace of physical evidence—they fit precisely with a pattern of charges that had emerged in earlier highly publicized day care cases in California, North Carolina and Florida. Dozens of people had gone to prison. Families had been wrecked. Children too young to understand what was happening had been permanently scarred with memories of unspeakable assaults. The damage in human terms was incalculable. SRA had spawned a cottage industry among therapists, child-protection workers, cops, writers, lecturers, radio talk-show hosts, and others who bought into the SRA story line. This country hadn’t seen anything like it since the Salem witch trials.
Most of the parents who took their children to Fran’s Day Care Center were baby boomers, dedicated to their careers and their children and drawn irresistibly to the day care’s rural isolation and rustic, idyllic setting. The one-story fieldstone house, which was also the Kellers’ home, was nestled among cedar trees and rolling hills, as tidy and pastoral as a cottage in a fairy tale. Behind the house was a playground, a shallow swimming pool, cages of rabbits and doves, and a corral with a resident pony named Dancer. This part of Oak Hill was sparsely populated, with small homes, trailers, and century-old family cemeteries. The Kellers’ neighbors were working people, fiercely independent and likely to drive pickup trucks. Lawn décor usually featured iron kettles, rusted farm equipment, fieldstone walkways. Strings of deer skulls hung from the limbs of live oaks, armadillo and raccoons roamed freely, and hawks and turkey buzzards rode the invisible currents of the placid blue sky.
Dan and Fran Keller didn’t look like monsters, though it is true that there are no demographic profiles of pedophiles, much less Satanists. The Kellers had no history of drugs, mental illness, or sexual abnormalities, but neither would pedophiles necessarily. Pedophiles are narcissistic and exhibit what therapists call cognitive distortions, or the inability to recognize that even the vilest act is anything eccept normal behavior. That description didn’t fit the Kellers. Nor did they appear to be victims of low self-esteem, as many child molesters are said to be. Indeed, those who knew Fran suspected that she suffered from high self-esteem. The word normally used to describe her, even by friends, was “bitch.” She was a woman of strong opinions and clearly the dominant partner in her marriage to Danny. Danny had retired from his job with a Travis County road crew to help Fran run the day care, which opened for business in September 1989, two years before charges were filed and the day care was ordered to shut down.
Fran was 42 and had three grown children from a previous marriage. Dan was 50. Fran was his fourth wife, and he had four children. Together they had seven grandchildren. Neither of them had ever been accused of molesting a child or of any other crime for that matter. A ninth-grade dropout, Danny Keller had worked most of his life with bulldozers and heavy equipment. Before marrying Fran in 1987, he supervised the Precinct 3 road crew. In his off-duty hours, he enjoyed riding patrol with the Travis County Sheriff’s office deputies who worked the three-to-eleven shift. “After our shift, we all gathered to drink beer and cool out, what we called choir practice,” recalled Janise White, one of the deputies and later a constable at the precinct, “Danny was like part of the family.” After Danny married Fran, he no longer hung out at choir practice, but Janise White remained his friend and Fran’s too, a relationship that eventually cost all three of them dearly.
Aside from the location of Fran’s Day Care, what made it attractive to many parents was Fran herself. She was at once stern and good-hearted. She took it on herself to buy large stocks of children’s clothes from Goodwill so that when kids soiled their own clothes during the course of the day, she could send them home wearing fresh and dry things. Fran had worked with children all of her adult life. Children sensed that she could not be intimidated or manipulated, that she was the clear and undisputed boss. Unlike most day care centers, Fran’s Day Care accepted children with emotional and behavioral problems, including those who had been abused. This was a small operation, with about fifteen kids in attendance each day.
One of the children she cared for in the summer of 1991, when the ritual abuses supposedly took place, was the daughter of Suzanne Chaviers. Suzanne was going through a bitter divorce and had accused her husband in court of physically and emotionally abusing their child, which he denies. The Chaviers girl, who was not quite four years old, had exhibited behavioral problems since the couple separated two months earlier. Fran accepted her anyway. But, according to testimony, after two weeks at the day care, the child had become almost unmanageable at home: biting, screaming, kicking, pulling her mother’s hair, destroying things, trying to stab the dog with a barbecue fork. Fran quickly observed that the little girl was a liar and manipulator who attacked other children and accused them of attacking her. Suzanne Chaviers made hardly any effort to discipline the child, having been advised by a previous therapist against “setting limits.” Suzanne was an interior designer who worked out of her home: Until the child started going to Fran’s Day Care, she had always stayed at her mother’s side. The Chaviers girl clearly did not like this new arrangement.
Danny Keller was the antithesis of his wife, soft and easygoing patient, almost comically professorial with his gray hair and beard. Danny was handy, good at fixing and creating things. He enjoyed making toys for the children—bows and arrows, Indian drums, capes on which he painted the likenesses of Ninja Turtles. Sometimes Danny would hitch a trailer to his riding lawn mower and give the kids rides around the property, with the pony, Dancer, prancing behind. Almost all of the kids enjoyed riding Dancer, except the Chaviers girl, who complained after her first day that the horse frightened her. Suzanne Chaviers told the Kellers to keep the child away from the horse, which they did. Though the Chaviers girl attended the day care from May 8 until August 15, 1991, she was considered a drop-in, not a regular. In all, she attended Fran’s Day Care only thirteen times.
En route to an appointment with her therapist on what turned out to be her final day at Fran’s, the Chaviers girl told her mother that the Kellers had molested her. She was the first of three children to make accusations against the Kellers. Within a matter of days, Earl and Carol Staelin and Sean and Sandra Nash also charged that the Kellers had sexually abused their children. By the first week in September, authorities had closed the day care. In December, a few days after the grand jury indicted the Kellers, they fled. They were arrested a few weeks later in Law Vegas, where Fran Keller’s eldest daughter lived, They have been in jail or prison ever since. In the months after the day care was closed, the parents began to suspect that the Kellers were Satanists, and the allegations of simple child abuse escalated to monstrous proportions. In light of their new set of beliefs, everything looked different to the parents who had leveled the charges. The pastoral, commonplace backdrop that had made Fran’s Day Care so attractive in the beginning now appeared sinister. The seemingly innocuous middle-aged couple now looked evil and malevolent. Sandra Nash, who had a five-year-old son and an infant daughter at the day care, had originally regarded Fan Keller as “a warm, loving woman.” Later, as she looked back on events of the summer of 1991, Sandra remembered that Fran’s personality had changed, that she suddenly became “very coldhearted. . .a very different and aggressive woman.” Many parents remembered occasions when their children would be wearing different clothes in the afternoon from those they wore when they were dropped off that morning. At the time, these incidents didn’t seem important, but now they suggested unspeakable acts—at least to the parents who celieved their children had been molested. Sandra Nash recalled the day she dropped in unexpectedly at the day care and found her son’s hair wet. She was told that Fran had had to shampoo the boy’s hair because when Dan and the boy had been goofing around, Dan had put styling gel in the boy’s hair. But the Nashes came to believe it wasn’t gel in the boy’s hair but semen.
The Ninja Turtle capes and other toys that the children brought home from Fran’s became—in the parents’ minds—diabolical “triggers,” planted to call the children back to the cult. Many months later, Sandra Nash told investigators, “They gave my son drums so he could call Satan at home.” Carol Staelin, whose four-year-old son had suffered emotional and physical problems most of his life, including frequent asthma attacks, believed that the boy’s severe asthma attacks two weeks after starting at Fran’s Day Care was because the Kellers had put horse manure in the boy’s nebulizer. “Every aspect of these kids’ lives, they twisted and perverted,” she said. “They tortured a bunny in front of the kids and told them I was the Easter Bunny. They kept a flock of doves—doves, the symbol of Christianity. They would break a dove’s wing, then bury the wounded dove and the children in a castle in the cemetery. Danny supposedly buried the children, then Fran dug them up seconds before they ran out of air and told them, “Satan has spared you.” Even Dancer was seen as part of the satanic plot. As Carol Staelin reconstructed events, the Kellers initiated the children on their first day—taking them on horseback to the woods, abusing them sexually, torturing them by applying electric shocks to their genitalia, and threatening to kill their parents and burn down their homes if they told.
Most of the ritual abuse allegations came months after the initial claims of molestation. Understandably, the prosecution tried to avoid the satanic aspects of the case. It was far easier to sell the abuse than the ritual, and the jury heard only bits and pieces of lurid details. The Kellers denied each and every allegation, but the jury did not believe them, partly because they had fled and partly because Fran keller came across as such a cold, hostile witness. Several members of the jury told investigators and prosecutors later that Fran’s demeanor in court was the main reason they convicted the Kellers.
“They painted us as monsters and ogres,” Fran Keller told me about a year after her trial, during an interview at the Hobby unit of the Texas Department of Criminal justice, near Marlin. “On the witness stand, I told them that the little girl [the Chaviers child] was a liar and a manipulator, and the prosecutor jumped me and said, ‘Don’t you think it’s an uneven match, a forty-year-old woman taking on an emotionally disturbed child?’ let me tell you something. I was as scared as that child. It was my life and my husband’s life they were ruining. We have lost everything we ever owned or cared about because of that little girl.”
At the Clements Unit, in Amarillo, Dan Keller spends much of his time writing poetry and trying to figure out what happened to the life he once knew. “I know God has a reason to have me in here for something I did not do,” he wrote. “Is it to test my love for Him? As I write this, I notice only one set of foot prints outside my cell door, and I remember that He said: ‘When you notice only one set of foot prints, that is when I carried you.’” The Kellers are not eligible for parole until 2004.
The following is based on trial testimony, the official police investigation, and interviews with parents and therapists.
When Suzanne Chaviers picked up her daughter at Fran’s Day Care that final time on August 15, 1991, she had a lot of things on her mind. And one of them was sexual abuse. The 39-year-old University of Houston graduate was in therapy, trying to come to grips with her own memories of being sexually abused by a drunken father, who died when she was 18. The therapy had induced new, heretofore unknown recollections of that traumatic time nearly thirty years ago. On top of that, she was struggling through her second divorce. As in the first one, she claimed in legal proceedings that her estranged husband, Rick Chaviers, had intense and uncontrollable outbursts of rage, that he had physically and emotionally abused their daughter. Rick Chaviers denied this. But in the five months since the couple’s separation there had been talk of “bad daddy,” which reinforced the image of an abusive father who pulled down the child’s panties and beat her with a belt. On the advice of her therapist, Suzanne had taken the child to a pediatrician for a vaginal examination on May 7, one day before she started at Fran’s Day Care. No signs of sexual abuse were detected, but Suzanne was still not convinced that her daughter hadn’t been molested.
A psychologist who did a court-ordered psychological evaluation of the Chaviers in June 1991 wrote in his report, “This is a pathological family system. . .[the daughter] stood as the battleground and lightning rod for tension. . .between the parents. The mother seems to have a great deal of anger, of which she is only marginally aware. . .” The psychologist speculated that Suzanne Chaviers “unconsciously encourages others to act out her anger for her.”
If Suzanne was subliminally attempting to transfer her repressed hostility to her daughter, the little girl appeared to be receiving the message loud and clear, More recently, the child’s out-of-control behavior included her insistence that she was a dog—walking on all fours, barking, eating out of the dog bowl, defecating or urinating like a dog, licking herself like a dog. Sometimes she defecated or urinated on the floor in front of guests. On one occasion, when Suzanne’s sister and her boyfriend came for dinner, the little girl took off her clothes, climbed onto the boyfriend’s lap, and began kissing him, then relieved herself on the floor. The child had started using profanity too, some of it extremely rough and vulgar. As for the no-limits program recommended by a previous therapist, obviously it wasn’t working. Therapist Donna David, who had been seeing the Chaviers girl since May 21, had suggested setting some limits, noting that while the child appeared to have the ability to control her behavior, she “seems to be struggling for control and testing mother’s limits continually.”
On the day that the Chaviers girl made her allegations, mother and daughter were on their way to see Donna David to discuss the child’s latest outrage—the ice-cream truck game. The previous Sunday at Kids Exchange—a court-supervised facility where parents involved in custody cases go for visits with their children—Rick Chaviers and the supervisor on duty were shocked by the child’s behavior. Spreading her legs far apart, the little girl pretended to run a toy truck into her vagina, saying, “Here comes the ice-cream truck.” Donna David testified that she had observed similar behavior in earlier sessions, when the girl would stuff beans into the various orifices of anatomically correct dolls. Suzanne Chaviers had reported that several times she had caught the child hiding behind the couch, sticking marbles and crayons into her vagina. In a therapy session a week before the incident at Kids Exchange, Rick Chaviers told Donna David that his daughter had exhibited “loving behavior” for him even before the separation, pulling down her pants, playing with her vagina, looking for things to insert.
On the way to the therapist on that fateful day, the Chaviers girl told her mother that she did not want to go back to the day care. Why not? Because Danny had hurt her, she said. How” He had pulled down her panties and spanked her. Suzanne was shaking all over by the time they reached Donna David’s office. In her notes from that session, David wrote that the child had told her mother, “[Danny Keller] spanked her like her daddy used to and it hurt. . ..’He hit me with a belt.’ When asked where, in front or back, she said, ‘Front.’. . .She continued saying that Danny pulled down her pants down and played with her and that ‘he pooped and peed on my head,’ and when asked if someone washed her hair, she said, ‘Fran did,’ and when asked further details, she said that it did not happen.” The therapist produced an anatomically correct doll and asked the child to demonstrate what Danny Keller had done. The Chaviers girl stuck a ballpoint pen in the doll’s vagina. David informed the mother that she would have to contact Child Protective Services, and from there the case began a long, tortuous journey through the criminal justice system.
But something else happened that evening that virtually nailed the case shut. The Chaviers girl called to her mother from the bathroom and said that it hurt to urinate. When questioned, the mother would report later, the child told her, “Danny put his pee-pee in me and got glue in me, and it was warm and yucky, and Fran washed it out.” Nearly overcome with anxiety, Suzanne took her daughter to the emergency room at Brackenridge hospital. The physician on duty that night discovered two small tears in the hymen, which he judged to be less than 24 hours old. This medical discovery became the single piece of physical evidence against the Kellers.
In a second session with the therapist a few days later, the Chaviers girl gave more-graphic descriptions of what happened at the day care, this time involving Fran in the story. In her notes the therapist wrote, “When asked if Fran did anything to her. . .she said that Fran [kissed the child’s vagina] and ‘ate me all up,’ making smacking lip sounds and using her mouth to imitate the movement of Fran’s mouth on her vagina.”
By coincidence, Carol Staelin happened to telephone Suzanne Chaviers the night of the Chaviers girl’s allegations. Carol had called to invite Suzanne to a meeting of her twelve-step recovery group. Carol was a recovering alcoholic and believed the group could help Suzanne deal with her own post-traumatic stress of growing up with an abusive and alcoholic father. In getting acquainted, the two women sometimes talked about their children and about their common problems and experiences. Both had gone through troubled marriages: Carol and her husband, Earl Staelin, were still trying to work things out. Suzanne had previously suffered from severe allergies, and Carol suffered from a similar ailment diagnosed as environmental illness. Carol frequently followed Suzanne’s lead. Suzanne was the reason that Carol had chosen Fran’s Day Care and the reason that she now planned to send her son to therapist Donna David. The child had been in therapy two years earlier, suffering from a trauma induced by the sudden resignation of his nanny. Lately, he was showing new signs of emotional and physical distress.
When Suzanne Chaviers told Carol what her daughter said had happened at Fran’s Day Care, Carol went into what she described as “automatic denial.” Later she would explain, “At first I was sure that the abuse was limited to Suzanne’s daughter, that my son wasn’t involved. Though my intelligence was telling me otherwise, I was just saying, ‘Thank God it wasn’t my son!” But two weeks later, after a session with Donna David, Carol was firmly convinced that the boy had also been sexually violated. It was an area in which she was painfully familiar, Like Suzanne, Carol also had memories of being sexually abused as a child. The memories had been “recovered” in therapy, nearly thirty years after the abuse supposedly happened.
Earl and Carol Staelin both had law degrees and had moved to Austin in 1981 looking for alternative lifestyles. For twelve years Earl Staelin had worked as a staff attorney for the public defender society in Toledo, Ohio. One thing that attracted them to Austin was the city’s perceived New Age persona, particulary its commitment to nutritional, homeopathic, and holistic approaches to life’s problems. A second reason was that the Staelins wanted to adopt a baby, and Texas offered more opportunities than Ohio, where they would have had to wait eight years just to qualify for a home background check. The Staelins were already older than the preferred adoptive parent: he was 41 and she was 33 when they moved to Texas. Earl Staelin was a great admirer of Gandhi’s, and both were fascinated with Indian culture, so when they heard that it was possible to adopt a baby from an international agency in India, they jumped at the opportunity. Their son was four months old when he arrived at their home.
After moving to Austin, Earl quit his law practice to become a nutritional counselor, but the career change didn’t work out, and in 1982 he returned to law. Carol had already decided to give up her own law practice. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her career, and this bothered her. Austin hadn’t worked out the way she had planned. Since the move, their lives had been in constant crisis. Carol had problems with alcohol, problems with overeating, problems with her liver, problems with her career, problems with her marriage. And problems with her son. Constant problems. And now the experience at Fran’s Day Care. It was almost as if life had conspired against her.
After her son’s first visit with Donna David on August 29, Carol recalls that the therapist gave her instructions to question her son until he told the truth, because “these people” customarily threaten and warn their victims against telling secrets. “Tell him that we don’t know what happened at the day care,” the therapist said, “He needs to tell us. He needs to protect the other children.” (David denies that she said these things to Carol.) Later Carol attempted to get the boy to tell by admitting her own terrible childhood experiences. “When I was little like you,” she said, “I was hurt in my private parts. I didn’t like it—but now I can talk about it.” The boy didn’t respond, either that day or in any of his next several visits to the therapist.
The more the boy resisted, the more determined Carol was to get to the bottom of things. She tried to impress on him that others had been hurt too, that by not speaking out he was putting the lives of other children in danger. That didn’t work either. He wasn’t talking. Moreover, he was exhibiting some of the same symptoms as the Chaviers girl’s—out-of-control behavior, clinging to his mother, and talking baby talk. He was destructive, using profanity, wetting the bed, having bowel movements in the bathtub, experiencing nightmares, and making improper sexual gestures—trying to touch his father’s penis, for example, and looking up his mother’s skirt. Once when he looked up his mother’s dress, Carol asked him, “Did someone teach you to do that? Did Fran teach you that?” The boy nodded yes.
By late September, a month after the Travis County Sheriff’s office began its investigation, the Staelin child still hadn’t said anything specific. But little by little, Carol Staelin was forcing the issue. One day, as she was washing the boy’s hair in the bathtub, he suddenly threatened to cut her head off. “I thought this was very odd,” she explained, so I led him. I asked, ‘Did Danny tell you he would cut your head off if you told secrets?’” The boy nodded. Four days later, again as she was washing his hair, the boy said, out of the blue, “Pee-pee in your hair.” This sounded suspiciously like what the Chaviers girl had told her mother. Carol asked her son if anyone had ever peed in his hair. He smiled and hesitated. “Was it Danny?” she prompted. The boy nodded. “And how did you feel?” she asked. “Bad,” he said. Then he changed the subject.
An incident on October 6 convinced Carol that the devil had possessed her son. For no apparent reason, her son hit his pet cat with his fist. “Did anyone teach you to do that?” she asked, he voice trembling. He nodded. “Who was it?” she demanded. He wouldn’t say. “Was it Dan and Fran?” he told her that it was, then put his finger up the cat’s anus and began to strangle the animal. At that moment, it crossed Carol’s mind that the Kellers were Satanists. The next day she telephoned a friend who said she herself had experienced satanic abuse; and a short time later Carol received in the mail a ritual abuse checklist compiled by a child protective group in California called Believe the Children. Carol gave the group’s address to Suzanne who later ordered her own checklist. In due time, every one of the 28 indicators on the checklist was matched by an allegation against Dan and Fran Keller.
Carol had also spoken with Sandra Nash, the third mother who would level charges against the Kellers. The two Nash children, a five-year-old boy and his infant sister, attended Fran’s Day Care from March 25 to August 22, when Sandra learned from Fran Keller that charges of sexual abuse had been made against Dan. Like Suzanne Chaviers and the Staelins, Sean and Sandra Nash were college educated and middle class. Both parents were busy with their careers. Sandra Nash was a landscape architect who had been recruited to Austin from Colorado eight years ago by the engineering consulting firm of Espey Huston. She had been laid off during the bust in 1987 and more recently on maternity leave, but by the summer of 1991, she was working up to seventy hours a week. Sean owned a small, struggling moving company, largely subsidized by his wife’s income, but he expected business to improve.
The allegations against Fran’s Day Care hit the Nashes even harder than they had hit the other families. When Sandy came home that day and told me what happened,” Sean Nash told me later, “I was sitting down and I still nearly fainted.” They immediately placed their son in therapy with a psychologist, who noted the “suspicion of abuse” and observed that the boy showed “anger at the Danny doll.” Afterward, the Nash boy admitted to his mother that he knew a “secret” about Dan and Fran, but he couldn’t tell.
By the early fall of 1991, all three of the children had been interviewed by therapists—hired by the Travis County Sheriff’s Office—who videotaped the sessions. Despite a barrage of leading questions—Did Danny ever put his penis in your mouth? Has Fran ever asked you to touch her pee-pee or poo-poo?—the children revealed very little. The Staelin boy did acknowledge that Danny put his penis in the boy’s mouth, but when the interviewer asked him to show what happened using the dolls, the boy said, “You tell me.” On the first of three attempts to interview the Chaviers girl, the therapist couldn’t even certify that the little girl knew the difference between a lie and the truth. The child identified the doll’s penis as a nose and the vagina as a foot. The Nash boy admitted that “we heard” that the Chaviers girl and the Staelin boy had been harmed. He had obviously heard this from his parents, who had heard it from Suzanne and Carol.
By November, the third month of the investigation, the parents were becoming impatient and occasionally angry, pressing the investigators to move more quickly. They were on the telephone weekly, demanding to know why the Kellers hadn’t been arrested and held without bail: The parents believed (correctly as it turned out) that the Kellers were about to flee. Someone from the district attorney’s office told them they couldn’t make an arrest until the grand jury indicted. Nobody knew when that would be. The parents began to suspect a cover-up or worse.
The Staelin boy’s emotional state continued to worsen and so did his mother’s. On November 20, Carol wrote in her journal, “For the past several days I’ve tried to find a therapist for myself, without success. Today my son has pneumonia again, an ear infection and asthma. I’m very upset about the grand jury situation. Today my son was acting out worse than ever. I had to call two (separate) hot lines for help at one point to make it through the day. At 7 p.m. I lost it and nearly hurt my son. Instead I shoved a wooden chair across the floor and shouted: ‘I can’t take it anymore!’ I cried hysterically and then shook for half an hour, and panted heavily in a dog pant. Then I told Earl, ‘I want my doll.’” The next day the Staelin boy was placed in a hospital, where he stayed for three weeks, followed by two more weeks of day-program care at the hospital. Since the Staelins couldn’t afford to have two family members hospitalized, Carol settled for outpatient treatment. Around the same time, Carol’s dark suspicions were confirmed. Both a nurse at a psychiatric hospital and a policeman who had worked on a cult task force assured her that Austin was a hotbed of satanic ritual abuse. Indeed, all of Texas had been invaded by Satanists, Carol’s informants told her.
On January 28, 1992, the Nash boy watched television footage of the fugitives Dan and Fran Keller being returned to Austin in handcuffs and chains, and afterward he began to talk about Satan. He told his parents that Dan and Fran were on Satan’s team, and that Dan read out of Satan’s bible and put spells on people. He told how Dan shot people, pushed their bodies into holes, then waved his staff in the air and called to Satan. A short time later, Carol Staelin reported that her son was also talking about Satan’s bible. The Nash boy said that he couldn’t see the cover of the bible because it was always concealed behind a magazine. But Carol Staelin’s son described it as a large blue book, about the size of a telephone directory, with illustrations of clothed adults abusing naked children. In his scenario, Fran would ask Dan, “What do I do [to the Staelin boy] next?” and Dan would look it up in the book and read her the instructions.
Once the children started talking about Satan, the parents began seriously researching the massive amounts of literature available on the subject of ritual abuse, pressing the children to reveal more and more secrets. The Nash boy started talking about “bad sheriffs” being part of the satanic team. He described a blond woman named Pam who wore a brown uniform and a man named Lee who wore a similar uniform. Both “bad sheriffs” had tattoos. Deputy constable Janise White, who had known Dan Keller from their Precinct 3 days and who occasionally socialized with the Kellers—Fran Keller was the matron of honor at Janise’s wedding—immediately became the suspected female conspirator, though she in no way matched the Nash boy’s description and hadn’t worn a uniform for nearly eighteen months. Investigators showed the Nash boy four photographs of female officers, two of which were of Janise. The boy most likely had seen Janise on at least one occasion, when she visited Fran’s Day Care with some coloring books and deputy sheriff stick-on badges for the kids. He also must have seen her wedding photograph, which sat on a table in the living room of the Kellers’ home. Not surprisingly, he picked Janise from the photo lineup. From a much larger group of eighty photographs of male officers, the boy picked out a captain in the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, who was later polygraphed and cleared. Eventually, the investigators decided that the male suspect had to be deputy constable Raul Quintero, Janise White’s partner. Their reasoning: Quintero resembled the three cops that the Nash boy had misidentified in the photo lineups.
In March 1992 the investigation was taken away from the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, which in seven months had discovered almost nothing in the way of evidence, and turned over to two detectives from the Austin Police Department, Sergeant Larry Oliver and Detective Rodney Bryant. Later, two Texas Rangers and an investigator from the district attorney’s office were added to the task force. The parents of forty additional children who had attended Fran’s Day Care over the past two years were questioned, but no other complaints of abuse were reported. Since the Nash boy was shaping up as the key witness, Larry Oliver asked Sandra Nash to come to his office and make a statement. “I knew that her statement would be very important,” he told me. “Under Texas law, the first person a child reveals something to can testify in court. It’s an exception to the hearsay rule.” Oliver had heard some horrible, almost unbelievable tales in his years on the child abuse beat but nothing even remotely like the stories that Sandra Nash related. Danny Keller had urinated and ejaculated on the boy’s head and made him brush his teeth with feces, Sandra reported. Her son had been forced to kiss his baby sister between the legs with his tongue out while Danny took movies and Fran held a gun to the boy’s head. Danny had pretended to cut off the boy’s penis. All the children had been baptized with blood and taken to cemeteries where, with the help of two “bad sheriffs,” they dug up bodies. After Oliver’s first of several long interviews with Sandra Nash in April 1992, h told her, “First, I believe you. And second, this scares the hell out of me.”
As the parents continued their research into satanic ritual abuse, they bombarded Oliver and Bryant with amazing reports. The Staelin boy talked about killing people, cutting them up with chain saws, skinning them, and putting the skins in the children’s socks. The kids told stories of people in multi-colored robes, carrying candles, sacrificing cats and dogs and sometimes babies. The Chaviers girl had been talking about killing babies all along, but now she was going into detail. An elderly neighbor woman had brought a newborn baby to Fran’s for sacrifice, the girl told her mother. The baby’s name was Rachel. Suzanne Chaviers remembered the matter-of-fact tone in the child’s voice as she related the grisly details, almost as though she were watching in ton television: “And then, Mommy they cut baby Rachel up the middle so I could see her insides, and she started crying. Then they cut her throat, and she quit crying. They put her little heart in my hand, and it was bloody and it went thump, thump, thump. Then they cut her up, and Fran held me, and Danny made me drink the blood.”
According to the parents, Fran’s Day Care was a working brothel. When customers appeared, the Kellers lined up the children like cuts of meat on a display shelf. Customers paid cash up front to Danny, then took the child of children of choice to the playroom. One customer wanted all the children and agreed to Danny’s price of $2,000. Before the children were taken to the playroom, Fran drugged them with needles to the anus or toes. Lookouts carrying two-way radios warned the Satanists when someone was approaching the day care, at which time Fran Keller and Janise White turned the satanic pictures to the wall, revealing the Christian paintings on the other side.
Frequently the children were driven to other homes or businesses in and around Austin, where they were abused by people dressed as monsters and werewolves. At the sheriff substation and Precinct 3 road maintenance complex—where both Danny Keller and Janise White had worked—the children were supposedly abused by men and women in black uniforms. The orgies were often filmed. The Nash boy reported an incident in which Danny Keller delivered ninety gift-wrapped packages (apparently of pornography tapes) and collected $10,000, which he spread out in piles on the floor of the day care for all the kids to play with. An investigator suggested to the parents that the Kellers were part of an international porno and prostitution ring. This explained why, at the advanced age of fifty, Danny Keller found Satanism attractive. He was in it for the money.
The children also told of being flown on jets to Mexico and taken to military bases like Camp Mabry, home of the Texas National Guard, These reports squared with the satanic checklists and other satanic ritual abuse information the parents were gathering. Carol had discovered the airplane scenario in a book titled The Franklin Cover-Up: Child Abuse, Satanism, and Murder in Nebraska, recommended to her by Pam Noblitt, the wife of Dallas clinical psychologist Randy Noblitt, the president of the Society for the Investigation, Treatment and Prevention of Ritual and Cult Abuse. (Randy was guru and adviser to a number of Austin therapists.) The book makes wild and unsubstantiated claims that some of Omaha’s top business, academic, and political leaders conspired in a network of pornography and ritual murder. Girls and boys were flown to a number of cities, including Austin, where they were subjected to unspeakable sexual abuses by devil-worshiping old men in satanic hoods and then murdered during the sex act while a cameraman filmed and Hunter S. Thompson directed.
Since her son had talked about cemeteries, Sandra Nash obtained a geological survey map of the area with all the cemeteries marked and took the boy to three of them. The Nash boy described and reenacted a memory of Danny pushing a man into a grave and riddling him with bullets. In time, each of the children pointed to graves where they had seen people buried or dug up. Sergeant Oliver noted in his report that the surfaces of several of the older graves appeared “disturbed,” that the dirt was suspiciously soft rather than hard-packed as one would expect. Twice during the summer of 1992, the task force conducted land air searches of a cemetery, using a Department of Public Safety helicopter equipped with an infrared camera. Nothing was detected the first time, but during the second search, the camera picked up “hot spots,” which might indicate recent burials. However, only one of the hot spots was a place the children had pointed out. Oliver wanted to get a court order to dig up the grave, but he was overruled. “I still think a crime was committed there,” Oliver told me eighteen months later. “There should have been more of an investigation, but that was a decision I had to live with.” In fact, there was more of an investigation. Drew McAngus, a former Travis County deputy sheriff who was hired as a private investigator by lawyers for the Kellers, talked to the families of people buried at the cemetery. None of the graves had been disturbed. “A lot of those graves were old and were sinking with age and erosion,” McAngus told me. “The families would go there periodically and add fresh dirt. Nothing really mysterious about it.”
Sean Nash was conducting his own investigation, jotting down license numbers of vehicles at homes or businesses where the kids told of being abused and taking pictures of suspected Satanists during pretrial hearings. Exploring the woods behind the day care center, Nash discovered what he considered evidence of satanic activity—fire circles, a doll with the arms and legs ripped off, and some bones of small animals, which he had analyzed at the Balcones Research Center. Carol Staelin suspected that district attorney Ronnie Earle was involved in satanism. Unable to get Earle’s home address from the DA’s office, she looked it up in the county clerk’s records. She discovered that he lived on Hamilton Pool Road, not far from Fran’s Day Care. On her way to check out Earle’s home, she passed a large goat farm—“Goats are used in satanic ceremonial rituals,” she observed—then came to the walled compound of county buildings that included a sheriff substation and the Precinct 3 road maintenance headquarters, places where her son said the kids had been taken. “Imagine my shock when I saw that cozy little arrangement,” she told me later. “But that was nothing compared to what happened next. I backed out of the driveway and continued down the road, and to my shock, the first driveway I came to was his—Mr. District Attorney himself. I literally started shaking all over.”
The big break in the prosecution’s case came in July 1992, almost by accident. Sally Whitley, who was the DA’s representative on the task force, knew the two “bad sheriffs,” Janise White and Raul Quintero. Before joining the DA’s staff the previous spring, Whitley had worked with the two suspects in the Precinct 3 warrant division. Whitley also knew Doug Perry, a road crew truck driver who had married Janise White about a year earlier but was no divorced from her and apparently bitter about the experience. At the moment, the investigation was stuck—there was not sufficient evidence to indict White or Quintero—but Whitley had a hunch that Doug Perry was the key to dislodging it.
Debbie Dorrance, a deputy constable at Precinct 3, recalls that on July 8, Sally Whitley told her of a plan. “She told me they were gong out to see Doug, Janise’s ex-husband,” Dorrance says. “She said if we tell Doug that Janise and Raul have already given statements and ‘ratted’ on you, he’d probably sign a statement on them. Sally said that she thought Doug was dumb enough to fall for it.” (Whitley admits that the plan was hers but denies saying Doug was dumb.) The plan worked better than anyone at the DA’s office had dared hope. After submitting to two polygraph tests and undergoing several hours of intense interrogation by Texas Rangers, Perry implicated not only Dan and Fran Keller, Janise White, and Raul Quintero in the sexual abuse of children but also himself. This was the final brick that the prosecution needed to build its case—an adult eyewitness.
The following day, after obtaining a lawyer, Perry retracted his statement. But the damage was done: He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ten years’ probation. Perry claimed that the Rangers had intimidated and pressured him, insisting that they could prove that he was part of the conspiracy and warning him what happened to child molesters in prison. “I was scared,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing.” A polygraph expert testified that Perry was lying when he said he didn’t know what went on at Fran’s Day Care. In fact, Perry was lying, about that at least. While he was still married to “the bad sheriff,” Janise White, he had read a copy of the offense report against the Kellers.
Perry’s statement described in graphic detail a textbook example of pedophilia: how he and the Kellers and Raul Quintero did terrible things to a boy and a girl (later identified as the Nash boy and the Chaviers girl), while Janise White took pictures. There was nothing ritualistic or ceremonial in his description, no robes or candles or satanic bible: It read like a page out of The Story of O. But the statement was made-to-order for the case the prosecution was planning.
By the time the trial of Fran and Dan Keller started in November 1992, prosecutors Judy Shipway and Bryan Case thought they had an excellent case, much neater than most of the child abuse cases they had tried. The plan was to sidestep the sensational allegations of satanic ritual abuse and restrict the case to a single child-victim, the Chaviers girl, who had made the initial accusation and for whom there was medical evidence of abuse. It didn’t matter that after hours of interrogation the little girl had told authorities almost nothing. They needed her only for show: this pristine child pitted against the evil Kellers. The hearsay exception in child abuse cases cleared the path for her mother to testify in lurid detail. The judge also agreed to allow the therapist, Donna David, to give hearsay testimony. The Chaviers girl’s testimony was an exercise in futility. The child appeared more silly than frightened, waving her lollipop at Shipway and popping the microphone with her hand. She denied that she even knew anyone named Dan and Fran or that she ever went to a place called Fran’s Day Care. She denied that she ever told anyone that someone touched her in a way she didn’t like. When Shipway asked, “Did you ever tell Donna that Danny did something to you?” the girl replied, “No way, Jose”—one of her mother’s favorite expressions.
Carol Staelin even speculated that it may not have been the Chaviers girl on the witness stand, but one of her programmed alters. Randy Noblitt, the Dallas clinical psychologist who was being paid $120 an hour to research satanic abuse for the state and another $140 to testify, had warned that this might happen. Satanists often use hand signals to control their victims, he said. What most people in the courtroom took to be the defendant’s running a hand down the side of his face, Noblitt interpreted as a signal that meant “You saw nothing, you heard nothing, you will say nothing.” An Austin television station later ran a special report that showed Keller flashing a hand signal as he was led away from the courtroom. It looked like he was forming the letter c with his thumb and forefinger, and Noblitt told the TV reporter that this was a satanic message, In fact, Keller was saying hello to the boys in C Block, where he had been confined for the previous nine months.
The Nash boy was called as a witness to rebut Fran Keller’s claim that all of her troubles could be attributed to one lying little girl. He was not required to sit in the witness box as the Chaviers girl had been but was allowed to testify in a separate room, on closed-circuit television. He appeared primed and thoroughly prepared. When Case began questioning the boy about Fran’s Day Care Center, the boy interrupted and said, “You mean Hate Care Center.” “Why would you say that?” Case asked. “Because they hate kids,” the boy replied, After that, every time the prosecutor mentioned “day care,” the boy corrected him and said, “you mean ‘hate care,’” The Nash boy was a far better witness than the Chaviers girl ahd been. In a clear voice he told the jury that he had watched as “Danny pee-peed glue on [the Chaviers girl’s] head. . .and Gran washed it off.”
The defense, not the prosecution, introduced satanism into the trial. The court had appointed two attorneys to defend the Kellers—Dan Whitworth for Dan Keller, Lewis Jones for Fran Keller—but had given them little money to hire investigators or bring in expert witnesses. Whitworth and Jones didn’t know about the satanic allegations until after the trial started. They found them almost by accident when the judge allowed them to subpoena Donna David’s worksheets. They took a calculated risk that the jury would find the satanic allegations so incredible that it would doubt the validity of the simpler sexual abuse charges. The gamble didn’t work.
The prosecution made the most of Fran Keller’s defiant personality and implied that the mere fact that the Kellers had fled was proof of guilt. One of the Las Vegas cops who had pushed their way into the Kellers’ motel room the previous January told the jury that Fran had refused to cooperate, that she had an “attitude.” Fran claimed that he had forced her to stand naked while being questioned. Fran told the jury that she and Dan had left town because, “We were scared and humiliated.” Also, at the time of their indictment, their lawyer hinted that the court would set a bail they could not afford. Above all, their long-term outlook appeared bleak. Fran had read about the prosecution of other child-care workers around the country and feared that they couldn’t get a fair trial. It was a fear with some foundation: Conviction rates in day care cases are about 85 perfect. The jury in Austin bought into the mainstream view, just as juries had in other cities and states.
A year later, charges against the two “bad sheriffs,” White and Quintero, were dropped. The reason cited by the district attorney was that the children had stopped talking. To this day the parents continue to believe that dozens, maybe even hundreds, of co-conspirators walk free to continue Satan’s work. Sean and Sandra Nash have filed a civil suit against the Kellers, White, Quintero, Doug Perry, and others.
The fear of cults is part of a recurring pattern in our society, surfacing time and again during periods of widespread social upheaval. Satanic ritual abuse is to the 1990’s what McCarthyism was to the 1950’s and what the Salem witch trials were to the 1690’s—a mythic expression of deep-seated expression of deep-seated anxiety over complex changes in family and values. Child abuse is the demon of our generation. Without question it is widespread. But are we to believe, as statistics indicate, that it is nineteen times more likely to occur today than it was thirty years ago? Or is something else happening? Essayist and retired psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer argues that the helping professions—child-protection workers, therapists, child-abuse police—have convinced themselves that the abuse is epidemic and “have encouraged a massive search to find cases, and where they cannot be found, to invent them.”
Child-protection workers and therapists are caught in the middle of this controversy. They are not expected to be impartial investigators but advocates for children. They commonly act on a presumption that children have been victimized, that their real job is to gather evidence to support prosecution. An independent therapist hired by defense attorneys to review the videotapes made of the three victims in the Keller case counted 89 leading questions. The problem with this, aside from the inherent injustice, is that well-intended child advocates may inadvertently trap a child in a contradiction. If a child denies being abused, the denial is taken as evidence that the child is repressing memories of terrifying experiences. If a child expresses anxiety—as one would expect after repeated interrogation—the anxiety is regarded as evidence of repressed memories. Dr. George K. Ganaway of Emory University writes, “a substantial portion, if not all, of the newly acquired SRA trauma memories and cult-related alternate ‘personalities’ eventually will prove to be products of a mutually shared deception between patient and therapist, serving the narcissistic needs of both. . .”
The first and still best known SRA investigation began in 1983, when a mentally ill mother told Los Angeles County authorities that her child had been abused at the McMartin Pre-School. As it happened, this allegation coincided with a hotly contested reelection campaign for the office of district attorney, in which the primary issue was child abuse. Following the first accusation, the police department mailed out two hundred letters to parents of McMartin preschoolers, listing specific questions to ask their children to determine whether or not they had been molested. All the children denied having been abused. But at the suggestion of prosecutors, frightened parents sent their children to Children’s Institute International, a clinic that specializes in sexual abuse therapy. The CII staff suggested ritual abuse scenarios to the kids and warned them that if they didn’t tell the “yucky secrets,” people would think they were stupid. This technique is almost identical to the Child Abuse Accommodation Syndrome, a catch-22 theory authored by Roland Summit, M.D., which says, in effect, if there is evidence of sex abuse and a child denies it, this is only further proof that it happened. In which case, a therapist should use any means necessary to help the child talk. Of the 400 McMartin children interviewed, the CII staff suspected that 369 had been molested. The McMartin trial went on for nearly three years, without a conviction. But it led to a rash of satanic ritual abuse reports around the country, of which the case against Fran’s Day Care is among the most recent.
Sensationalized by the media and by far-fetched theories put forward by psychologists such as Cory Hammond, many people now accept that our nation and world is under siege by a multigenerational international megacult. So-called cult survivors have appeared on television talks shows like Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo. And after each television appearance, fresh allegations surface. Accounts of satanic ritual abuse have also appeared in countless articles, books, and made-for-television movies such as Do You Know the Muffin Man? Though the Muffin Man was total fiction, its ending was straight out of the true believer’s handbook: Parents discover day care teachers worshiping the devil amid piles of kiddie porn. Thousands of women—most of them in their twenties, thirties, and forties—have come forward in the past ten years with accusations that they were sexually abused as children. One of the most popular self-help books on sexual abuse, The Courage to Heal (which Carol Staelin read during therapy in 1989), advises, “If you are unable to remember any specific instances [of childhood sex abuse]. . .but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did. . . . If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.”
Almost all “recovered memories” begin with vague recollections that something happened. Carol Staelin’s first clue, for example, came in group therapy, as another woman was describing her own recovered memory of childhood abuse. “Suddenly, my body started shaking all over, and I started crying,” Carol told me. “I went into an altered state. My body was remembering something.” Later, in a one-on-one session, her therapist suggested that her many physical and emotional problems were caused by repressed memories of childhood abuse.
“It was the therapist who planted the idea in my mind,” she admitted. “I had no idea.” Gradually, with the help of her therapist, Carol began recovering the memory. It came in bits and pieces—flashbacks of a room, a shadow, a feeling. In these flashbacks, she looked down on the scene of her abuse as though she were a camera mounted on the ceiling. But the theory of recovered memory contradicts the way memories actually work. Our brains are not cameras, indiscriminately recording everything in view. We selectively record and distort to suit our needs. And memories are not film—not true, unchanging renditions of reality. Over time, these already distorted renditions are reworked and integrated with other memories, each of which is also distorted and changed over time. “Memory is basically a reconstructive process. . . [a way] to ‘make sense’ of the present,” says Robyn Dawes, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. “The fit between our memories and stories enhances our belief in them. Often, however, it is the story that creates the memory, rather than vice versa.”
Some professionals claim that the similarity of satanic ritual abuse cases around the country is proof that they are true. More likely, the similarity results from the questions posed by professionals, who are familiar with the well-publicized cases. Most of the police officers whom I talked to either bought the story line without reservation or rejected it entirely. “The danger of all these wild allegations is that they could hurt legitimate child abuse cases,” one Austin-area detective told me. “Ritual abuse is such an emotional area, it defied credibility. There’s a core group of law enforcement officers who feel that they are on a mission from God, that ritual abuse is the ultimate battle of good versus evil.” The FCI has been consulted in hundreds of cases involving allegations of ritual abuse and concluded that there is far less there than meets the eye. Kenneth Lanning of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit has been widely quoted debunking reports of satanic ritual abuse. “We now have hundreds of victims alleging that thousands of offenders are abusing and even murdering tens of thousands of people as part of organized satanic cults,” Lanning wrote. “And there is little or no corroborative evidence.” Not a single body or body part has been produced. If the cults are real, Lanning observed, they constitute the greatest crime conspiracy in the history of the world.
It is important when investigating allegations like those against the Kellers to distinguish between sexual abuse and the far more bizarre satanic ritual. The incredibility of the latter should not reflect on the possibility of the former. Assistant District Attorney Bryan Case conceded that Fran and Dan may have faked the ritual part to conceal and confuse their true intentions, but he believes that the children were abused. His belief is supported in part by the children’s bizarre “acting out” behavior in the summer and fall of 1991. Although the Chaviers girl and the Staelin boy had previously demonstrated behavioral problems, the problems appeared to have greatly intensified after the children started at Fran’s Day Care. But are these problems indicators of sexual abuse or indicators that the parents lacked the will to discipline their children? It is necessary too to factor in the influence of the therapists, whose education and training are in social work, not medicine, and who have a substantial financial interest in identifying and sustaining a malady for which there is no quick cure. The Nash boy exhibited few behavioral problems until after he had been in therapy—and asked to reveal secrets—for four or five months. There is certainly evidence that the Chaviers girl was sexually abused—the medial report, Doug Perry’s statement, the child’s own allegations, which were unusually lurid and detailed for such a case. What started as a simple accusation—“Danny hurt me”—became an avalanche of charges that overwhelm the senses. District Attorney Ronnie Earle told me, “We’ve learned from long experience that these stories often get embellished. There is usually a kernel of truth at the core, but over time it gets covered with layer after layer of things we’re not sure really happened.” But what if the kernel at the core is not the truth? What if it’s a lie? What if a distraught mother, obsessed with fears of sexual abuse, and an emotionally disturbed and manipulative child somehow conjure up a tale that never happened? And what if a therapist too ready to believe in satanic ritual abuse picks it up from there, and it just snowballs until nobody can really say what happened?
In every satanic ritual abuse case that I’ve read about, there is evidence of overprotective parents’ pressuring children to reveal “secrets” and planting ideas in their minds. A mother in the highly publicized Little Rascals Day Care case in North Carolina refused her child dessert until he told her what she wanted to know. Carol Staelin admits asking her son leading questions. She simply wouldn’t take no for an answer. When the Chaviers girl was being videotaped by a therapist at the sheriff’s office, her mother interrpted the process at one point with promises of a “special treat” if she would cooperate. When that didn’t work, she tried another approach, telling the child, “They need to know what happened because you’re the only big girl that can protect the other children because what Fran and Danny did was very, very, very mean.”
For at least nine months before the Kellers’ trial, the parents and investigators relied on material from groups such as Believe the Children (which was started by the parents in the McMartin case in California) to answer the unanswerable questions. For example, how did such an apparently unsophisticated couple as the Kellers learn the rituals or master the mind-control techniques credited to them? Was all that covered in the satanic bible? “I learned that the cults send people around the country to teach [these rituals] to child-care workers,” Sargeant Larry Oliver told me. He learned this from Dee Brown, a special education teacher, television reporter, and self-proclaimed satanic ritual abuse expert from California. Also, with the repeated rapes, electrical shocks, and screwdrivers up the anus and urethra, how was it that the children showed no cuts or bruises? According to the gospel of Cory Hammond, that wasn’t the Chaviers girl, the Staelin boy, and the Nash boy who underwent such assaults, it was their alternate personalities, or alters.
Much of what the children said—or, more accurately, what the parents said they said—is either demonstrably false or inherently unbelievable. In the beginning, the children talked about Fran Keller’s little dog, Sissy, who had mysteriously disappeared. As the story evolved, it became more demonic. The Staelin boy related how Danny Keller had clamped the dog’s lips together, poked its eyes with pins, shot it full of drugs, then strangled it. The Nash boy put his own spin on the story, relating how the Kellers axed Sissy to a pulp. By talking to neighbors, private investigator Drew McAngus discovered that Sissy had been hit by a car: Danny buried her but had spared his wife’s feelings by letting her believe that the dog had run away. In another tale, the Kellers kidnapped a baby gorilla from Zilker Park, after which Fran cut a finger off the gorilla and drained the blood in a water bucket. But there has never been a zoo at Zilker Park, much less a gorilla.
Doug Perry’s confession is hard to refute but nevertheless puzzling. Even if Perry wasn’t the brightest guy in the world, it is hard to imagine anyone admitting such brutal behavior. On the other hand, none of the children identified Perry as one of their abusers, nor did they describe a scene like the one in his statement. The Austin-area detective who complained that many fellow officers believe they are on a mission from God also speculated that Perry’s confession may have been tailored to fit their pre-conceived notion of how these scenarios were supposed to be played out.
The physical evidence that the Kellers committed a crime—or indeed that a crime was even committed—seems suspect. Asked at the trial if the tears in the Chaviers girl’s hymen could have been caused by her having inserted marbles, pinto beans, toys, and crayons into her vagina, the physician who examined her replied, “Could have.” Another physician testified that it would have been “highly unusual” for the child to injure herself in such a manner, but then many things about the Chaviers girl were highly unusual. Lost in the general atmosphere of hysteria was this question: While even a small tear to the hymen would have caused a stinging pain each time the child urinated, how was it that she didn’t report the pain until almost eight hours after she left Fran’s Day Care? Did she wait that long to void her bladder? Or was it something else? In the report of his initial investigation at Brackenridge Hospital shortly after the girl was examined, Travis County Sheriff’s Office detective Roget Wade wrote: “The complainant [Suzanne Chaviers] said she caught the victim [her daughter] taking her panties off behind the couch.” This statement did not appear in any subsequent reports, nor was it mentioned at the trial. But it appears that shortly before the onset of pain, the child was playing an old familiar game.
A conventional wisdom has emerged that children are innocent beings who do not lie. Children under the age of six probably do not recognize the difference between the truth and a lie, but they are extremely suggestible. A review of a scientific study of children’s suggestibility published in Psychological Bulletin concludes that police officers, child-care workers, and therapists who specialize in ritual abuse have a preconceived notion of what happened. “In the course of questioning [they] suggest it to the child, who then reports it as though it were true,” says the author of the article, Maggie Bruck, a psychologist at McGill University, and Stephen Ceci, a psychologist at Cornell University. “The more often you ask young children to think about something, the easier it becomes for them to make something up that they think is a memory.”
Austin therapist Vivian Lewis Heine, who has testified an estimated five hundred times in child abuse cases (almost always for the prosecution), told me that young children hardly ever give false accusations without the influence of an adult. “The majority of the time when a child falsely accuses someone,” Lewis Heine said, “there’s a co-conspirator. It’s usually a parent involved in a divorce case or an adult who had post-traumatic stress disorder, someone who was either abused as a child or believes she was abused.” She cited an article in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry that listed four warning signs of false accusation: (1) the presence of post-traumatic stress disorder in the adult, (2) the presence of serious psychiatric disorder in a parent and evidence of a disturbed mother-child relationship, (3) an ongoing custody dispute, and (4) a professional committed prematurely to the truth of the allegation. Three of the four warning signs were clearly evident in the Keller case.
Only a small percentage of therapists (or police officers) buy the satanic ritual abuse and multiple personality disorder material put out by theorists like Hammond and Noblitt. In a nationwide survey of mental health professionals in 1991, 70 percent of those who responded had never treated a case of ritual abuse or multiple personality disorder. Two percent of the sample who did report such cases were responsible for a majority of the cases, each reporting more than one hundred victims. One individual reported two thousand cases. Austin therapist Karen Hutchins, who for the past seven months has been treating the Chaviers girl and the Staelin boy, estimates that about half of her fifty patients have been ritually abused and suffer multiple personality disorder. She can usually spot a victim after one visit. “I can feel an energy change,” she told me. To date, Hutchins has identified in the Staelin boy fifteen to seventeen personalities, including Jacob, an assassin alter, and Poopsie, a 56-year-old man who can have bowel movements on command. Carol Staelin regards Poopsie as final proof that the child was ritually abused. “Having a bowel movement at nine p.m. when your pattern is every other morning, you can’t fake that,” she said.
The Chaviers girl has eight personalities, Hutchins claims, including a violent alter named Crystal. At the appropriate age, Hutchins has determined, the child is programmed to be called back to the cult as a breeder, meaning that she will bear a child that will be sacrificed to Satan. The Chaviers girl was supposedly programmed to kill herself on her sixth birthday, in November 1993, but she did not. According to his therapist, the Nash boy said he is supposed to kill himself on his eighth birthday.
The Nash boy is seeing a psychiatrist rather than a therapist, and at this point, multiple personality disorder has not been diagnosed. The boy continues to show great anger and confusion. He has achieved a blue belt in karate so that, he says, “When they come and get us, I’ll be ready.” Full recovery for the boy (and for all the children) may take years. They may be in therapy for the remainder of their lives. Except for their continuing obsession with getting to the bottom of this tragedy, life has virtually stopped for Sean and Sandra Nash. Sean’s moving company is operating only part-time. Sandra has been on disability leave since the time of the trial. Their savings are long gone. “Our children’s emotional needs are such that we have no choice,” Sandra told me. “We just take it one day at a time.”
What happened at Fran’s Day Care Center was a tragedy. If the Kellers did even a fraction of what is alleged, they got what they deserved. If they didn’t, then the tragedy is compounded beyond measure, because the children believe that the stories of humiliation and torture that they were encouraged to tell are real and also because innocent people are in prison, their lives and the lives of their families wrecked. Stories of unimaginable horrors have been told and repeated and refined so many times by parents, therapists, and law enforcement authorities—told with such passion and conviction—that they are permanently planted in these children’s minds. In that respect, some form of ritual abuse obviously took place.
AUTHOR’S NOTE (March 2009): Back in 1994, as I was working on this story, I became convinced not only that Dan and Fran Keller were innocent, but that the crime they were accused of had never happened. That conviction has only deepened with time. Since this article was published, I’ve kept up a correspondence with the Kellers; I’ve written letters in support of their parole and visited them both in prison. They sit there silently, day after day, year after year, like a pair of ghosts, watching helplessly as parents die, grandchildren and great-grandchildren get born, and paroles are refused again and again. They won’t come up for parole again until 2010, and it’s unlikely that the result will be any different. I hope I’m wrong, but the board seems determined to see them serve every minute of their forty-year sentences.
The last time I visited them was in 2007. In her early sixties, Fran is still feisty, defiant and hopeful—and still a sucker for bad advice. In 1993, a jailhouse lawyer convinced her that if she divorced Dan and married him, he’d help get her out of jail. She agreed to the divorce but help never arrived, nor did the proposed marriage. She changed her religion from Baptist to Native America, which allowed her to move to a less brutal prison unit but hasn’t helped with parole. Two years ago she married a Colorado man she met on the Internet. He helped hire a Houston lawyer who persuaded her to write a letter to the parole board, confessing the guilt she had always denied. “I cried myself to sleep that night,” she told me, tears in her eyes. I told her this was the worst legal advice I’d ever heard. While it is true that parole boards are interested only in expressions of remorse and have zero tolerance for protestations of innocence, the letter is now part of her permanent record and, inadvertently, part of Dan’s record, too.
Dan is 67 now, his hair turned silver, his blue eyes placid as always. He still wears his wedding band and vows his love for Fran. “Tell her I have no hard feelings,” he said. How does he maintain hope, knowing his life has been destroyed by lies? “I try to help others,” Dan told me. “And walk with the Lord.” He told me that he is haunted by the question of what the children, now grown, believe about their pasts. “What’s going through their brains?” he asked me, rubbing his eyes. “Believing all those horrible things really happened. How do they live with it?”
When I wrote this story, I clung to some hope that it would help resolve what I was certain was a grave injustice. I wish I could say that it had. Instead, the Kellers are now mostly forgotten, a man and a woman locked away out of sight and out of mind, victims of one of those social hysterias that break loose from time to time. In their case, it was Satanic ritual abuse. But we saw it in the 1690’s in the Salem witch trials and again in the 1950’s in the red scare and the McCarthy outrages. Like its malevolent predecessors, SRA ran unchecked for a while and then died of its own craziness. It did, however, claim a number of victims, including Dan and Fran Keller. GARY CARTWRIGHT