Hysteria

When adults are accused of unthinkable crimes against children, what’s fact and what’s fiction can get lost in translation, as in the following cases.

A child sex ring in which kids were trained to dance sexy and have sex with each other at a sex kindergarten. A club where they were put onstage to dance and have sex with each other in front of a bunch of swingers and swappers. This month, we feature a story (“ Across the Line ”) on the Mineola child sex ring cases prosecuted in Smith County last year, in which three Tyler residents were convicted of running just such a child sex ring. As I point out, the convictions in these cases were highly questionable. Prosecutors brought forth no physical evidence and no adult witnesses, relying exclusively on the inconsistent words of young children taken from highly suggestive interviews. The interviews weren’t just inconsistent; they were downright bizarre, with claims of witches and animal sacrifice.

Sound familiar? The Smith County cases remind many researchers of the Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) cases of the eighties and nineties, when all over the country, as if caught in a frenzy, children accused adults—often those who ran child care centers—of horrible acts of child abuse, usually in tandem with dark, bloody acts of Satan worship such as animal sacrifice, witchcraft, and murder. The cases mostly involved false memories put in the children by suggestive interviews by social workers or police; sometimes there was outright manipulation of the kids, other times the kids themselves just started fantasizing and were taken so seriously by authorities that the stories got weirder and weirder. Though no real evidence was ever found, many innocent adults were convicted. In the most famous case, the 1983 McMartin preschool case in Manhattan Beach, California, a mother went to police saying her toddler had been abused at the day care; other children came forward and soon there were 321 counts of child sexual abuse against staff, as well as allegations of cannibalism. The first trial ended in a deadlocked jury; prosecutors pushed on with a second one, which ended in a mistrial 28 months later. At the time it was the longest, most expensive criminal trial in American history.

Texas was not immune. As Gary Cartwright wrote in Texas Monthly in 1994 (“ The Innocent and The Damned ”), Dan and Fran Keller were caught up in the frenzy, convicted in 1992 of molesting children at their Austin-area day care center and given 48 years in prison. There was almost no physical evidence (a tear in one of the hymens of one of the young girls that the examining doctor admitted at trial could have been caused by inserting crayons or marbles), just the words of the kids, who claimed the Kellers were Satan-worshipping fiends who made them sacrifice babies and cut up and skin adults with chainsaws. Cartwright has stayed in touch with the Kellers since his first story and offers an update.

Another case, though one that has received little publicity, is that of four San Antonio women convicted of the July 1994 gang rape of two young girls, aged seven and nine. Elizabeth Ramirez (the girls’ aunt, who was pregnant at the time), Cassandra Rivera, Anna Vasquez, and Kristie Mayhugh were four young lesbians who were convicted of holding the girls down in Ramirez’s apartment, fondling them, and inserting a clear liquid, a white powder, and a tampon into their vaginas. The girls waited two months to report the alleged assaults, and the only physical evidence was a tiny two- to three-millimeter scar on the hymen of one of the girls, though the doctor who found it admitted at trial that the penetration that she theorized had caused it could have happened at any time in the girl’s life (in her examination notes, the doctor also wrote, “this may be Satanic-related”). None of the four defendants had criminal records, none had previously shown any predilection for this kind of behavior, and all tearfully denied the charges. As in the Kellers and Mineola cases, the prosecutors and the juries in San Antonio believed the words of the children.

Darrell Otto, a Canadian, writes about their case. He visits the women every year (their sentences ranged from 15 to 37-and-a-half years) and maintains a Web site devoted to their cases: fourliveslost.com.

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