How did it all begin?

Two coincidental and seemingly minor events apparently laid the groundwork for the case:

Brenda Toppin, a dispatcher for the Edenton police department, attended a seminar on “satanic ritual abuse,” and Jane Mabry failed to get an apology from Bob Kelly for slapping her child.

Mabry began a campaign of complaints about Little Rascals, and eventually Toppin became part of a web of gossip, speculation and accusation that came to include parents, police, therapists and prosecutors.

In 1989 Kelly and six other defendants were charged with child sexual abuse.

What was the crucial evidence in the case against Kelly?

Testimony of 12 children, who after months of intense questioning by parents, investigators and therapists had produced the sought-after claims of abuse. All documentation of the initial interviews, in which the children denied ever having been abused, was lost or destroyed.

The defense pointed out that:

– All children interviewed by local, prosecution-approved therapists were found to have been abused; none of the children interviewed by out-of-town, independent therapists were found to have been abused.

– No physical evidence from the day care or elsewhere was put forth by prosecutors.

– No adult ever witnessed anything amiss at Little Rascals, the town’s most prominent day care, even though parents and other visitors frequently came and went during the day.

Why might the jury have returned guilty verdicts?

The process was contaminated, jurors reported later: A Redbook article on child molestation was improperly discussed. One juror concealed during jury selection his childhood history of abuse, only to cite it emotionally in arguing for conviction. Another juror twice visited the scene against the judge’s orders.

At least three jurors have publicly expressed regret for their votes. One apologized for “probably the biggest mistake I ever made in my life.”

Was Little Rascals an isolated case?

No. It was part of a “moral panic” over “Satanic ritual abuse” that struck day cares across the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Remarkably similar in their details, Little Rascals and the McMartin Preschool case in California were the most-publicized examples. (The McMartin trial, longest and costliest in U.S. history, ended in 1990 with acquittals or dismissals of all charges against the seven defendants.)

Playing a crucial part in winding down this decade of unfounded fears and unjustified prosecutions were filmmaker Ofra Bikel’s “Frontline” documentaries on Edenton. Although the “Innocence Lost” trilogy (1991, 1993, 1995) appeared too late to improve the prospects of the Edenton Seven, millions of viewers received a jarring education in justice run amok.

What was the outcome for the Edenton Seven?

Robert F. “Bob” Kelly Jr., co-owner of Little Rascals Day Care Center: Convicted in 1992 of 99 counts of sexually molesting 12 children, sentenced to 12 consecutive life terms. Convictions overturned by N.C. Court of Appeals in 1995. Charges dropped in 1997.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Kelly, co-owner: In 1994 pleaded no contest to 30 felonies while maintaining her innocence. Served 11 months of a seven-year sentence.

Kathryn Dawn Wilson, cook: Convicted of seven counts of sexual abuse in 1993 and sentenced to life in prison. Convictions overturned in 1995. Charges dropped in 1997.

Shelley Alyce Stone, center worker: Charged with 13 counts of sexual abuse, spent several weeks in jail. Charges dropped in 1996.

Robin Boles Byrum, center worker: Charged with 23 crimes. Charges dropped in 1996.

Willard Scott Privott, video store owner and friend of Bob Kelly: Served three years and eight months awaiting trial. In 1994 maintained his innocence while pleading no contest to taking indecent liberties with a minor. Given suspended sentence and probation.

Darlene Harris Bunch (connection unknown – never worked at the center): Charged with three counts. Charges dropped in 1996.

Why were the convictions of Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson overturned?

In 1995 the North Carolina Court of Appeals cited massive errors in their trials. For instance, Judge D. Marsh McLelland had refused to review transcripts of the children’s interrogation. He had allowed parents to testify as expert witnesses. And there was gross misconduct by the prosecutors, including intimidation of defendants by prominently stationing potential character witnesses in the courtroom.

Has the state ever acknowledged the innocence of the defendants?

No. When prosecutors dropped the last charges, they insisted they were only allowing “wounds to heal” and sparing the supposed child-victims from further courtroom testimony.


About the writer

I am a retired newspaperman in Charlotte. I didn’t cover the Little Rascals case, nor do I know anyone involved.

My motivation is simple outrage and shame over how North Carolina prosecutors maliciously denied justice – and continue to deny exoneration – to seven innocent defendants.

I am deeply grateful to webmaster Steve Johnston, without whose pro bono time and talent this site would still be a pipe dream.

– Lew Powell


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