Rascals case in brief

In the beginning, in 1989, more than 90 children at the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, North Carolina, accused a total of 20 adults with 429 instances of sexual abuse over a three-year period. It may have all begun with one parent’s complaint about punishment given her child.

Among the alleged perpetrators: the sheriff and mayor. But prosecutors would charge only Robin Byrum, Darlene Harris, Elizabeth “Betsy” Kelly, Robert “Bob” Kelly, Willard Scott Privott, Shelley Stone and Dawn Wilson – the Edenton 7.

Along with sodomy and beatings, allegations included a baby killed with a handgun, a child being hung upside down from a tree and being set on fire and countless other fantastic incidents involving spaceships, hot air balloons, pirate ships and trained sharks.

By the time prosecutors dropped the last charges in 1997, Little Rascals had become North Carolina’s longest and most costly criminal trial. Prosecutors kept defendants jailed in hopes at least one would turn against their supposed co-conspirators. Remarkably, none did. Another shameful record: Five defendants had to wait longer to face their accusers in court than anyone else in North Carolina history.

Between 1991 and 1997, Ofra Bikel produced three extraordinary episodes on the Little Rascals case for the PBS series “Frontline.” Although “Innocence Lost” did not deter prosecutors, it exposed their tactics and fostered nationwide skepticism and dismay.

With each passing year, the absurdity of the Little Rascals charges has become more obvious. But no admission of error has ever come from prosecutors, police, interviewers or parents. This site is devoted to the issues raised by this case.


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Pathology professor Ed Friedlander weighs in [𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐤 𝐢𝐧 𝐜𝐨𝐦𝐦𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐬] on the prosecution of Junior Chandler:
"The children at first all agreed that nothing had happened, but they were grilled for days until they told the zealots what they wanted to hear. Mr. Chandler was accused of taking the children to a place under a bridge, molesting them in a boat that no one could find, with Pinocchio as his accomplice, and then getting them back to school on time. This is beneath ridiculous, but he was tried in a circus, with 'experts in Satanic abuse' from New York and people waving signs, 'Believe the children!' "
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Today’s random selection from the Little Rascals Day Care archives….


‘Satan’ issue was 100% baloney – but so what?

Dec. 5, 2012

As noted previously, my requests for retraction to Nursing Research and Child Abuse & Neglect went nowhere. But I found a spark of interest at a third journal, Relational Child & Youth Care Practice.

As well I should have – in 1990, RCYCP (then known as the Journal of Child and Youth Care) published not just a single article affirming the existence of day-care ritual abuse but an entire special issue.

In the Shadow of Satan: The Ritual Abuse of Children” included “A Case of Multiple Life-Threatening Illnesses Related to Early Ritual Abuse” by Rennet Wong and Jock McKeen, “Ritual Child Abuse: A Survey of Symptoms and Allegations” by  Pamela S. Hudson and “Satanic Ritual Abuse: A Cause of Multiple Personality Disorder” by George A. Fraser.

My request for retraction elicited this response from RCYCP:

“…. Carol Stuart and Grant Charles, Editors of RCYCP… have agreed that a statement in the next issue about the original article and the wrongful prosecution of these defendants would be appropriate.  Could you please provide… a draft of what you think is appropriate, ensuring correct names, etc. Our editors will then review and finalize and confirm any questions or issues with you.”

Boy, was I excited! This is what I proposed:

“In 1990 the Journal of Child and Youth Care (now Relational Child & Youth Care Practice) published a Special Issue entitled ‘In the Shadow of Satan: The Ritual Abuse of Children.’

“All five articles in the issue were based on the writers’ erroneous belief in ‘satanic ritual abuse,’ a moral panic that led to wrongful prosecutions against day cares in the United States, Canada and elsewhere during the 1980s and 1990s.”

A few days later I received this change of plan from RCYCP:

“We have carefully reviewed the 1990 Special Issue… and found no reference to the Edenton Seven or the Little Rascals Day Care. As such, our editors will not be printing a retraction.”

Of course, I responded:

“The Little Rascals and McMartin cases were but two manifestations of the moral panic of satanic ritual abuse. In the 1980s and early 1990s, numerous similar, if less publicized, prosecutions occurred across North America and as far as New Zealand and Germany.

“All these cases were rooted in the belief affirmed and promoted in the Special Issue….

“Little Rascals and McMartin are mentioned only indirectly, but my request for a retraction addresses – as does the issue – the entire false concept of satanic ritual abuse.
“I hope this clarification will move the editors to reconsider.”

So far, it hasn’t.

UNC sociologist sought to deflate moral panic

130306OberschallMarch 6, 2013

Anthony “Tony” Oberschall, professor (now emeritus) of sociology at UNC Chapel Hill, wrote extensively – if not prominently – about the insanity of the Little Rascals case. How was Oberschall able to resist the storyline that seduced so many others?

“Before retiring from UNC in 2005,” he recalls, “I taught in universities for 40 years. One of my fields of writing and research concerned collective behavior – collective myths, false beliefs, rumors, how they originate and why they are believed.

“As the Little Rascals prosecution unfolded right before my eyes (actually, as reported in the News & Observer), it became obvious to me that this was but one more instance of moral panic, false beliefs and miscarriage of justice….”

Oberschall likens the prosecution narrative to “the widely believed Iraqi WMD story disseminated by the Bush administration in 2002. Unthinking acceptance of what the authorities are asserting, alas, happens all too often.”

In early 1993, Oberschall sent the N&O both an op-ed column and a response to a Dennis Rogers column, but neither appeared nor drew a response from the paper. (They have now been posted on the Bookshelf of Case Materials on this site.)

“At that point,” he says, “having been stonewalled, I decided to research Little Rascals in depth and wrote several times about it in scholarly publications in subsequent years.”

More about Oberschall’s research in Thursday’s post.

Can Edenton squeeze in one more historical marker?

141127MarkerNov. 27, 2014

“Of the dozen or so historical markers clustered in the town of Edenton, only one – recognizing novelist Inglis Fletcher – postdates the 1800s.

“The North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Committee now has the opportunity, 25 years after the first arrest in the Little Rascals case, to add to that number a 20th Century event inarguably significant in the legal and social history of not just North Carolina but also the nation.”

– From my application proposing “history on a stick” recognition for the Little Rascals Day Care case

The marker committee, composed of historians from four-year colleges across the state, will meet in December to decide which pending applications meet its criteria.

Prosecutors misused bail to squeeze defendants

150816BillAug. 16, 2015

“In 1689, the English Bill of Rights outlawed the widespread practice of keeping defendants in jail by setting deliberately unaffordable bail, declaring that ‘excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed.’ The same language was adopted word for word a century later in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

“But as bail has evolved in America, it has become less and less a tool for keeping people out of jail, and more and more a trap door for those who cannot afford to pay it….

“Across the criminal-justice system, bail acts as a tool of compulsion, forcing people who would not otherwise plead guilty to do so….”

– From “The Bail Trap” by Nick Pinto in the New York Times (Aug. 13)

Could there be a more bare-faced example of “excessive bail” than that set for the Edenton Seven?

  • Bob Kelly, $1.5 million (later reduced to $200,000  after his conviction was overturned  then $50,000 )
  • Betsy Kelly, $1.8 million (reduced to $400,000)
  • Scott Privott, $1 million (reduced to $50,000)
  • Shelley Stone, $375,000
  • Dawn Wilson, $880,000 (reduced to $200,000)
  • Robin Byrum, $500,000 (reduced to $200,000)
  • Darlene Harris, $350,000

Did prosecutors fear that the defendants would flee to Argentina? That they would prowl the town’s playgrounds in search of new victims? No, these absurd amounts surely had no purpose but to coerce confessions. How shocked and disappointed they must have been that not one of the defendants, though crushed financially, succumbed.