How hysterical parents, incompetent therapists and malicious prosecutors destroyed the lives of
seven innocent North Carolinians – and have yet to admit they were wrong
April 13, 2021
If I had harbored even an iota of doubt about Junior Chandler’s innocence, it would’ve been vaporized by the podcast episode below.
Most dramatically, the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic’s meticulously assembled “Impossibility Exhibit” demonstrates that Junior was nowhere near the scene of his imaginary crimes….
But is the court paying attention?
Today’s random selection from the Little Rascals Day Care archives….
July 2, 2015
“The notion of satanic ritual abuse was dismissed as ‘utter nonsense’ by Mrs. Justice Pauffley in care proceedings in the family court at (London’s) Royal Courts of Justice in March. Two children were coerced by their mother and her boyfriend into alleging horrendous sexual abuse and murder of babies by their father and others in a secret satanic cult…. ‘There was no satanic or other cult at which babies were murdered and children sexually abused,’ the judge said. The claims were ‘fabricated’ and ‘baseless.’
“But the total lack of physical evidence does not deter the compensation chasers. At a child abuse training day in London last week run by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, delegates were told that satanic abuse was a reality. Barrister Lee Moore – a self-proclaimed satanic abuse survivor – and solicitor Peter Garsden, who are respectively the past and current president of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, ‘kept going on about satanic ritual abuse,’ according to a barrister who was present.
“She went on: ‘Peter Garsden told the assembled band of lawyers that SRA was prevalent and would be accepted as such, “given time.” The point is that at a conference of ‘cutting-edge’ personal injury lawyers specialising in child abuse, only one delegate was prepared to challenge these SRA proponents.’ ”
One difference on our side of the pond: The “compensation chasers” in American ritual abuse cases were much less likely to be lawyers than therapists.
Jan. 8, 2018
“Because [this movement] was about sex and children, hysteria was not far behind. Before long, an industry of feminist and Christian therapists and self-help writers were claiming that virtually every behavioral quirk or emotional trouble could be traced to sexual abuse, even if – especially if – the alleged victim did not remember it. ‘If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were,’ wrote poet Ellen Bass and journalist Laura Davis in their massive bestseller The Courage to Heal (1988). The symptom checklists in it and similar books include everything from arthritis to feeling ugly. Bass’s book launched a battery of unscientific ‘therapeutic’ and forensic interviewing techniques to extract false and ‘recovered’ memories of sexual depredation. …
“A new crusade marched under the banner ‘Believe the Children.’ With the sketchiest of evidence or none at all, child protective agencies removed kids from their parents. Credulous juries sent day-care workers to prison on charges of ‘satanic ritual abuse.’ Adults denounced their aging parents, guilty of nothing more than imperfect love, as sadistic rapists. It took only one accusation to ruin a person’s life. Bus drivers, babysitters, divorcing fathers, and boyfriends at the wrong end of a grudge lost jobs, families, and reputations with one accusation, one newspaper item. In its review of exonerations from 1989 to 2012, the National Registry of Exonerations reported that among convictions for crimes that never occurred, over half involved child sexual abuse: ‘Two-thirds of these cases were generated in a wave of child sexual abuse hysteria that swept the country three decades ago.”
– From “Will Feminism’s Past Mistakes Haunt #MeToo?” (Dec. 8) by Judith Levine in Boston Review
March 13, 2016
“Fran and Dan Keller have been released from a Texas prison after 21 years, yet still have little freedom of movement or circumstance, or even quality of life. Their 1992 conviction on multiple counts of ‘sexual assault of a minor’ – in the now notorious Fran’s Day Care case – has effectively been overturned by a 2015 Court of Criminal Appeals ruling ‘granting relief’ to the Kellers on a single question of retracted medical testimony. But the ruling was not accompanied by actual exoneration from the allegedly heinous crimes.
“Only a single appeals court judge – Cheryl Johnson – was willing to admit no crime had in fact occurred. ‘This was a witch hunt from the beginning,’ wrote Johnson, in her opinion concurring with the opaque ruling of the full court. Johnson would have granted relief on all the Kellers’ claims, and would have acknowledged that the entire prosecution had been an egregious folly.
“The limited ruling, while welcome in itself, left the Kellers in a legal limbo – permanently accused but not cleared…. required to somehow further demonstrate their innocence – of crimes that never happened….”
So who thwarts the hapless Kellers? Yes, yet another prosecutor who sets the bar for exoneration stratospherically high. Although District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg (here’s why her name rings a bell) supported their release, she now finds herself unable to “find a path to innocence” without the deal-sealing exculpation of DNA evidence. Those darn imaginary criminals sure do clean up after themselves….
June 24, 2016
“I was a juror on the Edenton Little Rascals sex abuse case, and I heard all the facts.
“During eight months of testimony I heard no evidence to prove that Bob Kelly was guilty of any charge. I did hear children, parents and grandparents say that they believe sex abuse took place at the day care. I heard children talk about bizarre things that were supposed to have happened at the day care and other places (often being reminded by the prosecution). I heard parents say they believe sex abuse took place at the day care.
“I also heard the same parents talk about their child’s normal behavior and how they noticed no abnormalities and that their children were fine and that they didn’t believe the allegations. I also heard how children asked parents why the day care closed and stated how they liked Mr. Bob and Mrs. Betsy.
“I feel it’s very important that readers know what was going on in Edenton at the time of the allegations. We know what was said in court 2 1/2 years later. Do you ever wonder what the evidence would have been if the case went to trial six months after allegations? Well, I don’t have to wonder. Other than the evidence lost or destroyed, I heard it all, and I’ll say this to the last day of my life, that the evidence that came through the courtroom did not prove that Bob Kelly committed any kind of sex abuse.
“To the grandmother who feels jurors made fools of themselves for appearing on ‘Frontline’ to try and tell the world the truth about the Little Rascals sex abuse case, then so be it.”
– From “Court evidence did not prove Kelly guilty,” letter to the editor of the Greenville (N.C.) Daily Reflector (Sept. 3, 1993)
Forty-five days earlier, Streeter and four other jurors had appeared on “Innocence Lost: The Verdict,” revealing to Ofra Bikel how they came to vote guilty.
From the “Frontline” web page: “Of the five jurors interviewed, only two were fully comfortable with the verdict they had issued. In both cases, it was the children’s testimony that had convinced them. The other three jurors were troubled and said they regretted their verdict and had serious doubts about Bob Kelly’s guilt. Two jurors, Mary Nichols and Marvin Shackelford, said that worries about their personal health (Shackelford had had two heart attacks, and Mary Nichols was very ill with leukemia) had driven them to vote guilty just to resolve the endless deliberations and go home. Roswell Streeter, who at 28 was the youngest member of the jury, said he felt intimidated and confused, and finally lost all sense of perspective.”
One of the two jurors who acknowledged no doubts about Kelly’s guilt was Dennis T. Ray, who wound up in court defending (not very persuasively) his own behavior.
Feb. 22, 2013
“The argument for an organized network of satanists is virtually irrefutable. Ritual abuse survivors’ reports contain many fantastic elements. Rather than regard the implausible features of these accounts as grounds for skepticism, however, proponents of the satanic conspiracy theory insist that it is precisely these elements than mean the stories must be true. No one, they insist, would or could make up such bizarre, macabre stories.
“Sometimes proponents retreat to the position that satanists commit bizarre activities precisely so that victims will not be believed when they recount their experiences. This latter tack illustrates the problem of infinite regress (a sequence of reasoning or justification that can never come to an end).
“When confronted with the difficulty of concealing so many homicides, proponents explain that satanists dispose of bodies… in double-decker graves. Challenges to this argument lead to assertions that bodies are burned. The observation that bodies cannot be burned in ordinary fires leads to the assertion that they are cremated. The problems of gaining access to crematoriums lead to contentions that satanists use special portable crematoriums. Further protestation may yield the argument that child-witnesses may be mistaken about some deaths because satanists sometimes use life-like dolls rather than live humans to terrorize children into silence.
“The continual retreat from the lack of confirming evidence shifts the burden of proof from those seeking to demonstrate a satanist network to those questioning such assertions.”
– From “The Satanism Scare,” edited by David G. Bromley (1991)
Jan. 25, 2012
I’ve heard again from the anonymous caller who responded to my ad in the Elizabeth City Advance addressing children involved in the Little Rascals case.
The caller reiterated her certainty that she had been sexually abused by Bob Kelly, but – to my shock – she expressed doubts about the degree of involvement of other defendants, especially the young women who worked at the day care.
“I don’t hold any grudges against them,” she said. “I think he made them do whatever they did – it wasn’t on their own.”
Why then would these women choose to stay imprisoned, when testifying against Bob Kelly would’ve won them instant freedom?
“They were scared of him,” she said.
Does that seem probable? Or even conceivable?
Robin Byrum, 19 when she was arrested, spent almost a year in jail before her bond was reduced from $500,000 to $200,000. Meanwhile, her husband took care of their 7-month-old son.
In “Innocence Lost: The Plea” (1997), Byrum explained why she had been tempted by but repeatedly refused the prosecutors’ deal: “…. I would not ever have to be separated from my child again. But then I’d have to live with the rest of my life that I (said I) did something when I didn’t do it.”
March 15, 2013
“To the extent that we may have contributed in any way to the public perception that you might have been involved in this crime, I am deeply sorry.
“No innocent person should have to endure such an extensive trial in the court of public opinion, especially when public officials have not had sufficient evidence to initiate a trial in a court of law.
“We intend in the future to treat you as the victims of this crime, with the sympathy due you because of the horrific loss you suffered.”
– From a letter hand-delivered to John Ramsey, father of JonBenet Ramsey, by Boulder, Colo., District Attorney Mary Lacy in 2008
Just a reminder that, however difficult it is for prosecutors to admit their mistakes, it is not impossible. Other than pride and self-righteousness, what stands in the way of an apology from H. P. Williams, Bill Hart and Nancy Lamb to the Edenton Seven?
May 16, 2016
The aftereffects of Little Rascals on Edenton have long interested me. With few exceptions the town’s residents, now fewer than 5,000 for the first time since 1970, seem dedicated to forgetting their prominent role in the “satanic ritual abuse” day-care panic. When the chief prosecutor ran for district attorney, the local paper published 17 stories and an endorsement editorial without mentioning Little Rascals.
One Edenton innkeeper even deleted mention of the case from the town’s Wikipedia page.
So I’m always glad to see another perspective. This is from a note sent by a former resident:
“I was excited to see your Facebook page on Little Rascals. I had been looking for copies of the PBS programs for years and had only uncovered some poor quality copies.
“I have many friends in Edenton, which made viewing ‘Innocence Lost’ all the more interesting. I began to know Edenton right at the tail end of the saga. For me its attractiveness was the sense that I was in a very different place, a different culture from home. Quiet, peaceful, slow-paced. But we concluded this was no place to live. Yes, some nice people to be found, but overall, pretty stifling.
“The town leaders still have some things to answer for about Little Rascals, and I suspect that until there is a process of reconciliation, the town will remain a troubled place, though it does a good job putting on a facade.
“Little Rascals is unfinished business. The problem is that the power structure sees no reason for change. There is such a direct link to the plantation mentality here in eastern North Carolina (which also saw no reason to change), it’s not even funny.”
Dec. 31, 2014
“Dear Mr. Powell:
“At their meeting on December 16, the members of the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee… voted unanimously not to approve a marker (in Edenton recognizing the Little Rascals Day Care case).
“Your nomination was among 17 on the agenda (only five met with approval)…. In short, the committee felt that the case was too recent – with too many people affected by it living in the area. They felt that much more time needed to pass before the subject could be judged by history and considered for a marker. One suggestion was that it might be considered 25 years after the deaths of those convicted…..”
– From a letter rejecting my application for a “history on a stick” marker for the Little Rascals case
I respect the committee’s reasoning, even though I doubt I’ll be around when it’s ready to reconsider – in what, 2075?
Aug. 23, 2013
“Developing a mental tuning fork for the credibility of a claim, gaining an instinct for when to trust and when to doubt a source – these are two critical components of becoming a confident and effective researcher.”
– From “The Devil in the Details: Media Representation of ‘Ritual Abuse’ and Evaluation of Sources” by Barbara Fister in Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education (May 2003
Although Fister’s observation addresses the challenge of fact-finding on the Internet, it applies just as well to the interviewing of child witnesses. The poorly prepared Little Rascals prosecution therapists – and social services investigators – surely had an overabundance of confidence in their “mental tuning forks” and their “instinct for when to trust and when to doubt.” By contrast, social scientists such as Ceci and Bruck proceed with caution, not credulity.
Aug. 15, 2012
“Under the North Carolina Rules of Evidence, a qualified expert may testify as to her opinion in her field of expertise if the testimony will assist the jury in understanding the evidence. An expert may not, however, testify as to the witness’s credibility or state that she believes the defendant is guilty.
“In sexual abuse cases involving child victims, an expert may not testify that sexual abuse has occurred without physical evidence supporting her opinion. An expert may not testify that the child has been ‘sexually abused’ if the testimony is based solely on the interview with the child-victim.”
In Patrick Towe’s case, only one expert witness so testified – in Junior Chandler’s it was six.
Without such a parade of “expert vouching,” Junior surely would have spent the past 25 years back home in Madison County instead of behind bars. How can the North Carolina Supreme Court now fail to acknowledge this?
Oct. 29, 2012
“For at least eight years American law enforcement has been aggressively investigating the allegations of victims of ritualistic abuse. There is little or no evidence for the portion of their allegations that deals with large-scale baby breeding, human sacrifice and organized satanic conspiracies.”
– Kenneth V. Lanning, supervisory special agent at the behavioral science unit, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, FBI Academy, Quantico, Va. (Aug. 19, 1991)
Two decades later, what’s most striking about agent Lanning’s statement isn’t the content – what could’ve been more predictable? – but the context: The moral panic held such sway that the FBI was forced to devote no less than eight years to discrediting it.
Here’s what Lanning said about day care allegations:
“Children currently or formerly attending a day care center gradually describe their victimization at the center and at other locations to which they were taken by the day care staff. The cases include multiple victims and offenders, fear, and bizarre or ritualistic activity, with a particularly high number of female offenders. Descriptions of strange games, insertion of foreign objects, killing of animals, photographing of activities, and wearing of costumes are common. The accounts of the young children, however, do not seem to be quite as ‘bizarre‘ as those of the adult survivors, with fewer accounts of human sacrifice….”
Angered by the report, some therapists accused Lanning of being a satanist who had infiltrated the FBI to advance the cause.
Dec. 16, 2011
Alan Rubenstein, who as district attorney refused to prosecute the Breezy Point case, is now a Bucks County Court judge.
Unlike H.P. Williams Jr., who was D.A. during the Little Rascals case, Rubenstein speaks freely about how he addressed claims of ritual abuse in a local day care.
“There was no more ambitious D.A. than me,” he recalls. “I reveled in the limelight….
“When we first got the allegations, I said to myself, ‘Satanic ritual abuse – I’ll be on the cover of Time magazine! I’ll prosecute it personally. I’ll get these bastards and put them away for life.”
But it didn’t take long for him to reverse course.
“Breezy Point was around the corner from me. My own son had gone there. I just couldn’t see Doug Wiik in (prison) stripes… The more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that nothing had happened there…
“I put our two best county detectives on the case, and I rode them like the Pony Express.”
The resulting 60-plus-page “Investigation into Breezy Point Day School” is a model of lucid, understated logic that blows to smithereens any notion of wrongdoing:
“We have determined that the allegations are unfounded and without merit…. No credible evidence exists to support them. In stark contrast, the evidence produced during the past 11 months indicates facts in direct, clear conflict with the charges leveled by the parents on behalf of their minor children.”
Here are three excerpts that convey the reach of the investigation:
- “In the opinion of this caseworker, ‘The child clearly exhibited the inability to distinguish what was true and what was not true.’ ”
Such insights seem to have been beyond the skills or preconceptions of caseworkers in Edenton.
- “The parents, when confronted with the clear discrepancy between the child’s description of the room and its actual physical layout, have contended that the owners of Breezy Point remodeled the room, removed the fireplace, put up plasterboard and added additional windows so as to change the character of this area to avoid detection. No evidence of remodeling was uncovered during this investigation.”
Passages such as this would be hilariously deadpan, were the subject not so weighty.
- “Bucks County detectives, acting upon (claims that the children were secretly transported to the Royce Hotel), traced all records from the teacher’s family credit cards, including American Express, MasterCard and Visa, to determine if any of these individuals charged rooms or lodging at the hotel. Ledger and registration books were also examined…. A check of these records proved entirely negative.”
In Bucks County no allegation was too bizarre to investigate. In Edenton no allegation was too bizarre to presume true.
Nov. 4, 2015
“(Psychiatrist Roland) Summit praised the hysteria-induced news media hype and community gossip (about the McMartin Preschool case) as a public service: Without that type and extent of press coverage, the researchers and other professionals would not be able to gather this information and would be trapped by old myths about child sexual abuse.
“Summit complained that investigators were limiting the ability of parents to cope by discouraging them from meeting and discussing the case. The community’s priority, he explained, should be to support the children. Hundreds of children had escaped sexual assault, he claimed, because of the publicity about the McMartin case.”
– From “Childhood Sexual Abuse: A Reference Handbook” by Karen L. Kinnear (2007)
The “satanic ritual abuse” day-care myth had no more enthusiastic – and effective – pitchman than Roland Summit, who conjured up the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome, who spread the gospel as far as New Zealand and who never ever gave up on the existence of the McMartin tunnels.
Although Summit himself never made it to Edenton, his ill-conceived cosmology arrived full-blown.
June 29, 2014
“(The Little Rascals Day Care center) is red brick, with plate glass windows on the front. The two-story structure is located on East Eden Street, amid mostly modest one-family homes, oaks, azaleas and crape myrtles, just a few blocks from the beautiful bay and downtown.
“The neighborhood is quiet now, but as the case unfolded during the last two years, journalists from time to time set upon the area, seeking eyewitnesses to the alleged incidents. Several residents recently told a visitor they had seen none of the alleged acts.
“For some, hindsight is powerful in the wake of the allegations. Lenora Smith, who lives next door to the center, voiced ‘surprise’ at the charges but does remember that ‘a few things I saw were kind of unusual.’
“Well, Robert Kelly owned a plumbing business, but ‘at times he stayed over there (at the day-care center) a lot,’ she said….
“Some people here admit to being a bit jumpy since the allegations surfaced.
“Debbie Jones said, ‘I get paranoid.’ Extending her hand, palm down, she made it tremble, saying: ‘I’m like this if I’m with my kids in a public place.’
“In a building on the town’s main thoroughfare, South Broad Street, a young boy who looked about 5 years old, bolstered her point. As he walked out of an office into a hall, apparently heading for the bathroom, he looked over his shoulder and said stoically to a woman: ‘If I don’t come back, call the police.’”
– From “Child Abuse Charges at Day-Care Center Divide Formerly Close-Knit Community” by Lee May in the Los Angeles Times (June 8, 1991)