BAKERSFIELD — State Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp said Monday that Kern County law enforcement and social service agencies mishandled their investigation of a child-molestation case that included claims of cannibalistic murders of infants.
His 80-page report was prepared at the request of the Kern County Grand Jury after widespread complaints that local officials were engaged in a "witch hunt" based on the unsubstantiated allegations of children.
Children questioned by Kern County authorities said 77 adults were members of satanic rings that engaged in ritualistic crimes including sexual abuse, infanticide, cremation and the drinking of human blood. The children said as many as 27 infants were slain.
But no infants are known to be missing, no bodies have ever been found, no evidence of any cults has surfaced and no one has been charged with murder. While five people have been convicted of child molestation in apparently related cases, most of the others identified as suspects have never been charged with any crime.
In the report released at a news conference at the Kern County Library here, Van de Kamp singled out the Kern County Sheriff's Department for special criticism, saying it "did not always perform effectively in its role as chief investigative authority. . . ."
"Most deputies had little or no training in investigating child sexual abuse cases, and those assigned to the (investigation) did not receive the additional specialized training required by law," the attorney general told reporters. "Proper procedure for interviewing witnesses was not followed . . . and children were asked overly leading questions. Reports were inadequate. And little effort was made to find corroborating evidence for the children's (accusatory) statements."
Van de Kamp said that while the Kern County district attorney's office "performed its prosecutorial duties well," there were "major gaps in communications" and "internal division over whether the office's primary responsibility was protecting children or prosecuting their molesters."
In general, he said, the county's Department of Child Protective Services (CPS) "met its responsibilities. . . . But one social worker contributed greatly to the confusion and unprofessionalism surrounding the case by assuming the role of criminal rather than civil investigator, and the case was further complicated by unfortunate and poorly documented interaction of a number of child victims in group therapy."
Van de Kamp said some problems were common to all three agencies: "Training and preparation were inadequate everywhere. . . . Neither the sheriff nor the district attorney nor the head of CPS exercised much personal supervision over this case," and there was an overall lack of interdepartmental coordination.
But while "there is blame enough to go around," he said, there is no cause for prosecution against any of the agencies.
Responding to complaints that the children of innocent parents were inappropriately removed from their homes and placed in protective custody, Van de Kamp said, "All three agencies acted properly in that regard.
"The lengthy separations were largely due to maneuvers by the attorneys for the accused parents," he said. Van de Kamp's report concluded with a list of specific recommendations for each agency on how to improve its operations, plus an additional list of general recommendations for all three.
Sheriff Larry Kleier responded to the report with a statement late Monday afternoon promising continued cooperation, adding that "since the report is 80 pages long and covers a considerable amount of time and activity, it will take some time to review it and determine what action needs to be taken." While Kleier did not respond to the specific criticisms, he had said earlier that he thought his department had "handled these cases extremely well."
Bill Curbow, senior program manager for CPS, said he thought the report was fair. He said his agency plans to implement the recommendations made by Van de Kamp.
Edward R. Jagels, the Kern County district attorney, was away from his office and was not expected to respond to Van de Kamp's report until today.
In the summary of his report, Van de Kamp stressed that it was not the intent of his office to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused, "nor was it intended to prove or disprove the allegations of satanic rituals or infanticide."
However, he did point out that his investigators found no evidence to support the claims of ritual murders, "while much was found to disprove them."
"Given the lack of of corroborating evidence, many charges depended entirely on the veracity of children," Van de Kamp said. "There could be little thought of taking those cases to court."