Seven preschools closed during the wave of child molestation allegations that swept through the South Bay, five of which never reopened.
The concern began in August, 1983, when a Manhattan Beach woman told police that her 2-year-old son had been sexually abused by Raymond Buckey, a 25-year-old teacher at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach. He and six women at the nursery school were subsequently charged with more than 200 counts of sexually molesting 42 children.
Other preschools came under suspicion. At the height of the highly publicized McMartin case in 1985, authorities said they had identified as many as 1,200 alleged victims of sexual abuse and 56 uncharged suspects. Scores of others were accused by preschoolers and their parents.
"For at least a decade, organized groups of molesters operated like an undetected plague against the South Bay's children," a columnist wrote in the Easy Reader, a beach cities weekly.
But only two more preschool teachers, both males, were arrested; one was never charged and the other's trial ended in a hung jury.
Child molestation cases are difficult to prove: Parents may be unwilling to subject their children to the trauma of testifying about abuse, and jurors may doubt the reliability of child witnesses. Normally, the only adult witness is the alleged molester.
At the same time, McMartin defense attorneys say, it is just as difficult to prove that a child was not molested, or that a molestation suspect is undeniably innocent.
In January, 1986, after an 18-month preliminary hearing in the McMartin case, the defendants were bound over for trial. But Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner dropped charges against all but two of the original seven defendants.
Reiner said that the McMartin case had been "massively blown out of proportion to make it the crime of the century" and that it is "altogether probable" that the five women freed were innocent.
However, a "few children" were molested over a period of years, Reiner said, in explaining his decision to prosecute Raymond Buckey, now 29, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 61. Their trial in Los Angeles Superior Court is entering its second year, and Raymond Buckey remains in jail, his bail set at $3 million.
Here are the seven preschools, in the order in which they were closed:
- Virginia McMartin Preschool, Manhattan Beach--Closed Jan. 11, 1984, after most of the parents, alarmed by accusations against the school staff, withdrew their children. Today, the small, L-shaped building on Manhattan Beach Boulevard sits empty and unused, its modest, placid appearance belying the lurid images of the past, when it was denounced as the center of a satanic cult and child-pornography ring.
At the front of the fenced yard, passers-by can see two abandoned playhouses. At the back, several wooden animals rear up from the weeds and debris with frozen expressions of seeming dismay. The animals, along with wooden airplanes, plywood tunnels and a train, were made by Charles (Chuck) Buckey, Raymond Buckey's father.
A portion of a vacant lot adjoining the preschool, which had been in operation for 17 years, was once leased by the McMartins to provide expanded playground space for the school's 50 children. A heavy growth of weeds hides any remaining signs of the holes and trenches dug by McMartin parents, frustrated by the slow pace of the investigation, and later by an archeological research firm hired by the district attorney.
They were looking for underground tunnels leading to a secret room, where children said they were taken to be molested, and also the remains of rabbits, turtles and other pets that McMartin teachers allegedly slaughtered to terrorize the children into silence. A couple of turtle shells and several unidentified animal bones were uncovered in a weeklong dig, and that line of investigation appears to have been abandoned.
The deserted preschool, which survived attacks by vandals and an arsonist, was spruced up a year or so ago to make it more attractive to a potential buyer. It is owned by a McMartin family attorney, Daniel Davis, who obtained it as payment for legal work, and has been for sale for more than two years.
- Manhattan Ranch Preschool, Manhattan Beach--Closed Aug. 2, 1984, by the state Department of Social Services a week after police arrested Michael Ruby, a 17-year-old playground aide, on charges of molesting eight toddlers. Search warrants were served at the preschool and at the homes of the school director and eight teachers.
Daniel Lewis, an attorney with the state agency, said that children had been swapped, since at least 1979, between the school and the McMartin nursery a mile away, for child prostitution and pornography. Other preschools in the area then came under suspicion of being involved in those alleged activities.
Ruby's trial in Torrance Superior Court ended in a hung jury, and prosecutors dropped the charges.
Manhattan Ranch was sold and is today a part of the Der Kinder Garten chain of preschools.