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Picking Up the Pieces : A Freed Ex-McMartin Pre-School Teacher Still Haunted by Her Family's Shattered Life

July 17, 1988|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

On Aug. 12, 1983, a Manhattan Beach mother told police that her 2-year-old son had been sexually abused by a teacher at the Virginia McMartin Pre-School. At the urging of authorities, other McMartin parents took their youngsters to Children's Institute International in Los Angeles, where they were questioned about possible molestation. Social workers, using puppets to represent teachers, elicited horrifying stories from more than 350 children about sexual perversions, satanic rituals and the slaughter of animals--stories that made headlines across the nation.

In March, 1984, Raymond Buckey and six female teachers--including three members of his family--were arrested and later charged with 207 felony counts of child sexual abuse. After an 18-month preliminary hearing, however, then-Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner dropped the charges against all but two defendants: Buckey, now 30, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 61. Their trial is currently in its second year in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Today, 2 1/2 years later, the five women who were freed remain mainly in hiding, their home addresses known only to trusted friends. Their reluctance to talk about the personal impact of the notoriety was overcome only after extensive contacts with attorneys and other intermediaries.

The 6-year-old boy still fears strangers at the door. They hold a special meaning for him, says his grandmother: He's afraid they have come to take him away again.

"They," in the boy's mind, Babs Spitler explains, are the social workers who whisked him out of his home four years ago and kept him in protective custody at a series of foster homes for more than two years.

"He gets really upset when salesmen or other people he doesn't know come to the door," Spitler said. "We're working on the problem, but we have a long way to go."

Spitler, 40, the only one of the freed former McMartin teachers who still has school-age children, insisted that the location of the family's home not be disclosed. An initial contact with a reporter was arranged at a bus station outside Los Angeles County.

"We may seem a little paranoid," said her husband, Don, 48. "But I could never forgive myself if something happened because we got too complacent."

Babs Spitler said few people in the community they now live in know of her involvement in the 5-year-old case.

"We want to keep it that way," she said. "We lost two years with our kids and that can't be made up, but now we want to be left alone so we can put our lives back together.

TV News Truck in Neighborhood

On the day of the arrests, Don Spitler recalled, he came home from a dentist's appointment and saw a TV news truck cruising through his neighborhood in Manhattan Beach, where the family had lived for 13 years.

When he learned from friends that his wife had been arrested, he recalled: "I started running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to figure out what I should do."

Two days later, he had raised $125,000 and was able to bail his wife out of Sybil Brand Institute, the county facility for women.

The couple immediately began looking for ways to hide their children from authorities.

They left their grandson, who was then 2 years old and whom they were in the process of officially adopting, in the care of a neighbor. He was discovered there by social workers four days later and taken away.

The Spitlers took their two children, a boy, 8, and a girl, 13, out of their schools in Manhattan Beach and sent them to relatives in San Diego County. The children were enrolled in a school there under assumed names.

Family Didn't Go Back

The Spitlers never returned to their home. Neighbors looked after the house and the family pets.

Three weeks after her arrest, Babs Spitler's bail was revoked by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald George, and she was returned to Sybil Brand, along with four other defendants.

A week later, a social worker and a Manhattan Beach police detective showed up at the San Diego school and took custody of the Spitler children.

"My son kept asking why he was being arrested," Babs Spitler recalled. "I was in jail going out of my mind, and when Don came to visit, I couldn't even touch him. We just sat there looking at each other through a plate glass.

"I told him to divorce me so he could keep custody of the children. But they (a Dependency Court) said he wasn't fit to be a parent either, because he should have known what a bad person I am, even though I hadn't done anything wrong."

The Spitlers, who have been married for 23 years, learned later that their children were driven from the San Diego school to Children's Institute International, a private Los Angeles agency where hundreds of McMartin preschoolers disclosed sexual abuse under questioning by social workers.

Babs Spitler said her children were interviewed there for more than six hours and were then sent to MacLaren Hall, the county's facility for wayward and neglected juveniles.

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