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Trial May Be Over--but McMartin Will Never End

July 29, 1990|Lois Timnick | Times staff writers Paul Feldman, Shawn Hubler, Carol McGraw and Lois Timnick did the reporting for this story. It was written by Timnick.

Nightmares, fears, shadows on the nursery wall. Imprisonment and bankruptcy. Suicide. Exploitation. Careers and friendships destroyed. Childhoods lost. A cloud over the sun-drenched beach town that spawned the largest molestation trial in history.

The McMartin Pre-School case was, in the words of one parent, "a seven-year walk through hell" for everyone involved. The Manhattan Beach school is gone, the trial is over, and the toddlers who could barely see over the witness stand are now gangling teen-agers.

Friday's mistrial, declared after jurors deliberated for 15 days without deciding Ray Buckey's guilt, still leaves unresolved the central question: Were any children molested at McMartin? All counts against the 32-year-old nursery school teacher are expected to be formally dismissed Wednesday. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner has said he will not try Buckey a third time. "I'm convinced this case will never end," said lawyer Eli Gauna, who represents a McMartin teacher against whom criminal charges were dropped. "It will always be there until everyone who was ever involved gets to old age or dies."

The participants agree. The ghosts of McMartin will continue to haunt them, they say, for the rest of their lives. From suburban parents to hard-driving attorneys to seasoned politicians, to the children, no one escaped.

"The case has poisoned everyone who had contact with it," Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Pounders said at one point during Buckey's three-year trial. "By that I mean every witness, every litigant and every judicial officer. It's a very upsetting case."

During seven years of criminal proceedings that focused on Buckey and three members of his family, the case involved federal and county grand juries, a preliminary hearing, two trials, 36 trial jurors, 17 attorneys, six judges, and hundreds of witnesses and alleged victims.

McMartin reverberated miles beyond the pale green nursery school walls and its play yard of wooden animals. Eight other South Bay preschools were eventually shut down and the case changed the way child molestation is viewed and prosecuted across the country.

The numbers and broad policy implications do not begin to tell the story of the personal anguish, guilt, self-examination and ruined lives that are the McMartin case's legacy.

The Manhattan Beach mother who alleged that "Mr. Ray" had sodomized her son, triggering the longest, costliest and arguably the most acrimonious criminal case in U.S. history, was apparently driven mad by McMartin and drank herself to death during the Christmas holidays in 1986. She was found dead in her bedroom--an empty bottle of Bacardi rum in the next room--before the trial even began.

"They say I'm crazy," she told a Times reporter shortly before her death. "But maybe you have to be a little crazy to even imagine that your child could be molested." Her former husband termed her "a courageous heroine and tragic victim."

Other lives were lost too. A defense investigator committed suicide the night before he was to testify. A young man who was implicated early in the investigation by several children died of an apparent drug overdose after authorities had seized a pair of rabbit ears, a black cloak and a black candle from his girlfriend's apartment.

Those who lived were pushed to their emotional limits.

The case took an enormous toll on the accusers and the accused--on the children who alleged that their teachers had committed a heinous crime, and on the teachers whose reputations were destroyed.

Theirs was a sad and twisted notoriety, as both sides fought to maintain their privacy, yet appeared on talk shows across the country. A mention in Manhattan Beach of "the children" needed no further identification. Graffiti sprayed on the preschool wall reading, "Ray must die!" needed no last name.

"My son continues to have nightmares and traumas, and he's going to be 14," said a McMartin father, whose two children testified. He said he moved his family to another city because of the case.

"In Manhattan Beach, it was always 'Those McMartin kids--those tainted McMartin kids,' " he said.

The McMartin teachers were tainted too.

Buckey's sister, Peggy Ann Buckey, a former defendant, lost her Orange County teaching job and regained it only after lengthy legal proceedings. The other teachers, including Buckey's grandmother, school founder Virginia McMartin, found themselves hauled off to jail, lost their life savings, and ultimately found it difficult to return to their lives even after charges against them were dropped.

At the end, only Ray Buckey stood accused.

Buckey, meanwhile, says his ordeal has made him "a stronger person," although he is bitter about the loss of his family's school, home and good name.

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