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Abuser or Abused? : Ruling Triggers Questions Over Who's Real Victim in N.J. Molestation Case

April 20, 1993|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — In the summer of 1984, Margaret Kelly Michaels, fresh out of college in her hometown of Pittsburgh, came here with hopes of finding a job in the theater. She wrote poetry and had studied acting. And like thousands of other young people drawn here each year, she imagined that, somehow, she would find her niche in the big city.

Instead, she found something quite different.

Within a year, she had been branded one of the area's most vile criminals, a demon-like woman who was said to have sexually molested dozens of young children at the day-care center where she worked.

When a judge sentenced her to 47 years in prison, prosecutors and parents decried her treatment as too lenient.

The case became part of a horrifying phenomenon of the 1980s, in which reports of mass child abuse became common just as a generation of parents came to rely on day-care workers to watch over their toddlers and preschoolers.

In almost every instance of alleged mass abuse, an initial report triggered a wave of new accusations, often running into the hundreds, all of which had gone undetected for months or even years.

Quite often, as in the notorious case at the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach, years of investigation resulted in dropped charges or "not guilty" verdicts. But unlike others accused, Michaels was convicted and imprisoned.

How could this intelligent and articulate young woman have performed what an appeals court described as "virtually incomprehensible heinous and bizarre acts" on 3- and 4-year-olds without anyone noticing?

She was convicted of having inserted knives, forks and spoons into the anuses, penises and vaginas of the children. None of the children spoke of these crimes, however, until their parents and investigators questioned them.

After weeks of interviews, a state investigator came to believe that Michaels had molested all 51 children at the day-care center, even those who had never been in her classes. And after a nine-month trial, a jury believed it too.

But last month, after Michaels had served five years in prison, a New Jersey appeals court overturned the conviction and criticized the state's handling of the case.

Now, the initial verdict in State of New Jersey vs. Margaret Kelly Michaels raises a larger question: Was this indeed an example of mass child abuse, or rather the abuse of an innocent person?

For their part, prosecutors in Essex County, N.J., say they are undeterred by the appeals court reversal and will ask the state Supreme Court to reinstate the conviction. They remain convinced that the children's disclosures were true.

"By no stretch of the imagination was this some sort of vindication of her," John S. Redden, an assistant county prosecutor, says of the appeals court ruling.

Michaels, free on $75,000 bail, is eager to talk about the case. But she is angry too: Angry that investigators coaxed the children to say "bad things" about her. Angrier still that the courts and the press believed them.

"Look at the record in this case. These things were preposterous, yet they were given such credulity by the legal system and the media," Michaels says. "This was humiliating. It was wrong, and it's taken eight years of my life."

The story began in September, 1984, six months after indictments were handed down in Los Angeles in the McMartin case. Unable to find work in New York, Michaels, 23, saw a want ad for a teacher's aide at the Wee Care school in suburban Maplewood, N.J.

"It seemed like a responsible job, doing something good," she says. And as the oldest of five in her family, she had had plenty of experience baby-sitting.

As a teacher, Michaels got good marks. The only complaint voiced against her was that her mind sometimes seemed elsewhere--on poetry and her acting. Within a month, she was promoted to a regular teacher's job and put in charge of a class of 3-year-olds.

Usually an aide joined her in class, but after the children had lunch, she watched over them for 45 minutes during nap time in a room separated from another class by a vinyl partition. At 1:45, a second teacher took over the napping group while Michaels ate her lunch. Altogether, five teachers and two aides watched over the 51 children at the school, located in an Episcopal church.

The appeals court noted, "No complaints of abuse were made during (her) tenure at Wee Care. No children had ever complained of experiencing any difficulties with her. Defendant's co-employees observed no inappropriate behavior . . . nor did (they) notice any of the children exhibit any fear or reluctance to be with the defendant."

But in late April, 1985, Michaels resigned to take a better-paying job closer to her apartment--and the trouble soon began with an apparently offhand comment by a young boy. He was visiting his pediatrician when the nurse took his temperature with a rectal thermometer.

"That's what my teacher does to me at school," he said.

"Which teacher?" his mother asked.

"Kelly," he replied.

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