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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

In Non-Homeric Odyssey, the System Is Victorious

May 26, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Title it McMartin II. Or Salem witch hunts anew.

Ofra Bikel's three "Innocence Lost" documentaries about the deeply troubling Little Rascals Day Care case--the last of which airs Tuesday night on the PBS series "Frontline"--are one long, throbbing, agonizing ache, a remarkable body of work that records an odyssey of anguish straddling a hellish eight years.

And does nothing to inspire confidence in the legal system.

"Most people think if you didn't do something, the system will take care of you," the Israeli-born filmmaker said from New York last week. "It's a terrible mistake. The system will not take care of you."

Bikel believes strong evidence of that lies in a picturesque hamlet where fierce accusations have come in soft drawls. It's Edenton--lovely, serene and historic, a North Carolina costal village of 6,000 known for its lazy summers, traditional values, gracious living and genteel society.

Yet not genteel in the eyes of the Little Rascals Seven. In 1989--when the screaming din of L.A.'s McMartin alleged molestation case would soon fall off to a barely audible hum--they were arrested and charged in Edenton with sexually abusing scores of children at a preschool facility operated by well-liked Bob and Betsy Kelly.

Accused were the Kellys; three of their employees, Shelly Stone and young mothers Robin Byrum and Dawn Wilson, and Edenton residents Darlene Harris and Scott Privott. The latter was a middle-aged video store owner who claimed never to have been inside the day-care center, a bustling place located just a block off the town's main street.

Some of Betsy Kelly's best friends became her accusers, and the case has left a thick residue of ruined lives, wrecked marriages and broken families, pain felt on both sides of the case. Bob Kelly and Wilson, the only two defendants tried, were convicted. Other defendants, initially unable to make seemingly exorbitant bond, spent long stretches in jail.

In an age when more and more emphasis is put on victims' rights, here is a case whose main victims, judging by Bikel's films, appear to be the accused. You can't help inferring that North Carolina authorities were the ones doing the abusing, ultimately advancing their case against seemingly innocent defendants in order to avoid losing face.

That view is not challenged on camera by the Chowan County District Attorney's office because, Bikel says, prosecutors repeatedly rejected her requests for interviews. Nor did Asst. Dist. Atty. Nancy Lamb, who became the case's lead prosecutor, return a call to her office last week by The Times. So Bikel's documentaries (which give substantial air time to some of the parents) have done most of the talking, shining national publicity on a case that otherwise might have languished in relative obscurity.

Bikel artfully chronicled the case in sad, frightening, revealing "Frontline" programs that aired in 1991 and 1993, and her latest program is a powerful update that includes a dramatic new twist that came about just Friday.

Lacking physical evidence, conclusive medical evidence and eyewitnesses, the case against the seven defendants rested almost entirely on a "flood of allegations" by about 90 children. Echoing the McMartin case, parents of alleged Little Rascals victims insisted that children "do not lie about such things like this."

There were other McMartin parallels, with defense lawyers arguing that these children, so pliant and anxious to please, had been manipulated by therapists into making up stories of abuse. And prosecutors tenaciously pursued some charges that defied logic and were seemingly too absurd to be believed, such as mass baby killings and lewd acts in spaceships.

But believed they were, in trials that meted out life sentences to Bob Kelly and Wilson, the day care's young cook who took her chances on a trial after rejecting a prosecution offer of spending just a few more months in jail--away from her husband and small child--in exchange for a guilty plea.

"In the end, jurors heard the children," shouts a newspaper headline.

Those guilty verdicts were later overturned by an appeals court, which ordered new trials for Bob Kelly and Wilson. But the district attorney's office on Friday dropped Little Rascals abuse charges against them. The slate is not quite cleared, though, for prosecutor Lamb may still proceed with another sexual abuse charge her office filed against Kelly after his Little Rascals conviction was overturned.

Charges earlier had also been dismissed against Byrum and Stone. And Privott--after spending 1,333 days in jail, reportedly without hearing specifics on the charges against him--agreed in 1994 to probation in exchange for a no contest plea, a sort of legal limbo in which the accused neither admits guilt nor makes a defense.

He makes a crucial point, asking in Tuesday's documentary: "If I'm supposed to be the monster they said I was, if I did these crimes they said I did, why would they offer me a plea?"

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