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'After 15 Years I Finally Had Gotten Justice'

Courts: Jailed in the 'Bakersfield Witch Hunts' of the '80s for allegedly molesting his daughter, a man--aided by new evidence--joins others who have been released.

May 27, 1999|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAKERSFIELD — Jeffrey Modahl was sitting in his jail cell last week, his television tuned to the evening news, when suddenly the face that popped up on the screen was his own and the newscaster's words were the ones he had been dreaming of for 15 years.

Modahl's 1984 arrest and later conviction for molesting his daughter, part of the infamous "Bakersfield Witch Hunts," had been overturned by a judge citing new evidence. He was a free man.

"It was a total out-of-body experience. I started yelling at the guys, 'Hey, this is me on the tube, my conviction's been set aside and I'm going home,' " said the 45-year-old widowed father of two. "I was so weak in the knees that if I had tried to take a step, I would have fallen flat on my face. After 15 years, I had finally gotten justice."

Modahl was one of dozens of Kern County residents convicted in the mid-1980s of sex crimes against their children in the nation's largest prosecution of child molesters. Eight local rings allegedly involving hundreds of predatory adults and innocent young victims were unearthed in an atmosphere of hysteria and ever more lurid accounts.

A special unit composed of sheriff's detectives, welfare investigators and county prosecutors operated on the theory that devil worshipers were on the loose, sacrificing newborns and drinking their blood in fealty to Satan. Children were drugged, hung from hooks and brutally raped by a succession of relatives, it was alleged. Little bodies were buried in backyards.

Fifty parents were arrested and charged, half sent to prison with sentences of 100 and 200 years.

There was just one problem: Many of those found guilty were innocent. In recent years, more than a dozen convictions have been overturned on appeal by judges citing prosecutorial misconduct, overzealous investigators and testimony wheedled out of brainwashed children.

Last week, Kern County Superior Court Judge John Kelly ruled that Modahl had been denied a fair trial when two pieces of important evidence were not turned over to his defense. The evidence consisted of a 1984 medical examination that showed that Modahl's 9-year-old daughter had not been sodomized and a tape recording in which county investigators interviewed alleged victims in a manner that probably elicited "false and unreliable accusations of sex abuse."

"I used to believe that the Modahl case and the other unjust prosecutions were the result of an overzealous D.A. blinded by a climate of hysteria," said Michael Snedeker, one of Modahl's attorneys, who wrote a book, "Satan's Silence," about a nationwide wave of child molestation cases in the 1980s.

"But after seeing repeated instances of key documents hidden and never turned over in Kern County, I have to wonder if it wasn't something even more corrupt."

Kern County Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels and his top assistants did not return telephone calls seeking comment. Judge Kelly did note that he couldn't find any evidence that the district attorney's office had deliberately withheld the medical exam and tape recording in the Modahl case. Instead, the judge found, it was county investigators working on behalf of prosecutors who failed to turn over the evidence.

Unlike many of the convicted parents who had no criminal records before the molestation trials, Modahl did serve time in county jail for burglary and forgery in 1976. But he turned his life around, married a local woman, Carla Taylor, and took in her young daughters, Carla Jo and Teresa.

The family moved from Bakersfield to Kansas to tend to Carla's ailing father, and it was there, on Memorial Day 1979, that she was killed by a drunk driver. Modahl adopted the two girls and moved back to Bakersfield, where he began working 15-hour days operating heavy equipment at landfills.

"I was working so many hours that my wife's sister agreed to baby-sit the children, and sometimes she had others baby-sit too," said the big, soft-spoken Modahl. "That's how this whole thing started. I didn't know it at the time, but two of the baby sitters were molesting a relative [of theirs] and were later convicted."

County investigators believed that where there was one instance of molestation, there were dozens. One central figure in the cases, social worker Velda Murillo, operated on the premise that the use of leading and suggestive questions was not only acceptable but essential in overcoming a child's tendency to protect their relatives, according to appellate court testimony.

"Velda Murillo and a sheriff's detective came to my school and took me into the principal's office and questioned me for 4 1/2 hours," recalled Carla Jo Modahl, now 25, married and the mother of two.

"They kept on pressuring me and pressuring me, saying I had been touched, that my dad did it, and I kept telling them, 'No, he didn't.' "

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