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'Kids Don't Lie'

Faith in This Assumption Led to Dozens of Unjust Molestation Convictions in Bakersfield. Today One Man Remains in Prison Even After Four of His Original Accusers Said He Never Touched Them.

August 10, 2003|John Johnson | John Johnson is a Times staff writer who last wrote for the magazine about growing up on the edge of the Mojave Desert.

John Stoll wasn't particularly concerned when cops rousted him from bed in Bakersfield on a chilly June night in 1984. He figured the deputies were simply taking him downtown to sort out the latest back-and-forth between him and his ex. They'd been at each other's throats again. And collars and ankles and kneecaps. Figuratively, of course. There was never any violence, just constant recriminations and complaints to authorities about their contrasting parenting styles. He let their son, Jed, run wild at his house, she said. Well, you're trying to poison his mind against me, he complained. And on and on. A familiar story of a bad marriage that turned into a worse divorce.

A muscled carpenter with the self-assurance of a man with skilled hands, Stoll had barely sat down in the interview room when the deputy told him he wanted to talk about "the molestation of your son."

"By whom?" Stoll asked, alarmed. He'd spent thousands of dollars fighting to get custody of Jed, a precocious 6-year-old who loved to play with model cars and swim in the pool behind Stoll's rented house on Center Street. He loved that kid to death.

"By yourself."

The 31-page interview transcript is old and fuzzy with duplication. But it's not hard to hear the voice of the accused echoing over the years. Stoll went ballistic. More like hyper-ballistic. It's the "most insane thing I've ever heard," he said. "I swear to you this is just absolutely crazy. I just can't--oh, Lord almighty, I just can't believe this. This is absolutely crazy. This is absolutely crazy. My God, why would he say something like that? Oh, my God, Jesus Christ."

Even then, he didn't know how bad it was. It wasn't just his son. They believed he'd molested five of Jed's playmates. And molestation, as ugly a word as that was, was far too mild for the depravity they suspected. There was oral copulation, sodomy and group sex between kids and adults, including the mother of two of the victims, who allegedly was such a wacko she liked to have sex with her 7-year-old and then have her picture taken with him like a great white hunter with a shot-up gazelle. The way the cops had it, John Stoll, carpenter, Bud drinker, and, yeah, occasional weed smoker, was running a grotesque child porn ring out of his suburban tract house.

Stoll offered to take a lie detector test. He swore. He cried. He blamed his ex-wife. That's where they stopped him.

"These allegations are coming from your son," said an interrogator.

"Well, why would he say that? It's not true."

"Well, he says it because it is true," the deputy said. Six-year-olds "are not gonna lie about this kind of stuff . . . they just don't lie about sexual matters." It was a statement that became an axiom for child-abuse investigators across the nation in the '80s. Kids don't lie.

Stoll handed over his cigarettes and lighter, $19 in cash, a belt and his freedom. He didn't know it, but he'd been swept up in one of the most ambitious law-enforcement campaigns against deviant behavior in American history, with Kern County leading the way. By the time it ended two years later, hundreds of the county's working-class people would be investigated and dozens sentenced to prison, some for terms longer than the lifespan of some civilizations. Stoll's 40-year sentence was far short of the toughest.

It has, however, proven to be the longest served. Stoll watched as appellate courts released many of the others convicted in the eight Bakersfield child molestation "ring" cases, which came to be known as the "Bakersfield witch hunt." Some were freed on technicalities, others for prosecutorial misconduct. Judges issued stinging opinions harshly critical of the local justice system. In fact, of all the alleged molesters whose crimes were "uncovered" during the child-care panic that gripped the nation in the mid-'80s--from the infamous McMartin case to the Wee Care scandals in Massachusetts--Stoll is believed to have been held the longest.

Today, John Stoll is 60, bald and has little of the easy charm with women that helped him tear through three marriages back in the '60s and '70s. He's serving out what's left of his middle age in a dusty Central Valley prison that he asked not to be identified because he fears that if other inmates find out he's one of the Bakersfield molesters, they'll grind him into the cracked hardpan. Like his wariness and excessive politeness, this fear has become a part of the institutional personality that helped him survive.

"The first five years were really the hardest," he says in an interview in the prison's air-conditioned visitor room. Over time, he adjusted. "One thing you do in here, you don't think about out there." It was a good strategy, and it worked, until now. Stoll is once again thinking about "out there."

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