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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.

They take pride in their essential Un-L.A.-ness. One thing they most despise about L.A. is its tolerance of boundary-pushers, line-cutters and law-breakers. Law enforcement is respected in Bakersfield, not mocked. And for two decades, the face of the law in Kern has been Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels, a trim man with a mane of handsome silver hair and a voice so soft you have to lean in to hear him. The office Web site boasts that Kern County sends more people to prison per capita than any county in the state.

Jagels won his job in 1983 after a scandal enveloped his opponent, a local judge, over his lenient treatment of a child molester. His election coincided with a growing belief that child abuse, once thought to be a one-in-a-thousand crime best left for families to resolve, was far more common. In 1973, just before Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act to spotlight the problem, there were 167,000 reports of child abuse in America. By the end of the '80s, as lawmakers nationwide turned up the heat on teachers and police to pursue abusers aggressively, 2 million abuse reports were filed each year.

This cultural kindling was set ablaze in Bakersfield, where the first of the "ring" cases came to trial in 1983. Ten people were accused, including a Bible school teacher and a county welfare worker. Children were supposedly forced to watch snuff films, including one where "a little girl who told" had her arms and legs cut off. Setting a pattern seen throughout the ring cases, no hard proof was found. But four of the defendants were convicted and each sent to prison for more than 240 years, then the longest terms ever imposed in California for any crime. All were later exonerated and set free.

Despite lurid headlines in the local paper, few people outside the San Joaquin Valley paid much attention. It took the disastrous McMartin preschool prosecution in Manhattan Beach to make child molestation ring cases a national phenomenon. In the McMartin case, a 25-year-old preschool teacher was arrested just as the first Bakersfield case went to trial. Attorney Michael Snedeker, co-author with investigative journalist Debbie Nathan of the book "Satan's Silence," says the timing was no accident. Bakersfield authorities were friendly with investigators in L.A. The Kern County cases, he says, were a dry run for McMartin.

There were many similarities. The children made the same often hard-to-believe allegations. The defense made the same objections that the children were programmed by child-care workers who wheedled, threatened and planted false suggestions.

But there were two differences. In McMartin, the interviews with the children were videotaped, allowing the jury to see the questioning. Kern County made no videotapes. Jurors had to rely on assurances from prosecutors that the children had freely volunteered their information.

The other difference? After seven years, and $14 million, the McMartin case collapsed with no convictions on any of the hundreds of counts against seven teachers--not to mention dozens of uncharged suspects--whose reputations had been ruined. Afterward, jurors said the taped interviews were "too biased, too leading."

In Bakersfield, the prosecution got one conviction after another.

By 1984, four other molestation rings were under investigation in Bakersfield. The atmosphere was poisonous. Adults quivered at being around strange children. Parents asked their lawyers to tape record their children saying their parents never touched them, just to be safe, according to the 1999 book "Mean Justice," by Edward Humes, about crime and punishment in Kern County.

"I moved here in 1981," says Kern County Counsel Mark Nations, who negotiated lawsuit settlements with many of those later set free, including a $4.25-million payout in May to seven people who served a combined 34 years in prison. "I was appalled" by what was happening.

John Stoll is the only child of a West Chester, Pa., leather-goods salesman and a housewife. He served four years in the Army and made sergeant before jumping headlong into the sex-and-rock-'n'-roll lifestyle of the '70s. He wore his hair long and managed a nightclub. Times were fast and he was faster.

At 5 foot 8, he's hardly intimidating, but even in prison, it's possible to see in his hazel eyes the combination of directness and confidence that attracts the opposite sex. He was too young for his first marriage in 1964, he says. His second lasted 11 years and produced a child, and no charges of molestation. His third marriage, in 1977, was to Ann Reinhold, who was 14 years younger.

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