Twenty-one years ago, a child then known as Kyle Sapp told police that he had been the victim of sexual abuse at the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach. Sapp, who attended the preschool from 1979 to 1980, was 8 when he first talked to authorities in 1984. He and hundreds of other South Bay children made allegations against the family who ran McMartin and against the employees who worked there. School administrator Peggy McMartin Buckey, her son Ray, daughter Peggy Ann, mother Virginia McMartin and three female teachers were accused of fondling and raping youngsters over a period of years, and of threatening them with death if they told. The scandal eventually resulted in criminal trials against Ray and his mother. By the time the trials came to an end in 1990--with acquittals and hung juries--"McMartin" was a household word. The case had turned into one of the longest and costliest criminal proceedings in U.S. history.
By the spring of 1984, Kyle and scores of other children were talking about school employees who had drugged them and touched their genitals, made them play sex games in the nude, used them as models in kiddie porn, and forced them to watch pet rabbits, mice and turtles being killed. By the time the trials began more than three years later, many of these children's stories had grown even more bizarre--they now included being taken to local businesses or flown to faraway places to be molested in satanic rituals. Prosecutors feared that their case would be hurt by such testimony, and they dropped many children from the witness list. Others were pulled from the witness list by parents who worried about causing further psychological trauma.
Ultimately, fewer than a dozen children testified at the trials of Ray Buckey and his mother. Kyle was not among them. Earlier, though, he had played an important role in moving the case forward. A police report had noted that his stories of abuse were so detailed and uninhibited that he would make an "exceptional witness." The district attorney's office apparently agreed: Of 360 McMartin students who claimed to have been abused, just 41 were picked to testify at the grand jury and the preliminary hearing. Kyle was one of them.
In the decade and a half since the defendants were set free, research psychologists have shown that it's easy to pressure children to describe bad things that never happened. False memories can feel real, though, not just for preschoolers but for older children as well. But Sapp, now known as Kyle Zirpolo, says he never had false memories: He always knew his stories of abuse were made up. The adults at the McMartin Pre-School "never did anything to me, and I never saw them doing anything," he says today. "I said a lot of things that didn't happen. I lied." Why? Now married and with young children of his own, he feels the need to explain publicly.--D.N.
My mother divorced my father when I was 2 and she met my stepfather, who was a police officer in Manhattan Beach. They had five children after me. In addition, my stepfather has three older children. In the combined family, I'm the only one of the nine children he didn't father. I always remember wanting him to love me. I was always trying excessively hard to please him. I would do anything for him.
My stepbrothers and stepsisters and a half-brother and half-sister went to McMartin. So did I. I only remember being happy there. I never had any bad feelings about the school--no bad auras or vibes or anything. Even to this day, talking about it or seeing pictures or artwork that I did at McMartin never brings any bad feelings. All my memories are positive.
The thing I remember about the case was how it took over the whole city and consumed our whole family. My parents would ask questions: "Did the teachers ever do things to you?" They talked about Ray Buckey, whom I had never met. I don't even have any recollection of him attending the school when I was going there.
The first time I went to CII [Children's Institute International, now known as Children's Institute, Inc., a respected century-old L.A. County child welfare organization where approximately 400 former McMartin children were interviewed and given genital exams, and where many were diagnosed as abuse victims], we drove there, our whole family. I remember waiting ... for hours while my brothers and sisters were being interviewed. I don't remember how many days or if it was just one day, but my memory tells me it was weeks, it seemed so long. It was an ordeal. I remember thinking to myself, "I'm not going to get out of here unless I tell them what they want to hear."
We were examined by a doctor. I took my clothes off and lay down on the table. They checked my butt, my penis. There was a room with a lot of toys and stuffed animals and dolls. The dolls were pasty white and had hair where the private parts were. They wanted us to take off their clothes. It was just really weird.