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I'm Sorry

A long-delayed apology from one of the accusers in the notorious McMartin Pre-School molestation case

October 30, 2005|Kyle Zirpolo, as told to Debbie Nathan | Kyle Zirpolo is a 30-year-old former McMartin Pre-School student who now manages a supermarket on California's central coast. Debbie Nathan is a writer in New York and coauthor, with appellate attorney Michael Snedeker, of "Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt." She also is a board member of the National Center for Reason and Justice, a nonprofit group that works to educate the public about people falsely charged with child abuse.

Members of the Friedman family were accused of mass child molestation in Long Island, N.Y., in the 1980s. Research I did years ago suggested that many or all of the allegations were false, and in the film I talk about this. I also discuss the McMartin case. I looked into it, while coauthoring "Satan's Silence," a book about the national panic over sex abuse in day-care centers and schools in the 1980s.

Zirpolo found my website and wrote that he was chilled by the film's depiction of the Friedman family being destroyed by children's false accusations: "It was basically the same as the McMartins. I did that. I feel very ashamed."

Nothing he told police and prosecutors about being abused was true, he added. He had regretted it for years. Now he wanted to apologize to the defendants in person. I told Zirpolo I wanted to hear his story. I also offered to put him in touch with the McMartin defendants.

Some are dead, including Virginia McMartin and her daughter Peggy McMartin Buckey. Ray Buckey and his sister, Peggy Ann, as well as a former McMartin teacher, Babette Spitler, declined to meet with Zirpolo. They've always staunchly proclaimed their innocence, and say they don't need apologies from former students, who were children and couldn't help themselves. Peggy Ann has said that they would rather hear from the police, social workers, therapists, prosecutors, doctors and parents who fueled the case.

Zirpolo says his mother and stepfather divorced years ago. I couldn't reach his stepfather, and when I contacted his mother for comment, she declined. Zirpolo says she "doesn't agree" with his decision to tell his story. As for his stepfather, all Zirpolo will say is that he's very ill.

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How Kyle's Story Snowballed

James M. Wood, a research psychologist at the University of Texas at El Paso, has studied the McMartin interviews done by Children's Institute International. Giving children dolls and puppets during a forensic interview encourages them to pretend and fantasize instead of sticking to facts, Wood says. When an interviewer refuses to take "no" for an answer, this implies that another response is required--even if it's not true. Saying that a defendant such as Ray Buckey is being followed by undercover police implies that the accused is dangerous and that the children should help lock him up. And, says Wood, telling children that "everyone's talking" about the crime "creates conformity pressures that are highly improper."

A few years ago, Wood did an experiment in which children were questioned using McMartin interviewing techniques. After two or three minutes, most of the kids started to make up bizarre stories. According to Maggie Bruck, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University and a researcher of children's memory and suggestibility, Wood's experiment and others have led to a consensus among psychologists. They agree now that CII's methods in the McMartin case were inappropriate.

CII Senior Vice President Steve Ambrose says his organization is "not in the business of promoting false allegations and never has been. McMartin was the first case of its type. [Experts have] learned a great amount [since then] about how to interview children about sexual abuse in ways that meet the needs of the criminal justice system. This remains very difficult. But we're more sensitive now about making sure that the way we interview kids will stand up in court and that what we say will not be taken out of context."

The following is a condensed transcript of a March 10, 1984, CII interview with Kyle Sapp, now known as Kyle Zirpolo. Sapp was interviewed by two CII staffers.--D.N.

Kyle: Mr. Ray [Ray Buckey] didn't work there when I was in there.

Interviewer 1: What do you mean?

Kyle: Yeah, he didn't go there.

Interviewer 1: A long time ago some of the kids ... said that there were some secrets from that school--some crummy things happened. And, um, we told 'em about our secret machine right here, and our puppets who are real smart guys like Mr. Snake Here's Pac-Man And, um, we told 'em how smart our puppets were and how they helped kids talk about some stuff sometimes and we've been playing detective

Kyle: (nods).

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Interviewer 1: We can talk about those secrets now, Pac-Man. And you can help Kyle ... everybody's talking about it now.... You know what? We're going to tell you one of our special secrets 'cause we have a secret that we've been telling all the kids, and this one is--you're going to like this one, Pac-Man, 'cause Kyle's dad is a policeman.... We know that sometimes Mr. Ray was at that school. He wasn't a teacher then, but we know that he was at school. Do you remember that, Pac-Man?

Kyle: He didn't work there, but I know that when [another child] was there, it happened.

Interviewer 1: Well, you know what? We know that even before Kyle was there [Ray] was there. And we know that he was there when Kyle was there too.

Kyle: They said on TV that he did something.

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