What You Need to Know About the McMartin Case

The McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in the history of America at its time. After spending $15 million and seven years investigating and prosecuting the case, the government had no one to convict. Originating in a wave of scandals about child sex abuse in the 1980s, the McMartin case caused widespread panic. In the end, it was concluded that many of the claims pursued through the legal system were false.

The Origins of the McMartin Case

The first accusations in the McMartin case were made in 1983, multiple arrests were made between 1984 and 1987, and the trials took place between 1987 and 1990. It was a day-care ritual abuse case in which seven teachers, including older women, were accused of abusing hundreds of children in the Manhattan Beach suburb in Los Angeles over the course of a decade.

The McMartin case was part of a day-care sex-abuse hysteria that featured charges of child abuse against day-care providers, including forms of Satanic ritual abuse. The mass hysteria occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s and encompassed the United States, Canada, Brazil, New Zealand, and several European countries.[1]

How Did the Case Unfold?

In August 1983, Judy Johnson, a resident of the Manhattan Beach suburb, called the police to tell them she suspected her 3-year old son, Matthew, was the victim of molestation, and the perpetrator was one of his preschool teachers, Ray Buckley. Johnson believed that he sodomized the boy with a thermometer because Matthew has been obsessed with playing doctor, a game he said he played at school and had been complaining of an itchy anus.

Other parents followed suit, and Buckley and other teachers were accused of fondling the children, sodomizing them, and forcing them to take part in pornographic films. Some reports mentioned that the teachers slaughtered animals in front of the children as part of the abuse.

Five teachers were arrested and charged with what child therapists and detectives determined to be "ritualistic satanic abuse." The school shut down in 1984, without any evidence being recovered.

After Judy Johnson's reports became increasingly bizarre (she claimed children were made to watch babies being beheaded and forced to drink their blood), the prosecutors recognized her allegations as the product of paranoid schizophrenia, but by then the suspicions of other parents were growing, and demands were made for a full-scale investigation.

Interviewing the Witnesses

Kee MacFarlane, a consultant for the Children's Institute International (CII) was handed the investigation. Parents of children who were allegedly abused were asked to send them for two-hour interviews at the CII. MacFarlane conducted more than 400 interviews and used techniques that are today frowned upon in forensic investigation, including the offer of rewards and asking a series of leading questions.

At first, many of the children denied seeing evidence of abuse, but eventually, most of them changed their stories. In total, MacFarlane diagnosed 384 children as sexually abused. Besides being interviewed, 150 children were medically examined by Dr. Astrid Heger from CII, who concluded that 80% of them had been abused, even though she could not find physical evidence in most cases.

What Went Wrong in the McMartin Case?

While some scholars continue to believe that some of the accusations were real, scepticism is widespread among research psychologists. Studies have examined a broad set of factors that may have affected the children's reporting of wrongdoing[2].

Psychologists identified multiple problematic techniques in the interviews with the children who were allegedly abused. These included suggestive questions, descriptions, and examples, telling the child about the statements of other people, asked-and-answered descriptions and examples, and inviting speculation by description and example.

The two trials that opened in 1987 and 1990 resulted in a hung jury and the acquittal of Ray Buckey, his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, and the other teachers at the McMartin school. Before he was cleared and the case closed with all charges against him dismissed, Ray Buckey had been jailed for five years without being convicted of a crime.


In 2005, one of the children retracted the allegations of abuse, admitting that he had lied as a child because the investigators kept pushing him to give the answers they wanted to hear.[3] Ray Buckey attended law school after the trial, and he eventually changed his name and moved to the Northwest. The Mc Martin preschool building was dismantled, and as of 1998 the case remained the longest criminal case in the history of the United States legal system, one that ended without any convictions.

  • [1] Fukurai, H., Butler, E., & Krooth, R. (1994). Sociologists in Action: The McMartin Sexual Abuse Case, Litigation, Justice, and Mass Hysteria. The American Sociologist, 25(4), 44-71. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/27698701
  • [2] Garven, S., Wood, J. M., Malpass, R. S., & Shaw, J. S. III. (1998). More than suggestion: The effect of interviewing techniques from the McMartin Preschool case. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(3), 347–359.
  • [3] I’m Sorry - By Kyle Zirpolo, as told to Debbie Nathan
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