* Unless They Say They Were Not Abused: A Road Map to False Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse
The record is replete with examples of an overzealous prosecutor who, in his blind quest to convict, forgot or ignored his constitutional and ethical duties as representative of the People of the State of California.
–People v. Pitts1
I was questioned for hours. I said no, no, no to all their questions and, yes, I know what a vagina is, and I know what a penis is. Blah, blah, blah.
--Carol Pitts, in the Bakersfield Californian, 20102
Kern County, CA
As I discuss in another post, “The Cost of False Cases of Child Sexual Abuse,” in the early 1980s, Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels and other prosecutors staged an unprecedented crusade against imagined child sex-rings among poor and working class families in their community. Jagels’ prosecutions alone would result in over two dozen wrongful convictions of innocent men and women. Twenty-five out of twenty-six of Jagels’ convictions would later be overturned, but only after some defendants had spent years in prison, some more than a decade, viewed by fellow inmates as unrepentant child rapists. Jagels’ twenty-sixth conviction could not be overturned only because the defendant died while in prison.
If there was any doubt whether the Jagels & Co. witch hunt was concerned with the protection of children, rather than political posturing,3 the children themselves are helping to clarify the matter. Carla Jo Modahl was nine years old when the gruesome details of her coerced testimony resulted in her own father being sentenced to forty-eight years. Prosecutors said he ran a “family sex ring” and even tied his daughters to “hooks in a bedroom.” That police had found no hooks, nor any evidence whatsoever in the Modahl home, was overshadowed by the “shocking” nature of the allegations themselves–particularly as they appeared to come not only from mouths of babes, but from Modahl’s own daughter.
Maggie Jones interviewed Carla Jo in 2004, for New York Times Magazine.4 “I didn’t understand what would happen,” said Carla Jo of the stories she’d fabricated to placate prosecutors. “I didn’t realize it until everyone was in prison.” After this realization, Carla Jo sent to her father a letter explaining how she had been “tricked” by prosecutors and had lied in court. There was a motion for a retrial, and three years after her father was incarcerated, Carla Jo got her big chance to get her daddy out. But adults who once believed the nine-year-old’s every improbable detail now refused to believe the twelve-year-old who said she’d made up those details. Although she was “scared that if she recanted her testimony, she, too, would be imprisoned,” notes Jones, Carla Jo “told a judge she’d lied on the witness stand.” For his part, “The judge didn’t believe her, and her father remained in prison for a dozen more years–until his conviction was finally reversed.”
Kimberly Sevcik writes, in Rolling Stone:
Modahl was taken back to prison and Carla was taken back to her foster home. That evening, she took two handfuls of the medication she was on for manic depression and was rushed to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. She was twelve years old. It was the first of seventeen suicide attempts she would make. 5
In a 2009 Associated Press article written on the occasion of Ed Jagels’ retirement–and the release of the wrenching documentary about his cases, Witch Hunt6–reporter Garance Burke interviews Brandon Smith, who, like Carol Jo, was proudly trundled out by Kern County prosecutors as proof positive of their imagined sex rings.
According to Burke, Smith says he “only repeated what he heard during weeks of group therapy, and had no inkling his false statements would mean he would be separated from his family and assigned to live in foster homes for nearly a decade.”
“They basically coached me through my whole testimony, and told me that I had to say that my parents had sexually abused me,” said Smith, whose parents Scott and Brenda Kniffen served 12 years on molestation convictions before they were reversed by an appeals court. “We’ve all put it behind us, but the one thing I would love is a verbal apology from Ed Jagels for tearing my family apart.”7
Jagels, however, appears unlikely to say Sorry any time soon. Quite to the contrary, Jagels remains wholly unapologetic, even smug, regarding the suffering he has caused Kern County.
“Innocent people may have been accused at one point or another, but what I really fear is that perfectly legitimate convictions have been overturned,” Jagels said, sitting in his wood-paneled office among portraits of himself with Ronald Reagan and other Republican leaders. . . .8
A man whose career-making cases resulted in more than two dozen overturned convictions as courts found “gross prosecutorial misconduct,” Jagels’ self-satisfaction appears to be an oddly familiar product of inscrutable logic coupled with a complete denial of the historical record. “If California prisons are overcrowded,” says Jagels, “it’s not because we have too many people in prison. It’s because we don’t have enough prisons.”9
Burke notes that Jagels “cut a wide swath through California politics in the last 30 years,” including a “voter-driven campaign that unseated three liberal justices from the state Supreme Court.” California conservatives applaud Jagels’ “persuasive advocacy for victims’ rights” in the same breath that they praise his advocacy for “tough sentencing laws, and his record of putting more people behind bars per capita than almost all other California counties.”
In the shadow of “gross prosecutorial misconduct,” Jagels’ per-capita conviction rate can most generously be described as giving pause, while the many ironies of Jagels’ witch hunt–notably, that the only “victims” in his cases were innocent parents and children whom he and fellow prosecutors then made beneficiaries of California’s draconian sex-crime sentences–appear lost on both Jagels and his supporters.
Nothing is lost on the falsely accused, however, or their children. Nothing is lost on Rick and Marcella Pitts or their daughter, Carol. In 2010, the three contributed to an article in the Bakersfield Californian, marking the the 20th anniversary of Rick and Marcella being released from prison after serving over six years.
“I am one of the so-called ‘victims’ of the famous child molestation cases from the 1980s,” Carol begins. “And I just want to set the record straight.”
I was a strong, smart kid and I knew I had never been molested. I didn’t know that parents actually did such horrible things to children, until that courtroom experience. My dad was arrested in front of me and I was questioned for hours. I said no, no, no to all their questions and, yes, I know what a vagina is, and I know what a penis is. Blah, blah, blah.
The district attorney in Kern County did not seek justice, or the truth. Laws did not apply to him. He had no integrity, no morals and no backbone. The prosecutors in that case were liars, plotters, schemers and master manipulators, especially of children. They knew exactly what they were doing. They bribed, threatened, made false promises, harassed and lied to children to win their cases. They are the ones who are child abusers. They knowingly destroyed people’s lives and didn’t care at all.10
In my blog post regarding The Cost of False Cases of Child Sexual Abuse, I mention just three of the more than forty child victims of a similar child sex ring debacle, in Wenatchee, Washington. Twelve-year-old Lisa was alternately “vomiting and lethargic” and “depressed to the point of self-mutilation” after repeated “interviews” by authorities who separated Lisa and her siblings from each other, as well as their incarcerated parents, after Lisa refused to accuse her parents of rape.11 Steven “ran away from foster care” after his parents were arrested and “tried to stick a metal object through his chest.” Mary, his sister, “regularly threatened suicide” and “cut herself with scissors” and ran away from her foster home only to sit in the middle of the street–“amidst traffic.”12 It was Mary, too, whom Wenatchee Detective Robert Perez admitted to “bruising” before she testified in court, having “earlier twisted her arm behind her, threw her to the ground, and sat on her.”13
If it’s possible to put aside Robert Perez’s violence against children, the Wenatchee tragedies, which took place more than a decade after Kern County, might have been avoided if local social workers, police, prosecutors, or judges had been at all familiar–if not with the Kern County cases–with any number of the three-hundred-plus child sex ring cases prosecuted in the U.S. in the prior decade.14
That said, however, it most certainly would have been avoided if anyone had believed the children:
Age 10 when questioned for five hours by police and CPS, then sent to foster care.
“I told [Detective Robert Perez] that the only thing I knew about the sex stuff was what my friends told me. . . .15 He kept telling me I was lying. He said other kids said I was molested and I’d better tell him. But nothing ever happened to me, and I never saw anything.”16
Age 6 when first questioned about abuse–then questioned over the next five years
“My mom and dad are in prison and my sisters and brothers are in different foster homes because the police and CPS wanted to prove that everyone was raped and abused. . . .17 [Detective Perez] kept showing me papers (purporting to show) what my mom had said and I kept telling him nothing had happened. . . . I told him he was lying.”18
Age 15 when her siblings were sent to foster homes, age 16 when she was forcibly institutionalized in another state and her parents were sent to prison for ten years
“[Therapist Cindy Andrews] kept hammering away at me, telling me I had a memory block, repressed memories that had to be freed, had to be allowed to surface so the truth of the sexual abuse against me would be known. . . . They had an ambulance (crew) come to the DSHS office in Wenatchee, tie me to the gurney and drive me off to Idaho. . . . The paperwork says I went there I voluntarily. . . . Since when does voluntary mean handcuffs, restraints and shackles around my waist to the gurney?”19
Statements by Wenatchee children who were violated by authorities, statements “corroborated by clinical reports, CPS episode reports and interviews,”20 could be listed here literally ad nauseam. More than forty children were in the hands of Wenatchee’s police and social workers and so-called child protective services, and many of these children spent years, some more than a decade, in an out of foster homes and institutions.
Not long after Wenatchee bestowed “Employee of the Month” on Detective Perez, he told the London Independent that he was “very satisfied” with his investigation–and then added, in a moment of profound understatement, “I’ve made a major impact on the lives of these children.”21
“It’s well known that children are telling the truth when they say they’ve been abused,” Wenatchee CPS Supervisor Tim Abbey proudly informed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “But (they) are usually lying when they deny it,”22 he added, as if to confirm that he had not, in the decade since the Kern County and McMartin Preschool trials, read so much as a page of the abundant literature regarding methods of interviewing children about sexual abuse.
James McDonald, an “insurance manager” for Wenatchee, went so far as to travel the state with Perez, in order to get “the real truth out” about a “conspiracy of national media and sex-abuse defenders who have joined to discredit [Perez] and the outstanding job he did. . . .”23
Indeed, if not for these “sex-abuse defenders,” the attorneys and reporters and authors who came to believe the children’s stories, rather than those told by Wenatchee officials, many of the children would have waited much longer before they were reunited with their parents, and many would never have seen them again again. Author Kathryn Lyon documented abuses and mailed them to the U.S. Department of Justice. Dorothy Rabinowitz published her findings in the Wall Street Journal. Attorney Robert C. Van Siclen and others introduced to Wenatchee officials a new concept called the Law. Over the next couple years, Mike Barber, Andrew Schneider, and other reporters at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer would write over a hundred well-researched and sorely needed articles investigating the Wenatchee witch hunt and documenting “overzealous–and even abusive–actions by Perez and social service caseworkers” as well as “civil rights violations by judges and prosecutors.”24
As I discussed in the previous post, while the City of Wenatchee refused to admit to any “wrongdoing,” the courts eventually found the city as well as Douglas County wrong enough (my own legal term) to force them to pay out millions of dollars over the coming years, to the children as well as the parents whose stories they had refused to believe–just as they paid over a million dollars to at least one of the handful of CPS workers and other officials who had dared to believe the children, and were promptly fired as a result–or, in one case, arrested.
Today, anywhere in the U.S., police and social workers and prosecutors who deal with child sexual abuse but are unfamiliar with the mistakes of Kern County and Wenatchee–or with any of the hundreds of similar, if “smaller” cases between and since–are not only unqualified to deal with child sexual abuse cases, but they do so at their peril. As Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker write, in an early chapter in their comprehensive text on the pre-Wenatchee child sexual abuse panics, Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern Witch Hunt, three waves of panic
rose in Southern California in the 1980s and were felt all across the country: the nation’s first “sex-ring” scandal, the bold accusations against teachers at the McMartin Preschool, and a firestorm of cases triggered by McMartin. . . . Through these cases, officials would hone a flawless system, with methods for promoting criminal charges, a patina of science to lend authority, and a rhetoric for explaining away the lack of evidence.25
Near the end of their book, first published in 1995, Nathan and Snedeker note, ominously
Even now, in Wenatchee, Washington, a mega-ring case against more than two dozen men and women–all of them poor…is winding its way through the courts, with virtually no evidence and no audio- or videotaped recordings of interviews with the accusing children.26
Whether the fiascoes and failures of California were forgotten, or were simply unknown, in Wenatchee, one thing is clear: the missteps of individual social service workers, doctors, mental health professionals, detectives, and prosecutors–the missteps of those who do not represent the best in their respective professions but, rather, bring shame to the already embattled and overworked; the missteps of individuals who do not read the research and case histories on these types of cases and their “flawless system” of mistakes–continue unabated. [See Defining "Reasonable Doubt": The Alleged Case Against Robert Adams and Creative Frontiers]
This century’s most recent child sexual abuse “witch trial,” however–a Georgia prosecution’s failure to convict gradeschool teacher Tonya Craft on more than twenty fabricated charges27–is a hopeful indication that today’s juries are becoming wary of prosecutors who not only exploit the seriousness of child sexual abuse for the sake of little more than conviction records, but who, in prosecuting false allegations, create true victims.
1 People v. Pitts (1990) 223 Cal.App.3d 606 statecases.justia.com/california/calapp3d/223/606.html
2 Carol Pitts, Marcella Pitts, and Richard Pitts. “We know the real truth.” The Bakersfield Californian, June 18 2010. http://www.bakersfield.com/opinion/community/x637735604/We-know-the-real-truth
3 Burke (see source below) refers to Jagels as aiming to be the “darling of California’s conservative movement,” and it may well be true, but it’s exceedingly important to note that the political posturing behind false cases of child sexual abuse, like the genuine concerns behind true cases, is bipartisan. Further, lest anyone think I am knocking conservatives, I would like to state for the record that I am not. After all, I’m from Litchfield County, Connecticut. While my personal politics lean far left of left, the conservative in me also appreciates picket fences, colonial architecture, etc, and if Litchfield County’s “moderate” conservatism means that the area stays sleepy for another few centuries–much to the dismay of its youth–nothing could make me happier. The quote is by Garance Burke, Associated Press. “Crusading Calif. D.A. retires, leaves painful wake.” Springfield News-Sun. November 14, 2009. http://www.springfieldnewssun.com/news/nation-world-news/crusading-calif-d-a-retires-leaves-painful-wake-402095.html
4 Kimberley Sevcik. “Mean Justice’s Dirty Secrets.” Rolling Stone, 2005. Reprinted at Truth in Justice http://truthinjustice.org/ed-jagels.htm
5 Maggie Jones. “Who Was Abused?” New York Times Magazine. September 19, 2004 http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/19/magazine/19KIDSL.html
6 Narrated by Sean Penn. Witch Hunt. Dir. Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman. DVD. KTF Films, 2008.
11 Kathryn Lyon. Witch Hunt. New York, NY: Avon, 1998. 206-207.
12 Lyon, xli
13 Lyon, xl.
14 Mike Barber and Andrew Schneider, “Lives ruined because lessons ignored” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. February 27, 1998 http://www.seattlepi.com/powertoharm/context.html
15 Mike Barber and Andrew Schneider, “Children Sacrificed for the Case: Allegations Set Up a Puzzle of Doubtful Ethics, Dubious Facts.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. February 23, 1998 http://www.seattlepi.com/archives/1998/9802240071.asp
18 Mike Barber,”Wenatchee Family Reunited–For Day in Curt: Appeals Court Hears Testimony in Abuse Case.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. March 12, 1998. http://www.seattlepi.com/archives/1998/9803120104.asp
19 Mike Barber and Andrew Schneider, “Children Hurt by the System: Society’s Protectors Bent, Broke and Ignored Rules.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. February 24, 1998 http://www.seattlepi.com/archives/1998/9802240066.asp
21 Lyon, 423.
22 Barber and Schneider,”Children Sacrificed for the Case.”
24 To access the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s archives for their Special Report on the Wenatchee cases–nearly 100 in-depth articles–go to “The Power to Harm” http://www.seattlepi.com/powertoharm/ and “The Aftermath” http://www.seattlepi.com/powertoharm/aftermath.html
25 Nathan, Debbie, and Michael Snedeker. Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1995.
27 Dennis Norwood, “Tonya Craft Found Not Guilty Of All Charges: Supporters Of Former Kindergarten Teacher Shout For Joy.” The Chattanoogan. May 11, 2010. http://www.chattanoogan.com/articles/article_175323.asp