* 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.