Two More ‘Ritual Satanic Abusers’ Are Freed — After 21 Years — Due to the Collapse of the State’s Rickety Case

“Hi honey, how was school?”

“Hi Mom. Okay, I guess. Ms. Crowley killed a girl with an axe, right before our eyes. Then she and Mr. Morrison, the janitor, took us on a plane to New York where three hundred men wearing clown masks did naughty things to our private areas before putting us on a flight back just in time to get on the school bus. Ms. Crowley gave us a baby’s blood to drink on the way home. Hey, I’m hungry, can I have a peanut-butter sandwich?”

That’s the (admittedly) cartoon-y version of how the 1980s and 1990s conversations about so-called satanic ritual abuse went down in hundreds of American households. How could an adult with half a brain possibly believe such outlandish, impossible tales? But parents of young children that were led into telling fabrications did believe them. Then therapists, detectives, and prosecutors did. And ultimately, jurors did, too.

Over about a dozen years, the wavelet of prosecutions for satanic ritual abuse was as close as we got to a modern-day, national witch hunt. I still remember, by name, some of the actual victims, adults accused of unspeakable things they didn’t do, couldn’t possibly have done — not literally, not really, not within the known constraints of time and space and physics. Kelly Michaels. Paul Ingram. Virginia McMartin. Betsy and Bob Kelly.

These people went to trial — and all but McMartin went to prison — despite the badly botched police investigations, and despite the obvious hackwork performed by pediatric therapists who somehow kept seeing proof of child sex abuse where none existed. Against all common sense, juries put innocent men and women behind bars on the vilest of charges.

Over time, as the moral panic subsided and new questions were raised, more and more of these prisoners were released and usually exonerated.

Now, it looks like two more will finally walk free — after twenty-one years behind bars.

Meet Fran and Dan Keller, who, in 1992, stood accused of doing this (the following is not for the faint of heart):

Fran Keller (Jana Birchum – The Austin Chronicle)

The Kellers were sentenced to 48 years in prison after three children from their home-based Southeast Austin day care made allegations of sexual abuse that included strange and horrific rituals. …

The case began Aug. 15, 1991, when a 3-year-old girl told her mother that Dan Keller had hurt [spanked] her. The mother and daughter were on their way to a scheduled appointment with the girl’s therapist, who drew out details that included Keller defecating on her head and sexually assaulting her with a pen. In the following weeks, two other children from the day care offered similar accusations.

By the time of the Kellers’ six-day trial in November 1992, the list of atrocities had grown.

According to the children, the couple served blood-laced Kool-Aid and forced them to have videotaped sex with adults and other children. The Kellers, they said, sometimes wore white robes and lit candles before hurting them.

Soon, the gruesome turned into the fantastical.

The children also accused the Kellers of forcing them to watch or participate in the killing and dismemberment of cats, dogs and a crying baby. Bodies were unearthed in cemeteries and new holes dug to hide freshly killed animals and, once, an adult passer-by who was shot and dismembered with a chain saw. The children recalled several plane trips, including one to Mexico, where they were sexually abused by soldiers before returning to Austin in time to meet their parents at the day care.

The slipshod physical evidence against the Kellers made the prosecutor’s case less than believable, but it didn’t matter. They were found guilty in part due to the testimony of an inexperienced emergency room doctor, Michael Mouw, who testified that the first accuser, the three-year-old, had cuts in her hymen that indicated recent sexual abuse. Years later, while attending a medical conference, Mouw saw slides of normal pediatric hymens that looked a lot like that of the toddler he’d examined — and he began to voice doubts.

He said he had been trained in medical school and in the ER to have a pro-police/prosecution bias and that with the training and experience he’s gained in the intervening years he knows now not only that he was wrong about what he thought he saw, but also that he was not qualified in 1991 to conduct a pediatric sexual assault exam or to draw any conclusions about whether abuse had taken place.

Fran Keller, 63, was released from prison on Tuesday evening, and her husband, 71, should be set free next week. Their appeals lawyer, Keith Hampton, recently also secured the release of three other adults in an unrelated regional case of alleged satanic ritual abuse.

If you want to read up on the phenomenon of false memories and groundless child-sex-abuse allegations, journalists like Lawrence Wright and especially Debbie Nathan did incredible work in describing the many outlandish prosecutions that resulted from impressionable young children’s imaginations. I’d like to think that the Kellers owe their freedom, in part, to the seeds of doubt sown by those authors. It’s a happy outcome, for sure; but they were still forced to throw away two decades of their lives thanks to the painful credulousness of uncritical zealots.

To the Kellers and their family, the happiest of Thanksgivings.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • Johnlev

    Wow. Freaking that you should be posting about this today. I was just telling my GF about this issue last night that I remembered from when I was a teen and she didn’t believe that people actually would fall for these kinda of stories much less go to jail for it. That was until she googled it.

  • Jeff

    I live in Austin, I remember this case. There was lots of journalists SCREAMING for people to simply do the math, you can’t fly to Mexico and back in the time frame. Tons of holes in the case. But at the time, the McMartin’s were on everyone’s mind, and nothing was worse than to be considered “soft on crime, especially sexual abuse of children”. Texas is widely known for that tough on crime attitude. And it’s bit them in the ass with LOTS of cases being reviewed (Michael Morton released after 25 years, his PROSECUTOR going to jail and being disbarred) and being shown that being “tough” really meant ignoring the facts, just get someone behind bars.

  • 3lemenope

    And it’s bit them in the ass with LOTS of cases being reviewed (Michael Morton released after 25 years, his PROSECUTOR going to jail and being disbarred) and being shown that being “tough” really meant ignoring the facts, just get someone behind bars.

    This here thread is good for providing context on how absolutely, ridiculously rare it is for a prosecutor to actually suffer consequences for screwing someone over into prison.

  • chicago dyke, TOWAN

    as much as this case is about the need for ration thought and control over fears of the supernatural, it’s an indictment of our justice system. prosecutors can’t “lose” for prosecuting a case like this. who doesn’t hate a child molesting demon worshipper? and the people involved in some of these cases were perfect prosecutorial targets; they were not experienced criminals and had no understanding of how the justice system really works. the political benefits to prosecution are huge. who would ever forget the DA who put away the evil molesters?

    what these cases show is that it’s way too easy to railroad defendants. even if they are innocent.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Holy crap, these people are still in prison? I thought they’d all been let out years ago.

  • A3Kr0n

    Has anything changed so this won’t happen again, since I assume nobody’s going to jail over this atrocity?

  • 3lemenope

    Unbelievably, the prosecutor went to jail over this.

    For ten days.

    Unbelievably first because he went to jail at all, and then again because ten fucking days. (Thread I posted below has gory details on that end of things.)

  • wright1

    Almighty Bastet, I had no idea people had actually spent decades in prison over this hysteria. The next time someone starts whining about the poor persecuted Christians of the US, I’ll send them a link to this.

  • Glasofruix

    And i suppose those innocent people get shit as compensation for 20+ years of unjustified imprisonement?

  • LesterBallard

    Being tried by a jury of my so called peers is one of the most frightening things I can imagine.

  • feekoningin

    I find it really frightening that we live in a world where people hear the refrain that we must believe the children. They have VERY active imaginations. And some downright lie. I had problems even with my own mother when the kids told her we didn’t have anything to eat. That was in spite of the fact she was at my home, which was in the same subdivision as her own, nearly every day, I had two freezers, several cabinets and refrigerators full of food and receipts to show for it. I will NEVER take care of anyone else’s children again.

  • Glasofruix

    When you know that most of your peers are idiots, it is frightening indeed.

  • Kenneth Polit

    Extra credit given for using the name of Bastet

  • LesterBallard

    I wouldn’t necessarily say idiots, just irrational, don’t pay attention, unaware of their biases, don’t think, let alone think critically, easily swayed by emotion, but not especially idiotic. But definitely scary.

  • Stev84

    They are also very easily manipulated. Especially by police investigators, but also by specialists in dealing with children who should know better.

    A lot of the time they don’t fully understand what’s going on or what people want from them. So if they are asked again and again what happened, some of them think they haven’t given the right answer and will eventually make up stuff because they think that’s what the adults want to hear. Or they take bits and pieces of what the investigators tell them and feed it back to them.

    The case of the San Antonio 4 also adds a good deal of Southern homophobia. They are all lesbians and that made them double guilty. They were also convicted in part based on the testimony of an “expert” who scarily brags about having testified in over 800 cases. And it was the same BS about scarred hymens. In at least one other case she was involved with, the victim also recanted her testimony later.

    The use of phony “experts” is all too common in courts unfortunately:

    And both sides can just pay people to say what they want to hear.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    A3Kr0n probably wasn’t posting a reply to your comment thread, so it could seem that you are saying that the prosecutor for the Kellers’ case has gone to jail.

    The Kellers’ prosecutor isn’t singled out or even mentioned in the linked article in the Statesman.

    The pediatrician has confessed to not knowing enough to be an expert witness. The appeal team were quoted as “saying time has shown clinical psychologist Randy Noblitt to be a charlatan and a crackpot” making him, perhaps the source of the panic.

  • lmern

    Maybe it’s irrelevant, but I can’t find any details anywhere describing WHY these children came up with these stories. These are some pretty gruesome overactive imaginations. How old were the kids? What’s the story there? What was the motivation? Does anyone know or have any good links? I never heard this story before now so I’m curious. Thanks.

  • Timothy R Alexander

    They might have an opportunity to sue the city/state/federal courts for money.

  • Feminerd

    It depends where they were prosecuted, but probably not. The state is not obligated to pay for or compensate people who were tried and convicted even while innocent, even if there was significant prosecutorial misconduct involved. The state is immune to most suits.

  • cameronhorsburgh

    I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation, but can anyone explain why it would still take several days for these folks to be released from prison? I mean, it’s probably wise to get them into some sort of programme to get them ready to live outside of the institution, but if they’ve been exonerated, why can’t they just walk out?

  • Dan Robinson

    The most frightening thing that ever happened to me was being falsely accused of molesting my niece. This was in the 80′s right in the middle of the whole panic thing. She was 6 at the time, got mad at me and simply made up lies. Later when she was a teenager she admitted it never happened and all is well now between us. She’s now a married adult. The first I heard of it was a call from the police at my workplace. I had no idea why they wanted to talk to me so I went without a lawyer to see what was up. They tried to trap me into confessing but of course there was nothing to confess to. After awhile I got a letter from the DCFS that the charges were determined to be “unfounded”. Lucky I didn’t spend 20 years in jail. This sort of fantasy based law enforcement is one of the worst things about this country. To this day I’m afraid of children. Want nothing to do with them. One of my best friends runs a day care in his home. I fear for him.

  • Hungry Heathen

    “…the allegations were powerful proof that secret societies and dangerous cults — often protected by top politicians, business leaders and law officers — engaged in depraved attacks on children who could be dominated and indoctrinated through pain, humiliation and terror.”

    Well, they’re right about that, but they’re thinking of the RCC.

  • Don Gwinn

    First thing that comes to my mind when this comes up–again–is Janet Reno leading the charge on these cases in the Miami area and making a name for herself that eventually led her to the office of Attorney General of the United States. You’re right; at the time, there was nothing for a shameless prosecutor to lose by running one of these cases.
    Normally, losing the case is at least a danger, but if you lost one of these, you could get on a soapbox and sorrowfully proclaim that there was nothing you could do in a lawless society in which members of a jury would ignore the testimony of wounded children.

  • ElRay

    If it were a jury of peers, you’d be fine. The problem is that it’s a jury of average believe what you’re told whether it makes sense or not theists.

  • The Starship Maxima

    It’s strange I read of this after having just watched (forced myself to sit through) 12 Years a Slave .
    A common thread I see run through every episode of human brutality; be it the Holocaust, the Native American purge, the slave trade, McCarthyism, the Salem Witch Trials, etc.; is this, bigotry. Not the word as the reactionaries have coined it, but the core of it’s meaning, the refusal to put facts over opinion, the determination to get a desired answer over seeking the truth.
    No one is immune to that disease. Liberals, Tea Partiers, atheists, Christians, Democrats, conservatives, libertarians, vegans, socialists; everyone claims to be so much more rational than “those guys”, but we all do it.
    Until we make rational thinking and logic paramount over ideology horror stories like the Kellers will never be over. Never.

  • midnight rambler

    The thing I don’t get is, the McMartin case ended in 1990 after a long and catastrophically bad trial, with the charges dismissed because it was all so bogus. I thought all this nonsense was over by 1992, at least in terms of new prosecutions.

  • midnight rambler

    And of course Martha Coakley made her name with the Fells Acres case.

  • Jeff

    Agreed, though the local press (and cops) kept bringing it up. And there was an HBO movie on the McMartin’s around the same time.

  • Jack Lemon

    Bureaucracy? The prison industry in American is set up to retain inmates as long as possible in order to get as much money from the government as possible. I’m sure there’s forms in triplicate that need to be filled out, boxes that need to be checked, blah blah.