“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.
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.