It was like anything and everything I said would be believed. –Kyle Zirpolo

By Elizabeth Rich

The day before Halloween 2005, The L.A. Times Magazine reported the first recantation in the infamous satanic ritual abuse case that engulfed California’s McMartin Preschool in the 1980’s. More than two decades after Judy Johnson reported to police that teacher Ray Buckey sexually molested her son, another former McMartin preschooler, Kyle Sapp, now Kyle Zirpolo, admitted he was one child who lied to investigators. A paranoid schizophrenic who later died of alcohol poisoning before she could testify, Johnson triggered one of the costliest and longest criminal trials in American history.

Johnson’s original complaint that Ray Buckey had sodomized her son shape-shifted into a national panic that eventually leached beyond McMartin to include other preschools and child care centers. Tales of sexual abuse by teachers morphed into hair-raising claims of satanic ritual abuse and an ever expanding sex ring with victimized children at the center. Accusations of animal slaughters, visits to “devil land” and “Devil House,” and the forced touching of corpses flew through the air like witches on broomsticks. In spite of the absence of credible evidence, the investigation persisted with detectives and therapists using unorthodox props like occult symbols and devil puppets in their successful efforts to encourage children to talk.

The 800 word transcript of Zirpolo’s confession, reprinted in The L.A. Times, is a painful account indeed. Stories of nude medical examinations and pressured interrogations read like horror stories themselves. The inquiry, Zirpolo explains, was “just really weird.” “Anytime I would give them an answer that they didn’t like, they would ask again and encourage me to give them the answer they were looking for.” On the accusations of satanic ritual abuse, Zirpolo explains, “I think I got the satanic details by picturing our church…I’d just throw a twist in there with Satan and devil-worshipping.” His retraction bears out the post-trial theory espoused by many educators and psychologists that at least one McMartin child — if not all — were pressured into lying.

A drawing made by a child “victim” of SRA
“Giving Thanks to Satan”

Zirpolo confessed to Debbie Nathan, who co-authored Satan’s Silence, Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, a deconstruction of the hysteria surrounding the 1980’s school sex abuse cases. In her exchange with Zirpolo, Nathan tried unsuccessfully to connect him with the surviving McMartin teachers. “Peggy Ann [Buckey, Ray’s sister] has said that they would rather hear from the police, social workers, therapists, prosecutors, doctors and parents who fueled the case. They’ve always staunchly proclaimed their innocence, and say they don’t need apologies from former students, who were children and couldn’t help themselves.”

On November 20th in response to the Zirpolo story, The L.A. Times Magazine reprinted three letters offering congratulatory remarks to “a man of conscience.” The letters predictably decry the manipulation of the McMartin preschoolers and wax regret over personal silence. Wrote one woman, whose son attended McMartin “many years” before the alleged events occurred, “I will always regret that I never took the time to find out how to testify on behalf of a remarkable founder of a once-esteemed preschool.”

Which begs the question, will apologies follow from the cabal who fanned the flames? What about the parents? Investigators? Therapists? And, even the media? Should they not be held accountable for their role in remaining uncritical? Headlines from The L.A. Times in the mid-1980’s like “Was Drugged, McMartin Case Girl Testifies” and “Macabre Cemetary Rites Told by McMartin Witness” suggest even the paper was swept away. In fairness, however, on January 19, 1990, the day following the conclusion of the seven-year investigation and the ultimate acquittal of Peggy Ann Buckey, the paper’s editorial board offered that skepticism was, in fact, the media’s lesson. In a more pointed attack the same day, the paper’s media critic, David Shaw, criticized the press and his own paper for “plunging into hysteria.” For this Shaw would win a Pulitzer.

Of course, the flip side of hysteria is denial, our national default response. Holding ourselves accountable for contributing to this messy case requires an admission of guilt and being wrong isn’t very American.

For Zirpolo, now a supermarket manager in California, his recantation was for the sake of his children. His message being, I did something wrong, but now I can undo it. To this day his own mother denies the innocence of the McMartin staff, and it’s likely that Ms. Buckey and her former colleagues will be waiting a long time for that apology.

Elizabeth Rich is a writer living in New York City.