Kern County 'Witch Hunt': Survivors of infamous child sex abuse trial still haunted by the horror 35 years later
'Their molesters hung them from furniture hooks, fed them the liver of animals, drank blood and forced them to have sex with their parents.' 'They were beaten with belts, rented to strangers in motels and forced to act in "kiddy-porn" movies.'
'Their molesters involved their grandparents, their parents, their father's brothers, friends of their parents, social workers and just about anybody.'
This may seem like sentences ripped off of a deranged horror flick script but to the set the record straight this was the reality of the simple families residing in Kern County in the 1980s - they were living in the pages of this fiction.
Infamously referred to as the Kern County witch hunt, these were some of the allegations made against dozens of people in a crime crusade by the District Attorney at the time, Ed Jagels. Jagels led the DA's office in the conviction of many men and women, saying they were responsible for molesting and performing satanic ritualistic abuse on as many as 60 children.
The year was 1982. Jack Cummings was a working-class dad of three living in Bakersfield at the time. He and his wife Jackie had built a home for their children in this small town so they could raise them happily. One day, they read the strangest, most shocking news in the local paper. Alvin and Debbie McCuan's two daughters had alleged that they had been abused by their parents. The children also accused them of being part of a sex ring that included Scott and Brenda Kniffen, friends of their parents. The Kniffens' two sons also claimed to have been abused.
"We didn't know what to make of that," Jack recalls, "Our initial reaction was like everybody else's - we were glad they caught him." But then before they knew it, authorities had started arresting people by the dozens. No physical evidence was ever found. The McCuans and Kniffens were convicted in 1984 and given a combined sentence of over 1000 years in prison.
At one point there were about 40 people in the jail and they were all in on the same charges. The police were locking up just about everyone, Cummings tells MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) looking back. "They would bring you in, charge you, and you would be brought back to court a while later after they round up some more witnesses and you'd be charged with more counts," he shares.
They kept building on it as they did with cases of John Stoll, Cheryl Gonzales, and Gerardo Gonzales among many others, he says. They were beyond shocked. The couple knew the husband and wife duo since they had kids the same age. The Gonzales had a boy and a girl. Gonzales was a hard working man, working about 70 hours a week as a local mechanic. "It just seemed pretty outrageous, so my wife started going to court to see what was going on." And that's when they realized, it was only a matter of time before the authorities would come for them.
After attending a couple of court hearings, the couple realized their names were soon being talked about.
His wife had been babysitting the Gonzales children who had made those allegations. They were living with their grandma at the time and she would drop them off at the Cummings's home. Jackie asked one of them, named Melissa if her daddy had really done those things to her. "She said no, that's just what they make me say, so I could go home," Jack shares. "When my wife told me that the hair on my arms stood on end." The police were just shutting up everyone they had ever contacted as well, Jack says. "It was as though they just looked at contacts and then they would grab kids out of their homes."
Trouble began when they started noticing plainclothes and police cars across the street by the park that was about a block and a half away. That was the only place they could really get a good look at their house and they were there day after day for about week, Jack tells us.
Jack, 34, then and Jackie, 24 at the time decided that they couldn't let them take their kids. They decided to flee.
"We switched vehicles with my father-in-law and we loaded up the truck and we left town for the night," he says. They drove up to Mount Shasta to my parent's house, took the kids out of school and just left because they knew what was coming. Their eldest, seven, at the time, took it like he knew what was going on and their youngest was a toddler at the time. However, it was his 5-year-old that just couldn't handle it. "Our oldest knew we were running away from a bad problem but our five-year-old didn't have a clue. He was hysterical...and he's had his share of problems since then," Jack shares sadly.
After their little escapade from the town, the family was tracked down to a motel and their worst fears came true. The two minor boys, however, were questioned on video by a private investigator at the request of the parents before being taken away. "After ten or twelve cases, we finally got to the hearing to get the boys back and it was after a week in court that we won," Jack recalls. The DA had overplayed their hand when they had escalated their story to involve deaths, he says. As the child molestation allegations escalated, the authorities alleged that children had been killed and buried in unknown locations, but they couldn't justify their theories when they failed to produce any of these said bodies. They even came up with a list of names of children who were supposedly dead and one of the names on the list was Cummings’ son - who was very much alive. After a long legal battle that lasted a year, the Cummings family was reunited but unfortunately, it just wasn't the same.
Joe, his middle child, was anti-authority several years after they got him back. In fact, for several years, when he saw police cars they would run home and hide. 35 years later, it is still heartbreaking, especially for the children, he says noting many others have gone into drugs. "They're all aimless and have drug problems and just don't have any focus," he says. "Joe is like that. He just basically doesn't trust authority and because of the police experience he hates the cops," he adds. "There's not much one can do about it, it's engraved in his DNA since he was five," he remarks. Jack says that the things happening at the border today is just as bad as the Kern County witch hunt.
"We were the strength for my youngest son for years," he says. After his younger son became a father, his relationship fell apart. Jack and Jackie ended up with their two grandkids, one going on ten years and the older one just graduating from high school. Jack's oldest son's ex-wife too, found her escape in drugs. "It's a traumatic story," he says.
The local media didn't report their side of the story at the time and neither was anyone ever interested in listening to them. Sometimes he wonders what life would have been like if it hadn't happened - maybe he'd be working his job, living with his wife and kids, just enjoying family bliss. He still chose to live in Bakersfield after everything was over, hoping for some stability and helping those like him.
Kern County District Attorney Jagels retired in 2010. Jagels kept getting re-elected but he lost any chance of higher office. He had ambitions for California State Attorney General and he advocated for the three strikes law. As the convictions were overturned and settlements began to be given his reputation as one of the worst District Attorneys in the county grew to be almost legendary. And after all these years, with so many families still reeling from the pain and consequences of the witch hunt, none have received an apology from the authorities. 35 of 37 convictions were overturned and 36 is in process. Cummings also says that the county has already paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits and is spending millions more pursuing convictions and fighting in court to prevent justice being done.
The Cummings were one of the lucky few to have fought and received their children back but unbelievably, some are still convinced that it was these families in this blue-collared basin who got away with it.