McMartin Preschool trial: How one mother's allegations of child abuse ignited one of the most infamous cases in US history

The first report of the alleged abuse at the McMartin Preschool came from Judy Johnson who claimed her 2-year-old son was molested at the school


                            McMartin Preschool trial: How one mother's allegations of child abuse ignited one of the most infamous cases in US history

In the summer of 1983, when Judy Johnson made a complaint to the Manhattan Beach Police Department little did she know that it will that would kick-start one of the most infamous criminal investigations in US history.

Johnson, a mother of two, reportedly discovered that her two-year-old son, who was attending the McMartin Preschool, had a rash on his bottom and rectal bleeding. She grew concerned that her son had been sexually abused and alerted the local police. 

The McMartin Preschool was a well-respected and popular institution in the community of Manhattan Beach, California. It was run by founder Virginia McMartin, her daughter Peggy McMartin Buckey, her grandchildren Peggy Ann Buckey and Raymond “Ray” Buckey. The family was very well-liked and the school even had a waitlist as it had become one of the top preschools around.

Oxygen media's documentary 'Uncovered: The McMartin Family Trials' looks at what really took place during the McMartin family trials and whether the seemingly nurturing and colorful preschool had a darker side. 

The McMartin Preschool was a very well-respected preschool until the first reports of accusation came out in 1983 (Getty Images)

The Phone Call

In an audio clip in the documentary, Johnson can be heard saying, "My 2-year-old son has been molested at the McMartin Preschool." And when detective Jane Hoag interviewed the child, he claimed that he had been abused by 25-year-old Ray Buckey who had been teaching at the preschool for 2 years.

The child was then taken to the UCLA Medical Center where a doctor "found something consistent with molestation."

As a result of this, Ray Buckey was arrested but due to a lack of evidence was released the same day.

However, this did not sit well with Johnson as she alleged that her son was forced to take part in ritualistic activities with the McMartin employees.

She also claimed that her son was taken to a church where "Ray flew in the air" and "Peggy drilled a child under the arms". Johnson told authorities that her son had also said that two more children were abused.

Back then, some sources had said that her son denied her suggestion that he had been abused while others said he confirmed it. 

The Letter

In order to investigate the case further, the Manhattan Beach Police Department sent out a letter to more than 200 parents asking them to ask their children of any sexual or inappropriate business.

The letter created a lot of panic and anger among parents as it stated that "possible criminal acts" including "oral sex, fondling of genitals, buttock or chest area and sodomy" were "possibly committed," and that photographs of children without their clothing might have been taken.  

By 1984, at least 400 children were interviewed by the Children’s Institute International and 41 were listed as being victims.

As reported by the New York Times, 1984 saw seven employees of the school (Virginia McMartin, Peggy McMartin Buckey, Peggy Ann Buckey, Ray Buckey, and employees Mary Ann Jackson, Babette Spitler, and Betty Raidor) being indicted. Cumulatively, they all faced around 115 charges which later became 321 charges.

When the preliminary hearing ended, the charges against Virginia McMartin, Peggy Ann Buckey, Jackson, Spitler, and Raidor were dropped as there was insufficient evidence to prove them guilty.

Johnson never testified at the hearing or during Ray and Peggy’s trial. She was found dead in her home on December 19, 1986. The coroner’s office listed her cause of death as “fatty metamorphosis of the liver” associated with alcoholism.

It was also revealed that Johnson's mental stability was a big focus during the preliminary hearing as she had also claimed that her dog had been sodomized and that her estranged husband had molested one of their children.

In 1989, a jury had found Peggy and Ray not guilty on 52 counts of child molestation but remained deadlocked on 12 molestation charges against Ray.

He was retried but the jury remained deadlocked and a mistrial was declared. Eventually, all the charges against Ray were dismissed.

When the trial ended in 1990, it had been the longest and most expensive trial in American history. 

The trial ran nearly three years at a cost of $15 million. More than 1,000 pieces of evidence were entered and 124 witnesses testified, including nine of the children, the Associated Press reported.

Since then, there have been many theories and stories about what really took place at the McMartin Preschool.

Many people blamed and accused the family of abuse,  others questioned whether the methods used to interview the children were overly suggestive.

If you have a news scoop or an interesting story for us, please reach out at (323) 421-7514