August 8, 2015
The witch-hunt narrative, as described in my book, has deep roots in American culture. It ranges from Salem Massachusetts to the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. The power of those cautionary tales, however, causes many people to drop their skeptical guard when told that something is a modern day witch-hunt. So it is with the conventional wisdom about the highly publicized day-care sexual abuse cases from the 1980s.
Richard Beck, a comparative literature major from Harvard who works at a literary magazine, is the latest one spreading the witch-hunt narrative about those cases. His book, We Believe the Children, based largely on secondary sources, reaches the same conclusions that Debbie Nathan and defense lawyer Michael Snedeker offered twenty years ago. In both instances, the authors repeatedly omitted significant evidence that contradicts the witch-hunt narrative. Consider some examples of what Beck left out:
- Beck reduces all of the medical evidence in the McMartin case to a single paragraph and insinuates that there was no credible medical evidence substantiating sexual abuse (pp. 155-56). But Beck does not tell his readers that even defense lawyer Danny Davis allowed that the genital injuries on one girl were “serious and convincing.” Beck also did not mention that the vaginal injuries on another girl, one of the three involved in both McMartin trials, were considered as proving sexual abuse “to a medical certainty.” Beck also fails to mention that the case began when Judy Johnson saw a drop of blood. Beck allows that the boy was examined twice and, as he put it, both doctors reported suspected child abuse (p. 34). But Beck did not disclose the basis for those reports: the Emergency Room doctor observed the “red and roughened” area around the boy’s anus, concluding that there “appeared to be some friction like trauma to the rectal area.” The pediatric expert who subsequently examined the boy described discolored bruising patterns and said that his anal injury “was within the last week” (Cheit, p. 25). That is why Ray Buckey was arrested.
- Beck makes the general claim that the allegations in these day care cases “hadn’t come from the children to begin with” (p. xvi). He proceeds to discuss the Kelly Michaels case from New Jersey without mentioning that the case began with a spontaneous disclosure. The medical assistant who heard that specific and alarming statement testified in detail about it at trial (Cheit, p. 206). But Beck does not cite a single page of the transcript from this nine-month trial; instead, he relies on the flawed and limited research conducted twenty years ago by Debbie Nathan, also without access to the trial transcript.
- Beck mentions rumors of satanic abuse at the West Point day care (p. xiv). But he does not mention that the case began with an Emergency Room visit and subsequent medical report documenting lacerations to the vaginal canal of a three-and-a-half year old girl. The girl was examined at 5:15 PM and the doctor estimated that the puncture wounds had occurred two to four hours earlier—when she was at the day care (Cheit, p. 112). (No one was ever apprehended.) Beck omits these facts when describing the case as a witch-hunt.
- Beck discusses the Kniffen and McCuan case from Bakersfield, California, presenting them as victims of a witch-hunt (pp. 70-72). But Beck never mentions considerable medical evidence against the McCuans, including vaginal scarring and trauma to the lining of the anus, that occurred between 1980 and 1982 (when Rod Phelps was away). Debbie Nathan once wrote that this evidence “seriously weakened Alvin and Debbie’s protestations of innocence.” But Beck ignored this evidence entirely, also neglecting to mention that the McCuan daughters, unlike the Kniffen sons, have never recanted their claims against their parents. Finally, Beck notes that the convictions of the Kniffens and McCuans were set aside, but he does not reveal that the judge opined that “it may be that all of the acts reported actually occurred” (Cheit, pp. 119-123).
- Beck tells his readers about charges dropped in Jordan, Minnesota, and he cites the Humphrey Report finding that there were no “ritual” crimes (p. 90). But he does not mention that the Humphrey Report also concluded that children beyond the original case against James Rud had been sexually abused; nor does he mention the Olson Report, which originated in an investigation of claims of overzealousness by the prosecutor and ended up criticizing her more for dropping charges in many cases that had solid evidence (Cheit, pp. 100-103).
- Beck claims that “no pornography” was ever found in any of these cases (p. xvi). But he neglects to mention that Isabel’s Day Care, not far from the McMartin Preschool, had exactly that kind of evidence. So did the Rainbow Day Care Center case in Fort Lauderdale. So did Robert Shell’s case in Massachusetts. Also, two defendants in the Bakersfield cases were convicted partly because there was photographic evidence of their sexual abuse of children: Charles Bishop and Grant Self (Cheit, pp. 163-165).
- Beck also claims that Jesse Friedman, who pleaded guilty to child sex abuse charges, was falsely convicted (pp. 173-181). But he does not mention that Friedman failed two lie detectors, both arranged by his own lawyer, and that the psychological evaluation, also arranged by his own lawyer, concluded that Friedman was a “psychopathic deviant” who was “capable of committing the crimes with which he was charged.” Beck also does not mention that he has never spoken to a single one of the fourteen men who formed the basis for the case. This is significant since Andrew Jarecki, who directed the film, never spoke to the vast majority of actual complainants in the case, either. Nor does Beck acknowledge that two of those men wrote a letter in 2004, objecting to the movie, and attesting to sexual abuse by Jesse Friedman (Cheit, pp. 130-133).
- Beck makes a point of saying that, despite claims about games involving feces, the police were “unable to find” any “feces smeared across the walls of the Fuster home” (p. 141). But he does not inform his readers that the police found a photo of precisely that: Frank’s son in a room smeared with feces on the floor and wall. Beck also omits any mention that Debbie Nathan, his primary source for the book, once acknowledged that it “appears that [Frank Fuster] perpetrated sadomasochistic assaults against [Ileana, his wife] (who was legally a minor) and possibly against the younger children, including abuse involving urine and excrement” (Cheit, p. 327, fn. 125). When characterizing the case as “satanic ritual abuse,” Beck does not acknowledge that evidence, but he mentions that there were allegations involving masks (pp. xiii). But Beck omits the fact that masks were found in Fuster’s house and that adults testified in the case about being scared by Frank Fuster using them (Cheit, pp. 297-98, 331).
- Beck repeats the claim that Ileana Fuster was held naked in an isolation cell in the Country Walk case (p. 143). But he does not acknowledge that Ileana Fuster made no such claim in the actual motion she brought concerning her treatment in prison, while being held. In that motion, alleging “cruel and unusual punishment,” Ileana Fuster complained of things like having “only limited access to shower facilities” and “only limited access to hot water for coffee.” There was nothing in her motion about being held nude (Cheit, p. 333). Beck also neglects to inform his readers that Ileana Fuster denied that she had been held naked when asked about it years later, by defense lawyer Arthur Cohen, in an interview that Beck cites elsewhere with approval (Cheit, p. 335).
- Beck acknowledges Frank Fuster’s 1982 conviction for lewd and lascivious assault on a minor, but he quickly adds, without any apparent skepticism, that “Frank had always maintained his innocence.” (p. 142). But Beck does not tell his readers that Fuster actually admitted the actions charged in that case, and then tried to minimize them, while testifying at his Parole Violation Hearing three years later (Cheit, p. 337). Here is how Fuster explained what he did to a 9-year-old while driving her home one night:
This is how I touch her chest area. I don’t see any sexual movement here. I also touch her in the vaginal area. That’s it. That’s the whole case.
Nor does Beck acknowledge Frank Fuster’s long record of documented lies about his manslaughter conviction. As I said in The Witch-Hunt Narrative: “one wonders how anyone could cite his denials with utter credulity and without any acknowledgment of the considerable evidence to the contrary” (Cheit, p. 338).
Beck also impugns the most important child in the Fuster case without acknowledging that he never examined the first interview with that child, an interview that played a major role in the case. Psychology professor James Wood recently admitted that he and Debbie Nathan, his co-author for a forthcoming commentary on my book, never examined this interview, which Wood described as “key for understanding the case” (Wood, personal communication; July 18, 2015).
Richard Beck admits that his work is not investigative journalism (p. xxv). He describes it as history. But historians do not rely on secondary sources for major arguments and historians do not omit evidence for the sake of telling a simplified story. A comprehensive examination of the actual transcripts—something that Beck did not do in a single case beyond McMartin—reveals a different picture. As I wrote last summer:
In many of the cases proclaimed to be witch hunts, looking closely at the record revealed substantial evidence of abuse and compelling reasons that jurors voted to convict. It’s true that I also found cases where people were charged who shouldn’t have been. Yet even in some of those cases, there was strong evidence of abuse. A crime was committed and a child was assaulted by someone who was never apprehended, but only the false accusation story lives on.
And so it is with Richard Beck’s history of these cases.
(A future post will detail Beck’s exaggerations in the text and errors in the footnotes.)