HBO film investigates McMartin Pre-School sex abuse case


Hollywood -- Nearly five years after the longest and costliest criminal trial in American history was put to rest, the sensational McMartin Pre-School child molestation case is being reopened for a TV movie. Falling on unsympathetic ears are the cries of protest from parents and former students of the old Manhattan Beach, Calif., preschool, who have worked hard to close that painful chapter in their lives.

The producers, including Oliver Stone, argue that their HBO movie will tell the story of the "real" victims in that case: primarily Raymond Buckey, who spent 1984 to 1989 in jail without bail, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, who spent two years in jail before her bail was set. Although Mr. Buckey was tried again after the first trial ended in only a partial verdict, neither he nor anyone else at the school was convicted of any crime.

The $6 million movie, starring James Woods and Mercedes Reuhl, wraps shooting this month in Los Angeles for a May premiere.

Writer and executive producer Abby Mann and his wife, Myra, who helped research the project, believe the McMartin trial was a modern-day witch hunt. They got involved in the case before the first trial, locking up the defendants' story rights and even sharing information with defense lawyers.

They hope the movie and a book they are writing will result in a national debate over how children are interviewed for alleged sex-abuse cases. In their opinion, the McMartin students were abused by the legal system, not by the Buckeys.

The McMartin children interviewed for this story, all young adults now, passionately stick to their stories of abuse at the hands of the Buckeys. They and their parents wish the Manns would let it go, they say.

"I don't understand what the point of bringing it up again is," said one former student, now 18, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

"It was done and over with, with the acquittals," said the girl, who first testified before the grand jury when she was in second grade, and then twice more at the trials of Mr. Buckey. "Everyone went through so much then. Obviously, they want to make money, but I don't see why they have to drag it all back up. We've already gone through so much."

But Mr. Stone, who stirred up his own national controversy by presenting his vision of popular history in the film "JFK," warns against putting the victim hat on the wrong head.

"The only ones who were victims . . . are Raymond and Peggy and the other McMartin teachers," said Mr. Stone, who was approached by Mr. Mann to produce the film through his company, Ixtlan, and Mr. Woods' company, Breakheart Films.

"They [the defendants] went through hell," Mr. Stone said. "In the American system, they are innocent until proven guilty, and they were not proven guilty. That's what we have a jury system for. I think these people went through hell, they were victimized and their story deserves to be told."

While on the set filming the movie, the Manns became victims themselves when their Hollywood Hills home burned to the ground. Authorities have declared it a case of arson. As a result, the Manns, who are now operating out of a Beverly Hills hotel, are under tight security.

"We know a great deal about [the fire], but we can't talk about it at the moment," Mr. Mann said. He did, however, suggest that the blaze, now under federal investigation, might be tied to his McMartin involvement.

"Because of [the fire], we may change the focus of the book," he said cryptically, referring to the nonfiction account of McMartin events he and his wife have been researching for years without a publisher.

The McMartin case began in 1983, when Judy Ann Johnson filed a complaint with the Manhattan Beach Police Department that accused Mr. Buckey, a 25-year-old teacher at the school, of molesting her 2 1/2 -year-old son. Ms. Johnson was later found to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and died of alcohol-related liver disease in 1986.

Four hundred children were interviewed on videotape by child therapist Kee MacFarlane, who concluded that 369 of them had been molested. The media jumped on the story, with reports of naked movie star games, satanic rituals and animal sacrifices. At one point, the police said they believed that 1,200 South Bay children had been sexually abused, resulting in the closure of nine South Bay schools and leaving many more teachers tainted.

Seven McMartin teachers were indicted in 1984 on 115 charges of felony child molestation involving 42 preschool children. Without corroborating evidence to substantiate the children's testimony, however, charges and witnesses were whittled away until all that remained were 11 children and two defendants -- Mr. Buckey and his mother, the school's co-owner.

She was acquitted in the first trial; he was acquitted of 40 counts but was retried on eight counts that the first jury had been unable to decide. He was released in 1990 after the second jury was "hopelessly and irreversibly" deadlocked.

The entire case took seven years and cost $16 million.

HBO denies any sensationalistic motives for dredging up the notorious case.

"When I think of sensationalism, I think of tabloid journalism, tabloid television, tabloid media -- instant, superficial, simplistic," said Bob Cooper, president of HBO Worldwide Pictures. "It's like instant coffee. That's not the case here."

The script took three years to develop, Mr. Cooper said, because HBO wanted to get the facts straight. An independent researcher was contracted to annotate every point in the still-untitled script.

Mr. Cooper's goal of making "quality noise" with HBO movies has sparked harsh criticism before, but it has also produced Emmy Award-winning films, including "And the Band Played On," about the AIDS epidemic, and "Barbarians at the Gate," a biting look at the R J Nabisco takeover. HBO revels in the controversy these films generate.

"You say that we dig up stuff that's dead -- yes! We absolutely deal with stuff that's dead," said Mr. Cooper, who then ticked off the subjects of several HBO docudramas. "Roy Cohn is dead. Stalin is dead. Many people in 'Band Played On' are dead. We're not headline-chasing here. We're not careless in what we do. We didn't decide to do the media frenzy around the O.J. Simpson trial, which would be wrong and exploitative. We took a story that had its completion, that we've had time to reflect on and think about."

One former McMartin preschool child, a college student now in ** Northern California who prefers to remain unidentified, believes the producers have another motive for waiting so long to retell their story.

"The general public -- their memories have faded," he said with a sigh. "They're not going to be as clear as to what the situation was. Now, five years later, everyone has had time to forget and [the producers] have had time to manipulate the truth in their favor."

Parents and children involved with the McMartin case can live with the HBO movie, they say, but they want a fair television retrial.

And they doubt they will get it with Mr. Mann, a filmmaker who calls himself a "crusader for the truth" and who was so closely aligned with the defendants throughout the case.

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