It’s like an implausible sitcom story that somehow worked, and all the other networks rushed to put on bad copycat shows of their own. Take pre-school teachers, mix in some innocent little children and tie it together with sexual abuse and the ritual murders of babies and animals. Bingo: primetime.
Except it wasn’t a bad TV show, and it cost too many people too many years of their life until the show was canceled. The latest was Fran Keller, who was released after spending 21 years of her life in prison because of this ridiculous yet beloved scenario of ritualistic abuse. And this came right on the heels of the release of the San Antonio 4. This was the progeny of the McMartin Preschool Case, the fantastical scenario that gave rise to a hysteria that swept the nation, or at least parts of it.
It pitted children against horrible people who sexually abused them and murdered babies. Nobody ever explained where all these murdered babies came from or went, or how nobody noticed they were missing, but to even raise these questions was to doubt the children. The townspeople marched with torches and pitchforks against the monsters. They believe the children.
For Fran Keller, the only hard evidence was the 1992 testimony of a n00b ER doc who thought a three-year-old girl, Christy, might have been sexually abused.
Michael Mouw, who examined Christy back in August of 1991. At the couple’s trial just more than a year later, Mouw told jurors that he found deformities to Christy’s hymen and posterior fourchette (a fold of skin at the rear of the vagina) that could have been caused by sexual abuse.
Later, Mouw realized he was wrong.
Mouw said that not long after he testified against the Kellers he realized that what he thought were injuries were in fact “normal variants” of female genitalia. He said he had been trained in medical school and in the ER to have a pro-police/prosecution bias and that with the training and experience he’s gained in the intervening years he knows now not only that he was wrong about what he thought he saw, but also that he was not qualified in 1991 to conduct a pediatric sexual assault exam or to draw any conclusions about whether abuse had taken place.
Inexplicably, Mouw’s epiphany changed nothing until now. But then, while he might have provided the only hard evidence, the story line was classic.
After a day in care at the home that summer Christy told her mother, Suzanne Stratton, that Dan had spanked her. With a bit of pressing, first by her mother and then by therapist Donna David Campbell, that initial allegation soon morphed, first into an allegation of sexual abuse and then, by the fall, into far more fantastic allegations – including that the Kellers took Christy and other children on plane rides to Mexico where they were abused by various individuals, that Fran cut off the arm of a gorilla at Zilker Park, that the Kellers performed a satanic bone-replacing ritual on one child, and that the Kellers forced the children to watch them sacrifice babies and small animals.
As with every such case, these stories were drawn out of very young children by zealots whose “questioning” of them brought ever-bizarre, unproven and impossible tales.
In 2008, the Chronicle began a reinvestigation of the case against Fran and Dan Keller, discovering that Austin Police and prosecutors were embarrassingly credulous in their belief that the children had been abused in all manner of impractical – if not simply impossible – ways and despite the fact that there was scant evidence to suggest any crime ever happened at all.
But in the 80’s and early 90’s, the hysteria of child-care workers engaged in satanic rituals remained believable. We wanted to believe the children, even though it wasn’t really the children we believed but the adults who manipulated them to tell these ridiculous stories.
Yet, even in 2008 as the Austin Chronicle proclaimed that Fran Keller had likely spent 17 years (then) in prison for a crime that never happened, she remained in a cell. As bad as the stories were, and as poor as the evidence in support of any crime was, we adhered to the plot line rather than admit it was absurd hysteria.
Representing Fran Keller, Keith Hampton persuaded District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg following a hearing last summer that Keller was denied due process upon her conviction for Mouw’s false testimony. Finally, having served 21 years of her 48 year sentence, she was released. She’s now 63 years old. Her husband, Dan, 72, remains in prison awaiting papers to be signed for his release.
Of course, this insane hysteria happened back in the dark ages of the legal system, many years ago. We’re so much smarter and more sophisticated now that we would never buy into such a crazy, ridiculous story of satanic rituals and babies’ murders. We now know that the well-intended believers who coaxed these stories from the mouths of babes created the fantasies that gave us the story line that captivated a nation.
We’re so much smarter now. And yet we still haven’t figured out that the ritualistic abuse didn’t happen on some impossible plane trip to Mexico, but in courtrooms right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., where wild stories are told by “experts” incompetent to tell them and complicit in their invention, and yet we continue to believe them because we still want so desperately to believe the children.
How wonderful for the legal system that we are so much more sophisticated than when we thought this bad plot line made any sense at all. Because it will never happen again, and we’ve learned so much from it about our willingness to buy into any bizarre story and the frailty of a system that isn’t supposed to allow such absurdity to happen. And Dan Keller will be out of prison when the papers finally get signed.