In California, a Question of Abuse; An Excess of Child Molestation Cases Brings Kern County's Investigative Methods Under Fire.
The Washington Post, May 31, 1989, FINAL Edition
BY: Jay Mathews, Washington Post Staff Writer
SECTION: Style, p. d01
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - Only two of the children at the trial could even
identify Gina Miller. She was Colleen Forsythe's friend, the only
nonrelative in Bakersfield's infamous Pitts family child molestation and
Identified or not, the jury found her guilty with the others in 1985 and
sent the soft-spoken, auburn-haired fast-food worker to prison for 405
years, forcing her to end abruptly the breast-feeding of her fourth child,
After hearing the lurid allegations made during the seven-month trial,
the 12 jurors from this San Joaquin Valley city of oil wells and fruit
trees may have felt even the most severe punishment was insufficient.
Children testified that several adult members of the Pitts family gathered
regularly to sodomize and molest their own sons, daughters, nephews or
nieces, often after forcing drugs or alcohol on them. Children said they
saw cameras apparently filming the sexual acts.
There had never been anything like it here, and in a city full of
families from Oklahoma and the South who prided themselves on their
Christian values and adherence to law and order, the reaction was horror
and outrage. Children could not make up such stories, prosecutors
repeatedly reminded the jurors and the public. "I can't conceive of a
reason for something like this," said Superior Court Judge Gary T. Friedman
as he pronounced sentences. "I doubt if our friends in the animal kingdom
would treat their young in such a fashion."
A few defense attorneys raised objections to the extraordinary prison
terms. The total of 2,619 years for the seven defendants set a child abuse
case record for California and probably the whole country. Defense
attorneys noted that no adults had testified to witnessing the crimes, that
there was no sign of the alleged pornographic films or videotapes and that
the medical evidence was controversial. But such objections were buried in
an outpouring of disgust at the trial testimony and a growing concern about
mass child abuse cases materializing in many other parts of the country.
Then, as months went by, a few Bakersfield residents began to wonder
about the Pitts case and several other sexual abuse investigations that had
been carried out for several years by a number of very active officials in
the Kern County district attorney's and sheriff's offices. One analysis
showed that in 1982 the county's rate of arrests for child molesting was
twice the state average. Investigations that initially focused on just one
or two children seemed to grow to include many more.
Finally, a county investigation of an alleged satanic cult, a group that
made the Pitts defendants appear kindly by comparison, careened irrevocably
out of control. Child witnesses who had been repeatedly interviewed, much
like the witnesses in the Pitts and several other cases, told investigators
that the cult had not only molested children but conducted blood rites and
even killed babies. Frantic efforts to discover the bodies proved
fruitless, and then three young witnesses went one crucial step further.
They identified as members of the satanic ring a sheriff's deputy, a social
worker and a deputy district attorney--persons with impeccable reputations
who could not possibly have been where the children said they saw them.
This was the turning point. The credibility of both witnesses and
investigators in the series of molestation cases began to come into serious
question. Gina Miller, obsessed with thoughts of her children, said she
felt her spirits lifting for the first time. Perhaps she had a chance to
get out soon.
Within months a special investigative team from the state attorney
general's office had descended on Bakersfield and produced one of the most
damning reports one California agency had ever written about another. The
80-page document concluded that a county child sexual abuse coordinator and
sheriff's deputies overinterviewed and pressured child witnesses, gave them
opportunities to share accounts of the case, and assumed anything a child
said was true. The report said this prompted investigators "to accept the
children's statements without question, to neglect to verify those
statements through additional questions of the victim and others close to
the victim, and to fail to seek additional corroborative evidence to
support the children's claims."
The county's investigation, the report concluded, "foundered in a sea of
unproven allegations, insufficient corroborative evidence, and bizarre
allegations that in some instances were proven to be false and raised
serious questions about the victims' credibility."
The state's highest law enforcement officials had decided that, in
Bakersfield at least, horribly detailed stories of abuse and molestation
told by innocent children might not always be true. Not only did the report
challenge an article of faith in the conviction of the Pitts family and
other defendants here, but it was directly critical of methods used by
investigators who had participated, at least in part, in gathering
testimony used against the Pitts family and many others.
The resulting furor has not drawn much attention outside California's
San Joaquin Valley. Notable molestation cases like the McMartin Preschool
trial in Los Angeles have preempted most national media attention. But the
attorney general's report on Bakersfield paints a picture of what has to be
considered one of the clumsiest and most destructive child abuse
investigations in American history. The report leaves unanswered many
questions about how to deal with such tragedies, and what to do about many
other Kern County residents left in prison whose cases have not attracted a
full-scale second look.
For the attorney general's report said nothing directly about the Pitts
defendants. Miller said she experienced a sinking feeling that the state's
exposure of investigative clumsiness might not help them after all, and
others raised the same concerns.
Glenn Cole, a retired accountant who led the county grand jury from 1983
to 1985, said he believes "innocent people are in jail right today" because
children were "questioned to the point where they could not tell truth from
fiction." He said he thinks the initial investigators were not properly
trained and the attorney general's office should have done more to right
the wrongs. "I try to put it out of my mind," Cole said, "but I get very
emotional about it."
Some attorneys, particularly those defending the Pittses, are beginning
to compare many of the Bakersfield child abuse investigations to the Salem
witch trials. They say they fear that instinctive loathing over unusually
egregious accounts of child molestation has subverted the rule of law and
due process and unnecessarily shattered dozens of lives, including those of
In some minds the parallels across three centuries are very close.
Michael Snedeker, a San Francisco attorney representing one of the Pitts
defendants, said the Salem trials began in 1692 with two children who,
after repeated questioning, identified many local people as witches. "The
Salem witchcraft fever did not break until the children made absolutely
unbelievable accusations, pointing their damning fingers at the governor's
wife," he said. "They also accused those most eager in the prosecution of
witches. Once disbelieved in a few particulars, they lost the power to
condemn they undoubtedly never sought."
Bitter arguments have broken out here over the guilt or innocence of the
Pitts defendants and several others jailed after investigations similar to
the discredited satanic case. At the very least, the turmoil shows how
damaging a misstep in a child abuse case can be, and how it may take years
to erase the effects of overzealous interviewing and an unshakable belief
in the veracity of children, even those under severe emotional pressure.
In the last several months two of the alleged child victims in the Pitts
case have recanted, saying nothing at all happened in the green house on
Sycamore Street where the molestations were supposed to have occurred.
The sudden shift in the cases sparked unusual tensions between many
leading Bakersfield citizens. Andrew Gindes, a former prosecutor who
handled the Pitts case, has sued Alfred T. Fritts, former
co-publisher/editor of the Bakersfield Californian, for libel after the
newspaper printed a story about one witness's recantation. Gindes'
complaint alleged that Fritts was hostile toward him because Fritts feared
his "own activities would be disclosed if a vigorous policy was pursued by
law enforcement against child molesters." Dennis Kinnaird, an attorney
representing Fritts and other defendants in the case, called the allegation
"totally incorrect" and said, "We don't think it has any basis in fact."
Gindes, in an interview, expressed outrage that the results of a lengthy
jury trial were now being questioned, and accused attorneys for the Pitts
defendants of organizing a "media hype." "I don't think the media should be
used to conduct a public relations campaign to attempt to prejudice the
judicial system," he said.
Investigators and prosecutors here who handled most of the cases say
that their evidence stands up, and bitterly denounce the decision to drop
the satanic cult case. Kern County District Attorney Edward R. Jagels, who
refused to prosecute the satanic case, still defends the investigative
methods and lengthy prison sentences in the Pitts and other cases.
Arguments against them, he said, "just don't hang together."
Although some attorneys with the state attorney general's office
privately express doubts about the evidence in the Pitts and other cases
brought during the widespread molestation investigations of 1982 to 1985,
they say they can do nothing to overturn jury verdicts. Deputy Attorney
General Thomas Gede, who was assigned to the Pitts case on appeal, said
that after reading all 14,000 pages of trial transcript he is convinced of
the guilt of all seven defendants.
While those verdicts are being appealed, the Pitts defendants and many
others remain in prison with multiple life sentences, wondering if they
will ever leave prison and, if they do, ever restore a semblance of their
Colleen Forsythe, sentenced to 373 years in the Pitts case, said her
13-year-old daughter Windy, one of the two witnesses who have recently
recanted, has been through several foster homes and returned more than once
to the custody of juvenile authorities.
During trial, Forsythe, now 30, insisted on her innocence. "There was no
way I was going to say that I did something like that when I didn't," she
said during an interview at the California Institution for Women in
Miller rejected an early offer of a lighter sentence in exchange for
testifying against the others. "People think I was crazy for not taking
that deal, but how could I take responsibility for all these people?" she
Bakersfield tree surgeon Roy Nokes, who spent $50,000 in a successful
fight to clear his son and daughter-in-law of molestation charges in
another case, said he thinks some innocent people who lacked the necessary
financial resources accepted shorter jail terms after seeing the huge jury
verdicts against those in the Pitts case and others. His son,
daughter-in-law and others are suing a prosecutor and an investigator for
the alleged harm done them and their families.
"They should be hit hard enough that they never do anything like this
again," he said.
The Pitts case began in 1984 when Ricky Lynn Pitts, now 36 and a former
truck driver and bartender, and his wife Marcella were accused of molesting
Marcella's three sons by a previous marriage. The new wife of Marcella's
ex-husband told authorities the boys had reported being molested during
weekend visits to the Pittses' house on Sycamore Street.
Marcella Pitts, 34, serving a 373-year sentence in the case, said the
wife of her ex-husband made false charges because "she knew I was going to
fight for custody of those kids and she knew I'd win." But the boys'
account led authorities to take custody of them as well as eight other
children and, after weeks of interviews with the 11 children, to file
molestation charges against the Pittses, Forsythe, Forsythe's husband Wayne
(they have since divorced), Forsythe's mother Grace Dill, 55, Dill's son
Wayne Dill Jr., 33, and Miller.
At the trial, some children said they were injected with drugs, forced
to drink urine and alcohol and to engage in sex acts with adults and other
children while as many as three cameras recorded the scene. In some cases,
Ricky Pitts was accused of threatening children with being tied to a board
hanging on the wall.
The seven defendants all insisted on their innocence, and four took and
passed lie detector tests. But the prosecution produced testimony from a
physician, Bruce Woodling, that there were signs of molestation in two
children. The prosecution said it produced medical testimony on only these
two because they were the only ones who denied being molested.
Many child witnesses were interviewed repeatedly by Carol Darling, the
district attorney's child sexual abuse coordinator, before telling stories
of abuse and agreeing to testify. Darling, who declined to comment on the
case, retired on a disability pension last year for excessive mental and
Andrew Rubin, an attorney who represented Ricky Pitts, said he saw many
inconsistencies in the children's testimony and thought it sounded as if it
came from an outside source, but the jury seemed impressed by the medical
testimony and one moment of courtroom drama.
A 6-year-old girl witness, whom Pitts said he had disciplined in the
past, began screaming hysterically, "Don't let him get me! Don't let him
kill me!" when she was asked to identify him at the defendants' table.
Uncontrollable, she ran into the arms of Judge Friedman, who said after the
trial he felt "she was definitely traumatized, as were the other children."
At that point in the trial, Rubin said, "I realized I was in serious
trouble in this case."
The defendants began serving their sentences in the summer of 1985.
Their continued protestations of innocence were largely ignored until
Christina Hayes, now 14, Ricky Pitts' niece and the eldest of the child
witnesses, had a conversation with her guardian's wife during the 1986
The wife, Mary Isabell, said she was concerned about the girl's hostile
attitude and poor study habits. After a visit by Christina's grandfather,
who firmly believed in the innocence of the Pitts defendants, Isabell
invited Christina into her bedroom to discuss the trial.
"I said, 'We have to talk about it,'" Isabell said in a taped interview
with private investigator Denver Dunn, which is now part of the court
record. "I told her, 'You have to tell me the truth. Good God, if it
happened a little bit, not at all, a whole bunch, whatever happened, I need
to know so that I can help you.'"
After thinking about it for a moment, Christina changed her story and
said that nothing had happened. In the course of several days of talk with
Robert Hayes, the guardian she refers to as her father, and with Isabell,
she said her trial testimony had emerged from hours of interviews with
social worker Carol Darling and other investigators, in which she was told
accounts of what other children were saying. She said Darling told her some
potentially violent friends of the Pitts family were out to do her harm.
"They told me that if I didn't cooperate they would take me away from my
dad (Hayes) and put me in a foster home," Christina said in an interview
conducted during a walk in her Bakersfield neighborhood with no other
adults present. Her natural mother, Clovette Pitts, disappeared when the
others were arrested.
Hayes said he believes Christina is now telling the truth and noted that
her grades and general attitude have improved. But Jagels, the county
district attorney, and other county investigators said her new story is
false, perhaps concocted to relieve tension in the family. They emphasized
her lengthy, detailed testimony on the stand, which defense attorneys point
out consisted mostly of short, affirmative answers to detailed prosecution
questions. Jagels said he thought it significant that she could not specify
precisely where and when she heard the details of the molestations she
testified to. Jagels also noted her recantation came shortly after she
learned her grandmother, Grace Dill, had broken her leg in prison.
Three weeks after Christina Hayes changed her story, district attorney's
investigator Tam Hodgson interviewed Windy Betterton, Forsythe's daughter,
producing a transcript that is now in the court record:
Hodgson: "Okay. Those things that you testified to, are all of them
true, some of them true, none of them true?"
Betterton: "None of them are true."
Her cousin, Sherril Boyd, told Hodgson that she had informed the girl of
Christina Hayes' recantation and cautioned Windy to be sure she was telling
the truth. Boyd said the girl began to cry, and then said "the people at
the DA's office had kept asking, or saying over and over and over that they
knew she had been molested. She had finally just made up something to keep
them from questioning her anymore."
In the satanic cases, the attorney general's report criticized Kern
County investigators for interviewing "victims repeatedly, covering old
ground, reiterating other victims' statements, failing to question the
children's statements, and urging them to name additional suspects and
victims." Despite state guidelines against multiple interviews, one child
in the satanic case "was interviewed 24 times by sheriff's deputies and a
total of 35 times in the investigation," the report said.
Critics of the Kern County investigations, citing the attorney general's
report, have focused on several other cases investigated about the same
time by some of the same Kern County officials or by other officials using
Scott and Brenda Kniffen and Alvin and Deborah McCuan, two couples with
two small children each, were given prison terms of 240 to 268 years for
molesting their children, despite evidence that some of the children had
falsely accused other adults and had come under the influence of a mentally
disturbed relative who resented some of the defendants. Prosecutors used
testimony from Woodling that was challenged by David Paul, an
internationally recognized child abuse expert.
David A. Duncan, a 39-year-old former oil field worker, was sent to
prison for 60 years in 1984 on a molestation charge. Duncan was accused by
child witnesses discovered during a sweep of a neighborhood in another
investigation. The children were repeatedly interviewed before they
testified, and testimony by a jail-house informant was also used against
Duncan. He was released in late January after an appeals court reversed his
conviction and the prosecutor dropped the charges.
Howard L. Weimer, a 65-year-old former automobile repair shop owner, has
been in prison for a year after a woman he and his wife cared for as foster
parents years before accused him of molesting her. Eventually sheriff's
deputies, in part through lengthy interviews, found four other former
foster children of the couple who made similar accusations. The trial judge
imposed a 42-year sentence.
John A. Stoll, a 45-year-old former gas plant foreman, received a
40-year sentence after being convicted of molestation on testimony from his
son and some other children, including some who later recanted.
Many investigators and attorneys who handled Bakersfield child abuse
cases in the early 1980s vigorously defend their actions and ridicule the
attorney general's report. "It was just junk," former deputy district
attorney Gindes said in an interview. He said he still believed the satanic
cult accusations might have merit.
In a follow-up interview, Gindes denied criticizing the attorney
general's attack on the satanic case investigation or saying he thought the
satanic case might still have merit. He declined to say what his attitude
toward the case was.
Carol Darling's husband Brad, a lieutenant in the Kern County sheriff's
office, has continued to speak to church groups about his belief in some of
the satanic charges. He told one group, according to a transcript, that his
witnesses "described things that I can't fathom a child knowing about or
learning on television." The Darlings declined to be interviewed.
Snedeker said an expert witness, University of California Irvine
gynecologist R. David Miller, has concluded that the medical evidence used
at the trial was meaningless. But appeals and new trials take time. Despite
the widespread doubt about many of the Bakersfield molestation cases, the
people sent to prison expect to be there for some time.
Gina Miller said she is certain she will be free some day and thinks she
can start a new life with her children in another state. Her friend Colleen
Forsythe is less hopeful. When she is freed, she said, she may not try to
retrieve her children from their new homes.
"I'm scared of kids. I'm scared to death of kids," she said. "I'm glad I
can't have any more."