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

pornography ring.


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,

10-month-old Tammra.


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

several children.


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

previous lives.


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

emotional stress.


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

Christmas season.


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

similar methods:


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."