'Kids Don't Lie'

Los Angeles Times Magazine/August 10, 2003

Faith in This Assumption Led to Dozens of Unjust Molestation Convictions in Bakersfield. Today One Man Remains in Prison Even After Four of His Original Accusers Said He Never Touched Them.

John Stoll wasn't particularly concerned when cops rousted him from bed in Bakersfield on a chilly June night in 1984. He figured the deputies were simply taking him downtown to sort out the latest back-and-forth between him and his ex. They'd been at each other's throats again. And collars and ankles and kneecaps. Figuratively, of course. There was never any violence, just constant recriminations and complaints to authorities about their contrasting parenting styles. He let their son, Jed, run wild at his house, she said. Well, you're trying to poison his mind against me, he complained. And on and on. A familiar story of a bad marriage that turned into a worse divorce.

A muscled carpenter with the self-assurance of a man with skilled hands, Stoll had barely sat down in the interview room when the deputy told him he wanted to talk about "the molestation of your son."

"By whom?" Stoll asked, alarmed. He'd spent thousands of dollars fighting to get custody of Jed, a precocious 6-year-old who loved to play with model cars and swim in the pool behind Stoll's rented house on Center Street. He loved that kid to death.

"By yourself."

The 31-page interview transcript is old and fuzzy with duplication. But it's not hard to hear the voice of the accused echoing over the years. Stoll went ballistic. More like hyper-ballistic. It's the "most insane thing I've ever heard," he said. "I swear to you this is just absolutely crazy. I just can't, oh, Lord almighty, I just can't believe this. This is absolutely crazy. This is absolutely crazy. My God, why would he say something like that? Oh, my God, Jesus Christ."

Even then, he didn't know how bad it was. It wasn't just his son. They believed he'd molested five of Jed's playmates. And molestation, as ugly a word as that was, was far too mild for the depravity they suspected. There was oral copulation, sodomy and group sex between kids and adults, including the mother of two of the victims, who allegedly was such a wacko she liked to have sex with her 7-year-old and then have her picture taken with him like a great white hunter with a shot-up gazelle. The way the cops had it, John Stoll, carpenter, Bud drinker, and, yeah, occasional weed smoker, was running a grotesque child porn ring out of his suburban tract house.

Stoll offered to take a lie detector test. He swore. He cried. He blamed his ex-wife. That's where they stopped him.

"These allegations are coming from your son," said an interrogator.

"Well, why would he say that? It's not true."

"Well, he says it because it is true," the deputy said. Six-year-olds "are not gonna lie about this kind of stuff . . . they just don't lie about sexual matters." It was a statement that became an axiom for child-abuse investigators across the nation in the '80s. Kids don't lie.

Stoll handed over his cigarettes and lighter, $19 in cash, a belt and his freedom. He didn't know it, but he'd been swept up in one of the most ambitious law-enforcement campaigns against deviant behavior in American history, with Kern County leading the way. By the time it ended two years later, hundreds of the county's working-class people would be investigated and dozens sentenced to prison, some for terms longer than the lifespan of some civilizations. Stoll's 40-year sentence was far short of the toughest.

It has, however, proven to be the longest served. Stoll watched as appellate courts released many of the others convicted in the eight Bakersfield child molestation "ring" cases, which came to be known as the "Bakersfield witch hunt." Some were freed on technicalities, others for prosecutorial misconduct. Judges issued stinging opinions harshly critical of the local justice system. In fact, of all the alleged molesters whose crimes were "uncovered" during the child-care panic that gripped the nation in the mid-'80s - from the infamous McMartin case to the Wee Care scandals in Massachusetts - Stoll is believed to have been held the longest.

Today, John Stoll is 60, bald and has little of the easy charm with women that helped him tear through three marriages back in the '60s and '70s. He's serving out what's left of his middle age in a dusty Central Valley prison that he asked not to be identified because he fears that if other inmates find out he's one of the Bakersfield molesters, they'll grind him into the cracked hardpan. Like his wariness and excessive politeness, this fear has become a part of the institutional personality that helped him survive.

"The first five years were really the hardest," he says in an interview in the prison's air-conditioned visitor room. Over time, he adjusted. "One thing you do in here, you don't think about out there." It was a good strategy, and it worked, until now. Stoll is once again thinking about "out there."

A small group of female attorneys working out of a creaky Victorian house in Santa Clara has promised to try to get him out. During the past year, Northern California Innocence Project lawyers have pored over thousands of pages of legal documents and tracked down witnesses scattered over more thousands of miles. They also talked to five of the six former child victims, who are now adults with their own families.

None remember any abuse at Stoll's hands. The sixth, Stoll's son, won't speak to the attorneys.

Victims say they were manipulated, bullied and even threatened into telling anatomically impossible tales of abuse that reflected the imaginations of investigators obsessed with exposing a vast child-abuse underground for which no hard evidence was ever found. These grown child victims tell of lives tormented, not by molestation, but by the legal system's efforts to wring stories of victimization out of small children.

"It screwed me up; the guilt of thinking I put my mom in prison for the worst offense possible," Donald Grafton says in an interview. He claims he was forced to falsely testify that his own mother had sex with him as a child. His mother, Margie, endured hellish treatment from other inmates. "Mom got black widow bites and they pushed her hands into machinery and busted them up because she was a child molester. It was directly on me because I lied and put her there."

Even though he left Bakersfield for Idaho, whenever he sees his own children running around the house naked, Grafton panics. He can't help worrying that someone will snatch them away, as he was snatched from his home.

"I have had to live with this terrible thing most of my life," Edward Sampley said in a recent statement to Stoll's lawyers. "I have always known it didn't happen. . . . I am bothered constantly by the thought that I was responsible for putting John Stoll in prison. I wish I could get all those people together today and ask them what gave them the right to do that to me when I was 8."

Despite the new evidence, there are no assurances Stoll will be cleared. The Kern County district attorney's office still believes he's guilty. Prosecutors explain away the recantations by saying victims change their stories for many reasons, including family pressure. The D.A. also has an ace in the holeStoll's son. Jed is the one victim who wouldn't talk to the women from Santa Clara. According to legal documents filed in opposition to Stoll's recent request for release, Jed says it all happened, just the way he testified back in 1984.

As for any harm the children suffered, "I didn't molest them, and nobody in this office molested them," says John Somers, a career prosecutor in Kern County.

Whatever the outcome of Stoll's case, it serves as a coda to one of the more controversial chapters of American legal history. Children telling unverifiable tales of animal and human sacrifice, movie star rooms and trips to outer space sent adults without previous criminal records to rot in prison for astonishing lengths of time. Some legal experts looking back on the era with a profound sense of shame maintain that the only things missing from the trials were the fire and the stake.

"The type of hysteria that swept the nation in the '80s . . . where were the leaders saying, 'Let's be cautious?' " demands Chuck Sevilla, a San Diego appeals attorney.

One irony is that this is all happening just as Stoll's Jan. 15, 2005 release date approaches. He will be free that day to buy a Budweiser and learn to use the strange communication devices called cell phones.

So does that make the strenuous effort to find out what really happened unimportant? Not to people who believe it's more than a matter of tidiness for the legal system to correct mistakes. Not to the Kern County D.A.'s office, which is reeling from the string of reversals in the "ring" cases and is all the more determined to prove it wasn't hysterically chasing phantom molesters.

And not to John Stoll, who still hopes to convince his son he's not an animal. "If on the 14th of January, I'm released rather than go out with parole, I'll be happy," Stoll says.

There are three kinds of people in Bakersfield: those who want to leave and can; those who can't; and those who prefer its row-crop-mottled vistas, its proximity to the ageless sequoias and the stark beauty of the Kern River gorge to any place on earth. The summers are brutal, but the land is big and rich, and there is an authenticity in the people that makes the place feel a lot smaller and friendlier than you'd expect in a city of 257,000.

They take pride in their essential Un-L.A.-ness. One thing they most despise about L.A. is its tolerance of boundary-pushers, line-cutters and law-breakers. Law enforcement is respected in Bakersfield, not mocked. And for two decades, the face of the law in Kern has been Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels, a trim man with a mane of handsome silver hair and a voice so soft you have to lean in to hear him. The office Web site boasts that Kern County sends more people to prison per capita than any county in the state.

Jagels won his job in 1983 after a scandal enveloped his opponent, a local judge, over his lenient treatment of a child molester. His election coincided with a growing belief that child abuse, once thought to be a one-in-a-thousand crime best left for families to resolve, was far more common. In 1973, just before Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act to spotlight the problem, there were 167,000 reports of child abuse in America. By the end of the '80s, as lawmakers nationwide turned up the heat on teachers and police to pursue abusers aggressively, 2 million abuse reports were filed each year.

This cultural kindling was set ablaze in Bakersfield, where the first of the "ring" cases came to trial in 1983. Ten people were accused, including a Bible school teacher and a county welfare worker. Children were supposedly forced to watch snuff films, including one where "a little girl who told" had her arms and legs cut off. Setting a pattern seen throughout the ring cases, no hard proof was found. But four of the defendants were convicted and each sent to prison for more than 240 years, then the longest terms ever imposed in California for any crime. All were later exonerated and set free.

Despite lurid headlines in the local paper, few people outside the San Joaquin Valley paid much attention. It took the disastrous McMartin preschool prosecution in Manhattan Beach to make child molestation ring cases a national phenomenon. In the McMartin case, a 25-year-old preschool teacher was arrested just as the first Bakersfield case went to trial. Attorney Michael Snedeker, co-author with investigative journalist Debbie Nathan of the book "Satan's Silence," says the timing was no accident. Bakersfield authorities were friendly with investigators in L.A. The Kern County cases, he says, were a dry run for McMartin.

There were many similarities. The children made the same often hard-to-believe allegations. The defense made the same objections that the children were programmed by child-care workers who wheedled, threatened and planted false suggestions.

But there were two differences. In McMartin, the interviews with the children were videotaped, allowing the jury to see the questioning. Kern County made no videotapes. Jurors had to rely on assurances from prosecutors that the children had freely volunteered their information.

The other difference? After seven years, and $14 million, the McMartin case collapsed with no convictions on any of the hundreds of counts against seven teachers - not to mention dozens of uncharged suspects - whose reputations had been ruined. Afterward, jurors said the taped interviews were "too biased, too leading."

In Bakersfield, the prosecution got one conviction after another.

By 1984, four other molestation rings were under investigation in Bakersfield. The atmosphere was poisonous. Adults quivered at being around strange children. Parents asked their lawyers to tape record their children saying their parents never touched them, just to be safe, according to the 1999 book "Mean Justice," by Edward Humes, about crime and punishment in Kern County.

"I moved here in 1981," says Kern County Counsel Mark Nations, who negotiated lawsuit settlements with many of those later set free, including a $4.25-million payout in May to seven people who served a combined 34 years in prison. "I was appalled" by what was happening.

John Stoll is the only child of a West Chester, Pa., leather-goods salesman and a housewife. He served four years in the Army and made sergeant before jumping headlong into the sex-and-rock-'n'-roll lifestyle of the '70s. He wore his hair long and managed a nightclub. Times were fast and he was faster.

At 5 foot 8, he's hardly intimidating, but even in prison, it's possible to see in his hazel eyes the combination of directness and confidence that attracts the opposite sex. He was too young for his first marriage in 1964, he says. His second lasted 11 years and produced a child, and no charges of molestation. His third marriage, in 1977, was to Ann Reinhold, who was 14 years younger.

They moved to California a year before she gave birth to Jed. "Things were fine until Jed was born," he says. Afterward his wife fell into a funk he now believes was postpartum depression. He says he would come home from work to find Ann listless and crying that the baby hated her. When Jim Jones and his cult followers committed suicide in the Guyanese jungle, he says, his wife told him, "Jed and I are going to do that."

Stoll says he took her to a mental hospital, where she stayed five days. Reached by phone in Pennsylvania, Ann Karlen refused to talk about her marriage to Stoll, other than to deny being institutionalized.

According to Stoll, after her release, she decided she didn't want to be married. They separated in July 1983. Ann got custody of Jed and Stoll got two weekend visits a month.

Stoll rented a house with a pool in a nice neighborhood for $600 a month. Because carpentry work was sporadic, he sublet rooms to make ends meet. Some renters had children, and neighborhood kids were in and out of the house. Stoll says Jed loved the free-flowing environment, where he could eat ice cream on the couch and watch videos like "Dragonslayer" that might be a little more violent than he was allowed at his mother's home. Asked in court if he liked going to his dad's house, Jed said he did.

Jed may have enjoyed the visits, but his mother hated her ex-husband's lifestyle. Stoll believed Ann was telling the boy his father didn't love him. He fell behind on his child support payments. Jed was put in the middle. On the first weekend in June 1984, Stoll later told a probation officer, Jed invited his father to his kindergarten graduation. You better pay Mommy, Stoll said the boy told him, "because she's going to put you in jail."

Two workers from child Protective Services went to see Ann in mid-June to talk about Stoll's accusations that she was brainwashing Jed. During that visit, one of the workers asked whether Stoll could be a child molester, according to old court documents. Ann said she'd never considered it, but added: "He's so weird, maybe."

The documents appear to show that the first allegation didn't come from Jed, or even Ann, but the agency itself, which seems to have thought it was on the trail of another ring of molesters. Kern County authorities had developed a theory to explain the presence of all these molestation rings: occult practices in the Ozarks that were brought to California by Dust Bowl refugees.

The chief investigator on Stoll was Conny Ericsson, a recent transfer into the sex crimes unit from the sheriff's transportation department. Stoll was his first case. "He was never, ever qualified for this post," says Ron Jackson, a Ventura attorney who represented Stoll at trial. "He was a bus driver."

The lead Child Protective Services worker was Velda Murillo, whom most of the victims remember as the one pushing them hardest to implicate people. Carol Ann Bittner, a former child victim in another Bakersfield case, has written that Murillo was a demanding woman intent on winning convictions. Bittner said that when she didn't testify the way Murillo wanted, the woman called her a name and threatened to slap her.

Victor Monge, one of the children in the Stoll case, recalls being fearful that if he didn't say what Murillo wanted, his mother, an illegal immigrant, would be deported. "I was scared they were going to take my mom away," says Monge, now 26. "They kept pushing and pushing until they got the answers they wanted."

As had happened to Donald Grafton, the experience made him fear showing love to his own son. "I couldn't even give my son a shower like normal dads do," Monge says. "Someone may say, 'You're touching him.' "

Police reports show that when Jed was asked about being abused, he "had difficulty talking about his father." Eventually, however, Jed did accuse his father. Within days, the investigation grew to include three other suspects and a total of six boys. The youngest was Jed, 6, the eldest Allen Grafton, 9.

Besides Stoll, deputies arrested a man who rented his pool house, Grant Self, and Margie Grafton, mother of Donnie and Allen. Grafton's boyfriend, Tim Palomo, was also arrested.

Grafton was a vivacious young woman who sold insurance and played in a darts league under the nickname "Marginal." She met Stoll through a co-worker who dated him. Because Margie's two sons were about the same age as Jed, the couples double-dated. In response to allegations that they were sex fiends cavorting behind closed curtains at Stoll's house, Grafton said they spent hardly any time there.

While Grafton was at work, Murillo and Ericsson picked up her children and took them to the Jamison Center, a juvenile facility where many of the "ring" children were housed. The Grafton boys were held 10 days and repeatedly questioned about whether their mother molested them. Only when they finally agreed, Grafton says, were they released to their father. She recalls that close friends abandoned her. "People who knew me from years and years and years told me, 'How could you do that?' "

As rings go, this was one of the smaller ones. The only defendant with a history of similar crimes was Self, who had recently been paroled from Atascadero State Hospital on a child-abuse conviction, something Stoll says he didn't know when he let him bunk in the pool house. Stoll believes Self's record was a major reason the investigators pursued so aggressively. "Guilt by association," he says.

At a pretrial hearing, the Grafton boys denied their mother touched them. Asked if he told "Officer Conny" she had, Allen said, "Velda kept asking me and I said she didn't, and she kept telling me that she did. And she finally got to me."

When another victim, Chris Diuri, was asked how he, at 4 feet, could sodomize an adult taller than 6 feet, he said, "I stand on my toes."

The long-term effects on Diuri may be the most profound. "Look at my attitude," he told lawyers last year. "I've been like this my whole life. I've had a lot of behavior problems in school, with the law. This, basically, screwed up our lives growing up."

Kern County Superior Court Judge Allen E. Klein noted "obvious inconsistencies" in the children's testimony, but held all the jailed defendants for trial.

Testimony at trial was more cohesive. The defense team had little to work with other than the inconsistencies in testimony. There were no tapes of the interviews to dissect. Even though Jed testified he had been sodomized by his father only two weeks before Stoll's arrest, he was not examined by a doctor.

Linda Starr, one of Stoll's new attorneys and a former sex crimes prosecutor, says she cannot imagine not taking the children to a doctor. "Your first responsibility is to the health of the child. You don't know what diseases they may have been exposed to."

Defense attorneys felt they had discredited the prosecution case. Instead, the jury convicted all the defendants. Some jurors were across the street in a bar when the crushed defense team walked in.

"We were being restrained in our comments because we felt like fighting them," says Ron Jackson, Stoll's lawyer. Jurors told them they didn't believe what the kids said was actually true, but thought something unseemly must have happened. After all, kids don't lie.

Like many pat statements of faith, that maxim turned out to be flat wrong. Nobody knows why it came to be so widely accepted. But it joined "fer shur" as one of the catch phrases of the '80s.

The truth is that children are as fallible as any human, and because of their vulnerability, far more susceptible to the blandishments of adults, particularly those with the status of police officers and welfare workers. In the past decade, study after study has shown that children can be manipulated to lie and even to create false memories they then energetically defend as truth.

Experiments show "children subjected to biased interviewers or suggestive tactics often make false reports," attorney Robert Rosenthal argued in a 2002 article in the psychology journal Developmental Review.

Examples of interviewer bias include telling the child you know what happened, all you need is for him to confirm it. Or repeating the same question until the child figures out what you want him to say. Or using threats and rewards, saying "good girl" when she makes the right accusation, or withholding approval if she doesn't. Lastly, there's "stereotype induction," telling the child the accused is a bad person who needs to be somewhere where he can't harm any more children.

All those methods were used in the Stoll case, according to the Innocence Project. Diuri told attorneys that he was interviewed 12 times. "During the first few interviews, I kept telling [investigators] that I had not been molested," he said in a deposition. But interrogators persisted. "She would ask a question in a way like, 'Did John do this, this and that to you, because the other kids, Donnie or Jed, said this happened.' At some point, I couldn't take the pressure. I was just a little kid. To avoid the pressure and so I could get back home to my friends, I began to answer, 'Yeah, that is what happened.' "

He said he was offered ice cream for cooperating. He also was told, "If I don't say what the other kids said happened to me, then I would be taken away from my home and sent to juvenile hall."

As the Stoll "ring" went off to prison, the child molestation investigation in Bakersfield was about to metastasize one last time. After one girl reported doing bad things in a "bad church," deputies launched the so-called "Satanic church" cases, encompassing 80 suspects and 22 child victims telling of blood-drinking rituals, animal and human sacrifice and cannibalism.

Yet after dragging two lakes and digging up property as far away as San Luis Obispo County, none of the bodies of 12 children the victims said were killed in rituals were ever found.

People in the community began to suspect investigators had gone around the bend. Horrified at the sight of children too young to talk being ripped from their families and by the explosion of apparently hysterical claims against parents, the county's grand jury appealed to the state attorney general to investigate the investigators. That inquiry produced a 1986 report critical of Kern County law enforcement for the same kinds of abuses that would later doom the McMartin investigation: poor interview techniques, sloppy reports, failing to try to gather independent evidence showing a crime took place.

There was a strange epilogue to the Satanic church cases. Despite the unwavering belief that kids don't lie, when children accused a prosecutor and a deputy of abuses, the accusations "were discarded with no serious investigation," the report noted.

Despite the Satanic church fiasco, the attorney general did not review Stoll's and other earlier cases, even though the same discredited techniques were used by the same investigators. To appeals attorney Sevilla, this failure to look back is as troubling as the abuses were in the first place. "The system is content to say, 'Ho hum, that's over.' The result is the destruction of individual lives."

There was no one event, no Eureka moment, when the nation began to grow skeptical of the Satan hunters. Oh, there were times when we all heaved a collective "What?" As when Geraldo Rivera's 1988 special, "Devil Worship: Exploring Satan's Underground," trotted out obviously disturbed women who claimed to be mothers of sacrificed babies. It was more a cumulative process. Over time, as no mass burial grounds turned up, the pendulum began to swing the other way. Some observers believe authorities, feeling chastened, are reluctant to pursue even good cases.

In Bakersfield, after the dust settled, 40 mostly blue-collar people had been convicted, according to author Humes. Beginning in the late 1980s and over the next decade, cell doors started swinging open as appellate judges turned up errors and legal misconduct. Many of those appeals, including the one that freed Margie Grafton and Tim Palomo, were mounted by Snedeker himself. Altogether he has freed 18 Bakersfield prisoners.

"Mike's dedication is nothing short of amazing," says Kent of the Innocence Project. "It's incredible how much he's fought for these people."

To Snedeker, it was a matter of simple justice. "Those were not reasonable times," he says.

Snedeker says he has always been "haunted" by Stoll's case. He believed in his innocence, but didn't feel he had the legal tools to take on his case. He couldn't use the tactic he employed to free Graftonthat the trial judge erred by refusing to admit a psychological test showing she was normal. Even though Stoll recalled taking and passing the test, his attorney had failed to offer it as evidence.

The Innocence Project, which is attached to Santa Clara University's school of law, agreed to take on the case last year. But Stoll wasn't so quick to warm to his saviors. Over the years, he'd tried unsuccessfully to draw the interest of Melvin Belli and other big-name attorneys. Every few years, some do-gooders would write to say they knew he was innocent. Nothing came of it, and Stoll pulled further into himself.

"How can these people ignore me?" evolved into "Just keep your head down and count your paces in the yard." Each day he walked five miles, without fail. He watched television and shot the bull with inmates he could trust with his secret about the nature of his case. He forgot about the outside world.

He says he "programmed" himself to not think about the injustice, of being free. "Now it's all back. I appreciate the fact somebody believes me," but it's not helping him sleep at night. "I'm dredging it all out again."

Going against his hard-won prison yard wisdom, he's beginning to hope. And there's no ache like unrealized hope. "My mom died while I was in here," he says. "She never believed for a minute that I did this. I'd have liked to get out and say, 'See, Mom, you were right.' "

The new attorneys filed a habeas petition last year saying the recantations prove Stoll is innocent. These petitions are legal tools of last resort for the desperate and often fail. In this case, there are several hurdles, not the least of which is Jagels' decision to fight Stoll's release. Deputy Dist. Atty. Lisa Green filed papers last month claiming that even if you believe the victims who said they were manipulated, Jed has not done so. A declaration by Jed, now 25 and living in Maryland, denies he was pressured by investigators and insists "the testimony I gave was truthful at the time I testified in 1984." Efforts by the Los Angeles Times to reach Jed were unsuccessful.

Allen Grafton gave statements to both sides offering insight into his particular personal torment. He told the Innocence Project he remembered being programmed, but he informed the prosecution that he had told the truth in 1984. He told both sides he has no memory of being molested, only of childhood sex play with Jed and Donnie. Even though he can't remember what it was, he has for years had counseling "as a result of something happening in my childhood."

Margie is most worried about Allen. "He's not doing as well as Donald," she says. "Mentally, he's having a lot of problems."

Kent claims these are the kinds of things you'd expect to see when victims suffer from implanted memories. Jed, the youngest, was the most vulnerable and susceptible to the influence of zealous investigators and a mother embroiled in a bitter struggle with her ex-husband.

In the next few weeks, Kern County Superior Court Judge John Kelly could order a hearing to question the recanters, as well as Jed. The result could be a bizarre replay of the 1984 trial, only in an atmosphere much changed from the frantic fear and paranoia that gripped Bakersfield two decades ago.

What is the landscape of truth? Where are its borders? John Stoll looks you straight in the eye and says he didn't do it. But there's Jed. "That's the part that hurts more than anything, to be truthful," Stoll says, his eyes flooding and his careful crustiness cracking.

The last time he saw Jed was at the trial. "I wrote him once when he was in a boys home," Stoll says. Jed replied he didn't want to have anything to do with his dad.

Stoll looks around the visiting room, filled with wives and laughing children clinging to fathers in blue prison garb. "All I want to do is get out of here. People in here are some lousy people." He pauses. But if you go by his record, "I'm the worst in here. That hurts."

What happened in Bakersfield may never be known. Some on the prosecution side insist everything occurred exactly as the sheriff's department said, down to Satanic cults with roots in the Ozarks. The defense says it was all the fantasy of inexperienced investigators seeking glory at the expense of working-class families.

But there is a middle ground. Some think that in many of the cases something likely did happen: An uncle touching a young girl inappropriately. A convicted child molester living in a pool house who may have rubbed the front of a young boy's bathing suit.

Deputy D.A. Somers says he believes "real molestation took place, but maybe exaggerations occurred."

The fact that no big ring cases emerged after 1985, says Kern County Counsel Nations, is "a very persuasive argument" that garden variety molestations, as revolting as those are, were twisted into something more perverse and pathological.

Friends and allies of the wrongly convicted use words such as "evil" and "craven" to describe the behavior of everyone from Child Protective Services workers and sheriff's deputies to prosecutors. But it's also possible that at that time and in that peculiar place, they were doing the best they could.

More problematic is the bunker attitude that has developed since appellate courts started kicking prisoners loose to file civil rights lawsuits against the county. Reached by phone in Redding, where he now works for the state Department of Justice, Conny Ericsson insists that Stoll "is where he belongs. I had absolutely not one doubt about his guilt, or the others."

Velda Murillo lives in a newer tract house in a nice Bakersfield neighborhood. She retired several years ago, but when she answers the door in a green pantsuit, she's as tidily put together as any 9-to-5er. Small and birdlike, with big glasses, she says curtly that she won't answer any questions about the Stoll case.

Any regrets about what she did?

"None at all," she says.

The only certain thing left over from the ring cases is the "black mark on the community," Nations says. It will take more time than Stoll has left on his sentence for that to go away, or for the alleged victims to forget.

The ensuing years have not been kind to Allen Grafton. "Every time I talk to the kids, they're feeling bad," Margie Grafton says in a phone interview from her home in Sacramento. She spent time in prison, yet she sounds most concerned about what her children suffered.

"I didn't get to see my kids when they were growing up," she cries softly. "There's nothing I can tell them except it's not their fault."

In the seventh grade, Donnie wrote a poem expressing his personal tragedy:

Who Am I

I get good grades
But still others get the parades
Never me!
But still it comes up, who am I?
As I cry!
My mother imprisoned innocently for seven years
Here come the tears
As (I) cried and lied and put her there
She didn't do it
I was forced to lie
Here I go to cry, cry, cry
But I lie to myself as the question
Comes again
Who am I.

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