Twenty-five years ago Sunday, a child-abuse complaint filed with the Department of Social Services in Edenton ignited what would become the states longest, costliest and surely most bizarre criminal trial.
Bob Kelly, co-owner of the Little Rascals Day Care Center, and six other innocent defendants fell victim to an ad hoc conspiracy of hysterical parents, ill-trained therapists and malicious prosecutors.
Edenton attracted national infamy, thanks to Ofra Bikels extraordinary Frontline trilogy on PBS, but it was far from unique. During the 1980s and early 90s a wave of nonexistent satanic ritual abuse claims shut down scores of day cares such as Little Rascals, McMartin in California and Fells Acres in Massachusetts. In virtually every instance the charges lacked any basis in fact. Today no reputable psychologist or other social scientist will argue otherwise. The defendants were innocent victims of a moral panic that bore striking similarities to the Salem witch hunts 300 years earlier.
In the beginning more than 90 children at Little Rascals accused a total of 20 adults with 429 instances of sexual abuse over a three-year period. Among the alleged perpetrators, though not charged: the sheriff and mayor.
Along with sodomy and beatings, the therapist-generated accusations detailed a baby killed with a handgun, a child hung upside down from a tree and set on fire and countless other fantastic incidents involving spaceships, hot air balloons, pirate ships and trained sharks.
Prosecutors used exorbitant bail and court-calendar delays to keep defendants jailed in hopes at least one would turn against their supposed co-conspirators. Showing remarkable courage, none did. Five defendants had to wait longer to face their accusers in court than anyone else in North Carolina history.
Bob Kelly was convicted of 99 counts of child abuse and sentenced to 12 consecutive life sentences. He would serve six years in prison before the N.C. Court of Appeals resoundingly overturned his conviction and that of day-care cook Dawn Wilson, who had served two years.
Between 1991 and 1997, Frontline devoted a total of eight hours to the plight of the Edenton Seven. Although Innocence Lost failed to deter prosecutors, it exposed their brutal tactics and fostered nationwide dismay at North Carolina justice.
With each passing year, the absurdity of the Little Rascals charges has become more obvious. But no admission of error has ever come from prosecutors, police, interviewers or parents.
Even after all the defendants were released, Assistant District Attorney Nancy Lamb bitterly continued to insist they were guilty.
In 2007 Attorney General Roy Cooper granted the defendants in the Duke lacrosse case a statement of innocence. In 2012 Gov. Bev Perdue pardoned the Wilmington 10. But the Edenton Seven have never received exoneration from the state.
Claude Sitton was editor of The News & Observer from 1970 to 1990. When I look back, he told an oral history interviewer in 2007, I think my greatest mistake [was] my failure ... to make sure we had a top-notch investigative reporter on the Little Rascals case. ... I think had we sent someone like Pat Stith down there, that would have been it.
That prosecutor had gone wild, eaten up by ambition, I suppose, to hang these people, these people who operated the Little Rascals Day Care Center, no matter how. As it turned out, [the Edenton Seven were eventually released], but it wrecked their lives forever. And I still feel sorry about that.
Unlike Sitton, the state of North Carolina seems remorseless. Eighteen months ago I petitioned Attorney General Roy Cooper to issue a statement of innocence for the Edenton Seven. The Little Rascals case not only shattered the lives of the defendants, my letter argued, but also left a deep and ugly stain on the reputation of the State of North Carolina.
In 2001 Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift signed a resolution proclaiming the innocence of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials. In time, such victims of the ritual-abuse day-care panic as the Edenton Seven will surely receive similar exoneration. Why not now? Why not in North Carolina? This is an opportunity to demonstrate moral leadership on anational scale.
Cooper has yet to respond.
Lew Powell, a former Charlotte Observer reporter and editor, blogs at littlerascalsdaycarecase.org.