Complainant recants [USA]
New York TimesBy MAGGIE JONESPublished: September 19, 2004There are several ways to view the small white house on Center Street in Bakersfield, Calif. From one perspective it’s just another low-slung home in a working-class neighborhood, with a front yard, brown carpeting, a TV in the living room. Now consider it from the standpoint of the Kern County district attorney’s office: 20 years ago, this was a crime scene of depraved proportions. According to investigators, in the living room with brown carpeting and a TV, boys between the ages of 6 and 8 were made to pose for pornographic photos. On a water bed in the back bedroom, the boys were sodomized by three men, while a mother had sex with her own son. But look at the house once again — this time, through Ed Sampley’s eyes. Twenty years ago he was one of the boys molested in the house where sex abuse was part of the weekend fabric. That’s what he told Kern County investigators. That’s what he told a judge, a jury and a courtroom of lawyers. The testimony of Sampley and five other boys was the prosecution’s key evidence in a trial in which four defendants were convicted, with John Stoll, a 41-year-old carpenter, receiving the longest sentence of the group: 40 years for 17 counts of lewd and lascivious conduct. Now for the first time in 20 years, Sampley is back in the driveway of that small white house. ”It never happened,” he tells me. He lied about Stoll, an easygoing divorced father who always insisted the neighborhood kids call him John rather than Mr. Stoll and let them run in and out of his house in their bathing suits, eat popcorn on the living-room floor and watch ”fright night” videos. Last January, Sampley and three other former accusers returned to the courthouse where they had testified against Stoll. This time they came to say Stoll never molested them. They are in their late 20’s now. They have jobs in construction, car repair, sales. A couple of them have children about the same age as they were when they testified. Although most of the boys drifted apart after the trial, their life stories echo with similarities. Each of them said he always knew the truth — that Stoll had never touched them. Each said that he felt pressured by the investigators to describe sex acts. A fifth accuser isn’t sure what happened all those years ago but has no memory of being molested. During the court hearing to release Stoll, only his son Jed remained adamant that his father had molested him, though he couldn’t remember details of the abuse: ”I’ve been through many years of therapy to try to get over that,” he told the court. Maggie Bruck, co-author of ”Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children’s Testimony” and a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, says no long-term psychological studies exist that track groups of children involved in alleged sex-abuse rings, in part because of confidentiality issues. But Bruck has studied follow-up interviews of children involved in cases similar to the notorious McMartin preschool trial. Some kids continue to believe they were abused. Bruck suspects it’s because their families or therapists have reinforced the stories of abuse. ”The children say they don’t remember the salient, allegedly terrifying details,” she told me. ”But they are sure it happened.” Then there are other kids — kids like Sampley who have always known nothing happened and have spent years tormented by it. Linda Starr, the legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law, which represented Stoll in his hearing this year, is a former sex-crimes prosecutor and was surprised to see how much the events of 20 years ago had affected the children. ”Before I met them, I didn’t appreciate that these kids, who had not been sexually abused, would have experienced trauma comparable to kids who had been,” Starr says. In part, Sampley, now 28 and a worker for a commercial-sign maker, is haunted by his own role. ”Why couldn’t I withstand the pressure?” he says. ”I didn’t smoke when I was pressured by my friends. But when I was pressured by the investigators, I broke down. I still search for that moment I gave in.” He is also haunted by how the investigation distorted his trust. Several years ago, he realized that each time his stepdaughter, then 6, invited friends to the house, he shut himself in his bedroom; he didn’t want to play with strangers’ kids or even be around them. For a year, he also wouldn’t give his own daughter, now 3, a bath. ”I’m afraid of somebody saying something that isn’t true.” A child or an angry ex-girlfriend might twist the truth into a lie. A tickle becomes molestation; a hug is lechery. He knows firsthand that children do lie.