The longest and most expensive criminal trial in United States history had a modest beginning. On May 12, 1983, 40-year-old Judy Johnson dropped her two-and-one-half-year-old son off at the front of the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California without notice and drove away. The school's teachers cared for the unknown
"pre-verbal" boy in the hopes that his mother would return for him at the day's end.1
Although temporarily deserted by his mother, the boy was surrounded by a wide range of play objects that would have appealed to any toddler's imagination. The items of inspiration included child sized wooden animals, some of which had been shaped and painted
complete with mouths, eyes, and ears by Charles Buckey, the husband of Peggy
Buckey. The latter owned the preschool jointly with her mother, Virginia McMartin. The animals were placed in the play yard, turning it into a child's fantasy menagerie that included a giraffe, several rocking horses, a camel, octopus, dinosaur, and ducks (that children could sit and rock on), and at least one rabbit's face-on profile placed on the wall by the door of the front office.
Mixed in with the animals were other objects for children to play on, or play in. A commonplace slide stood next to a makeshift helicopter that children could sit in and pretend to fly. A wooden structure dubbed
"Fort - Issimo," resting upon a large wooden platform accessed by two wooden steps, could be driven by one of the two steel steering wheels placed on its opposite ends. A
"jungle gym," made of connecting steel pipes, was available for children to swing on. A wooden car allowed children to pretend they were driving (they could even
fill up the tank with
"gas" from a nearby wooden gas pump). A wooden playhouse with the door removed was available for playing house.
|The front of the
McMartin preschool (including part of the play yard), as could
be seen by 17,000 passing motorists every day from Manhattan
Beach Boulevard. (Photo courtesy of Peggy Buckey)
wooden animals, not real roaring lions, guarded the entrance to
the McMartin "tunnels," seen here in the background.
(Photo courtesy of Peggy Buckey)
Perhaps the most imaginative play item invented and built by Charles Buckey for the preschool children was a set of above-ground
"tunnels." Formed by brightly colored connecting wooden boxes and extending about 18 feet in various horse shoe formations, the
"tunnels," as they were called by the children, provided a fun place for adventurous toddlers to crawl through.2
These so-called "tunnels" were the only tunnels that ever existed either above or below the premises of the McMartin schoolhouse and schoolyard
or above or beneath any property adjacent to the McMartin property.
Out of empathy for Johnson and her son, and unaware of the ensuing catastrophe that awaited her entire family and the school's other teachers, Peggy Buckey signed the boy up for June classes. Buckey did not know that Johnson's odd behavior on the day she left her son was the act of a woman who had a history of emotional problems serious enough to affect the judgment of any mother. Johnson had been out of money since separating from her husband for the second time two months earlier. On top of those problems she was despondent over her other (13-year-old) son's inoperable brain cancer. Sometime during the summer, according to friends, Johnson began to drown her problems in alcohol.3
Prior to the time Johnson's son was enrolled at McMartin, the preschool had been one of the most prestigious and respected businesses in Manhattan Beach. School founder and 76-year-old co-owner Virginia McMartin, Peggy Buckey's mother, had earned four public citations for outstanding community service including the city's highest honor
the Rose and Scroll award.4 The school was so popular that applicants usually had to wait six months before their children could begin classes.5