It was one of the most-horrifying trials in Texas history.
In 1992, Austin preschool owners Dan and Fran Keller were found guilty of abusing children in ways so awful they were hard to believe.
Starting with a three year-old girl’s claim that Dan Keller had “pooped on her head”, prosecutors uncovered a cavalcade of nightmarish acts, each more lurid than the last.
There were the children who’d been forced to watch as Keller killed his own dog, and then help him eat the remains. The baby Keller had chopped up and thrown in the pool while the children were swimming in it.
There were the secret plane trips to Mexico for abuse sessions. The time Fran Keller abducted a gorilla from a park and mutilated it before the children’s eyes.
It was a crazy list of crimes. Shocking. So repugnant it earned the Kellers 48 years in prison.
But it was also something else. It was fantasy.
During the Kellers’ trial not a single piece of physical evidence ever emerged of murders, of animal abduction, abuse, or even a plane trip to Mexico.
Rather than perpetrators, the Kellers were victims. Victims of the Satanic Panic, a 1980s media scare that’s still ruining lives to this very day.
Although it’s today considered as 1980s as Air Jordans or hyper capitalism, the earliest signs of America’s Satanic Panic were visible as early as 1969.
That was the year the Satanic Bible was published, giving the Church of Satan its key text.
It was one of the first ripples from the tsunami of Occult media that was about to sweep through the culture.
At the “obviously fictional” end of the scale, this included stuff like blockbuster movies The Exorcist, or The Omen.
At the other end of the scale, where fiction and fact were deliberately blurred, it included books like Mike Warnke’s Satan Seller.
A supposedly-autobiographical tale about how Warnke became high priest in a secret Satanic ministry before finding Christ and repenting, Satan Seller was as fake as your middle school girlfriend who ‘lived in Canada’.
Yet it was popular enough among evangelicals to trigger a rash of copycats. Across the 1970s, Satanic memoir after Satanic memoir landed, until a cottage industry had grown up.
Finally, in 1980, the genre had its breakout hit.
Michelle Remembers was the Titanic of occult abuse tales.
Detailing how psychiatrist Lawrence Pazer helped his patient-turned-wife Michelle Smith recover childhood memories of black magic and murder, it was devoured by the mainstream.
But while Titanic’s fictional romance at least got the part about the boat sinking right, Michelle Remembers was weapons-grade horse manure from start to finish.
Smith had wholly fabricated events, including claiming that she was at a multi-day Satanic ritual when records showed she was clearly in school.
Nonetheless, the book seemed to strike a chord deep in America’s soul.
This was an era when occult killings were all over the media, not just in movies, but also the news.
The Manson Family murders were barely a decade old. Just three years earlier, the Son of Sam murders had terrified New York with their ritualistic overtones.
It was also a time when the religious right was on the rise, spreading a message that angels and demons were real, literal creatures.
In these circumstances, it’s not hard to see how a book that seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears might become hyper-popular.
Today, the publication of Michelle Remembers is seen as key to the Satanic Panic, the moment when ordinary people began to feel that stuff like Rosemary’s Baby maybe wasn’t so fictional after all.
But really, it was more an accelerant. A gallon of gasoline hurled onto the burning embers of a million social anxieties.
To really understand why the Panic blew up just a few years later, we need to quickly identify these anxieties.
One of the biggest was the lightspeed transformation of the nuclear family.
The gains of the Sixties and the economic reality of the early 1980s meant women no longer stayed home to look after the kids, but went out to work.
Coming at a time when a conservatism centered around the traditional family was increasing, this meant a hell of a lot of parents feeling hella guilty about leaving their kids at daycare.
Which neatly brings us to our second major anxiety.
In 1980, Americans were finally starting to confront the existence of child abuse.
While the courts and child protection services had prosecuted abusers before, it was only with major legal overhauls in the late 1970s that it became clear how widespread the problem was.
At the same time, the new culture of mass media was amplifying these real fears out of all proportion.
When six year old Etan Patz was abducted in NYC in 1979, it wasn’t just a local tragedy. It made national news, freaking parents out across the nation.
Just a few years later, the practice of missing children appearing on milk cartons took hold.
Suddenly you couldn’t visit your local store without being reminded that there are awful people out there who’ll do awful things to children.
Michelle Remembers, then, landed at a moment when people were worried sick about their kids, worried sick about strangers, and bombarded by a media seeped in Satanic stories.
If you were looking to create the perfect climate for a moral panic, it’s hard to see how you could possibly do better.
This social powder keg finally exploded in 1983.
That summer, a local woman accused a McMartin Preschool employee of abusing her son.
Hoping to find witnesses, the police sent a letter to 200 anxious parents, telling them their kids had probably been abused and they should question them about it.
It was the beginning of a modern Witch Hunt.
As anyone who deals with children knows, kids love to tell adults what they think they want to hear, especially if it’ll get them a reward, or allow them to go back to playing.
So when hundreds of children were suddenly faced with adults who wouldn’t leave them alone until they admitted to being abused…
…well, you can see how that might go terribly wrong.
Under the direction of unlicensed psychotherapist Kee MacFarlane, 400 children were repeatedly interrogated with leading questions, until they started to fabricate stories of abuse.
But not just abuse.
According to the kids, the staff at McMartin could turn into witches and fly. They ritually sacrificed babies. They flushed one child down the toilet.
In hidden underground tunnels, they’d slaughtered a pony before the childrens’ eyes. Taken them on secret trips on submarines. Forced them to meet a man who was half-goat.
It was nuts. So nuts that, by 1985, the FBI had decided it was nonsense.
But by then the case had taken on a life of its own.
As every lurid detail of the McMartin case was broadcast in national media, other cases began to erupt across the nation. Cases that seemed to corroborate one another in a dangerous feedback loop.
In Bakersfield, Kern County, two social workers who’d read and become obsessed by Michelle Remembers were assigned to check on the children of a divorced couple.
While interviewing the woman, one of them suddenly asked if she thought her ex-husband – John Stoll – might be a child molester. When she replied with “he’s weird, so maybe,” that was all the ammo they needed.
The case fell to social worker Velda Murillo, who would later be exposed for her role in coaching child witnesses to make up outrageous accusations.
Her technique consisted of getting kids alone, telling them she knew they were abused, that Satanism was involved, and that she wouldn’t let them leave until they admitted it.
“They told me that John Stoll was a bad man,” one child witness later told the New York Times, “and I needed to help put him in prison so he wouldn’t hurt any more children. They said everything would be O.K. if I just told them something had happened.”
Under such pressure, the kids eventually agreed with whatever Murillo said.
With the help of aggressive prosecution by Kern County District Attorney Ed Jangles, this soon led to some of the worst miscarriages of justice in US history.
When single dad Jeffrey Modahl told authorities his daughters had been molested, for example, they sent Murillo, who decided – for no evident reason – that Modahl was the real abuser.
She coached Modahl’s 9-year old daughter to say he’d tied her to non-existent hooks in her bedroom and ritually assaulted her.
After Modahl was imprisoned, the girl recanted her testimony. But Kern County refused to listen.
Consumed with guilt, the girl would go on to attempt suicide multiple times.
Ed Jangles, meanwhile, became Kern County’s modern witchfinder general.
He aggressively pursued and convicted 27 people of Satanic Ritual Abuse, often for the flimsiest reasons.
In one famous trial, a local man named Scott Kniffen appeared as a character witness for someone accused.
Almost immediately after, Kniffen and his wife were in turn accused of Satanic abuse. Both were later convicted under Jangles.
And this was just in Kern County.
Across the nation, the next decade or so would see dozens of major cases, like that of Dan and Fran Keller. Or the West Memphis Three teenagers, accused of Satanic murder due to their goth lifestyles. Or the San Antonio Four, a group of gay women accused seemingly for being lesbians.
As the media whipped up hysteria about the growing number of cases, other parts of the establishment got sucked in.
Out of their depth, police forces turned to self-appointed “experts” on Satanic Ritual Abuse, using discredited books like Michelle Remembers as training manuals.
In such a febrile atmosphere, it was only through sheer luck that justice ever got served, like when the McMartin trial finally collapsed in 1990.
By then, it was the longest, costliest trial in US legal history. In the end, what swayed the jury were videotapes of the leading questions put to the child witnesses.
Sadly, the trial’s implosion didn’t act as the wakeup call the world needed. It was a one-off.
Most people accused wound up serving time.
Across the rest of the ‘90s, dozens more would go to prison for crimes they didn’t commit, based on nothing more than the coerced testimony of children.
Perhaps one of the saddest things about this entire panic is that the guilt this caused the children in their adult lives was not too dissimilar from the trauma caused by actual abuse.
Finally, as the 21st Century dawned, the Panic began to recede.
In its wake it left a series of shattered lives, and expensive exonerations.
In 2004, Velda Murillo’s best-known victim, John Stoll, was freed after nearly 15 years in prison, when all but one of the former child witnesses recanted their testimony.
In wider Kern County, the 27 convictions aggressively pursued by Ed Jangles were nearly all overturned, with only one victim who died in prison never officially exonerated.
Although the wrongful convictions cost the local government over $10 million, Jangles never once apologized for his role fueling the Panic.
As for Dan and Fran Keller, they finally walked free in 2013, 20 years after a modern witch hunt claimed their livelihoods and reputations.
Incredibly, they weren’t the last.
As you watch this on your phone in the third decade of the 21st Century, there are still at least three people sitting in prison thanks to convictions for Satanic Ritual Abuse.
In Miami, Frank Furster has been jailed since 1985. In North Carolina, Patrick Figured continues to sit behind bars. Up in Ohio, Joseph Allen remains a convicted felon thanks to a ritual abuse crime reported by a drug addict and fantasist.
The Satanic Panic may be over, but its horrors still linger. From the pain of those still jailed for imaginary crimes, to the former child witnesses now consumed with guilt at what people like Velda Murillo made them say about their moms and dads.
As a species, we may like to think we’ve progressed since the days of the Salem Witch Trials.
But cases like the Satanic Panic tell us otherwise. Tell us that we’re still just a bunch of hysterical, easily-led apes, all too ready to leap on the next outrage bandwagon.
Sadly, if this story has taught us anything, it’s that – when the next panic eventually blows up – it’s likely that these same mistakes will be repeated all over again.
NY Times, it’s time to revisit the Satanic Panic: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/31/us/satanic-panic.html
Vox, history of the panic: https://www.vox.com/culture/22358153/satanic-panic-ritual-abuse-history-conspiracy-theories-explained
io9, a brief overview: https://gizmodo.com/a-brief-history-of-satanic-panic-in-the-1980s-1679476373
NYT, in-depth on the Kern county abuse case: https://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/19/magazine/who-was-abused.html
Stranger Danger rise: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/05/stranger-danger-mass-incarceration-paul-renfro
Issues with Velda Murillo’s questioning: https://books.google.cz/books?id=Jjtp9HpOFrMC&pg=PT191&lpg=PT191&dq=velda+murillo&source=bl&ots=ATBMjTjFWg&sig=ACfU3U1g1LY1x9HgFW2OD200TZOpRdM6bA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjU7evAx63xAhWJ_aQKHc2JD70Q6AEwD3oECBAQAw#v=onepage&q=velda%20murillo&f=false