Accusations flew of sacrifice, drinking blood, sexual abuse and the invocation of demonic forces but it was wasn’t Salem, and the year wasn’t 1692. The conviction of Daniel and Frances Keller took place in Travis County, Texas, three centuries later amid what became, quite literally, a modern-day witch hunt.
It began when the Kellers were accused of sexually abusing a troubled 3-year-old girl, Christy Chaviers, who was a visitor at Fran’s Day Care, which the couple was running out of their Austin home. The couple was convicted in 1992 and spent 21 years in prison until they were freed in 2013 — but not until after an investigative journalist and attorney looked into their case and discovered it was riddled with outlandish accusations, inconsistent testimony and undisclosed exculpatory evidence.
The Kellers were not the only ones to face outlandish charges; in the 1980s and early ’90s, a phenomenon that has since become known as “Satanic Panic” was sweeping the nation. A confluence of societal factors led to widespread hysteria about Satanists who were hidden in plain view and running clandestine, national child sex abuse rings. Hundreds of people — many of them daycare workers — were accused of abuse, including the McMartin family in California and Margaret Kelly Michaels in New Jersey. (The McMartins were eventually acquitted, and Michaels was exonerated, but not until she had spent six years in prison).
On 20 June 2017, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore filed a motion to dismiss the case against the Kellers. In a statement released to reporters, Moore said:
In making this very difficult decision, I personally read the trial and post-conviction transcripts and viewed the evidence introduced at trial. I take seriously my responsibility under Texas law to see that justice is done. Given the current state of law on actual innocence and the evidence remaining in this case, I believe this to be a just outcome.
The couple described in an interview with local television station KXAN their horror at hearing they had been found guilty and sentenced to 48 years. Frances Keller tearfully recounted fainting while being led out of the courthouse:
I couldn’t believe it. This is everybody’s nightmare. How anyone can be accused of something so horrible and know they didn’t do it. It’s unbelievable, the heartache. It’s horrible.
The Kellers may well have spent the rest of their lives in prison had it not been for Jordan Smith, an investigative reporter for the Austin Chronicle who in 2009 wrote an article in which she re-examined the evidence against the couple. Smith, an award-winning journalist who now works for The Intercept, told us she stumbled across the case when someone asked at a district attorney candidate forum whether the injustice done to the Kellers would be reversed:
I was familiar with the McMartin [ritual abuse] case, etc., but had no idea Austin had gotten caught up in that mess. So I decided to dust the case off and check it out.
While working on the piece, Smith convinced Austin-based attorney Keith Hampton to look into the Keller case, and after doing so he took it on pro bonoin 2010. He told us:
The more I dug into it and checked out some of the witnesses, I just couldn’t believe it.
In 2015, Hampton tried to get the court to enter an opinion reconsidering the Kellers’ guilt, because he said that he knows that another moral panic is inevitable, and when it happens, he wants an opinion on record for legal reference. He wrote about the outrageous-sounding accusations that were leveled at the couple and the credulous law enforcement community that went along with them:
In this case, investigators and others were swept up in the hysteria of the times so fully that they scoured the records of at least eight airports searching for a mythical airplane which could land in a residential neighborhood, kidnap children from daycare, deposit them in Mexico where they were molested, then return them with no one noticing.
Police equipped a helicopter with an infrared camera and flew over at least eleven cemeteries in search of sites of human sacrifice. They searched everywhere and investigated everyone even remotely suspected of nefarious, supernatural activities. While detectives investigated other detectives, parents — with police participation — took four-year-old children to various cemeteries across Travis County and encouraged them to roam around grave sites in an effort to identify Satanic activities.
The facts of this case demonstrate how fully an episode of mania can envelop even intelligent, educated people. This recurring psychological phenomenon can produce devastating consequences in the criminal justice system, as it did for the Kellers. This Court should recognize it now and publicly identify it through a published opinion to inform future courts, prosecutors and lawyers. When the next hysteria blows through the criminal justice system, there will at least exist a benchmark in Texas law.
Hampton’s attempt was unsuccessful, and in the end it was the district attorney that filed for dismissal of the case.
Hampton told us that he observed yet anothe panic play out in the United States even more recently. It did not rise to the level of criminal prosecutions, but was a panic no less — the “creepy clown” sightings around Halloween 2016.
The problematic criminal case
As with Salem witch hunts, the moral panic in the 1980s was largely based on fiction but the consequences were real. In her 1995 book Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, investigative journalist Debbie Nathan pointed to a chilling statistic — in a nationwide survey published by the American Bar Association Center for Children and the Law in 1993, 26 percent of prosecutors polled reported they had handled at least one case involving elements of Satanic ritual abuse. Nathan told us:
Few of the cases, especially as you move past the ’80s came to prosecution. But many people’s lives were ruined. And many people were pushed out of early childhood education.
Christy, a toddler experiencing serious behavioral issues and whose parents were going through a bitter divorce, was seeing a therapist for problems that began before she started going to the day care.
It so happened that her therapist, Donna David-Campbell, was a believer in ritual abuse. According to Smith’s reporting, problems for the Kellers began on 15 August 1991. Christy had spent part of the day at the Kellers’ and was en route to a therapy session when she told her mother that Dan Keller had spanked her. By the time her therapy session was over, Christy’s accusation had snowballed into sexual abuse, including a claim that Keller had urinated and defecated on her.
As time went on, other children joined in the accusations against the Kellers and their stories became more and more bizarre and disturbing, including that the Kellers were abusing animals, making the children drink blood, and forcing them to dig up bodies in cemeteries. Meanwhile, the therapist (who was treating Christy (and one other child) was telling Roger Wade, a now-retired Travis County Sheriff’s deputy who initially investigated the case, that the abuse was “Satanic.” Wade was skeptical, but the case was eventually taken out of his hands and placed with the Austin Police Department when an acquaintance of his was implicated.
James Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who specializes in child forensic interviews, told us that the way Christy was questioned by a Travis County social worker led her to accuse the Kellers of abuse. At that time, the assumption was that children don’t lie or make up allegations of sexual abuse. That wasn’t entirely true — small children may not intentionally “lie”, but their narrative can be easily contaminated by adults with leading questions or suggestions.
Wood told us:
What people didn’t realize was that it’s pretty easy to change a child’s story if you’re not careful. What they didn’t understand is, the way a well-meaning person questions a kid can really affect his or her answers, particularly if you pressure the kid.
Aside from Christy’s contradictory testimony and the recanted confession by a friend of the Kellers who had admitted to participating in the abuse, Hampton noted in a court brief that an “expert witness” who was key in the Kellers’ conviction was Randy Noblitt, a psychologist from California who acknowledged under oath he had never interviewed Christy himself, but nonetheless was certain she had been subjected to Satanic ritual abuse.
According to a court brief submitted to Hampton by Evan Harrington, psychology professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Noblitt’s claims were not only far-fetched and conspiratorial, they were outside the bounds of professional standards. Harrington wrote:
At trial, Dr. Noblitt testified about the existence of cults using ritual abuse and of organized satanic networks engaged in wide-ranging criminal enterprises including child abuse. The picture painted by Dr. Noblitt in his testimony at trial is one where criminal cults are common across the United States, and that these alleged cults typically engage in torture and murder of both adults and children. Furthermore, Dr. Noblitt opined that these cults are experts in a form of mind control or brainwashing in which victims are so heavily traumatized that they develop total and complete amnesia until the victim enters therapy and recovers the memory. His descriptions of these cults involved rape, murder, torture, grave robbing, and ceremonial animal and human sacrifice. Furthermore, he alleged that these activities took place at churches, involved police officers and other professional individuals. Lurid media coverage of this issue at the time additionally invoked the specter of widespread cannibalism. In order to explain the lack of physical evidence for these outrageous crimes, Dr. Noblitt explained to the jury that these cults will frequently lead their victims to believe in something preposterous, so that if they ever told of their tortures the stories would involve elements that would be so far-fetched that the victims would necessarily be disbelieved. This, according to Dr. Noblitt, was done intentionally by the cults as part of the mind control programming in order to discredit their victims.
In an interview shortly after the trial in a local newspaper, Dr. Noblitt was described as having been the prosecution expert witness in many ritual abuse cases, including the Keller case (Dickinson, 1993). He stated in that interview that Dan Keller, while in court, used a mysterious hand signal to mind-control people within the courtroom. Further, he asserted that cults use severe torture on victims and that all memory of the torture is repressed. In a direct quote from this news article, Dr. Noblitt stated: “I believe they use a technique of mind control unknown in legitimate psychology. It’s akin to hypnosis, created through abuse…the state of shock is so severe that it sends the victim into a deep trance state. Then cult members use different signals or triggers…” to control the victims.
Noblitt, who is still licensed in California and teaches at Alliant International University, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment for this story.
To explain how a conspiracy theorist with a worldview worthy of The X-Files helped a jury convict the Kellers, Wood pointed out what happened during 1980s and early 1990s was in many ways identical to other moral panics in human history like, once again, the Salem witch trials:
The accusations were the same, the dynamics were the same, the way of gathering of evidence was the same, it’s the same phenomenon cropping up. After humans had landed on the moon, we were having an outbreak of witch craft fever in a modern, industrialized country.
How the Satanic Panic spread
A confluence of factors that coalesced in the late 1970s and 1980s and persisted into the early 1990s gave rise to the Satanic Panic, Nathan told us. For the first time in modern history, white middle class women were entering the work force en masse, and as a result, daycares proliferated. For example, Fran Keller told Smith that she quit her deli job in 1989 and began watching her boss’s baby. By the time the couple was accused of wrongdoing in 1991, they were watching between eight and ten children each day. The explosion of daycare use caused parents widespread guilt and anxiety — and a lot of resulting pseudoscience about how they were damaging to children.
Apprehension about this change in social norms was shared by both the cultural left and the right for different reasons. Feminists in the 1970s had pushed the issues of sexual and domestic abuse to the forefront, whereas before it had often been swept under the rug, which meant, in turn, the topic of child abuse was on the public’s radar. Evangelical Christians favoring traditional family models in which women stayed at home wielded newly-found social influence and focused anxiety about mothers’ evolving roles outside the home on the natural Christian antagonist — Satan.
Mass media and the entertainment industry played a major role in the panic, Nathan explained. The book Sybil had been released in 1973 about a woman allegedly suffering from what was then called multiple personality disorder. The movie The Exorcist, a frightening story about a little girl possessed by the Devil, became wildly popular. Against that backdrop, heavy metal bands using “Satanic” imagery and lyrics and the popularity of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons began creating a counterculture stir.
In 1980, psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder’s book Michelle Remembers was published. In that book, Pazder became the first authoritative voice to tell a wide audience his patient (who eventually became his wife) had experienced repressed memories of Satanic ritual abuse which could only be retrieved through hypnosis.
Media coverage, meanwhile, was breathless and credulous, with daytime hosts like Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jesse Raphael and Oprah devoting special coverage to the allegedly growing Satanic threat.
What pushed the panic into high gear was a movement among some psychologists and psychiatrists who labored under the now-debunked belief that patients were recalling deeply repressed memories of Satanic ritual abuse. One high-profile practitioner was Noblitt, he of the conspiracy theories. In sessions televised by the ABC news program Primetime, reporter Jay Schadler watched Noblitt’s patient “Vanessa” drift through a large number of extreme emotions and personalities — one of them being Satan. (“Vanessa’s Satan seemed like a pretty friendly guy to me,” Noblitt told a deadpan Schadler.)
Richard Noll, an associate professor of psychology at DeSales University, described the psych community’s role in the phenomenon in a 2013 essay for Psychiatric Times:
Just 25 years ago, American psychiatry was infected by a psychic pandemic that originated outside the profession. In 1983 it broke out of a reservoir of religious, legal, psychotherapeutic, and mass media mixing bowls. Children in US day care centers and adults in psychotherapy told 2 distinct versions of their malady. By 1988 some elite members of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) were making it worse. They had become its vectors. Then other elite psychiatrists stepped in to quarantine the profession. Eventually, just like the last wave of the influenza pandemic, after 1994 it ended as suddenly and incomprehensibly as it had started.
Lucien Greaves, spokesman for the Satanic Temple (a group of secular activists who do not worship any deity but use the term “Satan” to counter what they consider undue Christian overreach in U.S. civic life), explained how patients were convinced that they had recalled memories of horrific abuse when in fact no such things had happened:
We’re talking about vulnerable people who were seeking the aid of mental health professionals to gain an understanding of whatever had gone wrong in their lives and in their own behavior that has proven counterproductive to their happiness and needs. In cases in which these clients became convinced of impossible narratives regarding Satanic crimes, many of them were told that their problems were indicative of repressed trauma, abuse that they themselves were unable to confirm or deny, as it was sequestered from conscious recollection by way of dissociation.
In the process of trying to draw these presumed traumas to the surface of conscious recollection — sometimes by way of hypnosis or sodium amytal [a barbiturate] interviews— confabulated “memories,” prompted by the therapist’s assumptions, would be created in the therapeutic setting. This is no different from “recovered memories” of alien abductions or past lives. The assumptions of the type of “memories” being sought shape the ultimate confabulations that are created.
These “recovered” memories resulted in families being torn apart when adult children were led to believe that their parents had abused them. Schadler interviewed Lee and Jean Grady, whose adult daughter Gloria had falsely accused them of ritual abuse and torture (including forced eating of aborted fetuses) after undergoing such therapy. Lee Grady said of Gloria’s therapists:
They have emotionally and mentally raped our daughter.
When asked about Noblitt, the normally-composed Greaves responded angrily:
I’d love to see that fucker’s career ended with all the ignominy it deserves.
Historical precedent and human tendency
Whether it was in Salem, the Spanish Inquisition or accusations of witchcraft leveled against Jews or early Christians, humans have a historical tendency to engage in such panic outbreaks. Wood calls the process of spreading hysteria “auto-catalytic”, because false information is reinforced the more a society is saturated by it — for instance, once people started getting criminally charged on misinformation stemming from the Satanic abuse hysteria, it gave Satanic abuse charges more credibility — leading to more charges and adding to the hysteria.
All such historical cases, he said, involve at least one of four characteristics: child testimony; spectral or supernatural “evidence” (as in the Salem witch trials when children reported seeing apparitions of the alleged witches); torture to elicit desired testimony (as in the Spanish Inquisition); and suggestive therapies or questioning (as in the Satanic Panic of the 20th century). In the Keller case, at least two of the children who accused the couple were seeing the same therapist, who was a believer in Satanic ritual abuse. Wood also said that he had watched a video of Christy being questioned by a Travis County Sheriff’s Office social worker, and noted that that the way the child was being questioned was suggestive of the answers the interviewer was inadvertently leading her to give.
Kenneth Lanning, a (now-retired) Federal Bureau of Investigation agent wrote in a 1992 report that the idea of Satanic ritual abuse was a convenient social crutch. Children are more prone to be victims of abuse from relatives or family friends under circumstances that are far from black and white, but the idea of “stranger danger” or an unknown evil snatching away children is easier to digest than dealing with complicated social issues like domestic abuse, runaways and child prostitution. The fixation with Satanic strangers imperiling innocent children diverted attention away from that difficult discussion.
Decades earlier, Lanning noted, the villain was an image of a sketchy man in a trenchcoat, peering out from dark corners and luring children with candy. He wrote:
In today’s version of “stranger danger,” it is the Satanic devil worshipers who are snatching and victimizing the children. Many who warned us in the early 1980s about pedophiles snatching fifty thousand kids a year now contend they were wrong only about who was doing the kidnapping, not about the number abducted. This is again the desire for the simple and clear-cut explanation for a complex problem.
For those who know anything about criminology, one of the oldest theories of crime is demonology: The devil makes you do it. This makes it even easier to deal with the child molester who is the “pillar of the community.” It is not his fault, it is not our fault. There is no way we could have known, the devil made him do it. This explanation has tremendous appeal because, like “stranger danger,” it presents the clear-cut, black-and-white struggle between good and evil as the explanation for child abduction, exploitation, and abuse.
Péter Krekó, a Fulbright scholar from Hungary and visiting professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University Bloomington who focuses on conspiracy theories, told us that moral panics can result in part from the need of powerful groups to create an “enemy” because in doing so, they define their own values. For instance, supposed child-abusing Satanists provided an easy moral counterpoint for evangelical Christians.
He told us, further, that certain characteristics can make humans prone to conspiracy theories and atavistic moral panics despite technological advancement; depending on environmental factors, humans can be extremely prone to suggestion. As an example, Krekó pointed to Nagykörű, a small village in Hungary where in the 1980s, residents began to claim they were seeing UFOs. It was a case, he said, of collective hallucination:
All the people who said they saw the UFOs believed in their existence. I don’t think they were lying [about the sightings], but it shows us how much our perception and thinking are more determined by our surroundings and our preexisting beliefs than what’s actually happening.
That was a problem Lanning noted in his FBI report. In his explanation as to why police and other authorities allowed themselves to be swept up in the Satanic ritual abuse hysteria, he pointed out that their logic was crippled by their religious beliefs, writing:
All of [this] is complicated by the fact that almost any discussion of Satanism and the occult is interpreted in the light of the religious beliefs of those in the audience. Faith, not logic and reason, governs the religious beliefs of most people. As a result, some normally skeptical law enforcement officers accept the information disseminated at these conferences without critically evaluating it or questioning the sources. Officers who do not normally depend on church groups for law enforcement criminal intelligence, who know that media accounts of their own cases are notoriously inaccurate, and who scoff at and joke about tabloid television accounts of bizarre behavior suddenly embrace such material when presented in the context of Satanic activity. Individuals not in law enforcement seem even more likely to do so.
Despite the fact the Satanic Panic took place in the late 20th century, Krekó said the types of beliefs it relied on are medieval in origin but they persistently crop up again and again. He pointed to “blood libel” — allegations that Jewish communities in the Middle Ages were kidnapping and eating Christian children and drinking their blood. A millennium before that, Christians facing similar accusations were reportedly arrested, tortured, and executed by the Roman Empire in what is now Lyon, France. Skip forward almost 2,000 years later to 1882, when members of a Jewish community in Tiszaeszlár, Hungary, were accused of ritual murder.
And one of the biggest problems with moral panics is that even if the people accused are exonerated, clouds of suspicion linger far longer. The case in Tiszaeszlár continues to contribute to anti-Semitic sentiment there — even though the defendants were acquitted more than a century ago.
Smith, Jordan. “Believing the Children.”
The Austin Chronicle. 27 March 2017.
Smith, Jordan. “Convicted of a Crime That Never Happened: Why Won’t Texas Exonerate Fran and Dan Keller?”
The Intercept. 8 April 2016.
Smith, Jordan. “Texas Couple Exonerated 25 Years After Being Convicted of Lurid Crimes That Never Happened.”
The Intercept. 20 June 2017.
Matthews, Jay. “McMartin Teachers Acquitted.”
The Washington Post. 19 January 1990.
Nathan, Debbie. Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt.
Noll, Richard. “When Psychiatry Battled the Devil.”
Psychiatry Today. 6 December 2013.
Lanning, Kenneth. “Investigator’s Guide to Allegations of ‘Ritual’ Child Abuse.”
FBI – National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. January 1992.
Anti-Defamation League. “Blood Libel: A False, Incendiary Claim Against Jews.”
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