Devil in the Details: The Modern Day Witch Hunt of the 80's

For over a decade, starting in the early 1980′s, Satan himself invaded scores of sleepy little towns and communities across the United States.

He worked through secretive cults comprised of day-care workers, school officials and other seemingly ordinary citizens and via these trusted authority figures, he proceeded to ritualistically kidnap, abuse and violate dozens of children. His followers subjected them to molestation, animal sacrifices and repeated torture. For days, weeks on end, all underneath the shadows without the faintest notice, at least until it was far too late. A living, breathing epidemic, these satanic cults seemed to pop up almost overnight, without any rhyme or reason, and scattered in random pockets of the country.

By the time social workers, police officers and concerned parents had found out what had been going on, the only thing they could do was to track down these satanists, every last one of them, and make sure that one by one, town by town, they would pay for the vicious crimes they had inflicted on these innocent children. And pay they did, being sentenced to decades, even centuries worth of jail-time.

The only problem was, there were never any satanic cults, any vast army of Satan looking to destroy the lives of countless children. The only evil that the people in those sleepy little towns and communities faced, was the one that they had inadvertently created themselves. And it would be an evil that ended up shattering the lives of innocent men and women wrongly accused of crimes they never committed, in one of the worst but almost unheard of travesties of justice since the Salem witch hunts.


Like most great acts of evil, this one started off small and insignificantly enough. Mary Ann Barbour, a elderly woman with a history of mental problems living in Kern County, Calfornia, comes forth with an accusation in 1981 that Debbie and  Alvin McCuan, her daughter and son-in-law, have been negligent parents to Becky and Dawn, their daughters. Soon after she wins temporary custody of the girls, she embarks on a long series of accusations against not only Debbie and Alvin, but friends and allies who had dared to defend the quality of their parenting, implicating more than a half dozen others in the brutal torture and rape of Becky and Dawn McCuan.

The investigators questioned Becky and Dawn who, through the coaching of Mary Ann, proceeded to tell an elaborate tale of torture involving being chained up to hooks on the wall, pornographic movies made of the rape, and the satanic ritual murders of infants. None of it turned out to be true. There was no physical evidence of the hooks, of the abuse or of the murders. None of that stopped Kern County prosecutors from arresting and convicting Debbie, Alvin and their friends Scott and Brenda Kniffen of multiple charges which totaled up to over a thousand years worth of jailtime. (Perhaps the kicker to the whole thing? Becky had originally stated that it was her grandfather who had inappropriately touched her, and physical evidence of that was found.)

The Kern County case was the first of what has now been labeled as the Satanic Abuse Panic. For over a decade, allegations of sex rings popped up all the country as well as other parts of the world, with each previous accusation of rape and torture by every-day citizens seeming to only fuel the fervor by law officials to find more and more cases. In the instance of Kern County, over 30 people ended up convicted of sexual abuse counts, and all but one eventually ending up getting overturned (in the case of John Stoll, several of the kids who had originally accused him of rape would years later admit he had done no such thing and that they were coerced by police into saying so). The social workers, police and prosecutors behind these cases lost all objectivity in attempting to bring what they saw as dangerous criminals to justice.

While Mary-Ann was the first to accuse the McCuans, it was the police who were later found to have mercilessly questioned and interrogated Becky, Dawn and the other children of Kern County in an attempt to find the sexual deviants they were sure existed in their midst. They lied to Brian Kniffen, the Kniffens’ son, promising that if he told them what they wanted to hear, his parents would go free. They often told children that others had already confessed to what had happened and they were being bad by not telling what they wanted to hear, they questioned them for hours on end, leading them with questions that helped the kids answer exactly the way the investigators wanted them to (In Brian Kniffen’s words, “He would slam books down, yell when we wouldn’t cooperated. He was demanding and scared us and wouldn’t take no for an answer.”) and perhaps most incredibly, they flat-out ignored and hid any evidence that showed anything but the guilt of the accused.  This same scenario played out over the next decade again and again, in state after state, from California to Florida, Massachusetts to New York, and Canada to New Zealand.  All in the interest of serving the greater good.

The people involved in these cases were driven by a mass hysteria of panic, one that made it easy to bend the rules, in order to stop what they saw as a moral plague from spreading across their community. These people who were meant to help and protect their towns never set out to wrongly destroy the lives of so many, and I’m sure that if you had told Kern County police officials that there was a seedy hidden cult of dozens that murdered and mutilated infants to please the devil before the first McCuan case, they would have looked at it with a fair sense of skepticism.

Once the ball starts rolling and you become so convinced of a conclusion though, it can become impossibly hard to take a step outside and see things objectively. It becomes easy to make enemies out of molehills, and satanists out of day-care workers and devoted parents if you let yourself lose control. The Kern County cases and others might seem too irrational and silly to take seriously but if that’s true, why did it take so long for the wrongful imprisonments of Scott and Brenda Kniffen, Debbie and Alvin McCuan, John Stoll, Jeffery Modahl and other Kern County residents to be overturned?

The McCuans and Kniffens would be released 12 years later in 1996 while others like John Stott(above) waited over 20 years to find freedom in 2004.

There’s a tendency of people to forget the past and assume that we would never be as ignorant or prejudiced as to make the same mistakes others have made, but our hubris betrays us; each time there was a new accusation of a global organization of satanic rapists in one town or another, there were those who pursued that belief to the ends of the Earth. For years this happened, and while it won’t be always the Devil we see in the otherwise innocent, something like this has happened since and will happen again (Just look at the recent case of the West Memphis 3, who were only just released after having been accused of ritualistically murdering three young boys in 1993) .

We are often told that belief brings us answers and comfort, but belief without objectivity or skepticism? That will only bring evil right to our doorstep, eager to be invited in.

Another cross-posted article from my skeptical and science blog, The Demon Haunted World. If ya liked my writing, feel free to check it out and/or follow me on twitter at TheImprovateer. Hope to seeya soon.

*A thanks to the Religious Tolerance website, the documentary Witch Hunt by Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman and the aforementioned links for this week’s research.

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