A Modern Witchhunt: The McCuan Kniffen Frame-up

This article arrived in email from an individual who describes himself as an observer of the events described who lives in the same community. I had never heard of the McCuan-Kniffen case but the article deals with an issue of great concern: the conviction of accused molesters based on the prompted testimony of young children, frequently on extremely fanciful and improbable facts. There has been a rash of these cases around the country, reminiscent of the Salem witch trials in the hysteria they evoke.--JW

Like most other ritual child abuse accusations, the case of Alvin and Debbie McCuan and Scott and Brenda Kniffen begins with an incident blown greatly out of proportion by the police investigators. In early 1982 Debbies's oldest daughter, Becky, said her Grandpa Rod Phelps had touched her inappropriately. Becky was immediately seen by a family doctor, who said it appeared that Becky was molested. A police report was filed, but Mr. Phelps lived outside of Kern County, and no one pressed charges. Debbie McCuan was concerned enough to follow up by getting counseling for her daughter.

Alvin and Debbie McCuan had married when they were teenagers. Alvin McCuan had by 1982 worked steadily for many years as a metal worker at the railroad terminals in Los Angeles and Bakersfield. Debbie McCuan managed her own small child care business. Alvin and Debbie had two daughters, Becky and Dawn.

Debbie's step-mother, Mary Ann Barbour, a woman with a history of psychosis, was enraged by the fact that Becky was molested and felt that Debbie wasn't doing enough to protect these little step-granddaughters of hers. She called an anti child abuse group called "Mothers of Bakersfield" and gained the attention of its spokeswoman, Jill Haddad. But soon Mary Ann Barbour was not getting enough attention with her stories. She claimed that Alvin and Debbie were not good parents and that Debbie should have her day care license revoked. Mary Ann demanded the Social Services Department look into the matter. The department sent a social worker on a surprise visit to check it out. The social worker in charge, Betty Palko, found a few infractions, but nothing serious enough to revoke the day care license. So Betty's report showed that no major infractions were found and she did not revoke the license.

At that point Mary Ann decided that she wanted custody of her step-granddaughters, Becky and Dawn McCuan. She asked for child endangerment charges to be filed against Debbie and Alvin, after she learned that they had taken the girls to visit with the other grandparents, Rod and Linda Phelps. In this period Mary Ann was becoming more agitated and was having problems in her own home with her husband, Gene Barbour. She spent some time in a psychiatric ward and said she was upset because of her step-daughters. This episode of psychosis is clearly demonstrated in her medical files of the time although she denied it later.

Due in part to her friendship with Jill Haddad, Mary Ann Barbour was able to get a custody hearing in March 1982. The children were placed in full time custody of Mary Ann. Carla Fogel, a new welfare worker decided, after one phone call with Mary Ann, that Mary Ann had recovered from her recent "illness".

At this time county officials filed child endangerment charges against Alvin and Debbie McCuan. Alvin McCuan looked around for a character witness and found one in his friend Scott Kniffen. Alvin McCuan had known Scott because he went to High School with the brother of Scott's wife Brenda.

The Kniffens were an extremely close family. Scott worked as an inventory manager in a diesel shop. His wife, Brenda, was a full time homemaker and taught Bible School. She was also a "room mother" at school. They had two sons, ages 6 and 9. By all accounts of the neighbors and relatives the Kniffens were a warm, loving family. Despite often working overtime, Scott found time to coach his sons baseball and wrestling teams. The whole family shared an interest in sports and camping.

As the child endangerment charges against Alvin and Debbie were filed, Debbie argued with Mary Ann. She told Mary Ann in the heat of anger that these kind of charges were serious, that Alvin had friends to be character witnesses for them, and that these friends, Scott and Brenda Kniffen, would say that she and Alvin were good parents.

The next day, Mary Ann called Dana Markowitz, "You won't believe what the girls are saying now!" All of a sudden there was not just the implication that Debbie and Alvin were not protective parents, but now "There is a group of people involved in molesting the girls. They are all in on it!" Mary Ann Barbour had demanded her step-daughters say they had been abused as part on one big "sex ring".

A giant child molestation ring was born. Dana called Velda Murrillo, a police child abuse investigator, and the girls were picked up and questioned. After repeated questioning, their stories became more and more bizarre. Soon many other adults were accused of incredible acts against all reason. The names that now came out, besides Rod and Linda Phelps, were: Alvin and Debbie, themselves, Alvin's brothers, Larry and Tommy McCuan, social worker Betty Palko with her boyfriend Larry Walker (who worked at the railroad with Alvin), a couple of other unnamed welfare workers, and the just discussed "character witnesses" Scott and Brenda Kniffen. Interestingly, Scott and Brenda only knew Alvin and Debbie in this so called "Ring".

April 6th, 1982, Velda Murrillo and Deputy Betty Shaneyfelt drove Becky around to the homes of the "suspects" where she was asked to say where in each home could be found the evidence of the abuse. Both Becky and Dawn enjoyed being praised for each disclosure and soon became expert in saying what Ms. Murrillo and the other caseworkers, deputies, and attorneys wanted them to say. When they got to the Kniffen residence, Becky said that there would be pornographic pictures, a movie camera, and other evidence, including a dildo, in the home.

On April 8th, 1982, Scott and Brenda Kniffen were arrested. County police authorities took their sons away and placed them in a county shelter. The Kern County Sheriff's Office never bothered to check out the allegations with any of the Kniffen family members or neighbors. Instead the Sheriff's Office made the arrests and used their contacts at the one daily newspaper in Bakersfield, The Bakersfield Californian, to insure maximum favorable publicity for the law enforcement officers.

No attempt was made to find or preserve evidence contrary to the preconceived belief based on the stories of Dawn and Becky McCuan, at the insistence of a crazed step- grandmother, Mary Ann Barbour, that a massive child molestation ring was in operation. There was the total belief that Dawn and Becky had been molested by many adults over along period of time, that they had been hung from hooks in the ceiling, beaten with belts, and that they had been sold to strangers in motels and had been stars in pornographic movies. All based on the stories of these children after repeated questioning over many months by many authority figures.

The fact that Scott and Brenda didn't even know Rod or Linda Phelps, Tommy McCuan, Larry McCuan, Betty Palko, or Larry Walker didn't deter the arresting officers from telling Brenda that there had been a six month investigation and that she was guilty and that they knew she was involved in a molestation ring. Officials were also unaware where Scott even worked or what his work hours were, that the children had been happy and uncomplaining, good students, active in sports and friends with a deputy sheriff's son. The facts that no rope burns were ever found on the children nor marks on the softwood railing where the children were supposedly tied and beaten and that the sheetrock ceiling didn't have any hook sufficient to suspend the children as was alleged were never allowed to be discussed.

Betty Palko, the social worker who would not revoke Debbie McCuan's daycare license, and her boyfriend, Larry Walker, who worked at the railroad with Alvin, were able to get their case separated from the McCuans and into a different venue in Ventura County. It was within three days after their attorney was able to get Mary Ann Barbour's medical records into the trial that the Kern County District Attorney's office dropped their case. Mary Ann's medical records were returned to the hospitals and her file was sealed. These records were not allowed to be entered into the trial of the McCuans and Kniffens.

It was after an attorney for the defense was able to talk to Becky and Dawn, that the girls admitted that they only said those things about Alvin's brother, Tommy, because they were told to say them by Mary Ann. After this, the court would not allow any defense attorney to talk to the children and would not allow Mary Ann's medical records to be used.

Authorities were unable to find such physical evidence as dirty pictures, hooks in the ceilings in the places described by the girls, movies of any kind, snuff films, or movie cameras even after an eight hour search of the Kniffen home. Also no physical trauma was found on the children except the previous mentioned incident in regard to Becky, who previously mentioned only her grandfather Phelps as a alleged molester.

The Kniffen boys were taken to Shalimar Children's Center for questioning. Authorities questioned the children together and then separately. Kern County authorities such as Carol Darling, Velda Murrillo, and Sgt. Fredenburg questioned the Kniffen children repeatedly, suggestively, and coercively. The children were told the truth was already known and they were wrong unless they confirmed the guilt of their parents. When questioned separately, each boy was falsely told his sibling had said they both had been abused a sex ring that included their parents. Authorities suggested the children could go home to their parents if they testified according to the wishes of the prosecutors.

The defendants were railroaded based on the premise that children don't lie about sexual abuse unless they state no abuse occurred! The reports written by Carol Darling and Sgt. Fredenburg never included how the boys repeatedly denied anything had happened. The reports did not include how Brian missed his mommy, or how he volunteered that he trusted his Grandma and Grandpa Kniffen and would like to live with them "for a while" if he couldn't live with his parents. But most importantly, these reports didn't say anywhere that Brian said, "I don't know the dirty pictures. My Mom and Dad didn't do it!"

In essence, the prosecution representatives had to resort to coercive and suggestive interrogation procedures. As Drs. Stephen Ceci, Richard Ofshe, and other psychiatric research experts have demonstrated, children can by suggestive questioning be induced to make false statements.

The two girls, Becky and Dawn, were again released into the custody of Mary Ann Barbour not long after the "Ring" was arrested. Thus the county authorities rewarded Mary Ann Barbour for providing them with their prize case.

Brenda's mother, Corene, took the opportunity to ask Brandon if any of the charges were true while on the first supervised visit with her grandson and Georgia Herald, a specially assigned caseworker, in a playground at the swingset. Brandon answered that "No. None of those things ever happened." But when this was revealed to the court, Corene was immediately arrested for discussing the case with Brandon. She was not permitted to be a witness in the case. She was not allowed visits until years later.

Brenda's dad believed what was written in the newspapers and, based on what the boys actually testified to in court, thought Scott and Brenda were guilty. That is, until he was present when Brian recanted. Brian told how he was prompted to say what he testified and promised he could be with his parents. Both boys have said that they cried when put on the stand. The prosecution said it was because they were afraid of their parents, but the boys say that it was because they knew they were lying and felt compelled to do it, because they truly believed they could go home after they did.

At the Kniffen McCuan trial beginning in late 1983, the prosecution psuedo expert witness Dr. Bruce Woodling claimed the "wink response", occurring when he touched the child's anus with a swab and inserted a moistened 10cc glass test tube to view the anal canal, was an indisputable sign of sodomy. Dr. Woodling said his test was based on work done by another physician, Dr. Paul. However Dr. Paul came from England to dispute Woodling's findings. Moreover Dr. Woodling never troubled himself to find out if nonabused children also have the so designated wink response. Dr. John McCall and other researchers have since proved that this is indeed the case. Thus the totally falsity of the trial testimony of Dr. Woodling was later demonstrated.

During the 1983-1984 trial prosecution abuse was rampant. Prosecutor Andrew Gindes claimed anyone defending the Kniffens or McCuans was also a child molester and part of the so designated "sex ring". Gindes claimed the children's knowledge of sexual matters was beyond their years. However this knowledge was due to prosecution questioning of the children with anatomically correct dolls and a dildo that Gindes himself bought. Gindes also knowingly lied that Scott Kniffen's father disposed of evidence when it was an impossibility. Gindes publicly announced new charges against some of the defendants toward the end of the trial to sway popular opinion. The new charges were shown to be impossible and quietly dropped.

Because of the repeated, suggestive, and coerced adult induced testimony of the children, the false medical testimony of Dr. Woodling, prosecution misconduct, and the total pro prosecution bias in local reporting, the McCuans and Kniffens were convicted of various counts of child abuse. The sentences the McCuans and Kniffens received, of two hundred years or more, were outrageously excessive, particularly considering none of the four persons had prior felony convictions. All these defendants had lived productive law abiding lives prior to the sentencing. Despite the total absence of criminal records, these defendants received sentences greatly above the average for child abuse. Such sentences could only be set in the child abuse and Satanism hysteria that some Kern County authorities aroused in their county in the middle 1980's.

The Kniffen family hired a private investigator, Denver Dunn. Dunn's investigation demonstrated that the District Attorney's office was playing politics after public support with respect to their handling of the torture/murder case of 14 year old Dana Butler. The public was picketing because a former police commissioner, Glenn Fitts, was not arrested, even though there was evidence that blood and hair samples could be traced back to his bathroom. Dana Butler's partially clad body was found dumped along a frontage road on the north side of Harrell Highway near Bakersfield. She had died from two deep stab wounds in the chest and 30 to 40 superficial stab wounds. The District Attorney's office needed a diversion to rally public opinion back and Mary Ann Barbour proved to be the ticket.

Both Marvin Ferguson and Deputy District Attorney Ed Jagels were running for the District Attorney position on the anti-child molester platform in 1982. The public voted out Al Leddy, voted in Ed Jagels, and once again supported their local District Attorney's office, where just months before they were so upset with them. Marvin Ferguson became the judge on the Kniffen/McCuan case.

After the trial at the suggestion from the private investigator, Scott and Brenda took polygraph tests, which they passed with flying colors. These tests were not allowed as defense, however, since the test was not done with the approval of the State Attorney General's Office.

It should be also noted that the Kern County authorities in the 1980's conducted a vast witch hunt of alleged child abuse in so designated "sex rings" and prosecuted many other persons possessing relatively modest wealth and resources. In 1985, after many other "sex ring cases" were developed by the same District Attorney's Office, the Attorney General of California finally was compelled to investigate the procedures for questioning the children. A direct cause of the investigation was that Becky and Dawn McCuan led the FBI on a dig in Atascadero across the street from where their grandparents Rod and Linda Phelps had lived after allegations of Satanic murders came up in group "therapy". No dead bodies were found. The District Attorney even admitted that these stories were made up. Later, California Judge Baca said he was concerned for anyone imprisoned based on the testimony of these children.

The 1985-86 $500,000.00 John Van de Kamp Attorney General's Report indicated that there were twenty three major procedural errors in the Kern County departments in their handling of these cases. Over the protests of grand jury foreperson Carleen Radanovich the sex ring cases that resulted in convictions, including the Kniffen/McCuan case, were not reviewed in the report, even though the same District Attorney's office, Sheriff's Department, and the McCuan girls were the reasons for the prosecution of these cases.

The saga is not over yet. Both of the Kniffen boys after the trial stated that the alleged molestation and child abuse never occurred, that they were led and coerced by county authorities to testify as they did, and that the reports did not show how they denied ever being molested. Yet their parents Scott and Brenda remain in prison. So do Alvin and Debbie McCuan.

Every honest person finds offensive the destruction of decent families and the long continuing imprisonment of totally innocent people. The ongoing incarceration of the McCuans and Kniffens on the basis of totally spurious charges is a monstrous injustice that debases and delegitimizes the justice system in both California and the United States. The justice system in the United States can only move to restore its creditability when all four of these persons are freed from prison.