2008 Denver International Film Festival

After watching the infuriating Witch Hunt, my immediate attention turned to finding someone to blame. Perhaps kill. Bakersfield, California, circa 1984, was the ultimate hellhole (more so than usual). During a frenzied few months, otherwise exemplary citizens were plucked from their homes, accused of child molestation, put on trial, and, based on the coerced testimony of impressionable children, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Hundreds of counts, hundreds of years, and no chance for parole. It shouldn’t surprise a soul that to a man (and woman), they were all innocent, set free only after years of hard work by humanitarian groups and yes, documentary filmmakers. The film takes us to the beginning, when a custody battle produced the first accusation, which, like wildfire, spread quickly, choked the life from a town, and set neighbor against neighbor. The charges were beyond the pale – ritualized torture, vicious beatings, repeated rape – yet all of it was based on the stuttering, half-hearted words of a few kids. No medical evidence, no adult corroboration, and no documentation. Even the child pornography charges stuck, despite not a single picture being placed into evidence. Prosecutors found nothing. But kids don’t lie, now do they?

The most obvious villain in all this is the Kern County District Attorney, one Edward R. Jagels. Remember that name, because the cocksucker is still in office, re-elected repeatedly by a community that doesn’t seem to mind incompetence and corruption. First put into power on a typical Reagan era platform of “no nonsense” law enforcement, the end result was exactly as one would expect: round ‘em up justice that concerned itself with numbers and headlines, not actual guilt or innocence. Add to that the decade’s fanaticism regarding child abuse, which stemmed from actual cases, yes, but also a right-wing need to punish working women. One need only survey the damage to child care centers throughout the country (and in California, most appallingly) to see this proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Women were leaving the home to earn a living, much to the dismay of Lord Ron and his ovary-hating minions, and the very places where they dropped their brood needed to become dens of iniquity in order to shame mothers everywhere back to their proper roles. Why else attack day care? And why the fuck does Satan seem to be lurking in the background during all this?

It was never enough to accuse these people of raping children; there had be animal sacrifices, bloodletting, and orgasmic cries to demonic forces to make the story complete. Again, maybe DA Jagels looked too deeply into an AC/DC record, or ministers spent too much time at the right hand of government, but these hellish connections seemed to spring from the wild blue yonder. Once again (there’s a theme here), no evidence was ever found, but the belief was enough, and no one with children appeared to be safe. And god forbid you had a backyard pool, or a basement, or were seen talking to youngsters in the street. It was mass madness, and the do-gooders did everything to make Jagels’ job that much easier. Yes, I’m speaking of the social workers. Perhaps the world’s worst slice of humanity, these poorly trained, idealistic authoritarians-in-waiting created fictions to feed to children and communities alike. And if you refused to admit being fucked by Mr. Smith down the street, you were in denial and in need of treatment. The denial, in fact, was the surest sign that you had been fucked. And like all social workers, they harmed the innocent and looked away from real wrongdoing. That their trade springs from sociology is no surprise. If only their damage was limited to the university.

We hear many horrifying stories — Scott Kniffen (12 years served), Jeff Modahl (15 years served), John Stoll (20 years served), Marcella Pitts (6 years served) – all of which made me want to gouge out my own eyes in frustration. The trials were preposterous on their face, and should scare the hell out of anyone who thinks the state actually has to prove its case to send you away. At bottom, though, this is a testament to the evils of romanticizing childhood. By failing to recognize that kids are capable of deceit, adult lives were ruined forever. By all accounts, these kids simply caved to authority figures in order to get some ice cream, but never again should we assume that the mouths of babes are sacred. More than that, any case that relies on witnesses alone should not produce a conviction. Didn’t someone, somewhere wonder why little Tommy’s ass was in tip-top shape, even after being repeatedly sodomized by mask-wearing adults?  Where were the bruises? The welts? The sure-fire trauma that would result from having hot wax dripped on your hairless genitalia? Despite the eventual release of these folks, a sadness still remains. How long until it happens again? It’s not an “if”, but a steadfast, depressing “when”.

About Matt

Matt is the site’s Longest Serving Critic and chief misanthrope. He divides his time between classics of cinema and the most ridiculous movies he can find on Redbox.
Follow Matt: @mattcale52