From 1984 through 1986 at least 30 defendants were convicted of child sex abuse and related charges and sentenced to long prison terms in a series of inter-related cases in Kern County, California, and an additional 8 defendants accepted plea bargains that kept them out of prison. Over time, 20 of the defendants who were sentenced to prison were exonerated, the earliest in 1991 the latest in 2005. In most of these exonerations the children who had testified that they had been abused recanted their testimony. In all of the exonerations there was evidence that the complaining witnesses – some as young as four years old – had been coerced or persuaded by the authorities make false accusations.
The Kern County cases are the oldest and largest of several groups of prosecutions that occurred in a wave of child sex abuse hysteria that swept through the country in the 1980s and early 1990s. Some (but not all) of these cases included allegations of satanic rituals. Many focused on day care centers. Nationally, there have been dozens of exonerations in child sex abuse hysteria cases.
Most of the Kern County child sex abuse cases were multi-defendant group prosecutions. In one such group, Richard Cox was accused of participating in a “child sex abuse ring” along with his son-in-law Jeffrey Modahl and several other members of the Cox family.
On October 4, 1984, Jeffrey Modahl’s 12-year-old daughter Teresa told him that she had been molested by her uncles, Anthony and Leroy Cox. Modahl immediately filed a police report. On October 10, police and authorities from Child Protective Services (CPS) interviewed Teresa and her three siblings, Carla Jo Modahl, Carol Ann Bittner, and Richard “Shang” Taylor. During questioning, Carol Ann accused Anthony and Leroy Cox of molestation and rape, and Shang accused them of anal rape and reported that Carla Jo was present and was also molested. Carla Jo also said that the men had molested her, and had sodomized her and Carol Ann. Following these disclosures, all of the children were removed from their parents’ home and placed in shelter care.
Kern County authorities then continued to interview the children repeatedly, using highly suggestive questioning techniques now known to produce false accusations, especially among young children. Carla Jo and Shang, the younger children, eventually changed their stories to include accusations against Jeffrey Modahl and other family members, including their mother, Ruth Taylor, their grandparents, Richard and Joanne Cox, and their aunt, Teresa Cox (the wife of Anthony Cox.) Carol Ann and Teresa Modahl consistently denied that these other relatives had abused them. Officials also interviewed another family’s children and elicited short-lived claims that that they had also been sexually abused by members of the Cox family, but these children quickly recanted and their statements were not included in the charging documents.
On October 19, 1984, Jeffrey Modahl, Ruth Taylor, and Teresa Cox were arrested for molesting the four children. In the fall of 1984, Richard and Joanne Cox were also arrested for abusing the children and charged with child sex abuse.
Carla Jo Modahl testified against the defendants in each trial. Before she testified, prosecutors took her shopping for new toys and clothes, and rehearsed her testimony with her until it sounded convincing. Shang did not testify, but his accusations were admitted into evidence via hearsay exceptions because of his young age.
Richard Cox and Ruth Taylor were tried together. Despite the lack of physical evidence corroborating Carla Jo Modahl’s accusation, Cox and Taylor were convicted by a jury in 1985.
At Teresa Cox’s trial, in addition to Carla Jo’s testimony against her, two jailhouse snitches testified, claiming that Teresa Cox told them she had committed the molestation. Again, there was no physical evidence to corroborate any of the accusations; nevertheless, Teresa Cox was convicted by a jury on May 3, 1985, of three counts of lewd and lascivious conduct, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
After witnessing the jury convictions of the other defendants, Jeffrey Modahl opted for a bench trial, hoping for a better outcome. At his trial, Carla Jo testified that Modahl molested her, Carol Ann, and Teresa Modahl. When Teresa Modahl testified, she openly accused Carla Jo of lying, saying that that Jeffrey had not molested her and that she had never seen him molest the other children or anyone else. Carol Ann also testified that Jeffrey never molested her, and that she had never seen him molest any of the other children. No physical evidence was presented to corroborate Carla Jo’s accusations. On August 6, 1986, a judge convicted Jeffrey of abusing the children and sentenced him to 48 years in prison.
In 1987, Carla Jo recanted her accusations against Jeffrey, but her recantation was not taken seriously by the judge.
The convictions of Richard Cox and Ruth Taylor were overturned on appeal, because their trial attorney was not a licensed member of the bar. Because of continuing hysteria over supposed sex abuse rings in Kern County, both Cox and Taylor chose to take a plea bargain rather than face a second trial. Each was released on parole after serving only part of their original sentence, but the convictions remained on their records and they were required to register as sex offenders.
Teresa Cox served five years of her sentence and was released on probation on May 1, 1990. She was also required to register as a sex offender.
Joanne Cox died in prison without ever being granted a new trial.
Modahl appealed to the Sixth District Court of Appeal but the Court declined to review the case. His appeal to the California Supreme Court was rejected in 1988. His petitions for a writ of habeas corpus were denied 1989 and 1991, and an appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was denied in 1993.
A third habeas petition was finally granted in December 1997, after Carla Jo again recanted her testimony. At the1999 habeas hearing, Modahl’s lawyer presented key evidence that had been withheld by the District Attorney’s office: a medical exam revealing that Carla Jo had not been sodomized and a tape of a social worker inventing explicit descriptions of sexual abuse by Modahl and pressuring Teresa Modahl to affirm them. Based on this new evidence, Superior Court Judge John I. Kelly ruled that Modahl had not received a fair trial. After serving 15 years in prison, Jeffrey Modahl was released in May 1999, and all charges were dropped.
After Modahl’s release, Ruth Taylor, Richard Cox and Teresa Cox each filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, all of which were granted. Attorney Mike Snedeker then petitioned to dismiss the charges against each defendant. The prosecution did not oppose these petitions, and the convictions were cleared from the record.
The children and defendants (except Joanne Cox, who had died in prison) later filed a lawsuit against Kern County for violating their constitutional rights. The lawsuit was successful and in 2003 the family received $4.25 million.
- Alexandra Gross