In 1986, Robert Kelly and his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Kelly opened the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, North Carolina. In January, 1989, a complaint of sexual abuse involving one child was leveled against him.
Ultimately, this single complaint exploded into a massive case of alleged sexual abuse, including stories by children who said they had been placed in microwave ovens, hung upside down, forced to have sex with each other, and forced to watch adults defecate, urinate and have sex.
The children also made bizarre claims about satanic rituals and trips on pirate boats and hot air balloons. One said a child was shot to death at the center and that newborn children were tossed into pools of sharks in the ocean.
In April 1989, Kelly, 38, was charged with sexually abusing children at the daycare center and shortly thereafter, the center was closed. In September 1989, Betsy Kelly and five other staff members and friends, including Kathryn Dawn Wilson, the daycare center cook, were charged as well. The indictments included 375 charges of sexual abuse that allegedly occurred between March 1, 1988 and January 1989
Due to massive publicity, the case was moved 90 miles away from Edenton to Farmville. In 1991, before the first trial, PBS aired a documentary by producer Ofra Bikel entitled “Innocence Lost,” which raised serious questions about whether any of the abuse ever occurred.
Kelly went on trial in 1991 before a jury, facing 100 counts of sexual abuse.
A dozen children testified, but the evidence showed that none of them had ever said anything about being abused before the investigation began and before 90 of them were interviewed – in most cases, many times – by authorities and therapists who were convinced that a terrible conspiracy was at hand. The children testified to being abused – and also to fantastical events, including boat rides during which babies were tossed to sharks and trips to outer space in hot air balloons.
Prosecution experts testified they found evidence consistent with sexual abuse on some of the children. Defense experts said the state’s evidence included no indications of sexual abuse.
The children’s parents testified to changes in their children’s behavior including nightmares and bedwetting and resistance to going to the bathroom alone.
The trial lasted eight months—the longest and most expensive in North Carolina history. The jury deliberated for three weeks before convicting Kelly on 99 counts. He was sentenced to 12 consecutive life prison terms.
Kathryn Wilson, 22, was tried separately and was convicted on January 26, 1993. She was sentenced to life in prison.
Later in 1993, PBS aired “Innocence Lost: The Verdict,” a second Frontline documentary on these cases by producer Ofra Bikel, which exposed jury misconduct in the trials. For example, one juror had failed to disclose that he himself had been sexually abused as a child, another juror brought in a magazine article that described supposed traits of pedophiles and a third drove to Edenton to look at the shuttered day care center.
On May 2, 1995, the North Carolina Court of Appeals set aside Kelly’s conviction. The appeals court held that the trial judge should have inspected investigative files to that the defense had requested in order to determine whether they should be disclosed, and that he had improperly allowed parents of some of the children to testify to their opinions about their children’s behavior and the causes of that behavior. The court also held that the judge erred by allowing Kelly’s first defense attorney (who withdrew after learning that his son was a potential victim) to testify about his prior representation of Kelly.
On the same day, the court reversed Wilson’s trial for prosecutorial misconduct, including improper cross-examination and a “grossly improper” closing argument.
Robert Kelly was released on bond on September 22, 1995. He was indicted again on new charges of rape on April 29, 1996. The prosecution dismissed the previous charges and elected to go forward on the new charges of rape until September 23, 1999, when it dismissed those charges as well.
Wilson was released from prison on bond on October 5, 1995. The charges against her were dismissed on May 22, 1997.
After spending two years in jail awaiting trial, Betsy Kelly pleaded no contest to 30 counts of felony child abuse and ultimately served 11 months of a seven-year sentence.
Willard Scott Privott, a friend of Robert Kelly and owner of a local video store, spent 3½ years awaiting trial before he pleaded no contest to 37 counts of felony child abuse and was placed on probation. Charges against the other three defendants were dismissed before they went to trial.
In 1997, PBS aired a third Frontline documentary produced by Bikel on the case, entitled “Innocence Lost: The Plea,” which again raised serious doubt about the validity of the prosecution’s case, and focused on its impact on Betsy Kelly and Privott, who pleaded no contest in return for reduced sentences while the other defendants either were never convicted or were exonerated.
– Maurice Possley