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 and the latest in 2008. 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.
Howard Weimer and his wife operated a licensed foster care home from the 1960s through the 1980s. Weimer fell under suspicion in the summer of 1984, when a former foster child of theirs – Charlene Ashcraft – responded to a newspaper reporter who was writing a series on child molestation. Ashcraft alleged that Weimer had molested her 23 years earlier, while she was a foster child living in his home. To be included in the newspaper series, Ashcraft had to verify that she was in fact a former foster child. She contacted the Kern County Welfare Agency and found out the Weimers still operated their foster home. Ashcraft then told a Welfare Agency employee that she had been molested by Weimer. She was told to write a letter to Edward Jagels, Kern County’s District Attorney, describing what had happened.
Based on the accusations in Ashcraft’s letter, the Kern County Sheriff’s Department removed four foster children then living in the Weimer’s home. Authorities then interviewed a number of girls and women who had previously lived with the Weimers. Two former foster children – Dena Wisdom and Myra Kimes – claimed that they had been molested and sodomized by Weimer when they lived with him, in January 1981 and May-June 1981, respectively.
Wisdom and Kimes – teenagers at the time – had both been sexually abused in the past, which is why they had been put in foster care. Both also had a history of making false accusations of abuse. Despite these red flags, on September 10, 1984, prosecutors filed charges against Weimer alleging that he had abused both girls. He was arrested soon thereafter.
Weimer’s trial began in March 1985 in Kern County Superior Court. Wisdom and Kimes both testified against Weimer, claiming that he had molested and sodomized them in the Weimer’s backyard. The defense argued the girls’ stories were implausible – the hidden places where they said the abuse occurred were in fact highly visible to neighboring areas. Other than the girls’ testimony, there was no evidence to support their claims of abuse. Nevertheless, on March 29, 1985, a jury convicted Weimer of 11 separate counts of lewd and lascivious conduct. Ashcraft appeared at his sentencing hearing and reiterated her allegations of sexual abuse.
Weimer was sentenced to 42 years in prison.
In 1995, Weimer filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California.
On November 4, 1997, United States Magistrate Judge Sandra M. Snyder recommended that the petition be granted and that Weimer’s conviction be set aside. The Court said that “Kern County authorities used unduly suggestive and overreaching interview techniques . . . which called into doubt the reliability and integrity of accusations made by complaining witnesses.”
Weimer was released from prison in January 1998. Over six years later, on June 15, 2004, the Honorable Oliver Wanger, a federal judge in the Eastern District of California, granted Weimer’s habeas corpus petition and vacated Weimer’s convictions. In 2005, prosecutors dismissed all charges. Weimer eventually filed a civil lawsuit against Kern County and won $355,000.
- Alexandra Gross