It was the 1980’s; a time of big hair, punk rock, shoulder pads, and Swatch watches. Michael Jackson was larger than life thanks to the ‘Thriller’ album, and David Bowie sang ‘Let’s Dance.’ Iconic movies introduced us to Ferris Bueller, The Goonies, and the weird workings of Wes Craven’s mind in Nightmare on Elm Street. Teen heartthrobs were on every magazine cover, and the nation itself seemed high on optimism. It was during this time that we were also introduced to the concept of satanic panic. Little did we know the damage that concept would do for over a decade.
In 1986, *Jennifer McPherson was a divorced mother of two. Her son *Paul was 12 and daughter *Lisa was 8. They lived on the outskirts of Vancouver, Washington in a family oriented neighborhood where neighbors on either side had young children. Infected with the same optimism that seemingly gripped the country, Jennifer embarked on a business venture, opening her own daycare. *Sunshine Academy opened its doors in November of 1986, and before the end of the year had 3 permanent enrollees, and 4 informal attendees. Life seemed good, and full of promise for the future. Jennifer McPherson had no inkling of the hell that was mere months away.
By January of 1987 when the nightmare began to unfold, the nation had been enthralled for over 3 years with the McMartin Preschool case. This case out of Manhattan Beach, California introduced the notion of satanic practices interwoven with horrific sexual assaults of children. Lurid media coverage, heavily slanted toward the prosecution, told details that were never introduced in court. In fact, some of the allegations were so fantastical in the McMartin case that even prosecutors wanted to distance themselves. The details are important because of the outlandish tales, the extremes the state went to in order to prove the allegations, and how the nation viewed the defendants throughout, and even after the first trial.
Every parent of a preschool aged child was captivated and horrified by the emerging details. Suddenly, it became vital to question children about bad touches from caregivers. Childhood behaviors that had for years been accepted as normal now held sinister undertones that might point to sexual abuse. A new breed of experts and investigators decided that naturally reticent children must be pushed, for their own good, to admit to sexual molestation and abuse. Interrogation techniques commonly used on adults were being used on children in order to get to the truth as investigators saw it. Normal childhood behaviors, when viewed through the lens of satanic sexual assault became ominous and scary to parents everywhere.
It was in this atmosphere that one of Jennifer’s neighbors began to worry about behaviors that she had heard rumors of. LL had heard that Jennifer’s son Paul had taught another younger boy how to masturbate. Finding this to be somewhat alarming, she watched a video with her 4 year old son about good and bad touches. Then she questioned him about Paul’s behavior. Her son, BL, reportedly told her of inappropriate behavior he had witnessed between Paul and other neighborhood kids. LL promptly notified the mother of the other children, GM, of what her son had told her.
GM in turn questioned her own children. Initially, they denied the things BL had said. However, after continued questioning which included questioning by LL, the oldest boy, 6 year old CM said that it had happened with his younger siblings, 4 year old JM and 3 year old NM. He also reportedly told his mother and LL that other neighborhood children were involved. GM and LL decided that it was time to involve law enforcement, and they reported their suspicions by phone on January 29, 1987.
On January 30, 1987 they went, with their children, to the police department where they were initially interviewed by Detective Nelson. Based on the information disclosed in the phone interview the day before, and the face to face interview that day, Paul’s father was notified that he needed to bring him in to talk to police. They did not explain to Paul’s father why they needed to speak with him. They did not contact Jennifer, who found out about the situation when she got to school to pick up Paul at the end of the day. She agreed to follow her ex-husband to the police department with Paul, so that they could get to the bottom of this mystery. Paul claimed to have no knowledge of any reason the police would want to speak with him. All three were completely unaware that they were walking into the start of a nightmare that would tear them apart.
Jennifer and her ex-husband *Rick were ushered into a room without Paul. It was there that they were informed that Paul had been accused of molesting a 5 year old child. Shock didn’t begin to cover the emotion they felt. The police wanted to speak with Paul alone. Rick was not happy with this, but ultimately they trusted in 2 things. They trusted that Paul would tell the truth. They also trusted that the police would tell the truth. After being assured that it would only take about 15-20 minutes, they consented, a decision they regret to this day.
At the end of Paul’s interview,which was much longer than the promised 15-20 minutes, it was determined that he would leave with his father. There was concern about his interaction with his sister, 8 year old Lisa. It wasn’t even really an option. If Jennifer did not agree, they would remove both children from the home. She agreed to let Paul stay with his father while this was sorted out. She was still convinced it would be sorted out. It wasn’t. Ultimately, 12 year old Paul McPherson was charged with 6 counts of rape. The nightmare had officially begun. Nobody expected where it would lead next.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved. Initials of pseudonyms have been used to protect the privacy of the alleged victims/families.