During the month of May 1990 an archaeological project was conducted at the McMartin Preschool site to determine, once and for all, whether or not there had ever been tunnels under the building, as described by various children. Excavation was carried out according to established scientific conventions with a careful research design defining what might prove or disprove the existence of “an underground feature that would connect to the surface of the site and extend underground for some distance..(with) dimensions large enough to accomodate adult human movement through it.” (p 24)
The project unearthed not one but two tunnel complexes as well as previously unrecognized structural features which defied logical explanation. Both tunnel complexes conformed to locations and functional descriptions established by children’s reports. One had been described as providing undetected access to an adjacent building on the east. The other provided outside access under the west wall of the building and contained within it an enlarged, cavernous artifact corresponding to children’s descriptions of a “secret room”.
Both the contour signature of the walls and the nature of recovered artifacts indicated that the tunnels had been dug by hand under the concrete slab floor after the construction of the building. Whatever the purpose of this elaborate enterprise, even more effort must have been devoted to filling the tunnels back in and trying to conceal any evidence of their existence. Much of the fill dirt used for packing the tunnel spaces was mixed with historic debris, as if to mimic the surrounding terrain.
Not only did the discovered features fulfill the research prequalifications as tunnels designed for human traffic, there was also no alternative or natural explanation for the presence of such features.
The McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California was the first of what has since been described as a national epidemic of multi-victim, multi-perpetrator accusations of sexual and sadistic abuse which erupted in the mid 1980’s. The McMartin case was encumbered with hundreds of charges against seven defendants and dozens of uncharged suspects. It became the longest, most expensive and arguably most controversial criminal trial in American history. The descriptions given by children to investigators and parents were unusual and unprecedented as they emerged in 1983, but they became so stereotypic to subsequent cases throughout the country as to become generic of presumed “ritual abuse”. Accusations of such extreme cruelty and bizarre perversity in the absence of physical evidence or obviously deranged suspects led eventually to increasing skepticism that such crimes could possibly exist. Simple alternative explanations emerged, first as criminal defense theories and then as common wisdom: very young children were moved by the hysterical overreaction of various adults to make unfounded accusations. Full-page newspaper ads placed in 1984 by McMartin criminal defense attorneys raised the specter of the Salem witch trials. The witch hunt analogy has since flourished to create substantial public distrust of pre-school-age witnesses and of the adults who question them.
The failure of prosecutors to obtain even a single conviction in the McMartin trial has been taken by many as proof that the children’s allegations were merely fantastic. Various journalists have demanded punishment of the professionals and parents who had chosen to believe them. Similar allegations arising more recently in other cases in the United States and abroad are tested against the McMartin standard, creating a prejudice against investigating or substantiating even remotely “bizarre” complaints. Parents in such cases feel triply betrayed; first with the dreadful discovery of abuse; second with their abandonment by law enforcement, and third with being blamed for imagining the abuse and fomenting public hysteria.
One of the supposedly bizarre aspects of the McMartin case was the children’s insistence that they were taken into underground tunnels. They explained that the tunnels led to an underground “secret room” where abuse occurred, as well as providing a route for subversive transport to off-site locations for sexual exploitation. These stories were apparently considered fantastic by investigators, who made no attempt to search beneath the building.
A group of parents forced the hand of the district attorney on March 17, 1985 by initiating an excavation in the adjacent lot. The district attorney then authorized an archaeological inspection of that lot by Scientific Resource Surveys Inc. (SRS). There was no exploration beneath the slab floor. Instrumental survey with a terrain conductivity meter failed to detect alterations under the concrete. The SRS technician informed the district attorney’s investigator that the meter proved useless within the structure because of excessive interference from pipes and steel reinforcement. The preemptory conclusion at that time that there were no tunnels has become gospel among detractors of the McMartin families. Influential journalists ridicule parents for ever entertaining such a possibility and mock their subsequent attempts at exploration.
The first opportunity for private exploration came in April 1990 when the property was sold. Several parents obtained permission from the new owner to search for the tunnels. After cutting out a section of concrete and coming up with ambiguous findings, it became apparent that experienced supervision was need. Gerald Hoobs a professional miner, was engaged to insure safety and to better define the nature of the underground artifacts. When an apparent tunnel entrance was discovered and then verified by geologist Dr. E. Don Michael, parents sought out the archaeological team that completed the present project.
The project was designed and conducted by E. Gary Stickel, Ph.D., on the recommendation of Rainer Berger, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Interdisciplinary Program of the Archaeology Department at UCLA. Dr. Stickel is director of Environmental Research Archaeologists, a Scientific Consortium (ERA)….
Stickel’s report is part of former FBI LA field office director Ted Gunderson’s compilation on the McMartin case, complete with photos, schematics, drawings , chemical analyses and and ground penetrating radar at:
Gunderson’s 4 newsletters, published before he was poisoned with arsenic, are available at: