When Junior Chandler was arrested in 1986 for sexually assaulting seven young children he transported to daycare, he was one of at least 150 people caught up in a nationwide panic around child sexual abuse, many at child care centers.
Seven people at McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, had been charged three years earlier with 321 counts of child sexual abuse, resulting in the most expensive trial in American history. Allegations of abuse morphed into even more wild claims, including ritual killings and cannibalism, grabbing newspaper headlines and network television around the country.
As parents came forward with claims that their children, too, had been abused, prosecutors pursued cases against daycare workers and owners. The most high-profile case in North Carolina, at Little Rascal Day Care Center in Edenton, led to 429 counts of abuse against the center’s owners and five employees and friends, including the center’s cook. The allegations included claims children were forced to have sex with each other. Other allegations were bizarre, including that the children went on trips in hot-air balloons or were tossed into shark-infested waters.
More than 150 people in the United States were charged in these cases and 70 were convicted. But one by one, almost all of those cases fell apart, according to a report from the National Registry of Exonerations. Many were later either exonerated, or their charges were dismissed, including most of the defendants in the Little Rascals case. (Betsy Kelly, one of the owners, pleaded no contest and served three years in prison.)
But not Chandler.
Now a 65-year-old with two adult children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, Chandler is still serving two life terms, plus 21 years, at the Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine, North Carolina.
Chandler’s case fit the pattern of others—it started with one parent believing his or her child was abused that snowballed into allegations from other families.
Jim Coleman, one of his attorneys and the director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke University School of Law, said allegations against Chandler ballooned within days, leading to charges before there had been a real investigation.
“Before May 19, 1986, none of the parents or children had ever complained of being mistreated on the bus,” Coleman said. Ten days later, Chandler was indicted on 21 charges related to abusing children.
While other cases have been overturned, Chandler’s is the only one in North Carolina that hasn’t been, Coleman said.
Chandler hopes he’ll no longer be the last. This week, Gary Gavenus, a superior court judge for Avery, Madison, Mitchell, Watauga, and Yancey counties, will hold a three-day evidentiary hearing on Chandler’s latest appeal.
Chandler has filed several appeals over the years, including a motion for appropriate relief in 2007 that was denied. The Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke University School of Law took up the case in 2014.
The new appeal argues that the medical evidence used against Chandler doesn’t hold up today, and that prosecutors used flawed or incomplete summaries of testimony from children in the 1987 trials (one ended in mistrial).
Jamie Lau, a supervising attorney with the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law who is representing Chandler, said the evidence against his client, just like in many of the cases of that era, has collapsed.
The allegations against Junior Chandler started with claims he’d given children marijuana.
Chandler, then 29, drove a 15-passenger van for Madison County Transportation Authority. He was assigned to transport children ages 2 to 5 from their homes to the Marshall Daycare Center, and mentally disabled adults from Mintz Family Care Homes to Madison Sheltered Workshop in Mars Hill.
Chandler had been in the job for three years when the daycare center received a report in April 1986 from a parent named Donna Nipper that her 4-year-old son had gotten ahold of marijuana. Nipper implied that Chandler had provided the illegal drug.
The allegation made its way to Chandler’s supervisors at Madison County Transportation Authority, which investigated the complaint. Chandler denied doing anything wrong. The agency closed the investigation, but Nipper didn’t drop the issue.
She told a doctor, who urged her to contact a social worker at the Madison County Department of Social Services named Linda King. King initiated an investigation and got another social worker to interview the boy, who said nothing about Chandler giving him drugs. The boy said he never saw anyone smoke while he rode the van. In fact, he told her the only people he said he saw consume marijuana were his parents.
A month later, another parent, Nancy Burgess, said she was driving over railroad tracks one day and told her daughter, “It must have been fun to ride over them in the van.” That’s when her daughter started “telling little things that had happened, that they had hurt her butt …,” court documents said. She also claimed her daughter told her, “We’ve been fucking.”
King followed up with Nipper about the marijuana allegation on May 16, a Friday. An hour later, Nancy Burgess called Nipper about what her daughter said. Nipper began suspecting that her son also may have been abused.
At 8 a.m. on May 19, Nipper, her husband and Burgess went to a magistrate and swore out private arrest warrants (in North Carolina, residents can take out arrest warrants as long as a magistrate finds there is sufficient evidence) against Chandler and Buddy Norton, an intellectually disabled man who rode in the van. Several children claimed they saw Buddy Norton and an intellectually disabled woman named Pam Coli making out and having sex on the van, and making sexually-explicit comments.
After drawing the warrants, Nipper and her husband took it to the local newspaper, The News Record, telling the reporter she became convinced her son had been molested after speaking with Burgess.
Nipper, her husband, and Burgess spent the rest of that day with King, the social worker. King asked them if they suspected that other children had been abused; Burgess told her that her niece’s two children also rode the van.
King scheduled comprehensive medical examinations of the children and contacted the niece, who later took out private arrest warrants on Chandler and Norton. Burgess told the examiner that her daughter “denied being touched or bothered by anyone,” but Burgess was convinced otherwise.
Other parents contacted social services, alleging that their children had been abused. Some had read accounts of sexual abuse in the local newspaper.
By May 29, King had received comprehensive medical examinations of seven children, all between the ages of 2 and 5. The next day, Chandler, Coli, and Norton were indicted.
Chandler faced 21 charges—seven counts of first-degree sex offense, seven counts of taking indecent liberties with a minor, and seven counts of crimes against nature. Chandler was accused of sexually assaulting the children using pens and markers. They alleged that Coli and Norton held the children down while Chandler abused them.
Chandler’s younger brother, William, said he remembers when he first heard the allegations. Chandler came home early, as William was helping their uncles plant a tobacco crop. Madison County Transportation Authority had just suspended him, he told them.
“He was in shock and disbelief,” William said.
William was, too. “I couldn’t believe it. Like taking liberties with a child,” he told The Assembly. “That’s just nonsense.”
The case went to trial on January 19, 1987 in Marshall, Madison’s county seat. Coli and Norton took plea deals in 1986 in which they both got suspended sentences; they were called to testify against Chandler at trial. Officers patrolled the courthouse; the children’s parents had complained they had received death threats from Chandler’s supporters. The Burgesses’ home had burned to the ground that November, which the couple told The News Record was related to the Chandler case. Two of Chandler’s uncles owned trailers on either side of the couple’s mobile home, the paper noted.
“Tensions during the two-week trial have run progressively higher after bailiffs began escorting witnesses outside of the courthouse,” papers in nearby Asheville reported. “In what was interpreted as a precaution against threats to the families of the children Chandler is accused of molesting, deputies cleared the courtroom earlier this week and led parents through a crowd of Chandler’s friends and family.”
At trial, prosecutors alleged that Chandler veered off his van route and abused the children at two different locations—the Redmon Dam and Barnard Bridge, both on the banks of the French Broad River. They said Chandler took the children on a boat where the abuse allegedly occurred. Some of the children testified in a courtroom closed to the public.
The judge dismissed five of the 21 charges before the case went to the jury. But the jury deadlocked, and Judge James A. Beaty declared a mistrial on February 2. Prosecutors asked for a retrial to be moved to Buncombe County, alleging that the high-profile nature of the case had tainted the jury pool in Madison.
The second trial began on March 30. Two weeks later, a jury convicted Chandler of five counts of first-degree sex offense, six counts of taking indecent liberties with a child, and one count of crimes against nature. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, plus 21 years.
In delivering the sentence, Judge Douglas W. Albright said Chandler had “sown in the hearts of those little girls thorns where roses should have grown.”
Chandler’s attorneys say that the evidence leveraged against him would never lead to criminal charges today, much less sending him to prison.
One of the most damning pieces of evidence against Chandler was testimony from Dr. Andrea Gravatt, a pediatrician who physically examined all five girls and said she found definitive signs of sexual abuse.
In the 1980s, experts widely believed that vaginal openings greater than 4 millimeters indicated that a child had been sexually abused. They also believed that a missing or penetrated hymen was a sign of abuse.
In an affidavit included with Chandler’s most recent appeal, Dr. Cynthia Brown, a medical examiner who specializes in pediatrics, said that the standards on evaluating child sexual abuse have changed. The size of a female child’s vaginal openings is not indicative of sexual abuse. Neither is the absence of a hymenal ring.
Theresa Newman, former co-director of Duke’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic, said that it wasn’t until child sex abuse cases increased in the 1980s that medical researchers began re-evaluating how they determined if young girls had been sexually abused. They hadn’t previously looked closely at girls to figure out what was normal and what might be abuse.
There was also a prevailing belief at the time that children would not lie about being abused, Newman said.
During the trials around the country, organizations with names like “Believe the Children” and “Mothers in Action” were created to support children and their families. Mothers in Action’s national chairperson wrote to the prosecutor regarding Chandler’s case in 1986, urging more support for the children accusing him and asking for a conviction despite the case playing out in a “small community that protects its own.”
But research in the years since has made it clear children can give false statements, and they can easily be manipulated. Chandler’s appeal argues that social workers and police detectives conducted interviews that would be considered improper today, using tactics like asking leading questions and doing multiple interviews where parents and other children were present.
The children in Chandler’s case are now adults in their late 30s and early 40s. Chandler’s lawyers said they have not recanted, nor have they reached out to them to see what they would say today. They were questioned so much and so inappropriately as children, Coleman said, that they’re unlikely to have any independent knowledge of what the truth is.
“They grew up believing they were abused by Junior because that is what the adults around them said,” Coleman said.
Chandler’s attorneys also argue in legal briefs that it’s also possible some of the children were abused—but by family members, a far more common crime.
“Given the age of the children at the time and how these reports of abuse were elicited from them, we decided, and I still think rightly, that their memories are unreliable,” Newman said.
Chandler’s attorneys allege that prosecutors withheld the full transcripts of the children’s interviews, in which all the children initially denied they had been abused. In legal terms, they are alleging what is known as a Brady violation—prosecutors failed to turn over exculpatory or favorable evidence to the defense.
His trial attorneys were given summaries of the interviews, which appear to be definitive accounts of the children’s alleged abuse. It wasn’t until 2015 that Chandler’s post-conviction attorneys received the full transcripts of the interviews.
Chandler’s attorneys also allege that Gravatt misrepresented her credentials at trial—saying she had 11 years of pediatric experience and had practiced at Asheville Pediatrics for “not quite six years.” None of that is true, Chandler’s attorneys allege.
Coleman and Lau told The Assembly that there is also no logistical way Chandler could have committed the crimes he was accused of. Chandler’s attorneys contend that there were no complaints about him dropping the children off late. (Prosecutors dispute this, saying parents had complained about him dropping children off late and that witnesses saw a vehicle matching the one Chandler drove at the Redmon Dam).
Further, the children involved in the case rode the van at the same time on only four occasions according to the daycare center’s records, and they were all in February, when the weather would have been cold. The alleged abuse happened over a five-month period between January and May 1986.
“How in the world did anyone think that this was happening at the end of a normal daycare day and a normal workforce day for the cognitively impaired adults on the bus?” Newman said.
Chandler’s attorneys also said that “none of the children or defendants initially identified or even reasonably described either of the two locations [where the abuse allegedly occurred]; both locations were introduced into the case by an adult participating in the investigation.”
In the most recent appeal response, John Honeycutt, assistant district attorney for Madison County, dismissed every claim Chandler brought up on procedural grounds—in other words, Chandler cannot raise the claim again because he had raised it in previous appeals.
Honeycutt also bristled at any association this case has with the child abuse hysteria or moral panics involved in other cases. He cited a book by political scientist Ross Chiet arguing that contrary to current conventional narrative about the cases of the late 1980s, prosecutors had compelling evidence against many of the people charged.
“The ‘witch hunt narrative’ is a tactic through which defendants convicted of child molestation hope to gain some kind of ‘innocence by association’ by presentations that lump themselves with other cases that resulted in acquittal or reversal on appeal, rather than focusing on the facts of their own cases,” Honeycutt wrote in the state’s response.
Honeycutt did not return messages from The Assembly seeking comment.
What happened in other parts of the country is remarkably similar to Chandler’s case. But how it played out in court is not.
Many experts point to the McMartin Preschool child sex abuse scandal as the start of a hysteria over child sexual abuse and Satanic cults. In 1983, Judy Johnson reported that she suspected her 2-year-old son had been sexually abused at the child care center in Manhattan Beach, California.
Police sent out 200 letters to parents, asking if their children might have been abused.
Ultimately, seven people were charged with 321 counts of abuse involving 48 children in that case. In 1986, the same year Chandler was charged, the district attorney dismissed criminal charges against five of those defendants. Another was acquitted of all charges in 1990, after a staggering three-year trial.
A jury found the remaining defendant not guilty on 52 out of 65 charges and deadlocked on the remaining charges; after another trial and deadlocked jury, prosecutors dismissed the remaining charges.
Mary deYoung, a sociology professor and an expert for Chandler’s defense team, told The Assembly the McMartin case was the leading edge of a moral panic. “McMartin provided a kind of template to look at these alleged cases within child care facilities,” she said.
Childcare had become a fundamental division in the country connected to women’s liberation, changing gender roles, and access to safe, affordable care, deYoung said. As several hundred cases emerged around the country and internationally, the allegations grew increasingly fantastical.
“We have people in costumes, and we have children drinking blood and killing animals and all of that kind of stuff,” deYoung said.
In a case in Wenatchee, Washington, a town of 55,000, police arrested 43 people and alleged they had sexually assaulted 60 children 29,726 times over a six-year period, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
In 1988, law-enforcement officers and child-welfare workers had gathered for a three-day conference on child sexual abuse in daycare centers in the Outer Banks, Elle magazine reported. Nine months later, Audrey Stever told her friend, Brenda Toppin, a police officer who had attended the Outer Banks conference the previous year, that her two sons had had nightmares and were wetting their beds. Her 3-year-old son then started pointing to his buttocks and they found that his rectum was red and swollen. She began suspecting sexual abuse.
Steven’s 3-year-old son attended Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, North Carolina. Her initial allegation led to hundreds more.
In 1989, the owners of Little Rascals Day Care Center, Robert and Betsy Kelly, were charged with sexually abusing the children in their care. Five other staff and family members were also charged—a total of more than 400 counts of sexual abuse allegedly occuring between March 1988 and January 1989.
The case garnered massive media coverage, and the trial was moved to Farmville. Just before the first trial, PBS aired a documentary called “Innocence Lost,” raising questions about the credibility of the evidence.
All the defendants were convicted through either guilty verdicts and no-contest pleas. Robert Kelly’s conviction was later overturned by the N.C. Court of Appeals. He was indicted on new charges but those were eventually dismissed. The N.C. Court of Appeals reversed another person’s conviction based on prosecutorial misconduct, and the charges were eventually dismissed. Others, including owner Betsy Kelly, pleaded no contest to the charges.
Newman said she looks at Chandler’s case in the context of what was happening at the time. With what is known now, Newman said, Chandler would not be in prison.
“I would truly and sincerely hope that if allegations arose like this today, we all would say, ‘Let’s look closer. Let’s really see if we can prove that this could have happened the way the state is alleging that it happened,’” she said.
Andy Chandler was 6 when his father was arrested. He is now 43, and has three adult children and a 17-year-old. He also has two grandchildren—making Junior Chandler a great-grandfather. His younger brother, Nathan Chandler, has three children.
Despite being so young when his father was arrested, Andy recalls going catfishing with him in Tennessee around age 5.
“He caught a big one that night,” he said. “I was wanting to help so bad, but I couldn’t because it was bigger than I was. And then we got back home … it was still alive and it was flopping around while I was still trying to hold it as we were taking the picture.”
He said he hates to see his father in prison.
“It’s been frustrating because he gets a glimmer of hope and it seems to get shut down,” he said.
In a brief interview with The Assembly from prison, Chandler said it’s hard to still be locked up for a crime he says never happened, but he deals with it one day at a time.
“I hold up pretty good,” he said. “I still don’t see no psychiatrist. I’m active. I play volleyball. I work on maintenance, mowing, weed-eating, stuff like that. I try to keep my mind occupied.”
In the 35 years he’s been in prison, he’s lost a brother, Robert. He’s also gained grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It’s been harder to see him since the pandemic began, but Andy said he and his daughter were able to see him about a month ago.
As for now, Junior Chandler hopes the latest hearing will finally provide a way out.
“It’s just unbelievable to me,” he said. “It’s like a nightmare that’s hopefully one day will be over.”
Michael Hewlett is a staff reporter at The Assembly. He was previously the legal affairs reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal. You can reach him at email@example.com.