Announcer: And now, Secrets & Lies. Here is Stone Phillips.
STONE PHILLIPS: Good evening. As loving parents, we all want to believe our kids. As experienced parents, we know that kids don't always tell the truth, that sometimes they'll tell us what they think grown-ups want to hear. And if the person asking the questions is a teacher, a principal, a police officer, a child may be even more prone to say whatever it takes to get the pressure off. Is it possible that's what happened in the story you're about to see? The stakes were extremely high, because in this case the question was, were children in a California town being sexually abused by dozens of adults, some by their own parents? Here's Keith Morrison.
KEITH MORRISON reporting: (Voiceover) It was hot the summer it all began. But then, every summer is hot in Bakersfield, California--triple-digit blazing heat--a hundred miles and a culture shock up the road from LA.
In the summer of 1984, heat rose in waves around the derricks still pumping a full century after oil was first found pooled under the desert here. But that summer, something that seemed like evil was bubbling up, too, about to engulf a recently divorced father whose name is John Stoll.
(Blurred images of children in pool; countryside; sun; sign; sites in Bakersfield; oil derricks; John Stoll talking to reporter)
Mr. JOHN STOLL: I came out here in 1977.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) By the summer of '84, he was 40 and feuding with his ex-wife over their five-year-old son, Jed.
(Home and yard; photo of John; John talking to reporter)
MORRISON: How'd you feel about that boy?
Mr. STOLL: Neatest thing I ever saw. I really thought a lot of Jed. Really just amazing. He was most important thing in my life at that point.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Since the day his son was born, Stoll had considered himself the more stable parent. They shared custody, though Jed lived mostly with her.
(Infant mobile and crib)
Mr. STOLL: I'd get him every other weekend, so I'd want to have a good time. We went whale watching and, you know, went out on a boat. And I'd take him places and do things with him.
MORRISON: But she felt you were a bad influence.
Mr. STOLL: She felt that I was trying to turn Jed against her.
MORRISON: At the time, John Stoll was an oil field worker, a foreman in fact. And in an oil town like Bakersfield, that was a respected job. He had a steady paycheck, nice house, and perhaps most important, a possession that made him immensely popular with his neighbors and friends. He had a swimming pool.
(Voiceover) In a town where "heat wave" could describe the weather for the entire summer, Stoll's pool became the centerpiece of his social life. Friends and their kids were constantly dropping in. His son, Jed, was encouraged to bring pals over during his weekend visit. Children Stoll didn't even know were running in and out of his home, half-dressed, changing into their swimsuits.
Then, in early June, an officer dropped by, said he was following up on a complaint filed by Stoll's ex-wife.
(Bakersfield; blurred images of people swimming; mailboxes and home; police sign)
Mr. STOLL: You know, he said that she made a report Jed was--Jed and another little boy had a sexual encounter of some kind.
MORRISON: While they were at your house.
Mr. STOLL: Yes, sir.
MORRISON: What would Jed have been doing with some other little boy at your house? I mean, why...
Mr. STOLL: They were in the shower together, OK? And...
MORRISON: How old were they?
Mr. STOLL: Five.
MORRISON: Both of them.
Mr. STOLL: They were just little kids experimenting, I guess. I didn't even really get into it with him. And that was it. I moved on. I figured if--the more you make out of it, the bigger the deal you make out of it, the more they're going to think it's a big deal.
MORRISON: But it turned out to be a very big deal. Just days after that first visit by police, they came again. And this time, it was a raid.
Mr. STOLL: And they threw the search warrant on the table.
MORRISON: What are you thinking as the police come in the house?
Mr. STOLL: I mean, I'm just dumbfounded. I have no idea, absolutely why idea why they would be here. And I'm going, 'What the hell is this?' I mean, I was just--you know, and they said, 'We need to question you downtown.
MORRISON: So then you get into an interrogation room downtown.
Mr. STOLL: (Nods)
MORRISON: And what did they tell you?
Mr. STOLL: They said that I was going to be arrested for child molestation. Whew. And that's when they told me that they spoke to Jed, and Jed said I molested him.
MORRISON: Your son, with whom you were so close and had all that fun...
Mr. STOLL: Yep.
MORRISON: ...the kid you looked after when he was a baby...
Mr. STOLL: Accused me of molesting him.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) But it got worse. In the next few days, five more children surfaced, first- and second-graders, claiming they had been molested, too, raped by John Stoll. He had no criminal record, but with six kids ready to testify against him, Stoll's conviction seemed all but assured. So the prosecutors offered Stoll what appeared to be a generous plea bargain.
(Blurred images of people in pool; empty witness chair; photos of various children; empty courtroom)
MORRISON: What deal did they offer you?
Mr. STOLL: Twelve years.
MORRISON: Why didn't you take it?
Mr. STOLL: I'm not a child molester.
MORRISON: Or so he said. But then John Stoll's son, Jed, and five other little boys took the stand and gave humiliating testimony before a judge and jury. The children hung their heads and answered, 'Yes,' or 'No,' to explicit questions about horrific acts of molestation.
You down there sitting at your table in the courtroom, listening to your son.
Mr. STOLL: Yeah.
MORRISON: What was that like for you?
Mr. STOLL: Devastating's a good word. It really hurt.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Detectives never found any physical evidence of a crime. But the heartbreaking testimony of six little boys was all the evidence prosecutors needed. Stoll was found guilty.
(Home; empty witness chair; mug shot of John)
Mr. STOLL: Not just guilty. 'As to count one: guilty. As to count two: guilty. As to count three: guilty.' And you're going, 'Oh, dear God.'
MORRISON: How long did they sentence you?
Mr. STOLL: Forty years.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) That was 20 very long years ago. But Stoll, still to this day insists he is innocent.
(Cloudy sky; John talking to reporter)
Mr. STOLL: Never, ever in my life could I imagine someone could be convicted for something they didn't do.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Oh, there is, by the way, another rather important thing you should know. The investigation had shown that John Stoll had not acted alone, not by a long shot. Prosecutors told a horrified city that they had discovered entire rings of sick sexual perversions--dozens of adults targeting their own children. It seemed something evil was bubbling up in the scorching heat of Bakersfield.
(Stoll and others in courtroom; sun shining on flag; shadowed images of accused perpetrators; Bakersfield; crane)
Announcer: Who else would be accused?
Mr. STOLL: There was people sleeping under the beds, on the tables, under the tables.
MORRISON: All accused of the same thing.
Mr. STOLL: All child molesters.
Announcer: How did one California town become the center of an alleged child sex ring? When Secrets & Lies continues.
Announcer: We now continue with Secrets & Lies on DATELINE with Stone Phillips.
Mr. STOLL: And I'm sorry, but I'm not child molester.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) John Stoll protested his innocence, but authorities claimed otherwise. Stoll used his swimming pool as bait, they said. An operation so successful, prosecutors argued that Stoll was more than a calculating molester, but the mastermind of a depraved sex ring that preyed on young children.
(Jail; blurred images of people in pool)
Ms. MARGIE GRAFTON: Do you want to trade cars?
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Margie Grafton was a friend of Stoll's, and at that time a young mother with two little boys.
(Margie Grafton with two children)
MORRISON: You knew John Stoll.
Ms. GRAFTON: Yes, yes. One of the girls that I had worked with, it was her boyfriend. And we started doing things on the weekends with the kids.
MORRISON: And he had rented a house...
Ms. GRAFTON: Yes. He had a...
MORRISON: ...with a pool.
Ms. GRAFTON: He had a nice house. Yeah, mm-hmm. Of course, if you had a friend with a pool it was really good. So we'd go different places, though we'd always end up at the pool, you know?
MORRISON: Tell me about Margie Grafton.
Mr. STOLL: She's just a nice person, and I liked her boyfriend, Tim. We got along well.
MORRISON: And your kid played with her kids.
Mr. STOLL: Mm-hmm. Jed would only come on the weekends; he didn't have any little buddies, but he knew Don and Allen. So I would say, 'Margie, you guys'...
MORRISON: 'Bring them on over.'
Mr. STOLL: Yeah. 'Come on over.' And then it started visiting, then it's overnights. You know, they'd just, 'Can we stay the night.' 'Sure. Sure. Go ahead. Yeah. No problem.'
MORRISON: What is your first inkling that something was wrong?
Ms. GRAFTON: The day I came home from work and my kids were gone.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Children gone? Her boyfriend had been babysitting, she said.
(Photo of boys)
Ms. GRAFTON: And he said some people came and took my kids. I said, 'Who?' He said, 'CPS workers.'
MORRISON: Child Protective Services.
Ms. GRAFTON: Yes. Yes. We had no idea why they took them. We walked over to the courthouse to clear up--clear it up.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And when she got there, arrested, she and her boyfriend, just hours after Stoll was picked up. In fact, they bumped into each other in the booking room.
(Mug shot of Grafton; mug shot of Tim Palomo; mug shot of John)
Ms. GRAFTON: (Voiceover) They took my fingerprints and put me in a cell. I'd never been to jail before.
(Mug shot of Grafton; jail door being opened)
Ms. GRAFTON: And there were people there that were in for murder.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Grafton and her boyfriend were put on trial at the very same time as Stoll, as well as a fourth person: Grant Self, a convicted child molester, who was renting Stoll's poolhouse the time the allegations were made. While he did occasional contracting work with Stoll, Stoll says he knew nothing of Grant Self's past.
(Mug shots of Grafton and Palomo; empty witness chair; light shining on water; John talking to reporter)
MORRISON: Did you know him very well?
Mr. STOLL: Never met the man before he came to work. He was sleeping in his car and he said he needed a place to stay, and I told him, 'Well, you can stay in the poolhouse for a couple of weeks until you found another place.'
MORRISON: Did you worry about the kids around him, or have any reason to?
Mr. STOLL: Why would you think something like that? I mean, seriously, why? I mean, now I'm seeing child molesters under the--you know under rocks. But I didn't think about it. I never thought about someone like that, you know what I mean? It never even crossed my mind.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Prosecutors accused them all--Stoll, Self, Grafton and her boyfriend--of raping boys from five to eight years of age. And one of the star witnesses was Grafton's seven-year-old son, Donald, who took the stand and said not only that Stoll had molested him, worst of all, he told the jury, his own mother had forced him into orgies.
(Blurred images of people in pool; photo of boys; photo of John; photo of Grafton)
MORRISON: You were accused of sexually molesting your own son?
Ms. GRAFTON: Yes. Just the thought that everybody in the world thought that I had done that was--it was devastating. It was devastating. I had to just sit there and listen--listen to what they had to say.
MORRISON: And what was going on inside while you heard those things?
Ms. GRAFTON: I couldn't believe what they said. When you know that nothing happened, and you believe in your system, then you can't believe that you're going to go to prison for it.
MORRISON: But you went to prison.
Ms. GRAFTON: Yeah. Guilty, guilty, guilty. Yes.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Convicted of crimes so heinous she received a murderer's sentence.
(Mug shots of Grafton; cell door closing)
Ms. GRAFTON: I was given 48 years.
MORRISON: Forty-eight years?
Ms. GRAFTON: Forty-eight years, and no contact with my children.
Ms. GRAFTON: Ever. I couldn't call them, I couldn't write them.
MORRISON: But that seemed to be just what Bakersfield--and the rest of the country--wanted. When Grafton and Stoll were sentenced, child molestation--a crime kept hidden in years past for want of shaming the victim--had burst forth from a dark closet into the national spotlight.
Unidentified Woman #1: (In court) You're charged in indictment A...
MORRISON: (Voiceover) In many ways, prosecutors were breaking new ground and started uncovering what they believed to be organized molestation rings from Minnesota to Massachusetts. The case that captured the nation's attention in 1984--though it eventually fell apart--was the McMartin preschool trial in Los Angeles County. That case broke just weeks before Stoll's. But, just 100 miles away in Bakersfield, where John Stoll lived, it was different. The story came in just under the national radar, and yet it was even bigger.
In Bakersfield during the mid-'80s, the district attorney, Ed Jagels, uncovered not just one molestation or two or even three, he and his staff eventually prosecuted eight separate sex-abuse rings, all within this tight-knit community a fraction the size of Los Angeles. What dark force was at work?
Authorities came to believe the sex rings were part of a much larger satanic cult. Tips led them to alleged gravesites in search of child sacrifices, but no bodies were found. Still, hundreds of suspected molesters were investigated, dozens prosecuted.
(Court proceedings in McMartin trial; court proceedings in Stoll trial; Ed Jagels speaking at press conference; court proceedings of several trials; countryside; man digging; photographers; police officer; proceedings from several different trials)
Mr. STOLL: At one point--this was a 12-man cell. There was people sleeping under the beds, on the tables, on the tables.
MORRISON: All accused of the same thing.
Mr. STOLL: All child molesters. It was just like this great upheaval of child molesters, two cells full of them.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And there in jail, while awaiting trial, Stoll met and befriended an inmate whose case was almost identical to his, though Jeff Modahl had been accused of belonging to one of the other alleged child sex rings. Modahl's 10-year-old daughter, Carla, had testified her father, along with his friends and family, had molested her. But Modahl, like Grafton and Stoll, said the stories were lies.
(Feet of walking guards and inmates; empty cell; Jeff Modahl in court; photo of Carla Modahl; mug shot of Jeff; mug shot of Grafton; mug shot of John)
MORRISON: Well, you know, it's a famous story that everybody that's in jail is innocent. They all say they're innocent.
Mr. STOLL: Sure. But we were.
MORRISON: And nobody believes what a prisoner says.
Mr. STOLL: Sure. And I can understand that. That's OK. I mean, I finally realized that, 'Well, nobody believes this.'
MORRISON: Perhaps because in court the children gave such graphic accounts of how they'd been raped, ritualistically sodomized by their parents, their neighbors.
(Voiceover) Young children could never possibly concoct such horrific stories on their own. Why would they give such damning testimony, putting their own parents in prison, if it weren't true?
(Empty courtroom; photo of boys; mug shot of Grafton; mug shot of Jeff and photo of Carla)
Announcer: Is it possible some or even all the children lied? How could that happen?
Ms. CARLA MODAHL: Because that's what they wanted me to say. They kept telling me I can go home if I just say this, this and this.
Announcer: A stunning turn of events, when Secrets & Lies continues.
Announcer: A town consumed by tales of sexual abuse, parents are sent to prison after their own children accuse them. But what really happened, when Secrets & Lies continues.
Announcer: We now return to Secrets & Lies. Here again is Stone Phillips.
PHILLIPS: Returning to our story, dozens of people in Bakersfield, California, have been accused and convicted of taking part in child sex rings. Children as young as five told authorities they'd been molested, even raped. Some children made detailed accusations against their own parents. But now, as you're about to see, some of the cases are starting to fall apart, convictions reversed. How could it happen? Once again, Keith Morrison.
Mr. STOLL: See, here were some adults that knew that this was bull...(censored by network). There were some adults that knew, Keith, I know they knew, and they left it go.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) John Stoll, Margie Grafton, Jeff Modahl, and many of the other parents allegedly connected to the Bakersfield sex rings, were alarmed when they compared notes during their trials. The children who had testified against them, said Stoll, sounded almost like they were reciting from a script, what they said was so similar. But when Stoll was sent off to prison to serve that 40-year term, he had no proof, no evidence to support his suspicion. Still, he spent the first years in prison in a mind-twisting rage.
(Sun shining on flag; mug shot of John; mug shot of Grafton; mug shot of Jeff; court proceedings; man in holding cell; court proceedings of various trials; photos of Carla, Ed Sampley, and boys; John and others in court)
Mr. STOLL: The first five years in prison I was in and out of the hole.
MORRISON: Why'd you get in the hole?
Mr. STOLL: I had an attitude.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) For Stoll, changing that attitude meant finally shutting his mind off from the world beyond these walls and giving up any hope that someone outside cared about him or his claims of innocence. And then, years later, Stoll got word that Margie Grafton and her boyfriend had been set free, their convictions thrown out. Had she been able to prove what both had believed at trial, that the children's stories were made up. Well, no. Instead Grafton's lawyer discovered that important exonerating evidence: a psychiatric profile which pointed to her innocence had been kept from the jury.
(Prison; barbed wire fence; empty cell; mug shot of Grafton; person unlocking cell door; Grafton and boys sitting on porch)
Ms. GRAFTON: It just happened one day, they called me to the office and--the counsellor's office, and said that I was released.
MORRISON: Just like that?
Ms. GRAFTON: Just like that.
MORRISON: 'You can go home now.'
Ms. GRAFTON: Yes.
MORRISON: How long were you incarcerated?
Ms. GRAFTON: Almost eight years. I missed my kids for years. I missed their childhood. I didn't to watch them grow up. I didn't get to watch them lose their teeth or do little plays in school or anything like that.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) But for Stoll, there was no such exonerating evidence, and "normal" for him remained his six-by-nine-foot prison cell. In 1995, Stoll was transferred to a new prison, a dangerous time in an inmate's life as he fights for position in the cell block hierarchy.
(Image of John in court superimposed over empty prison cell; prison; razor wire; guard walking through prison block)
Mr. STOLL: '95, I'm walking across the yard, and I see this huge guy, and he goes, 'John.' And I was, 'Whoa!'
MORRISON: (Voiceover) It was Stoll's old friend big, tough, Jeff Modahl, shuttled from one prison to the next, the two hadn't seen each other since their convictions 10 years before. As the two friends swapped stories, Stoll learned of a stunning development in Modahl's case. Shortly after he was convicted, Modahl's daughter, Carla, had actually admitted that she had lied.
Here's the letter she wrote to her dad in 1985. "Dear Dad," it says, "I lied in court. I'm sorry for lying about this, Dad. I'm so sorry."
And when we found Carla Modahl years later, she told us the same story, that she'd been fooled by a social worker and a prosecutor to testify against her dad. At the time of the trial, she was living in a foster home, she said, and wanted desperately to be reunited with him.
(Mug shot of Jeff; cell door closing; Jeff in court; photo of Jeff, Stoll and men; photo of Carla; handwritten letter; excerpts from letter)
Ms. MODAHL: They kept telling me I could go home if I'd just say this, this and this. They promised me my dad would never go to prison.
MORRISON: What did you think would happen if you didn't tell them what they wanted to hear?
Ms. MODAHL: I thought I'd never go home or see my dad if I--if I didn't say it.
MORRISON: But if you told them that he had sexually abused you, they let you believe that you would be able to go home...
Ms. MODAHL: Yes.
MORRISON: ...and see your dad?
Ms. MODAHL: Yes.
MORRISON: And he wouldn't go to jail?
Ms. MODAHL: Yes.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Instead, he was given a 48-year sentence, and when Carla, at age 10, took her letter to court and begged to have her dad released, it didn't work.
(Jeff in court; photo of Carla; photo of Jeff)
Ms. MODAHL: They didn't believe me.
MORRISON: They only believed...
Ms. MODAHL: What I said the first time.
MORRISON: ...the bad story.
(Voiceover) Fourteen years later, in 1999, though, there was another strange twist in the Modahl case: exonerating evidence surfaced: a medical examination given to Carla shortly after her dad, Jeff, was arrested said, "There is no evidence at present time of sexual molestation"--information never shared with the jury. Modahl's conviction was overturned and he was released from prison. By the time he was set free, Jeff Modahl had spent 15 years in prison.
(Medical documents; excerpts from documents; Jeff in court; Jeff in prison)
MORRISON: When you got out of jail, what did you do?
Mr. JEFF MODAHL: The most humiliating thing when I got out of prison, I got out of jail: I had no place to go. I didn't have a home, I didn't have--I--I had no place I knew where I was even going to sleep that night for sure. I didn't have clothes. I wore a paper suit, made out of paper, to walk out of that county jail. And you want to talk about humiliation? Geez.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Again, for Stoll, there was no exonerating evidence. No money for lawyers, either. And so, in prison he remained.
(John in court)
MORRISON: Why is it, though, that Modahl and the others are out and you're not?
Mr. STOLL: He got some help from--from his attorney, and I didn't have an attorney. That doesn't matter to me. I mean, it's spilt milk. He's out, good.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) So now John Stoll through himself into prison life, became a sort of leader among the inmates, prepared to spend his life inside, and had no idea the departure of his friend, Jeff Modahl would set in motion dramatic events, and disturbing revelations.
(Guard walking catwalk; inmates in cafeteria; jail cell; Jeff sitting in chair; John in court)
Announcer: Help arrives from John Stoll's tortured past.
MORRISON: Do you know if John Stoll ever molested any of those kids who went to that house?
Announcer: The children who had doomed him to prison, now grown, were ready to speak out, when Secrets & Lies continues.
Announcer: Secrets & Lies continues.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) In the middle of the 1980s, during the peak of the so-called Bakersfield sex ring scandal, 39 people were convicted, most sentenced to long prison terms. But as years went by, 22 of those convictions were overturned. Still, prosecutors insisted these people were guilty. And all the while, two things remained unchanged: the DA who oversaw the prosecutions was still in office, and John Stoll was still in prison.'
Jeff Modahl, after his release in 1999, tried to throw a lifeline to his old friend.
(Court proceedings for various trials; various people being released from prison; Jagels; John in prison; Jeff working on farm)
Unidentified Attorney #1: What's important to realize is that John Stoll had no record before this started.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Modahl's attorneys contacted this group of lawyers with the California and Northern California Innocence Project.
(Attorneys talking to reporter)
Unidentified Attorney #2: Well, then we began looking through the trial transcripts.
Unidentified Attorney #3: Each of the children were inconsistent with their own testimony. Many of them admitted during the trial that they were lying at times.
Attorney #1: What really struck me was John was so open about his whole story, that it had the ring of truth about it.
MORRISON: Can you really tell? I mean, some people are awfully good at answering questions like that.
Unidentified Attorney #4: You know, we're--we're not naive about innocence and guilt. If it's a case that we decide to commit our really limited resources to, it's got to be a good case.
Attorney #2: We each came to our own opinion, and then shared, 'Oh, my God. He's innocent. We've got to get him out.'
MORRISON: (Voiceover) But what would the alleged victims of Stoll's sex ring have to say about that? One by one, Stoll's lawyers tracked them down. Remember little Donny Grafton, Margie Grafton's son? He testified 20 years ago that Stoll and his mom forced him into orgies. Didn't they?
(Blurred images of people in pool; photo of Don Grafton; photo of Don and Margie)
Mr. GRAFTON: She never did anything wrong.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Today, Donald Grafton says it never happened. He tells us authorities pressured him to lie.
(Don talking to reporter; photo of boys)
Mr. GRAFTON: I was just tricked into lying to put my mom into prison, all because I--I went along with what they said. I lied. Said, 'We need you to go along with what everybody else is saying. This will all be over soon. The more you go along with us, the quicker it'll go.'
MORRISON: In other words, if you said what they wanted you to say, you'd get your life back.
Mr. GRAFTON: Yeah.
MORRISON: You'd get your mother back.
Mr. GRAFTON: Get back--go back to normal.
MORRISON: Did John Stoll ever molest you?
Mr. GRAFTON: No.
MORRISON: Do you know if John Stoll ever molested any of those kids who went to that house?
Mr. GRAFTON: I never saw it, I never heard about it, I never even thought about it.
Mr. ED SAMPLEY: I went swimming there a few times, a handful of times.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) This is Ed Sampley. He was eight when he testified Stoll had assaulted him.
(Childhood photo of Sampley)
Mr. SAMPLEY: Sometimes just out of the blue it'd come up, for whatever reason, I'd think about it.
MORRISON: This was haunting.
Mr. SAMPLEY: Yeah, it was.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Haunting because Sampley--one of Stoll's alleged victims--says the man never touched him.
Mr. SAMPLEY: This man was totally innocent. It's hard to understand how I could fabricate a lie like that. I did have a lot of guilt. You know, there's a man, he's--he's imprisoned as a child molester, that never did anything.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Then, there was this young man, who has asked not to be identified. He also testified against Stoll.
(Man in shadows talking to reporter)
Unidentified Man #1: I knew I was lying, but they told me I had to.
MORRISON: Do you remember how you felt in court, saying those things?
Man #1: Scared.
MORRISON: Scared of what?
Man #1: Scared of losing my parents, scared of the police.
MORRISON: Forced to lie as young children? Exactly what Stoll had been saying for years. So with this ammunition, his lawyers applied for a writ of habeas corpus--essentially asking for another day in court to present their new testimony.
(Voiceover) Months passed. The wait seemed interminable. And then, finally, decision: motion granted. A judge would re-hear the case against Stoll. No cameras were allowed during testimony, but outside the courtroom those little boys--now men--described circumstances from 1984 which they said were surreal, terrifying.
(Mug shot of John; John in court; Sampley smoking)
MORRISON: So how did all this stuff get started?
Mr. SAMPLEY: The sheriffs came to my house, and told my parents other kids had seen stuff happen to me.
MORRISON: What kind of stuff?
Mr. SAMPLEY: Said, sexual acts had occurred bet--between me and John Stoll, and I had seen stuff happen between John Stoll and other children.
MORRISON: Anal sex, oral copulation.
Mr. SAMPLEY: I'm not sure what the--the details...
MORRISON: You can't remember what the...
Mr. SAMPLEY: No, I--I don't know what the story ended up being, but I was...
MORRISON: They asked you to lie.
Mr. SAMPLEY: Yeah, they were asking me--telling me I had to lie, and if I did this, it would go away and get this terrible man off the streets.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Donald Grafton was seven at the time when he says he was pressured to testify against Stoll.
(Photo of boys)
Mr. GRAFTON: I knew I was forced to lie, but I still--I--I--I gave in.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) For these boys, the story was the same, of first being visited by the social worker, Velda Murillo, seen here in an old training tape.
(Photos of Don and Sampley; excerpts of training video)
Ms. VELDA MURILLO: (From videotape) And sometimes moms are even participating, so it's important...
MORRISON: (Voiceover) She came to their homes with a sheriff's officer, but she asked most of the questions, they told us. Took them to a room away from their parents, and told them she knew they had been molested by Stoll after swimming in his pool. They more they denied it, they told us, the more Murillo seemed convinced they were hiding something. Grafton says he and his brother were put into foster care until they cooperated. Sampley says he felt badgered by Murillo and the officer. In the end, more than a seven-year-old could handle.
(Excerpts from training video; blurred images of people in pool; Don talking to reporter; Sampley talking to reporter; childhood photo of Sampley)
Mr. SAMPLEY: It wouldn't go away.
MORRISON: So how could you make it go away?
Mr. SAMPLEY: If I told them that something had happened.
Man #1: And they kept asking, over and over, the same questions. And all I kept saying was, 'Nothing ever happened.'
MORRISON: But you changed your story.
Man #1: Yes.
Man #1: Because if not, I could get in trouble.
MORRISON: Get in trouble how? With who?
Man #1: They told me I would lose my toys and my parents.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Sampley and the others say they were finally told what to say not only by social worker Murillo, but also by a prosecutor.
(Sampley talking to reporter)
Mr. SAMPLEY: They did coach us, totally, made us go over our stories over and over.
MORRISON: Twenty years ago they were children. Now, as adults, they took the stand and proclaimed John Stoll innocent. Grown men reverted to little boys. They exhumed humiliating, guilt-riddled memories. They sat up on the stand and they looked down at John Stoll in the courtroom, and they begged for his forgiveness.
Mr. STOLL: To see them sitting up there, tears running down, looking over at me, telling me how sorry they were, how 'I apologize, John,' oh, man. Those young men have a lot to be proud of. And they were on my side.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) But if the young men thought their new testimony would make everything better and get John Stoll out of prison, they weren't so sure once the case was heard. For one thing, Ed Jagels, the district attorney from the 1980s, reelected time and again, continued to insist that Stoll was guilty. The prosecutor now trying the case challenged their testimony.
(Empty courtroom and image of John; Jagels; attorney in court)
Mr. SAMPLEY: She called us liars, and I felt bad. If--you know, here--here we were, redeeming ourselves and making it right, and she calls us liars. And that's just terrible.
Mr. GRAFTON: She didn't seem to care about the truth.
MORRISON: She was trying to destroy your credibility?
Mr. GRAFTON: Absolutely.
MORRISON: Trying to save that now you're lying, when back at the trial you were telling the truth.
Mr. GRAFTON: Yeah. Now that I'm a--a God-fearing man and I--I serve the Lord wholeheartedly, now I'm a liar. Back then when I was six, when I didn't hardly know the difference, I was telling the truth.
MORRISON: There was some thought in the prosecutor's mind that these people who had recanted were actually now lying about what they said truthfully when...
Attorney #2: To what end? To what end? What would they possibly gain from stepping forward? Now, she implied that they--that they anticipated gaining money, that they were going to sue and get rich off of it.
MORRISON: Part of a lawsuit.
Attorney #2: Right.
MORRISON: You bet.
Attorney #2: First of all, that meant each of them independently came up with this idea, because then when we talked--asked them about the case, they recanted.
MORRISON: Well, maybe you suggested they might want to sue.
Attorney #2: We suggested it?
Attorney #4: And how would that conversation go? We'd sit down and say, 'There's this guy in prison, and we know he molested you a bunch years ago, but why don't you come and help us'...
Attorney #2: Right.
Attorney #4: ...'get him out of prison so then maybe you could come in and sue the government to say you lied because they made you lie.' It doesn't pass the laugh test.
MORRISON: But now came the one piece of testimony which could be more important than all the rest. Stoll was hoping that his own son, Jed, would also tell the court that he, too, had been forced to lie back when he was just a little boy, six years old. Now, Stoll watched a grown man take the stand.
Mr. STOLL: That's the first I'd seen him, you know?
MORRISON: In how long?
Mr. STOLL: Twenty years. And I was really proud of him, actually turned out OK.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Proud? The son Stoll says he was so proud of got up on the stand and stood by his testimony from 20 years before. He told the court he was sure his father molested him.
(John in court)
Mr. STOLL: My Jed said that he thought that I molested him. That just--that's a killer. That's--that hurt so bad. That hurts. I mean, he thinks something happened, and maybe after all those years of hearing something did happen, maybe he believes it.
MORRISON: How do you feel about him?
Mr. STOLL: About Jed? I love him. He's my son. I don't--I'm sorry he feels that way, but I didn't molest him.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Our interview had come at the conclusion of that court hearing. The result, partly because of what Jed had said, was anything but certain.
(John talking to reporter)
Mr. STOLL: Thanks, everybody, for your interest.
MORRISON: OK. Thank you.
Mr. STOLL: Appreciate it.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Now, as the interview ended, Stoll was led away to await whatever his fate might be: freedom or more years in prison as a confirmed sex offender? Who would the judge believe as he weighed his decision?
(John leaving interview)
ANN CURRY reporting: (Voiceover) Next week, "Genius Loves Company," a look at the last recording sessions of Ray Charles. Then, how sweet it is. What's your choice for Buddy and Nikki's wedding cake. All that, plus ghosts, goblins and ghouls live on our plaza. It's our annual costume contest and Halloween extravaganza.
(Ray Charles and others in recording studio; Buddy, Nikki and others with different wedding cakes; various people in costumes)
CURRY: Only on "Today."
Announcer: Coming up on DATELINE Sunday, a high-school house party--parents out of town, kids out of control. The fun has a fatal end. A football star unconscious.
EDIE MANGUS reporting: He's lying there, in front of all his friends, convulsing.
Unidentified Man #2: He certainly was.
Announcer: Why didn't his friends call 911?
Unidentified Woman #2: When the story finally came out, it was like, 'Oh, my God.'
Announcer: A teen in a coma, a terrifying cover-up. What would your kids do? Circle of Friends.
And next, a white-knuckle moment in that California courtroom.
Attorney #4: The judged talked about everything that was bad about our case.
Announcer: Now we will learn, along with John Stoll, what the judge has decided, when Secrets & Lies continues.
Announcer: And now the conclusion to Secrets & Lies on DATELINE with Stone Phillips.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Decision day in the retrial of John Stoll. What the judge ruled will determine Stoll's fate: back to prison as a sex offender, or out as a free man.
Unidentified Judge: (In court) The ruling on the petition for writ of habeas corpus is as follows:
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And from the start, it looked bad for John Stoll. The judge pointed out some inconsistencies in the boys' 20-year-old recollection.
Attorney #4: The judge talked about everything that was bad about our case.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) The judge also pointed out that not only had Stoll's son, Jed, testified that his father molested him, Jed also said no one put words in his mouth or forced him to say things that weren't true. And the judge never considered the allegation that a prosecutor coached the boys.
But then, 18 minutes into the ruling, the judge suddenly shifted directions in Stoll's favor, ruling that the interviewing techniques used by social worker Velda Murillo and the sheriff's officer were improper and resulted in unreliable testimony of the child witnesses.
Judge: (In court) The petitioner's motion is granted, and the judgement rendered against the petitioner is vacated.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And with those simple words, John Stoll was a free man, all charges thrown out. After 20 years in prison in blinding light and blast-furnace heat, John Stoll was free to go. It was his 61st birthday, 20 years lost, and now a modern-day Rip van Winkle.
(John and attorneys in court; John being released from prison)
Mr. STOLL: I made my first cell phone conversation 10 minutes ago. Whoa, that was--everything is overwhelming, you know what I mean? Everything is just--everything is 'Wow.'
MORRISON: (Voiceover) That night, his lawyers took him out to dinner. The last time Stoll dined out, Walter Mondale was running for president.
(John and attorneys at restaurant)
Unidentified Waiter: What kind of dressing on your salad?
Mr. STOLL: Oh, my.
Waiter: You get choices now. You can have...
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Two of their attorneys set him up in their guest house.
(John and reporter)
Mr. STOLL: This sure beats a prison cell, doesn't it?
MORRISON: (Voiceover) He got a computer, a cell phone, an iPod--in a matter of days, shot ahead a generation.
(Laptop computer; John showing electronics to reporter)
Mr. STOLL: It scanned every song in here.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) The family he was born with is long gone, and his own son refuses to see him. But John Stoll discovered he does have family: the lawyers who set him free.
(John and attorneys at restaurant)
Mr. STOLL: I mean, it's just like family. It really is family.
Attorney #3: We gained a family member. He's just a great guy.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) As for the boys--now men--who say it was their lies who put Stoll in prison?
(Empty witness chair)
Mr. STOLL: They didn't do anything. They were children. Certainly can't be mad at them. I find the people I'm mad at is, who told them that story? But I've sat in my cell many a night thinking, 'What the hell did they do to get all of these children to tell this outlandish story?
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And as those boys looked back at stolen childhoods and broken families, it was hard to know who in the end was more damaged.
(Don crying; Sampley smoking)
Man #1: Me and my dad, after that, just became distant.
Man #1: He didn't want to get accused, I assume, for the same thing.
MORRISON: What kind of a loss was that for you?
Man #1: A big one. I wish I could go back.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Knowing how easily a life can be destroyed by false accusations, Ed Sampley makes sure he leaves the house when his daughters bring friends over to play.
(Sampley leaving home)
Mr. SAMPLEY: I've consciously made an effort to try to be normal and not have those feelings of being scared.
MORRISON: To be around kids.
Mr. SAMPLEY: Yeah. But it's really hard. I'm working on it.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Donny Grafton has the same fears with his own children.
(Don and Margie)
Mr. GRAFTON: I have a hard time, my kids sitting on my lap, the boy. The girl, she's not allowed to sit on my lap. They don't--I don't--I won't change diapers for the girl. My--my kid rubs my leg and I smack his hand. (Crying)
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Carla Modahl bounced from one foster to the next. Took to the streets, got addicted.
(Photos of Carla)
Ms. MODAHL: I have a lot of suicide attempts in my life from the guilt that I've carried. It's a lot of guilt.
MORRISON: You were 10. It wasn't your fault.
Ms. MODAHL: I may have been 10, but I knew right from wrong.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) To this day, DA Ed Jagels stands by the convictions. He declined an interview with DATELINE, but issued this written statement. "My office remains convinced on the evidence presented at the 1984 trial and 2004 evidentiary hearing, that the children were, in fact, molested by John Stoll." The sheriff's officer who interviewed the kids feels the same way. Social worker Velda Murillo declined to comment.
As for Stoll, he's learning to live with the one opinion that really matters to him: his son's.
(Jagels; statement; text from statement; excerpt from training video; John talking to reporter)
Mr. STOLL: That's the one thing I cannot get away from. I can't help but think about that. Almost every day Jed crosses my mind, because that was my son, you know, and that's really the hardest. Jed's the hardest.
MORRISON: I notice you said, "that was my son."
Mr. STOLL: Yeah. That was my son, yeah. The one thing that kept me going, no matter what he said, when he was in court at six years old, I remember what he said the last day I saw him. Told me how much he loved me and that he wanted to come and live with me. I can live with that. I have to. I don't have any choice.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) But that was 20 years ago. No compelled to try to understand, he called his old prison buddy, who had an idea.
Mr. MODAHL: I made some pretty nice friends that I don't mind their company at all. And John Stoll is very much one of them.
Want to go see the horsey?
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Jeff Modahl sued and received a small settlement after his release. He bought a farm in eastern Nebraska, nearest neighbor a good mile or two away. Daughter Carla lives just down the road. Modahl invited John to come and stay with him. And so one summer day, not ready to deal with an airplane just yet, John Stoll boarded an east-bound train. And two days later, finally arrived at Modahl's farm.
(Jeff and child; train; John on train; John and Jeff)
Mr. MODAHL: Yeah, this is the guy I had to spend a lot of years with.
Mr. STOLL: Boy, we sure did, didn't we?
Mr. MODAHL: Whether we liked it or not.
Mr. STOLL: Whether we liked it or not, yeah.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And now, the only other man in the world who had any idea what the other was feeling.
(John and Jeff)
Mr. STOLL: It'll be a good time to decompress, because I can't talk to people at home. I mean, they--they're loving people and they--they really want to help, but they just don't know. So, you know, now I have an opportunity to talk to somebody who does know.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Jeff Modahl lost 15 years, John Stoll 20. There's a big sky here in the Nebraska countryside. Air is clean and quiet. There's not a wall around.
(Jeff's mug shot; John's mug shot; Jeff and John)
PHILLIPS: As we reported, a total of 39 people were convicted as a result of the Bakersfield sex abuse prosecutions. Ten were given probation, 29 people went to prison. Of those 29, 23--including John Stoll--had their convictions overturned. Of the remaining six, three were released after serving their sentences, one woman died of cancer while in prison, one man remains in prison.
And Stoll's former tenant, Grant Self, who had a previous conviction for child molestation, is now in a state hospital for mentally ill offenders. He can be kept there until authorities decide he is not a danger to others.