Couple jailed for 21 years for 'satanic' daycare have been found innocent

Back in the 80s and 90s, there was a period of what came to be known as "Satanic Panic". The media and fundamentalist Christian groups warned of the evils of satanism present in everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Harry Potter.

After thousands of, usually unfounded, accusations of ritualistic sex abuse, many children were taken from parents accused of devil worship. This was mass hysteria for the modern, yet still pre-internet, age, and much of it has since been disputed or proven false. A 1994 report by the British government stated that there was "no foundation to the plethora of satanic child abuse claims".

alt Credit: The Austin American-Statesman

But falling through the cracks of the system were Austin daycare operators Dan and Fran Keller, who were accused of a plethora of satanist activities, then convicted of sexual assault in 1992. Three children from the centre accused them of a range of activities such as: serving blood-laced Kool Aid, cutting the heart out of a baby, taking children to Mexico to be raped by soldiers, slicing off a gorilla's arm, throwing children in a swimming pool full of sharks, burying children alive then resurrecting them... the list goes on.

Opening the centre in 1989, the couple lived in the same house, caring for around 15 children who often had emotional problems or histories of abuse. After one child accused them, the authorities closed down the centre, and then the horrific stories just kept coming. At one point there was a suspect list of 26 abusers, including neighbours and a police captain, who were all found not guilty, and some believe that the young children were coached or manipulated into confessing.

One girl said that Dan "had come to her house and had cut her dog’s vagina with a chain saw until it bled" before taking her to a cemetery, where, "a person dressed like a policeman threw a person in a hole", who Dan shot, forcing the children to help him cut up the body with a chainsaw. Parents added to the drama, by claiming that the American flags the children were given were a reminder to stay silent at home.

After a six-day trial in 1992, they were convicted of sexual abuse based on one piece of corroborating evidence. A doctor who examined a little girl said that she had physical signs of trauma that could have resulted from sexual abuse. They were sentenced to 48 years in prison.

alt Credit: The Austin American-Statesman

Soon after the outcome, the doctor realised he had made a mistake. What he believed was trauma was nothing more than a variant of female genitalia. He presented these findings to the police but was ignored, as were the children who reported no problems at the centre. The couple served nearly 22 years in prison before a court released them in 2013, after years of journalists and lawyers trying to prove the case against them was baseless. Speaking at the trial, the doctor said "I was mistaken".

Fran is now 67 and Dan is 75, but their 2013 release wasn't the end of the struggle. After being targeted in prison by other inmates for the child abuse allegations (Fran, kept in a women's prison, had to evade thrown boiling water and shanks), they found it difficult to get jobs as they hadn't been declared innocent yet, surviving off social security checks and the support of friends.

alt Credit: The Austin American-Statesman

In June this year they were fully exonerated, which made them eligible to claim $80,000 for every year they were imprisoned in compensation, as well as annual payments of 5% interest for the rest of their lives. Now, The Austin American-Statesman have reported that Kellers were awarded $3.44 million from a state fund to make amends.

Speaking to the paper, Fran said:

"This means we don't have to worry about pinching pennies on Social Security and late bills. It means we will actually be free. We can start living - and no more nightmares"

$3.4 million sounds like a ridiculous amount to receive in damages, but on the other hand - can you really put a price on being falsely accused of horrendous actions for much of your life, or the two decades they lost? Some believe that there was truth to some of the allegations, but without evidence there's no sure way of finding out.