Point Austin: Welcome to the Madhouse

The Keller day care fiasco and the madness of crowds

Fran Keller in 2008
Fran Keller in 2008 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

"A 21st century court ought to be able to recognize a 20th century witch-hunt, and render justice accordingly." – from the appeal memorandum for Frances Keller

On Monday, Jan. 14, attorneys for Fran Keller filed an appeal of her 1992 conviction on multiple counts of child abuse. Keller and her husband, Dan, had run a small, home-based Oak Hill day care for a couple of years when the mother of a troubled 3-year-old interpreted her daughter's odd behavior as evidence of abuse. Encour­aged and abetted by a credulous therapist, and then police investigators and prosecutors who should have known better, she triggered a full-scale "satanic ritual abuse" witch hunt that ended in what are effectively life sentences for the Kellers.

The tale is summarized this week in Jordan Smith's "Appeal Filed in Keller Day Care Case." Smith laid out the entire sordid tale in "Believing the Children," March 7, 2009. It was her extraordinary reporting that not only returned the story to public attention and an innocence investigation, but also cast serious doubt on the only element of "physical evidence" – a superficial examination of the child's genitals by a young doctor who told Smith, with great regret, he had made a mistake.

The history is again laid out at length in the exhaustive memorandum filed this week by defense attorneys Keith and Cyn­thia Hampton, asking that Fran Keller's conviction be vacated and an appeal hearing granted. We've posted the memorandum online, and it recounts in detail the original case, investigation, and the astonishing credulity of parents, police investigators, and public officials at the widespread notion that "satanic abusers" were everywhere among us and that many day care centers had become dens of iniquity.

Not only are the Kellers, having now spent two decades in prison, innocent – none of the alleged crimes ever happened.

Fevered Fantasies

I write that bluntly, but with bitter resignation. No matter what happens, it's impossible to return to the Kellers their lives. I certainly hope the appeal is successful, but prosecutors – current Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was in charge of the child abuse unit at the time – are notoriously reluctant to acknowledge mistakes, and even in matters of actual innocence, the courts are extremely slow to act upon error, often preferring finality to justice. And some of the people involved, who led small children into a web of absurd fantasies, continue to insist that the Kellers are guilty.

Read the accounts. Not only did the children's imaginations deliver on demand reams of adult-provoked fantasies – chain saws, dismemberments, exhumations, plane rides, burial rituals, dead animals, etc., etc. – that could not have been true, the "investigation" pursued miscellaneous places and passers-by, random police officers, coerced confessions, and on and on. Corroborating testimony was eagerly provided by a delusional, self-promoting "expert" who went on to make a personal industry of "satanic abuse" and crazier nonsense that persists to this day. More­over, police investigators withheld from the prosecutors exculpatory evidence that contradicted their overheated imaginations – that alone, along with the doctor's retraction, should require the courts to reopen the case.

The entire investigation and prosecution remains a shameful disgrace to Austin, Travis County, the police, and the prosecutors. Lehmberg and the courts should do whatever they can to undo this conviction and provide to Fran Keller, as the appeal asks plaintively, "other and fuller relief as may be just and proper."

Manufactured Panic

The satanic ritual abuse panic has subsided somewhat since it crested in the 1980s, although it resurfaces periodically. We'd like to think we've gotten over the worst of it. Unfortunately, Austin will not be able to say that with a good conscience until the Kellers are out of prison.

Mob madness is never very far away. Consider the aftermath of the Newtown school massacre: Even the mildest proposals for gun regulation have been met with hysterical backlash from the worst of the gunmongers, undeniably reminiscent of the "satanist" craze: frenzied gun-hoarding against the coming apocalypse, threats against public officials and others, cries of treason and impeachment, calls for secession and armed revolt – even crazed accusations that the school massacres were government-sponsored or somehow magically invented altogether.

This is not spirited, necessary debate about disputed public policy. It's demagoguery of the first order, beginning with the corporate gun lobbyists at the National Rifle Association and running on through our reflexively reactionary Texas politicians right on down to our local fanatical fearmonger and snake-oil salesman Alex Jones. (Piers Morgan may be a pompous git, but he had this much right: Jones on CNN "was the best advertisement for gun control you could wish for.") Yet plenty of credulous people – credulous and armed people – listen to Jones' rubbish and follow his lead.

The Keller case and its nationwide kin, like the current gun hysteria, serve as painful reminders that irrationality and mob hysteria are never far beneath the surface of public life. It's not surprising that a child's misbehavior or a family's unhappiness might break out into wild fears and accusations. Much more disturbing is that officials charged with public safety and the due process of law should be so gullible as to accept the wildest, impossible fantasies as credible allegations, and should fall prey to the very madness that it is their responsibility to prevent.

They ought to be ashamed.

Follow @PointAustin on Twitter.

Posted here are:

1) The Memorandum filed Jan. 14 in support of Frances Keller's application for a writ of habeas corpus; the document recounts the history of the case and the claims for relief;

2) The affidavit of Dr. Michael Mouw, retracting his initial diagnosis of sexual abuse in the examination of Christine Chaviers;

3) The affidavit of Francis Batla concerning police investigation of Oliver Cemetery and allegedly "disturbed graves."

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Fran Keller
Kellers Await Vindication
Kellers Await Vindication
Judge says Kellers can't prove they're innocent of a crime few believe happened

Chase Hoffberger, Dec. 12, 2014

More gun control
Point Austin: Hanging Fire on Gun Control
Point Austin: Hanging Fire on Gun Control
After yet more deaths, Texas leaders vow to do ... something

Michael King, Sept. 13, 2019

Texas' Latest Pro-Gun Laws Kick In
Texas' Latest Pro-Gun Laws Kick In
Never let it be said that Texas lawmakers have done nothing to respond to mass shootings

Michael King, Sept. 6, 2019

More Point Austin
Point Austin: So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya
Point Austin: So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya
After a couple of decades … bidding farewell

Michael King, March 27, 2020

Point Austin: Future Outcomes Not Assured
Point Austin: Future Outcomes Not Assured
Super Tuesday’s first-round results leave plenty of unanswered questions

Michael King, March 13, 2020


Fran Keller, Dan Keller, day care, ritual abuse, actual innocence, Rosemary Lehmberg, Austin Police Department, mass hysteria, gun control, Piers Morgan, Alex Jones, Newtown, Sandy Hook, shooting

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle