Gone are the days of “Satanic Panic.” And let’s be thankful for that, because back in the 1980s and early ‘90s, when a panic swept the nation over satanic rituals and abuse (mostly towards children), there were witch trials, only they were held in a court instead of a burn pit in Salem. Those burned at the court’s stake? Well, most of them were actually innocent folk who were seen as evil and powerless to the powers of Satan.
Dan and Fran Keller were a couple who owned a day care and found themselves accused of the worst and most bizarre things. The result? 21 years behind bars for – get this – crimes they never even committed.
Satan and Those Who Feared Him
Really, when it comes down to it, trials like these say more about the people accusing than about the accused. Today we have cancel culture and conspiracy theories, but before Q Anon and the likes, there was Satan and those who feared him.
Now it’s referred to as the “Satanic Panic,” but back in the ’80s, it was a real, life-altering fear – one that sent people to death row for bizarre crimes they never even committed. In the early ‘80s, newscasters and fundamentalist Christian cartoons were warning people of the evils of “Dungeons & Dragons” (the role-playing game).
Not Since the Salem Witch Trials
These warnings stretched into the ‘90s, when police and psychiatrists started hearing thousands of baseless accusations. People were claiming that they or their children were victims of ritualistic sexual abuse. Parents, teachers, and in the Kellers’ case daycare owners, were being accused of Devil worship.
The case of the Kellers stood out from the rest, as its implications were pretty dire. “This country hasn’t seen anything like it since the Salem Witch Trials,” the Texas Monthly wrote in 1994, two years after the Texas daycare owners were thrown in prison. In 1992, Dan and Fran were both convicted of sexual assault.
From Bloody Kool-Aid to Being Shot and Resurrected
They were convicted of assault, but the accusations flung around in court were the most bizarre. Children from the Kellers’ daycare center told their parents stories of being serving blood-laced Kool Aid, of Dan and Fran wearing white robes, and of them using Satan’s arm as a paintbrush.
It gets worse: these children (emphasis on children) spoke of the Kellers flying children to Mexico to be abused by soldiers, of them burying children alive with animals and throwing them in pools with sharks. Oh, and they were accused of being shot and then resurrected after having been shot…
A Bunch of Quacks
If that sounds completely out of whack and too insane to be taken seriously, then congratulations, you’re a normal person. But, believe it or not, these were actual accusations that not only the parents of the children believed, but the jury in court did too!
The Kellers were just one of many cases in which children were accusing adults of strange, evil behavior. The phenomenon has gone on to be blamed on “a quack cadre of psychotherapists who were convinced that they could dig up buried memories through hypnosis,” according to a column in The Washington Post.
Nonetheless, it happened. Here’s the story…
Terror at the Day Care
The phenomenon may have been debunked, but the damage is done. Dan, then 50, and Fran, then 42, served 21 painstaking years behind bars. Of all the things you can be accused of, the laundry list of claims the Kellers received not only ruined their reputations, but their lives.
“Terror at the Day Care,” read one headline in the Vancouver Sun in 1992. “It didn’t look like a haunted house. But the kids knew better.” It hadn’t been open long; the trial occurred only three years after it opened in 1989.
The (So-Called) Devil’s Playground
The truth is, Fran’s Day Care Center looked quite charming, which is how Texas Monthly described it at the time. The daycare, in Oak Hill, Austin, had rabbits in cages and a horse named Fancy Dancer. There was a playground and a swimming pool, all fitting swimmingly with the “tidy and pastoral” neighborhood it belonged to.
The daycare was part of a residential home, the same home the Kellers lived in. Dan and Fran cared for up to 15 children on each day of the week, including those with documented histories of emotional issues and abuse.
A Nice Home in the Country
Fran and Danny had been married for about a year when they moved into their home on Thomas Springs Road. They used to live in an apartment, but country girl Fran wanted something out of town. “I like gardens, and I like animals,” she said. “I just wanted someplace in the country.”
And so, they started the lease on their new home in July 1988, and immediately started renovating. Dan, a manager of the county’s Precinct 3 road crew, added a stone walkway to the front door and Fran planted a garden.
Fran, the Caregiver
When Fran’s former boss gave birth to a son, she began to care of the baby while his mother was at work. Soon, Fran was taking in other kids, those of friends and neighbors. She put a sign up in the yard advertising her caregiving services.
“It was wonderful. I taught the kids how to garden and we had a big back yard, and we bought a pool for the kids. And we had sand all over the yard,” Fran reminisced. It was a beautiful place, and the Kellers were excited about the future…
A Wonderful Place for the Kids
By 1991, Dan had already retired. He spent his free time tending to the property and helping out with the kids. He would take them out for rides on the horse and pull them in a wagon behind his riding lawn mower.
Teresa Chambers, a former paramedic and mother of two of the children, said the environment the Kellers created was the reason she put her kids in day care with Fran. “I thought, this is so cool for kids!” By the summer of ‘91, the Kellers around 10 kids each day.
Ma’am, We Need to Talk
One day in 1991, only two kids were dropped off. That morning, the police knocked on the door and asked to have a chat with her in the kitchen. “They told me Dan was accused of hurting a child,” Fran said in an interview. “And I knew that couldn’t be true.”
It all started on August 15, 1991, with one accusation from a 3-year-old girl who had known behavioral problems. That one claim spiraled into a tornado of allegations. Soon other children were coming forward with stories of their own.
Straight out of a Horror Film
It was both shocking and heartbreaking for the couple to hear such things. “We raised them from babies,” Fran said. Parents of the children started sending the toddlers to therapists, and what they heard in these sessions sounded like they came straight out of a sci-fi horror movie.
During the investigation, the police had a suspect list of “26 ritual abusers, including many of the Kellers’ neighbors and a respected Austin police captain,” one report read. When you hear these stories, you can only wonder who put these thoughts in their little, developing minds…
A Toddler’s Testimony
The case against the Kellers rested on one, critical piece of “evidence”: the 3-year-old had fresh tears in her hymen. Coupled with her testimony that Dan raped her, Dan and Fran had no chance.
Apparently less important was the fact that the little girl’s parents were going through a chaotic divorce, and she was acting out both at daycare and at home. In court, the girl said she never even knew the Kellers and that she never said anything about sexual abuse at all. (She was three years old…)
A Troubled Child
By all accounts, the girl was a troubled child. Her mother revealed that Fran’s Day Care was a place to take her daughter “while she ran errands related to the divorce.” Christina had been in the day care no more than 13 times; before that she had rarely been away from her mother’s side.
According to the therapist’s testimony at the trial, Christina had been “acting out” for months, often biting her mother. She once tried to jump out of a moving car, was “behaving like a dog,” and even tried to stab the family dog with a fork.
Secret Hand Signals
If the trial consisted only of toddlers and their wild testimonies, perhaps the case would have been dropped. But there were grown adults – psychologists! – who not only fueled the fire but detonated the bomb. One psychologist was a man named Randy Noblitt.
At the time, Noblitt was investigating satanic ritual abuse for the state, and he claimed that the Kellers were a couple of satanic predators. He said Dan and Fran would use secret hand signals to influence the children to stop their testimony. This was the “explanation” for the girl’s unreliability on the stand.
The Satanic Angle
It was clear as day that the prosecution was using the (trendy) Satanic angle, but it was the court-appointed defense team that introduced the idea of Satanic ritual abuse. The defense lawyers figured the jury would believe such claims as too farfetched to be true.
In court, other children told their stories. And “far-fetched” would be an understatement here. These accusations sound more like nightmarish fantasies. One girl claimed that Dan came to her house and cut her dog’s genitals with a chainsaw.
Wild Tales Taken Seriously
The dog was taken “taken to a cemetery, where a person dressed like a policeman threw a person in a hole.” She said that Dan then shot the person in the hole and cut up the body with (again) a chainsaw. She added, “all the children helped.”
“These tales are usually just that — figments of imagination,” a piece in The New York Times reported in 1994. It cited a study by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, which found not even one substantiated case of cult sex abuse in over 11,000 reported to psychiatric and police workers.
The Verdict: Guilty
Satan-fearing parents began to reinterpret the day-to-day activities at the Kellers’ daycare center as sinister omens. One day, the Kellers had sent the kids home with American flags. Even this was a sign of evil, as one parent told The Vancouver Sun that the flag “reminds them, ‘Don’t tell.’”
Despite the unfathomable stories the children told in court, the Kellers were convicted of aggravated sexual assault. It was solely based on the word of children and the police, an apparent wound in one girl’s hymen. Not one piece of physical evidence was used.
The Sentence: 48 Years
Unfortunately for the Kellers, they became part of a damning statistic. In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, daycare abuse cases saw an 85 percent conviction rate. In other parts of the world, the panic was starting to fade.
A three-year British government inquiry in the early ‘90s concluded that “there was no foundation to the plethora of satanic child abuse claims.” But America was still in disarray. All it took was six days in court to send the Kellers to a lifetime in jail. They were both sentenced to 48 years in prison.
Welcome to the Jungle
Dan and Fran were separated and sent to different prisons: Fran to a prison near Marlin and Dan near Amarillo. Considering the crimes they were sent in for (prisoners are known to look down upon child abusers), the inmate population was beyond hostile.
The Kellers were spit on, food was taken from them, and they were threatened by prisoners on a daily basis. Fran was raped at least twice. When she wasn’t busy praying, she was dodging boiling water and “learning about shanks.”
Like a Pair of Praying Zombies
Dan did his best to stay occupied and distracted. An artist, he used coffee and a Q-tip to paint pictures of Willie Nelson and other prisoners. He wrote poems “to figure out what happened to the life he once knew,” the Texas Monthly wrote.
They lived like this for years, praying and sitting there “like a zombie,” as Fran described it. She didn’t see her husband even once, the two of them fading from the headlines as the “Satanic Panic” evaporated along with the passing years.
17 Years Too Late
The nation may have moved on, but the Kellers were two “monsters” left in the dungeon. It took much too long, but 17 years later, the truth started to come out. In 2009, The Austin Chronicle published an article titled “Believing the Children.”
It was a long piece (10,000 words) that dove deep into the Kellers’ case and basically tore it apart. In it was the report of an emergency room doctor, Dr. Michael Mouw, who testified in court about the wounds on the little girl’s vagina.
“I Could’ve Been Wrong”
The doctor had since reconsidered the findings after learning more about female anatomy. “I’ll be straight-up honest with you, I could’ve been wrong,” Mouw admitted. Then there were the State troopers who flew over a cemetery one day.
They were investigating the claims about the Kellers taking children there to dig up a grave. The fact that the earth had been disturbed was used as evidence in the trial. Only later did a cemetery worker report that the coffin in that particular grave was constantly sinking.
Oh, Dear God
The deceased’s son would regularly come to the cemetery to throw more dirt on it, which explains the “disturbed earth.” The Austin Chronicle also reported that police had known this bit of information; they just never mentioned it at the trial.
There were many similar examples of evidence mentioned in the Chronicle that simply didn’t hold up to scrutiny. When Austin lawyer Keith Hampton – the man who eventually freed the Kellers – read the Chronicle’s article, his first thought was, “Oh, dear God.” It was then that Hampton started working on the case.
After 21 Years in Prison
Hampton worked pro-bono to overturn the Kellers’ conviction. In 2013, they appealed the case. This time, the doctor’s testimony was the crucial piece of evidence. In the appeals court, Hampton put the doctor under oath.
In plain language, Mouw stated, “I was mistaken.” That November, after 21 years behind bars, Dan and Fran Keller were finally let go. As Dan turned 72, the Kellers – who hadn’t seen each other in over two decades – finally walked out of their cells and into the land of the free.
A Modern-Day Witch Hunt
They had been released on bond, while an appeals court considered a permanent exoneration. Until the exoneration, the Kellers were still technically sex offenders in the eyes of the law. They were always looking over their shoulders, still being accused by many of horrible things.
By the following year, the appeals court unanimously overturned the convictions based on false testimony. “This was a witch hunt from the beginning,” one of the judges wrote, comparing the Kellers’ case to the Salem Witch Trials of the 1600s (where 20-something people were hanged before the convictions were reversed).
Finally, “Actually” Innocent
“The prosecutors weren’t ill-meaning. They were true believers,” Hampton said. “They really thought there were sacrifices going on. They were swept up in that.” But with no explanation as to why, the appeals court declined one main request: to declare them innocent.
And that’s because several of the children who accused the couple all those years ago still opposed the Kellers’ release. The Kellers weren’t content with only their freedom. Understandably so, they wanted full public redemption. By 2017, Dan and Fran were finally declared “actually innocent” by the Travis County district attorney.
Is $3.4 Million Enough?
Because of this, they were now eligible for a state program which compensates wrongfully convicted people. Just how much? $80,000 for each year in prison. And so, the Kellers were free, declared innocent, and given $3.4 million in compensation.
Prior to the payment, the couple in their post-release lives, were struggling financially, getting by on Social Security checks and friends’ help. “It’s been really, really rough,” Fran said. “You can’t get a job as a ‘child molester.’” They were finding it difficult to adapt to a world that not only exiled them but moved on without them.
No More Nightmares
When released, Fran was 67 and Dan was 75. The elderly couple needed the compensation to get themselves back on their feet, after decades of suffering. “We can start living,” Fran said in an interview. “No more nightmares.”
Maybe not nightmares, but Fran said they still “have dreams about prison and what’s happened to us.” Nonetheless, she forgives everybody. “That’s all you can do. Give it over to God.” Dan, now in his 80s, is described by Hampton as something of “a Buddhist monk.”
From Prison to Paparazzi
Fran was hesitant to talk to the media for a while. It was “shocking” for her and Dan to go from private prisoners for 21 years to having to a swarm of cameras in their face in addition to all the intrusive questioning.
These days, the couple lives on an eight-acre ranch in New Braunfels and spend their time helping others who were wrongfully imprisoned. In fact, they were standing outside a Texas jail in support of a wrongfully accused man when their lawyer called with the good news – that they were millionaires.
It’s a Cycle
“We’re happy and we’re happy to be back in the world. Hope it doesn’t happen to others. But they’ll have a lot of support if they do,” Fran shared. Fran, in an interview, said that the hysteria which took her and husband by storm is a cycle – one that comes around every 20 years or so.
The woman has a point, as it was in the late 2010s that QAnon started making noise. QAnon is another form of panic that has swept the nation and also alleges Satanic ritual child abuse. Many in this group believe that a ring of global elites is systematically harming young children.
From Pamphlets to TV to the Internet
Chris French, a researcher of paranormal beliefs at the University of London, says the reasons for the popularity of these beliefs correlate with times of great uncertainty. In times when things feel out of control, it’s a natural human need to identify an enemy.
This time around, the internet has ignited the panic in ways the panic of the ‘80s could never have imagined. During the Satanic Panic, it was daytime television that gave people ants in their pants. Back when the Salem Witch Trials took place, it was the distribution of pamphlets that spread the propaganda and fear among the people.
James Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, wrote a letter of support for the Kellers. “There is now general agreement among reputable scholars that the Daycare Abuse Panic was a twentieth-century manifestation of ‘witchcraft fever.’”
The same kind “that swept Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and Western Europe in the centuries before that.” The nation had already rung the child-sexual-abuse-in-daycares alarm years earlier, when the McMartin Preschool case took place flooded the media. Like the Kellers’ case, the McMartin preschool case started with a single allegation from one boy.
The Devil’s Workshop
The boy from the LA-based preschool told stories of ritualistic animal mutilation that happened in secret underground passageways. Unlike the Kellers’ case, though, this one snowballed into a seven-year investigation, exposing stories of over 200 charges relating to the sexual abuse of many children.
In the end, no one was convicted. That was just one piece of the decade’s Satanic Panic puzzle. There was also the time in 1988, when Geraldo Rivera interviewed heavy metal singer Ozzy Osbourne as part of an NBC special called “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.”
“This Is Not a Halloween Fable”
Viewers at home watched as Rivera said in front of a studio audience and said, “The very young and the impressionable should definitely not be watching this program tonight. This is not a Halloween fable, this is a real-life horror story of Devil worshippers and law enforcers, experts and victims.”
Rivera was adding fuel to the fire, alleging that Satanism was running rampant across the country. Understanding the climate at the time makes it a tad easier to wrap our heads around the Kellers’ trial. Of course, it was beyond paranoid and distasteful. But it was what the country had on the menu at the time.
Satan Was Everywhere
Hampton, the Kellers’ attorney, said the claims “did not seem outlandish” because it was the kind of stuff people were watching on national television. “The local news had a segment called ‘cult crimes,’” he said, mentioning that Exorcist III was a blockbuster at the time and “Satan was everywhere.”
The Kellers’ were granted freedom only a few weeks after a group of friends dubbed “the San Antonio Four” were released. Four women spent over ten years in prison for being convicted of child sexual assaults that allegedly took place in Texas in 1994.
There’s a Pattern
They too had to hear wild claims thrown at them, like ritualistic molestation, and they too had “expert medical testimony” that was later exposed as false. In 2011, Arkansas saw the “West Memphis Three” set free after being supported by Hollywood celebrities.
Then, there was the case in Florida, where a Cuban immigrant named Frank Fuster was serving a 165-year sentence from 1985 for child molestation. Eventually, doubts were raised as to the validity of the evidence against him. Just as the panic was a pattern, so was the eventual truth that came to light.
The American Family Was Changing
According to Mary DeYoung, a sociology professor in Michigan, cultural shifts in the ‘80s created a climate of fear. As she explained, the typical American family was evolving. Women were going out into the workforce and became more reliant on day care.
With that came the anxieties over the welfare of their children. “There was a huge rise in Christian fundamentalism that made the Devil very real and insinuated the Devil into a number of social problems, and a rising interest in the country in the whole issue of trauma.”
Shame on Them
Then there was the whole problematic issue of suggestive and insistent interviewing strategies. These extremely young kids were being prompted to make up stories. Moreover, they were supposed to believe what they were telling the adults. The general consensus at the time was that children wouldn’t lie about such serious crimes.
The media didn’t help, of course, and there was immense parental pressure on the police to give authority to even the most absurd allegations. “There has been a kind of grudging acknowledgement [from the authorities] that things got out of hand,” DeYoung added.