Falsely accused of satanic horrors, a couple awarded millions

Long before the age of the Internet and the fleeting spasms of mass hysteria that came with it (Remember Jade Helm? Pizzagate?), and going back to the late 20th century, when irrational fears moved slower and lasted longer, there was Satan.

The “satanic panic,” some call it now. It began some time in the 1980s, when newscasters and fundamentalist Christian cartoons warned of the evils of the role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons,” and stretched into the 1990s, when police and psychiatrists saw thousands of unfounded accusations of ritualistic sex abuse and children were seized from British parents accused of devil worship.

One case still stands out.

“This country hasn’t seen anything like it since the Salem witch trials,” Texas Monthly wrote in 1994, in a profile of Austin, Texas, day-care operators Dan and Fran Keller, who had been thrown in prison two years earlier.

The Kellers had been convicted of sexual assault in 1992. Children from their day-care center accused them — variously — of serving blood-laced Kool Aid; wearing white robes; cutting the heart out of a baby; flying children to Mexico to be raped by soldiers; using Satan’s arm as a paintbrush; burying children alive with animals; throwing them in a swimming pool with sharks; shooting them; and resurrecting them after they had been shot.

They were hardly the only people to be accused by children during the panic. Many were exonerated long ago — like the 20 people wrongly convicted in the infamous Kern County sex abuse cases. Some now blame the phenomenon on “a quack cadre of psychotherapists who were convinced that they could dig up buried memories through hypnosis,” as Radley Balko wrote in a column for The Washington Post.

But the Kellers suffered for decades.

They served nearly 22 years in prison before a court released them in 2013, after years of work by journalists and lawyers to expose what proved to be a baseless case against them.

And only now — when Fran Keller is 67 and Dan is 75 — has the couple been fully exonerated. Their 1992 case was finally dismissed in June after a district attorney declared them innocent.

This week, the Austin American-Statesman reported, they were awarded $3.4 million from a state fund — a belated attempt to refund a quarter-century that they lost to the delusions of other people.

“We can start living,” Fran Keller told the newspaper after learning of the award Tuesday. “No more nightmares.”

Terror at the day care

“Terror at the day care,” blared the Vancouver Sun in 1992, in prose typical of early coverage of the Kellers. “It didn’t look like a haunted house. But the kids knew better.”

Fran’s Day Care Center actually looked entirely charming, as described by Texas Monthly in one of the few measured stories from that era.

Opened in 1989, it had cages of rabbits and a pony named Dancer, a playground and swimming pool, tucked into a leafy Austin neighborhood “as tidy and pastoral as a cottage in a fairy tale,” Texas Monthly wrote.

The couple lived at the same house — Fran in her 40s and Dan in his 50s — and cared for about 15 children each day, including some who had histories of emotional problems and abuse.

One day in 1991, Fran recalled in an interview with KXAN, only two children were dropped off. Then police knocked on the door and sat with her in the kitchen.

“They told me Dan was accused of hurting a child,” she said. “And I knew that couldn’t be true.”

What began as a single accusation from a 3-year-old girl with known behavioral problems, Texas Monthly wrote, “escalated to monstrous proportions” after authorities closed the day care.

Worried parents sent their children to therapists, where they came back with tales pulled straight from horror movies.

At one point in the investigation, the Statesman wrote, police had a suspect list of “26 ritual abusers, including many of the Kellers’ neighbors and a respected Austin police captain.”

As an appeals court judges recounted decades later, one girl claimed that Dan Keller “had come to her house and had cut her dog’s vagina with a chainsaw until it bled, that she was taken to a cemetery, where, after a person dressed like a policeman threw a person in a hole, Daniel Keller shot the person who had been thrown into the hole and cut up the body with a chainsaw while all the children helped.”

And parents began to reinterpret day-to-day activities at the day care as sinister omens.

The Kellers had once sent children home with American flags, one parent told the Vancouver Sun. The flag “reminds them, ‘Don’t tell,’ ” the parent said.

The panic was already beginning to subside in other parts of the world. A three-year inquiry by the British government in the early 1990s concluded that “there was no foundation to the plethora of satanic child abuse claims,” according to the BBC.

“These tales are usually just that – figments of imagination,” the New York Times wrote in 1994, citing a study by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect that found not a single substantiated case of cult sex abuse among more than 11,000 reported to psychiatric and police workers.

Nevertheless, the Kellers were convicted after a six-day trial in 1992.

Not of chainsawing a dog’s vagina, of course – but of aggravated sexual assault based on the word of children and police, and a single piece of physical evidence: an apparent wound on a girl’s vagina.

That, too, would turn out to be wrong – but not before the Kellers stood in a Travis County courthouse and heard their sentences read aloud: 48 years each.

Sent to separate prisons

“You prayed a lot,” Fran Keller told KXAN, remembering when the whole world seemed to believe she and her husband were monsters.

“And you sat there. And you was like a zombie.”

She was sent to a women’s prison near Marlin, where she became a target because of the allegations that she had abused children. She spent her time dodging boiling water and learning about shanks, she told the station.

Dan served his time near Amarillo, Texas Monthly wrote, where he wrote poems and tried “to figure out what happened to the life he once knew.”

They lived like that for years, never seeing each other, fading from the headlines as the 20th century passed away and the satanic panic went with it.

But some remembered.

Then, in 2009, the Austin Chronicle wrote an article called “Believing the Children” — 10,000 words that tore apart what aspects of the Keller’s case had not sounded wholly fantastical to begin with.

An emergency room doctor who had testified of wounds on a little girl’s vagina had since reconsidered after learning more about female anatomy. He told the Chronicle reporter, “I’ll be straight-up honest with you, I could’ve been wrong.”

State troopers had once flown over a cemetery, investigating claims that the Kellers took children there to dig up a grave. Evidence at the trial showed the earth had indeed been disturbed.

But a cemetery worker told the Chronicle that the coffin in that particular grave kept sinking, and the occupant’s son regularly came by and threw more dirt on it. Thus the disturbance. Moreover, the Chronicle reported, police had known this but it had not been mentioned in the trial.

The article has many such examples of evidence that didn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Austin lawyer Keith Hampton read the Chronicle’s story and thought, “Oh, dear God,” he later recalled to Texas Monthly.

Thereafter, Hampton began working for free to overturn the Kellers’ conviction.

They appealed the case in 2013, according to the Statesman. The doctor’s testimony proved crucial. Hampton put him under oath, and he said in no uncertain terms: “I was mistaken.”

That November, around Dan Keller’s 72nd birthday, both he and his wife walked free on bond while an appeals court considered a permanent reversal.

The couple had not seen each other in more than two decades.

“My heart lit up,” Dan Keller told KXAN a few months later.

But officially, they were still sex predators – always looking over their shoulders, accused by many people of horrible things.

“All I can say is I hope one day you change you mind,” Fran Keller said.

A witch hunt from the beginning

The next year, an appeals court unanimously overturned the Kellers’ convictions based on false testimony.

“This was a witch hunt from the beginning,” one judge wrote, comparing the case to the Salem witch trials of the 17th century, in which 22 women were hanged before Massachusetts reversed the convictions.

But without explaining why, the appeals court declined one of the Kellers’ central requests: refusing to declare them innocent in 2015. Several children who originally accused the couple still oppose their release, the Statesman reported.

The Kellers kept pushing for public redemption. They were finally declared “actually innocent” by the Travis County district attorney in June, the newspaper wrote. That made them eligible for a state program that pays wrongfully convicted people $80,000 for each year they spent in prison — a very large cumulative sum, in the Kellers’ extraordinary case.

The couple had been getting by on Social Security checks and the help of friends, they told the Statesman.

“It’s been really, really rough,” Fran Keller said. “You can’t get a job as a ‘child molester.’ “

Nevertheless, they used their freedom to involve themselves in the cases of others they believe to be wrongfully imprisoned.

They were standing outside a Texas jail in support of one such man Tuesday, when their lawyer called with the news that they were millionaires.

“They are now compensated and no longer must fear homelessness or lack of health insurance,” the lawyer, Hampton, wrote to KXAN. “They are buying a home and can live out their lives in peace and quiet.”

The Kellers were expected to pick up a check for $3.4 million this week – though maybe millions isn’t so much when stretched across two decades and the darkest fantasies of children.

Fran Keller put it this way to the Statesman:

“It means we will actually be free.”

Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss React to Dennis Hof's Death
Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss speak about their friend and prominent brothel owner Dennis Hof's death at Dennis Hof's Love Ranch. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof has died
Nevada brothel owner and Republican candidate for Nevada State Assembly District 36, Dennis Hof has died. He was 72. Nye County Sherriff's office confirmed. Hof owned Love Ranch brothel, located in Crystal, Nevada.
Las Vegas police investigate suspicious package at shopping center
Las Vegas police evacuated a southeast valley shopping center at Flamingo and Sandhill roads early Tuesday morning while they investigated reports of a suspicious package. (Max Michor/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Las Vegas Metro hosts the K-9 Trials
The Las Vegas Metro K-9 Trials returns to the Orleans Arena to benefit the Friends For Las Vegas Police K-9 group.
Kingman residents love their little town
Residents of Kingman, Ariz. talk about how they ended up living in the Route 66 town, and what they love about their quiet community. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Service at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery
Twelve unclaimed veterans are honored at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City in Oct. 9, 2018. (Briana Erickson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas house prices reach highest level in 11 years
Las Vegas house prices are rising But so is the amount of available homes on the market Still, properties priced below $300,000 are selling fast And September was the first time since June 2007 that the median house price reached the $300,000 mark Las Vegas home prices have been rising at one of the fastest rates in the country over the past year Recent data show the market is now less affordable than the national average
National Night Out
About 100 Summerlin residents gathered at Park Centre Dr. in Summerlin on Tuesday for National Night Out. Lt. Joshua Bitsko with Las Vegas Metro, played with 3-year-old David who was dressed as a police officer. Face painting, fire truck tours and more kept kids busy as parents roamed behind them. (Mia Sims/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Rural homeless issue comes to a head in Pahrump
On Sept. 12, Pahrump sheriff deputies told residents of a homeless encampment on private property that they had 15 minutes to vacate and grab their belongings. That decision might face some legal consequences. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Remembrance blood drive on October 1
A blood drive was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center on the one year anniversary of the Oct. 1 shooting. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Remembrance Lights memorial unveiled at St. Rose hospital
A dedication ceremony was held at St. Rose to unveil a memorial and to read the names of those who died on October 1, a year ago. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October Blood Drive Remembrance Wall
(Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October Blood Drive
Vitalent hosts a blood drive at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, the first anniversary of the Las Vegas shootings. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October sunrise remembrance ceremony in Las Vegas
Myanda Smith, sister of Las Vegas shooting victim Neysa Tonks, speaks at the sunrise remembrance ceremony at the Clark County Government Center in downtown Las Vegas, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. (Chitose Suzuki/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
‪Gov. Brian Sandoval speaks to crowd at Oct. 1 sunrise remembrance ceremony ‬
‪Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval speaks to the crowd at the Oct. 1 sunrise remembrance ceremony ‬at the Clark County Government Center in downtown Las Vegas, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Father of Route 91 Harvest festival shooting victim talks about college scholarship in his daughter's memory
Chris Davis, father of a Route 91 Harvest festival shooting victim, Neysa Tonks, talks about a college scholarship in his daughter's memory to assist the children of those who died in the shooting. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Oct. 1 survivor Malinda Baldridge talks about life after the shooting
Malinda Baldridge of Reno attended the Route 91 Harvest festival with her daughter, Breanna, 17, and was shot twice in the leg when the gunman fired on the crowd.
Route 91 survivor talks about lack of progress in gun legislation
Heather Gooze, a Route 91 survivor, talks about lack of progress in gun legislation since the Oct 1. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas/Review-Journal) @reviewjournal
Review held in death of man after encounter with Las Vegas police
The mother of Tashii Brown, who died after an encounter with Las Vegas police on the Strip, not satisfied after public review of evidence. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Clark County Museum opening "How We Mourned: Selected Artifacts from the October 1 Memorials"
The Clark County Museum is opening an exhibit "How We Mourned: Selected Artifacts from the October 1 Memorials" of items left to honor the victims killed in the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Memorial service for former RJ lawyer Mark Hinueber
Mark Hinueber, the Review-Journal's former lawyer and defender of the First Amendment, died in Las Vegas on Aug. 23. Hinueber, who was 66, worked at the RJ and other newspapers for 42 years. On Saturday, his friends and family gathered for a memorial service.
Army veteran honored in Henderson event
Army Sgt. Adam Poppenhouse was honored by fellow veterans in an event hosted by a One Hero at a Time at the Henderson Events Center.
Michelle Obama and Keegan-Michael Key urge Nevadans to vote
Former first lady Michelle Obama and comedian Keegan-Michael Key urged Nevadans to vote at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas Sunday, Sep. 23, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Nevada Task Force One Cheers Golden Knights
Nevada Task Force One Cheers Golden Knights
1 dead, 1 wounded in North Las Vegas standoff
A woman was hospitalized with serious injuries on Thursday morning after being shot inside a North Las Vegas house. Police responded about 11 p.m. to a shooting at a home on the 5600 block of Tropic Breeze Street, near Ann Road and Bruce Street. The wounded woman, police believe, was shot by a man, who later barricaded himself inside the house. SWAT was called to assist, and when officers entered the house, they discovered the man dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Las Vegas Teen Makes Clothing Resale His Side Hustle
Las Vegas resident Reanu Elises, 18, started buying and selling streetwear online when he was a high school junior. Like many other young adults, the world of online resale applications like Depop and Mercari have made selling clothing online for a profit easy. Now, Elises spends his free time at thrift shops looking for rare and vintage clothing he can list on his on his shop. Now in his freshman year at UNLV as a business marketing major, Elises hopes to open a shop of his own one day and start his own clothing brand. He estimates that he's made about $1000 from just thrifted finds in the past year, which he'll use to buy more thrift clothing and help pay for expenses in college. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Fruition Vineyards Encourages Young Entrepreneurs to "Buy, Flip, Dream"
Once a month, young adults gather at Fruition Vineyards on South Maryland Parkway near UNLV to dig through a stack of rare, vintage and designer clothing that's marked down well below it's resale value. Shop founder Valerie Julian began the vent, dubbed "Fruition Vineyards" in August after running her streetwear shop since 2005. The event gives young entrepreneurs the opportunity to "buy, flip, dream" according to Jean. Meaning that they're encouraged to buy the clothing for sale and find a way to resell it for a profit, then reinvest that into whatever dream they pursue: college, a hobby or their own resale business. Shoppers lined up starting an hour before noon on the last Saturday in April for the opportunity and spoke about what they hoped to do with their finds and profits. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Local man goes under cover searching for answers to homelessness
Licensed mental health therapist Sheldon Jacobs spent 48 hours under cover posing as a homeless man in an attempt to gain perspective on the complex issue.
Social Work UNLV Lecturer's Calling
Ivet Aldaba-Valera was the first person in her family to graduate from both high school and college. The 33-year-old UNLV lecturer is now pursuing her Ph. D in public policy at the school and has used her degree in social work to engage with the young Latino and Latina community of Las Vegas. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Gold Point townsperson talks about why he choose to live in a ghost town
Gold Point townsperson Walt Kremin talks about the ghost town in Nevada he calls home. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
News Headlines
Local Spotlight
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like