Believing the Children
Jordan Smith, The Austin Chronicle, March 27, 2009
It's likely Fran and Danny Keller were innocent of charges of child sexual abuse, but they're still in prison after 17 years
When the little girl on the witness stand said, "No, it didn't happen," Frances Keller put her head in her hands and began to sob.
It was the second day of what would be a six-day trial of Keller and her husband [in 1992], Danny, on charges that they'd sexually assaulted a young girl, Christina Chaviers, in the summer of 1991, when the 3-year-old was an infrequent drop-in at their home-based Oak Hill day care.
Among the multiple counts were allegations that Danny had forcibly
penetrated Christina with a pen and his penis and that Fran had
performed oral sex
On the witness stand, the little girl sat on her older sister's lap, chewing on a lollipop.
Shipway tried a different approach. Did Christina tell anyone else that Danny had hurt her? She did not reply. Shipway asked if Christina would like to "whisper to me" her answer.
Fran held her head in her hands; all the emotion of the last year and a half welled up. Finally, she thought, everyone in the courtroom had heard the truth: Nothing had happened. Fran felt a measure of relief - certainly, this whole ordeal would soon be over.
But that's not what happened. Instead, Fran and Danny Keller were
each convicted of sexually assaulting Christina Chaviers, and each was
sentenced to 48 years in prison. For the Kellers, now 58 and 68,
respectively, it was effectively a life sentence. They've since come up
And in fact, the Chronicle's reinvestigation of the Fran's Day Care
case has revealed serious problems with the state's case against the
Kellers - including questions about the quality and reliability of the
In light of the problems with the original prosecution and this additional evidence, there remain substantive doubts about the Kellers' guilt. Indeed, it's an open question not only whether the Kellers were rightly convicted - but more fundamentally, whether any crime ever happened at Fran's Day Care at all.
Taking Care of Kids
[... ... ...]
[... On] Aug. 15, 1991, Christina told her mother that she didn't like Danny, because he'd spanked her - just "like daddy" used to, Guinne said in court.
Mother and daughter were en route to a scheduled appointment with therapist Donna David-Campbell, who had been seeing Christina for several months to work on the toddler's ongoing behavior problems. By the time Christina's half-hour appointment was finished, however, the allegation that Danny had spanked her had grown in severity and scope. According to a Travis County Sheriff's Office report, Guinne and David-Campbell told investigators that during the therapy session, Christina told them that Danny had penetrated her vagina with an ink pen on numerous occasions and that he
In the following weeks, Christina's allegations against the Kellers became more disturbing and confounding.
By the end of the year, Christina had said not only that Fran and Danny had molested her but that two other people - a dark-haired woman and a man that looked like country singer Kenny Rogers - had also come to the day care to partake in the abuse. She said that she'd been poked with needles by the Kellers and that Danny had dug a hole in the back yard and put her in it. She related tales of the Kellers torturing and killing animals and said that the Kellers had murdered, decapitated, and disemboweled a baby.
According to case records, all these horrific actions had occurred during the 13 times Christina had attended the day care, without any parent or other adult noticing anything amiss.
By the end of 1991, two other children began to tell similar stories.
Vijay Staelin, who was also seeing therapist David-Campbell, told his mom that Danny had made him eat poop and drink pee. And Brendan Nash - his mother told the television show American Justice - said the Kellers had held a gun to his head and forced him to assault his infant sister while they videotaped the abuse.
There was little physical evidence to support the children's stories.
Christina was examined at Brackenridge Hospital the evening she made her
first outcry, and the emergency room doctor said that he saw signs that
her outer genitalia were red and that there was some deformity to her
hymen. He concluded that the injuries could be consistent with sexual
abuse but could not rule out the possibility that there was another
cause - a tentative conclusion that would turn out to be the only
physical evidence ever provided in the case. Christina and Brendan were
subjected to forensic interviews by the Sheriff's Office, but none was
Most damning at trial was a statement given to police nearly a year after Christina's first outcry by an acquaintance of the Kellers, Doug Perry, who told investigators that he and his wife, former Travis Co. Precinct 3 Deputy Constable Janise White and her Precinct 3 partner, Raul Quintero, had taken part in abusing the children while at the Kellers' house one Friday afternoon. Perry recanted that confession shortly thereafter, however, claiming he'd been coerced into making it by Texas Rangers. No videotape or photographic evidence of abuse was ever found, and police never found any corpses - animal or human - to back up any of the children's wilder tales.
Nonetheless, a grand jury indicted the Kellers in late 1991 for sexually assaulting Christina - and, subsequently, indicted Perry, White, and Quintero on similar charges.
[... ... ...]
By the summer of 1991, the Kellers were regularly taking in between eight and 10 kids each day - including Christina Chaviers and Vijay Staelin, both 3, and Brendan Nash, then 5.
By all accounts, before she ever spent a moment at the Kellers, Christina was a troubled child. In the summer of 1991, her parents, Rick and Suzanne, were embroiled in a bitter divorce, marked in part, recalls Rick, by accusations that he had been abusive toward his wife and toddler daughter.
According to the therapist's testimony at the Kellers' trial, Christina's behaviors were among the worst she'd ever seen. Christina had been "acting out" for months, she said, long before the child began going to Fran's Day Care.
Whether David-Campbell was able to identify the cause of Christina's behavioral issues or whether her behavior improved with therapy isn't clear.
In mid-August, Guinne and David-Campbell said later, they believed they had found the answer to why Christina was so ill-behaved. It didn't explain why Christina had been acting out for so long and in so many different ways, but neither her mother nor her therapist acknowledged that in court. Instead, they moved quickly to a single explanation: Christina had been abused at Fran's Day Care.
At the office, David-Campbell brought out a pair of anatomically correct dolls for Christina - so she could show the therapist and mother what it was that Danny had done.
Christina then started pointing to the hole on the female doll that represents a vagina and
That evening at home, Guinne said she heard Christina crying in the
bathroom. She told her mother that it "hurts inside" when she
urinated. Christina kept pointing to her vagina and contorting her labia
Guinne called the doctor and rushed Christina to Brackenridge.
Dr. Michael Mouw was on duty in the Brackenridge emergency room when Guinne arrived with her daughter [...].
Guinne told Mouw that in the previous weeks her daughter had been
Guinne also told him that Christina had previously been abused. Mouw tested for semen but found nothing. He did, however, find that Christina's genitalia were red and noted
Under defense questioning, Mouw testified that the injuries could also have been the result of Christina's own actions.
Roger Wade, now the affable spokesman for the Travis Co. Sheriff's Office, was the department's only child abuse investigator at the time.
Wade set out to investigate. He visited Christina, her mother, and therapist David-Campbell that day and called in one of the TCSO's video interviewers, Karen Knox, to sit down with Christina for a forensic interview - a 13-minute session that produced, at best, mixed results.
Under Knox's urging, Christina, at one point, said that Danny had touched her with his penis, but several minutes later said that Danny had neither touched nor hurt her.
Wade called in a state child-care licensing investigator, and the pair went to visit Fran and Danny. They told them there had been an allegation of sexual abuse; the couple denied any wrongdoing. Moreover, Fran told Wade he should be wary of any allegations coming from Christina, because she was a troubled girl whom she'd caught in several small lies. Wade told Danny there was medical evidence that showed the girl had been molested. Danny again denied he'd done anything [...] .
Wade and the licensing investigator advised the Kellers that Danny should have no contact with the children while the investigation was ongoing.
Five days later, Wade got a call from David-Campbell, who told him that during their session that day, Christina had picked up the anatomically correct dolls, undressed them, and then demonstrated how Danny had penetrated her with his penis. Moreover, David-Campbell said that Christina was now saying that Fran had performed oral sex on her and had forced her to perform the same on Fran.
The therapist also said that she had a new patient, Vijay Staelin, who was also a child in day care at the Kellers' - if she thought the child had been abused at Fran's, she told Wade, she'd be sure to call.
Vijay's father, Earl Staelin, called to say his son was acting strangely [...]. Earl told the Chronicle that he and his wife began to suspect that Vijay was being drugged by the Kellers. [...]
As the investigation moved into the fall, allegations against the Kellers began to accumulate. Sandra Nash called to say that her 5-year-old son, Brendan, told his therapist that there were
The day care was officially shut down in September, pending the outcome of the investigation, and Wade began getting regular phone calls from the parents of all three children, wanting to fill him in on allegations their children were making during therapy sessions and at home under questioning by their parents.
In early October, Carol called to say that Vijay said "pee pee on hair" and that Danny did it; later, she said, Vijay told her that Danny had put a rope around all the kids' necks and said he would
Suzanne Guinne called to tell Wade that Christina said the Kellers had poked her legs with needles - Guinne also now thought the kids may have been drugged.
Carol Staelin called again, saying that Vijay told her the Kellers had made him drink "pee" and eat "poo"; in a subsequent call, she told Wade that Vijay reported that Danny had killed the Kellers' dog. Wade assured her that he'd seen the dog when he was at the Kellers' house and that he was "very much alive."
In mid-October, David-Campbell called to say that Vijay and Christina
were now telling her similar stories about the Kellers abusing animals -
stomping on cats, sticking them with pens, and putting them in bags and
The allegations against the couple, Wade said recently, kept coming, each more elaborate than the last. The children said the Kellers
All of these elaborate abuses, the children said, happened at the Kellers' day care - a place where parents (and often neighbors) dropped by at all different times of the day. Wade was becoming increasingly skeptical. He began to question David-Campbell's methods and expertise.
Wade began to suspect that some of the stories were coming from her. He continued,
Wade was also concerned that the children's parents had (perhaps unwittingly) influenced their children by repeatedly questioning them about what bad things happened at day care. The investigation was beginning to look more and more like the McMartin fiasco.
[... ... ...]
Wade said dealing with the parents involved in the Keller case was
frustrating. To an adult, for example, Christina's allegation that Danny
had put "glue" into her might sound damning, but Wade wondered
where she might have come up with that language. He asked Christina's
The other problem, he felt sure, was that the parents were urging their kids to reveal more details - and as it was with McMartin, Wade feels certain that was the origin of many of the allegations. Many years later, Wade believes that some abuse had taken place - but that the wild tales made it impossible to determine the nature or extent of any actual abuse.
That's not how prosecutors Case and Shipway saw things.
While some of the allegations might sound wild, she and Case believe they were actually the result of conscious actions by the Kellers that were designed to scare the kids.
For example, said Shipway, one of the allegations Christina made was that the Kellers had threatened to throw her to the sharks.
Overall, the prosecutors say, the children's allegations were believable.
Wade still wasn't convinced, but then the case shifted in yet a different direction.
According to Christina, the Kellers had help abusing the children from a dark-haired woman and a man that looked like Kenny Rogers. As it turns out, Danny Keller was a longtime friend of Precinct 3 Deputy Constable Janise White, and it wasn't long before White and her partner, Raul Quintero, were in the investigative spotlight. Wade, who was close to White, didn't feel that he could go any further with the case, which is what he told Rosemary Lehmberg, then head of the D.A.'s child abuse division and recently elected Travis Co. D.A.
As a result, to avoid potential conflicts, the case was moved to the Austin Police Department, where then-Sgt. Larry Oliver was one of two officers who took up the investigation. Oliver's job was to get to know the kids and their families.
He met with Christina and her mother at the Oak Hill McDonald's and went on drives in the area, during which the little girl would point out places she said she'd been taken by the Kellers.
So he took Christina to a small private cemetery just down the road from the Kellers' home. To Oliver it seemed clear that Christina had been there before – moreover, he said, there was at least one grave site there that "looked like" it had been disturbed.
At the Kellers' trial, police witnesses revealed that they'd even had a Department of Public Safety helicopter fly over the cemetery with an infrared camera, looking for a heat signature that would confirm that a grave had been disturbed. Case told American Justice that he too had seen disturbed graves at the cemetery – including one from 1970 that had fresh dirt on it.
Asked recently about this history, a cemetery representative told the Chronicle that the police had indeed been to the site asking questions, and they were told that there was a simple explanation for the grave that looked disturbed: A man had been buried there without a concrete vault, and his coffin kept sinking, so the man's son often added dirt to the site.
Although the police supposedly had this information, Danny Keller's defense attorney Dain Whitworth said it was not disclosed to the defense.
Knowing that information, Whitworth added, would have helped the defense counter the sensational testimony, suggested the children's accusations were unreliable, or even prevented the state from introducing that entire line of testimony.
Case said that Shipway recently reviewed the APD reports and found no mention of anyone from the cemetery telling police about a reason that fresh dirt would be used on the grave. She asked APD's Oliver if he had any independent recollection of that exchange, Case wrote, but Oliver said that
In fact, while Oliver did record details of visiting the cemetery in his report, there's no indication there that anyone from the department ever sought out the cemetery owners to inquire about the possibility that graves had been disturbed. That entire line of investigation, it seems, was ignored.
The state's case against the Kellers was strong enough to secure indictments against the couple and, eventually, against deputy constables White and Quintero, thanks in large part to a "confession" provided to Texas Rangers by White's ex-husband, Doug Perry. White was a good friend of Danny Keller's, and after she and Perry married, the two couples socialized regularly.
Nearly a year after the investigation began, Texas Rangers questioned Perry at the DPS offices. After four hours of questioning, he signed a confession, saying he had participated in a "beer and sex party" (as it was described in news reports) with the Kellers, White, and Quintero, where the adults took turns abusing Christina and Brendan, whom Perry identified only after the Rangers showed him video of the two children. White supposedly took pictures of the incident, which Perry said he'd seen.
Within weeks, however, Perry recanted, saying that the Rangers had coerced him into making the statement. He said they had told Perry there were several witnesses who said he had been at the day care.
Notably, the Rangers made no audio or video recording of Perry's interview. His confession was graphic but not particularly compelling in detail. What details there were, Perry said, were gleaned from information contained in a TCSO report that White had brought home.
The prosecutors did not – and do not – believe Perry's recantation.
said Case, in part because it is not uncommon for suspects to recant – particularly in universally unsavory child sex-abuse cases. But it is also not uncommon for innocent people to confess to notorious crimes – it's one of the reasons investigators withhold significant details that only the actual offender would know.
Wade does not believe Perry's confession at all.
[... ... ...]
After the Kellers were convicted, the D.A.'s office dropped the charges against White and Quintero. Perry was never tried but pled guilty and was sentenced to 10 years probation. He's now in prison for failing to keep current his sex offender registration.
Attorney Joe Turner, who represented Quintero, said that Perry's confession was not at all believable and that it calls into question the case against the Kellers. If the case was so strong without Perry's confession and if the state was sure about the stories the children were telling them, why were the charges against his client dropped?
The damage, however, had been done, said Whitworth. One juror, a University of Texas professor who spoke to the Chronicle but asked not to be identified by name, was convinced during the trial that the Kellers were being subjected to a witch hunt, as part of the national wave of sensational day care abuse cases. That was until Perry took the stand. A final holdout, the juror recalls ultimately voting for conviction because of Perry's introduced confession – once it was out there, how could the jury be expected to ignore it? Still, the juror had serious qualms about the evidence – and after the verdict was read, fled to the bathroom and wept.
Satan's Arm Bone
Prosecutor Case insists that the state did not rely solely on Perry's confession for its conviction. What "cinched" the case, Case said recently, was the testimony of Brendan Nash. Brendan spoke to jurors via closed-circuit TV and was very vocal about all the things he said happened at "hate care." He said he'd seen Fran and Danny abuse Christina and that the couple had taken the kids to a "graveyard and dug up this body." They made Christina carry all the bones that they dug up, he said.
When Vela asked if Brendan knew about Christina getting hurt, he said he knew she had and said that
But he said he liked the day care and that no one had ever touched him improperly. When Vela asked if he had any secrets about day care, he said no.
It's not surprising that Brendan did not make any allegations during his first forensic interview, insists Case, because it is not "unusual" for kids not to open up about abuse the first time around.
Case said that it wasn't until right before the start of the trial that Brendan finally acknowledged what happened at day care, and in fact, Case said that he was the one to whom Brendan opened up, during an interview in his office on a Sunday afternoon.
Case did not record that interview.
Case said that Brendan said the Kellers had performed a ritual on him in which they said they replaced his arm with the arm bone of Satan. When asked at trial why he didn't tell Vela what had happened with Christina, Brendan said that was
Defense attorney Whitworth cross-examined Brendan.
Brendan said that in addition to talking with the prosecutors, police, and a therapist, he'd talked with his parents 21 times about the Kellers' day care.
Case says he tried to determine whether anyone had been suggesting things to Brendan, but the child's mother, Sandra Nash, insisted she had not.
Ultimately, he does not believe that a child would make these things up. That belief was shared by APD's investigator Larry Oliver and, especially, therapist David-Campbell, who told jurors that children simply don't create stories out of whole cloth.
In fact, there is a growing body of psychological research reflecting that, essentially, the opposite is true – that children can easily be led to make up stories and even come to believe those stories – often with the help of inexperienced or credulous interviewers. Moreover, experts on the forensic interviewing of children say that the recorded Keller case interviews are prime examples of poor technique and manufactured testimony – effectively useless as evidence.
'Your Case Is Incredible'
Veteran Austin social worker Vivian Lewis, who began her career as a teacher and Child Protective Services caseworker
says she was first shown the interview tapes from the Keller case by prosecutors.
Now, she says, she actually uses them in seminars across the country
as examples of how not to interview children. The interviews are rife with
In fact, Lewis says that after the allegations of abuse at Fran's Day Care broke, a number of parents of children who'd taken their kids to the Kellers' brought their children to Lewis.
The fact that the children Lewis independently interviewed showed no signs of abuse piqued her interest about what Christina and Brendan had told prosecutors, so she asked to see the tapes.
What she saw intensified her concern that the D.A.'s case was without merit, which is exactly what she told Case, she said recently.
She said she explained the problems she found on the tapes, but her concerns were ignored by the D.A.'s office, so Lewis sought out the Kellers' defenders.
[... ... ...]
Prosecutors Case and Shipway say they reviewed the children's interviews, keeping an eye out for any bias from the interviewers or problems with suggestive questioning. They said they found none.
But if the accusations made on the tapes are the result of flawed interviewing techniques, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether Christina (or other children) was actually abused, says James Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and a nationally recognized expert in children's suggestibility and child interviewing. In other words, it raises questions about whether a crime ever happened.
Sheriff's investigator Wade says he felt that the parents and therapists were complicit in eliciting the more fantastical allegations from the children – allegations he did not believe. And those just got in the way of the basic, first abuse allegation that Christina made, the one for which the state had its single piece of physical evidence – Dr. Mouw's report that Christina might have been sexually abused. That convinced Wade that Christina had been abused at the day care.
But was there really any physical evidence of abuse?
Contacted for this story, Dr. Michael Mouw, who examined Christina at Brackenridge Hospital on Aug. 15, 1991, now says he's not so sure that what he saw during his genital examination was, in fact, abuse.
[... ... ...]
Mouw said he had been unaware, but is concerned, that his was the only piece of physical evidence prosecutors had to back up the allegation that Christina had been abused.
Without the physical evidence provided by Mouw, the state's case against the Kellers would have been seriously weakened.
Defense attorney Whitworth thought the fantastic allegations of the children – graveyard rituals, airplane flights to Mexico that could not have occurred, physically impossible actions – would undercut their believability. It didn't work that way in court.
Instead, prosecutors called to the stand a clinical psychologist and controversial "expert" in satanic ritual abuse. On the stand, psychologist and self-described satanic ritual abuse expert James Noblitt said that he had reviewed David-Campbell's files on Christina as well as the video interviews of the children and found no evidence that anyone was influencing them to make the allegations.
Because of the level of detail in her allegations, Noblitt testified,
He testified about the "death and rebirth themes" in cult rituals and, without objection from the defense, laid out his version of the infamous Salem witch trials and described how this case was definitely different than those. In that situation, "little girls" were describing "fantasy events" that didn't happen. Here, the children have described real events.
Professor Wood was stunned that Noblitt's testimony was allowed into evidence.
The defense was hamstrung at trial and incapable at times of countering such testimony, in part because of their restricted access to critical evidence – such as David-Campbell's reports, the children's videos, the police reports, and Dr. Mouw's medical report.
[... ... ...]
It also appears there was a good deal of information that Whitworth and co-counsel Lewis Jones simply did not have any access to during trial or thereafter – information that could have cast further doubt on the children's stories.
[... ... ... ... ...]
Additional information was uncovered by former Precinct 3 Constable Drew McAngus, who in 1992 worked for the Kellers' defense counsel as a private investigator. After the civil case was filed, he signed an affidavit saying he had discovered that Nash had made several allegations that were proven not true, information that had not been turned over to the defense.
Whitworth filed a motion with the 3rd Court of Appeals, asking it to remand the case to district court for a hearing on the state's
That did not happen, however, in part because shortly after they were convicted, the Kellers fired their appointed attorneys, opting instead to represent themselves on appeal.
Pain, Suffering, and Legal Procedure
Among the saddest aspects of their case is that in the quest to prove their innocence, Fran and Danny Keller may have been their own worst enemies. When initially indicted, they fled Austin, traveling to Las Vegas to stay with Fran's daughter. The media had a field day, and prosecutors played up the "flight" at trial as an indirect admission of guilt.
[... ... ]
The Kellers were also blamed for not showing more emotion during the trial, with the implication that an outraged or shocked demeanor would have lent credence to their claims of innocence. Yet they recall that they were so stunned by the charges they felt as though they were living in a fog. Fran says she was determined to present a stoic, unwavering front – looking at the prosecutors would make her angry; looking at the jury would make her situation too real.
Only when Christina took the stand on the second day of the Kellers' trial and denied that anything bad had happened at day care did Fran break down in tears. In the end, it didn't matter.
The Kellers' certainly erred in their decision to fire their appeal attorney – who Fran said she didn't think was paying enough attention to their case – and instead have Danny file their appeals on his own. Appeals work is detail-oriented and requires specialized legal training, and Danny did not do well. He did not make the right arguments – for example, he did not argue that Perry's testimony had been admitted improperly, an oversight that meant that argument was not preserved for later adjudication.
That meant that the Kellers have never had their case fully reviewed by an appeals court. Whether they'll get that chance now is uncertain. Their case is being reviewed by the Innocence Project of Texas, says project general counsel Jeff Blackburn.
Even should the Kellers ever be proven innocent, much damage has already been done – not only to the Kellers, or to the other "suspects" fingered by the children only to be cleared of any involvement, but also to the children themselves.
One of the other children involved in the case, Vijay Staelin, now 21, declined to be interviewed, except to briefly reiterate that Fran and Danny Keller had abused him.
During an interview at the state women's prison in Gatesville, I asked Fran Keller about Vijay's assertion. She broke down in tears.