The Innocent and The Damned
In 1992, Fran and Dan Keller were sent to prison for sexually abusing a child in the suburban Austin day care center. But parents have convinced themselves that the couple is guilty of much worse. They believe the Kellers belong to a cult that tortured and brainwashed their kids and turned them into Satan’s slaves.
On June 20th 2017, a couple who served 21 years in prison for the Satanic ritual abuse of children was formally exonerated by the district attorney in Austin, Texas, who said there is “no credible evidence” against them.
The decision brings an end to one of the more prominent cases brought during the so-called Satanic Panic of the 1980s and the early 1990s, where fears of devil-worshippers influencing American children spread rapidly. During this time, hundreds of childcare providers were accused of unspeakable crimes, and many would spend years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.
Fran and Dan Keller were convicted in 1992 of sexually abusing a three-year-old girl at their home daycare facility on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. After the girl’s initial reports of abuse (she said Dan spanked her, according to the Intercept, but later alleged rape under further questioning), the local community grew panicked. The charges leveled against the Kellers soon included supposedly Satanic rituals like baby sacrifice, the amputation of a zoo gorilla’s arm, secret graveyard ceremonies, and transportation of children to Mexico to be assaulted by members of the military. Following a trial, the Kellers were each sentenced to 48 years in prison.
The Kellers were finally released in 2013 after multiple appeals, when the doctor who had provided the only physical evidence of the alleged assault recanted his testimony. This week, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore exonerated the couple, bringing an end to the Kellers’ 25-year-long struggle to clear their names.
Though the Satanic Panic that ensnared the Kellers certainly has historical precedents (most notably the Salem Witch Trials), the panic’s more immediate roots can be traced to the tumultuous decade that preceded it.
Most of the parents who took their children to Fran’s Day Care Center were baby boomers, dedicated to their careers and their children and drawn irresistibly to the day care’s rural isolation and rustic, idyllic setting. The one-story fieldstone house, which was also the Kellers’ home, was nestled among cedar trees and rolling hills, as tidy and pastoral as a cottage in a fairy tale. Behind the house was a playground, a shallow swimming pool, cages of rabbits and doves, and a corral with a resident pony named Dancer. This part of Oak Hill was sparsely populated, with small homes, trailers, and century-old family cemeteries. The Kellers’ neighbors were working people, fiercely independent and likely to drive pickup trucks. Lawn décor usually featured iron kettles, rusted farm equipment, fieldstone walkways. Strings of deer skulls hung from the limbs of live oaks, armadillo and raccoons roamed freely, and hawks and turkey buzzards rode the invisible currents of the placid blue sky.
Dan and Fran Keller didn’t look like monsters, though it is true that there are no demographic profiles of pedophiles, much less Satanists. The Kellers had no history of drugs, mental illness, or sexual abnormalities, but neither would pedophiles necessarily. Pedophiles are narcissistic and exhibit what therapists call cognitive distortions, or the inability to recognize that even the vilest act is anything eccept normal behavior. That description didn’t fit the Kellers. Nor did they appear to be victims of low self-esteem, as many child molesters are said to be. Indeed, those who knew Fran suspected that she suffered from high self-esteem. The word normally used to describe her, even by friends, was “bitch.” She was a woman of strong opinions and clearly the dominant partner in her marriage to Danny. Danny had retired from his job with a Travis County road crew to help Fran run the day care, which opened for business in September 1989, two years before charges were filed and the day care was ordered to shut down.
Fran was 42 and had three grown children from a previous marriage. Dan was 50. Fran was his fourth wife, and he had four children. Together they had seven grandchildren. Neither of them had ever been accused of molesting a child or of any other crime for that matter. A ninth-grade dropout, Danny Keller had worked most of his life with bulldozers and heavy equipment. Before marrying Fran in 1987, he supervised the Precinct 3 road crew. In his off-duty hours, he enjoyed riding patrol with the Travis County Sheriff’s office deputies who worked the three-to-eleven shift. “After our shift, we all gathered to drink beer and cool out, what we called choir practice,” recalled Janise White, one of the deputies and later a constable at the precinct, “Danny was like part of the family.” After Danny married Fran, he no longer hung out at choir practice, but Janise White remained his friend and Fran’s too, a relationship that eventually cost all three of them dearly.
Aside from the location of Fran’s Day Care, what made it attractive to many parents was Fran herself. She was at once stern and good-hearted. She took it on herself to buy large stocks of children’s clothes from Goodwill so that when kids soiled their own clothes during the course of the day, she could send them home wearing fresh and dry things. Fran had worked with children all of her adult life. Children sensed that she could not be intimidated or manipulated, that she was the clear and undisputed boss. Unlike most day care centers, Fran’s Day Care accepted children with emotional and behavioral problems, including those who had been abused. This was a small operation, with about fifteen kids in attendance each day.
One of the children she cared for in the summer of 1991, when the ritual abuses supposedly took place, was the daughter of Suzanne Chaviers. Suzanne was going through a bitter divorce and had accused her husband in court of physically and emotionally abusing their child, which he denies. The Chaviers girl, who was not quite four years old, had exhibited behavioral problems since the couple separated two months earlier. Fran accepted her anyway. But, according to testimony, after two weeks at the day care, the child had become almost unmanageable at home: biting, screaming, kicking, pulling her mother’s hair, destroying things, trying to stab the dog with a barbecue fork. Fran quickly observed that the little girl was a liar and manipulator who attacked other children and accused them of attacking her. Suzanne Chaviers made hardly any effort to discipline the child, having been advised by a previous therapist against “setting limits.” Suzanne was an interior designer who worked out of her home: Until the child started going to Fran’s Day Care, she had always stayed at her mother’s side. The Chaviers girl clearly did not like this new arrangement.
“In the 1970s, there was a lot of anxiety being put onto the idea that Satanists were controlling things and had their hands in things,” said Debbie Nathan, a longtime investigative journalist who co-authored a book about the panic, “Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt” (2001), with Michael Snedeker.
At the time, a number of gossipy urban myths were going around about Satanic influences on corporations. Procter & Gamble even had to hold a press conference in 1985 to deny allegations that their logo was the sign of the devil. According to Nathan, such myths had staying power because they reflected people’s anxieties about “corporate consumerism and corporate culture,” about women entering the work force, and especially about children being left in daycare facilities in increasing numbers. In the early 1980s, “Daycare was really demonized in ways that were way beyond the facts. There was just a lot of anxiety about public childcare, which I think was tacked onto a generalized anxiety about women going into the workforce.”
In the early 1980s, these concerns unexpectedly tracked with those of feminists, who were seeking to confront violence (particularly sexual violence) against women and children. “Those two things came together and caused a really powerful panic,” Nathan said. “It was really remarkable to see all of these institutions buy into the idea that there was an international conspiracy of Satanists set out to recruit tiny kids, and somehow brainwash them so that later on when they became adults, you could sort of snap your fingers and they would go into this Satanic trance.”
The panic gathered steam with the McMartin preschool case, when allegations of Satanic ritual abuse at a southern California preschool led to a lengthy and expensive prosecution featuring hundreds of children. The $15 million case ended in 1990 with zero convictions, but by that time the country was in a full-blown hysteria, aided in no small part by the efforts of televangelists and TV talk show hosts.
Parents against Satan (left to right): Sandra and Sean Nash, Suzanne Chaviers, and Carol and Earl Staelin speaking to reporters after the trial.