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By Bryan Newbury

June 2, 2009 

witchhuntjeffmodahl“This does happen… and it can be you. Your neighbor, your son, daughter, it can happen right now, in your own home. There is no rhyme or reason why it happens. If somebody wants to do it, it can happen.”  

Jeff Modahl would know. One of the subjects of Witch Hunt, a film about prosecutions run mad in Kern County, California, Modahl brings fifteen years of that knowledge to this quote near the film’s conclusion. What might strike the viewer as astonishing is that it isn’t until this moment, at around eighty-two minutes in, that Witch Hunt really astonishes. Not that the story, subject matter or pacing is lacking. Not that the travails of the people profiled, all of them either wrongfully convicted of pedophilia or dealing with a life permanently altered by being party to said convictions, are in any way uncompelling. Not that Sean Penn is, as a narrator, anything short of being Sean Penn. 

What is striking about the film is that, provided one has read about, observed or experienced the American legal system, none of the story is especially difficult to believe.  

The early 1980’s saw Bakersfield with at least one of two problems: either there was a stunning rash of child molestation within its white working class community; or, there was an ill-trained police and social service force serving at the pleasure of a District Attorney driven to farcical lengths in zealotry and ambition. We’ll give readers five seconds to ruminate on which choice seems more likely.  

Swept up in the prosecutions were people like Jeff Modahl, John Stoll, Scott and Brenda Kniffen, Rick and Marcella Pitts, and over a score more, who were invariably accused of molesting their own children and subsequently accused of depraved acts on dozens. For some reason, it didn’t seem to strike anyone as odd that the trials seemed on loop, a new pedophile or couple of pedophiles snared up in remarkably brief succession. Of course, the defendants started recognizing a pattern. When John Stoll was brought in on suspicion of molesting his son, he found himself on a cot next to Rick Pitts. Pitts and his wife were newly minted pariahs, their faces seen daily in the local media under the word molestation. Stoll recognized him. He must’ve thought he had quite a bit of rotten luck, being brought in for something he knew himself innocent of in the middle of the night… and now a bunkmate with a notorious pedophile. Pitts explained to him what would happen. It would start with the son and before he knew what hit him he would face multiple charges of violating other children. A few days later, Stoll was charged with seventeen counts of child molestation. Sooner or later, Stoll meets Modahl and takes his turn at prophesying the latter’s fate. On it went, and, aside from the people in waist chains and leg irons, no one seemed to notice the pattern.  

Eventually, the Attorney General got wind of what was going on. After numerous attempts by the accused and their attorneys, the matter was looked into. Numerous attempts and a ballooning backstory that reached the utmost heights of absurdity, complete with Satanic cults and blood offerings. Simple times, the ‘80’s.

One by one, the convictions were appealed, overturned or reversed. That it was from six to twenty years after questions were raised as to the veracity of the testimony of the children is just more proof of how methodical our system can be. Not so methodical when medical records showing Modahl’s daughter hadn’t been abused went undisclosed and then missing, but that is a layman’s gripe. Thirty-four convictions reversed, two more standing because the convicted had died in prison. An investigator elected sheriff, and Ed Jagels reelected seven times, running unopposed in 2006.  

Again, little of this is as surprising as it should be. This doesn’t make Modahl’s admonishment any less chilling. The twin qualities of ignorance and fear fuel events like the ones in Witch Hunt, and we usually display an alarming surplus of them. That pedophilia is the accusation is unsurprising as well. When one is accused of arguably the most reviled taboo civilization has to offer, he quickly finds himself friendless. Little wonder that when those in authority seek to strip away civil liberties, pedophiles are first in line, occasionally being pushed away by nonwhite terrorists who aren’t of the Christian persuasion. That’s who they come for first, and that they won’t come for you appears increasingly arbitrary. It takes Witch Hunt a while to drive this home, but when it does, the viewer remembers. She might even be more likely to see the patterns when it happens the next time.


Witch Hunt

by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy

Sean Penn, narrator and executive producer

2009, Color, 91 minutes

David Flores Mistriel on July 11th, 2009 at 8:44 pm 

To whom it may concern.

With the names that you have written about I have one that seems to never be mentioned Robert Glen Mistriel and the sentence he has been serving he is going on his 29th year this July and wouldn’t that be great to finally hear his story .

Lawrence on June 10th, 2011 at 8:45 pm 

Where could I purchase this dvd documentary?

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