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Some victims recant, and an inmate tries to clear his name

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- John Stoll has been imprisoned for 20 years based solely on the testimony of six children who claimed he molested them. Most of those witnesses, now adults, have come forward to say they lied.

Only Stoll's son maintains his father molested him.

Stoll's case was part of a wave of hysteria concerning child molestations that swept the nation in the 1980s and led to the arrest of hundreds of people, including dozens in Bakersfield.

Many later had their convictions overturned for reasons including prosecutorial misconduct and coercive interview techniques now believed to produce false statements from children.

Stoll is up for parole next year, but a release without vindication could send the 60-year-old man to the state's hospital for sex offenders indefinitely. Perhaps his last hope is a habeas corpus hearing tomorrow.

"I just want to clear my name," Stoll said in a jailhouse interview with the Associated Press. "It's all I've got left."

In Bakersfield in the 1980s, 46 people were arrested in eight alleged child molestation rings. Thirty were convicted, eight had their charges dropped, and eight struck plea deals to stay out of jail.

Twenty-two of the convictions were later reversed for reasons including legal technicalities, prosecutorial misconduct, or faulty jury instructions. The rest served out their sentences. One died in prison. Some were vindicated.

It is still unclear whether any of the molestations ever occurred.

But it is clear, according to a scathing report by the state attorney general's office in 1986, that Kern County had a history of using flawed interview techniques and improperly trained deputies in molestation cases.

Although the state report did not cite Stoll's case, it criticized the techniques used by the same lead investigators who arrested Stoll.

Stoll was convicted along with two other men and a woman of abusing six children at sex parties that allegedly included sodomy, group sex, and pornographic photography.

Stoll claims it all began when his former wife alerted sheriff's deputies after his 6-year-old son, Jed, told her that he and his friends had been playing sexually inappropriate games with one another. The children, ranging from 6 to 8 years old, never implicated adults in the sex play until deputies began investigating in 1984.

District Attorney Ed Jagels spearheaded the molestation cases, and he still prides himself on a tough-minded approach to crime. His office's website boasts that during Jagels's 20-year tenure, Kern County has sent more people to prison per capita than any major California county.

But four of Stoll's accusers testified in January that the molestations never occurred. They said they were manipulated by overzealous investigators who dogged them for hours in interviews, away from their parents, until they fabricated the stories. A fifth witness testified he has no memories of what did or didn't happen.

Still, some details are far from clear: the sixth victim, Jed Stoll, still insists his father molested him. "I know my father was not falsely convicted of child molestation because he molested me," he wrote last year in a signed declaration to the Kern County District Attorney's Office.

Stoll blames his son's position on a bitter custody dispute, saying his former wife filled Jed's mind with lies. Efforts to reach Jed Stoll were unsuccessful.

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