Back in 1989 when it first opened, Fran’s Day Care Center, in Oak Hill, Austin, Texas, would have seemed like a lovely place. A cute little oasis tucked away between picturesque cedar trees in a peaceful rural setting of green hills and rustic scenery, it had a lot to offer. The charming cottage-style building was clean, with plenty of space for children to play, animals such as a pony and rabbits for their enjoyment, and even a swimming pool. The owners of the day care center, Fran and Dan Keller, seemed kind and welcoming, accepting even children with emotional and behavioral problems, and so to a working parent bringing their child here it would have all seemed like the perfect place for them, a dream come true. Yet there was a darkness here, the dream would unravel into a nightmare, and this little idyllic, fairy-tale day care center would become the center of a horrifying case featuring abuse, black magic rituals, and Satanic brain washing that would shock the nation.
The sinister clouds began forming when a Suzanne Chaviers put her little 3-year-old daughter in the Keller’s care. At the time she had been sending her daughter to the day care in the midst of a bitter and messy divorce from an abusive marriage, with the girl having behavioral problems and in need of special care and therapy as a result. In addition to the child seeing a therapist, Suzanne sent her daughter to the Kellers during the day when she was at work, but this soon seemed to have been a bad idea. The child was described as being even more problematic than ever before, lying incessantly, displaying bizarre behavior such as suddenly undressing in front of guests or even acting like a dog, cursing, and often devolving into fierce, violent behavior such as scratching, punching, or biting her mother and others, throwing destructive tantrums, and even trying to stab and kill their dog. She had never acted quite like this before, and it soon became apparent why.
In the summer of 1991, at one of the child’s therapy sessions she suddenly blurted out that the Kellers had physically and sexually abused her, much to the shock of the therapist and her mother Suzanne. After all, the Kellers were well-respected in the community and seemed like good people, with no history of drug or alcohol abuse, no criminal records, and nothing at all to paint them as despicable monsters. Indeed, Fran Keller had worked with children for years before opening the day care and had never had a problem with anyone, so to hear this little girl make these accusations was unsettling. At first it was assumed that this might be one of the girl’s many lies, as she was known as a compulsive liar and manipulator, but then more complaints from other children in the Kellers’ care began to come in, and they painted a very grim and strange picture that cast that picturesque little day care center in a very sinister light.
In quick succession, two other children from the day care offered similar accusations, and the Kellers were accused of child molestation, but in the days leading up to the trial the children would weave an incredibly horrific and disturbing tale that went way beyond this. In addition to the physical and sexual abuse, the children claimed that the Kellers had engaged in all manner of very bizarre behavior. They said that the Kellers would give them Kool Aid mixed with blood, and that they would often dress in white robes and light candles during the abuse, which they would videotape. The children were also forced to watch pornography, as well as to even take part in the ritual killing and dismemberment of animals such as rabbits, cats, and dogs, as well as a baby gorilla and allegedly a human baby at least one time. They would also take “field trips” to cemeteries and dig up bodies, and one time were brought on a day trip to Mexico without their parents’ knowledge or consent, where they were abused by soldiers before being returned to the day care on time to be picked up by their parents. They were also sometimes taken on trips by horseback into the woods where they would be abused and tortured with electric shocks, or taken out of town to be abused by strangers who were sometimes “dressed as ghosts and werewolves.” At the day care, the Kellers allegedly had lookouts stationed up the road to give warning when anyone was approaching.
Much of the madness had the air of a black magic or Satanic cult. The Kellers were accused of often talking about Satan and of engaging in weird arcane rituals that the children could not comprehend. There were allegedly religious portraits at the school for their public image, which would be changed for arcane black magic or Satanic imagery, and they would also write occult symbols on the floor in blood and chant in a strange language. In one case a boy was purportedly given a drum by the Kellers, which they told him was to conjure up Satan, and through it all they were all warned that if they told anyone their parents would be killed, decapitated, and sacrificed to Satan and their houses burned down. Other claims included that the Chavier girl had been selected to be programmed to come back to the cult to bear a child that would be sacrificed to Satan and that another boy was programmed to kill himself on his 8th birthday (which he thankfully never did). It was all like something out of a horror movie, a horrifying tale to hear from such young children. Carol Staelin, whose 4-year-old son was among the victims, said of it all:
Every aspect of these kids’ lives, they twisted and perverted. They tortured a bunny in front of the kids and told them it was the Easter Bunny. They kept a flock of doves—doves, the symbol of Christianity. They would break a dove’s wing, then bury the wounded dove and the children in a castle in the cemetery. Danny supposedly buried the children, then Fran dug them up seconds before they ran out of air and told them, “Satan has spared you.”
In retrospect, some of the parents realized that there had been odd clues to something weird going on at the day care all along, they just hadn’t realized the significance. For instance, sometimes the children would come home wearing different clothes, or with wet hair. One of the boys had a flare-up of asthma after his enrollment. They would sometimes have bruises on their bodies that were just assumed to have come from playing outside in the playground, but now the parents weren’t so sure. In all of the cases the victimized children had displayed various instances of highly aberrant behavior after enrolling in the day care, but since they had already been troubled children from broken families it hadn’t at first been directly linked to the Kellers. As residents were interrogated about the day care sentence and allegations, it all seemed to spread out, with suspicion even landing on police officers and even public officials. One police officer even confessed to child abuse after failing a lie detector test, and although he would retract this confession the next day, the Kellers fled to go into hiding in Las Vegas, where they were arrested two weeks later. Upon being brought back for trial, they insisted that they were innocent, and that they had fled because they felt they were going to be crucified by the system and would not get a fair trial.
The trial itself commenced and would draw much media attention, turning into a spectacle and something more akin to a witch trial than a court case. The prosecution shied away from pursuing the Satanic angle too much, but the defense definitely brought it to the fore in a misguided effort to get the case derailed on the basis of being so bonkers. The court and jury were left overwhelmingly shocked by some of the lurid, gruesome details surrounding it all, which swayed them toward a guilty verdict. In the defense’s favor. through it all, the Kellers denied everything, and not helping matters were some testimonies by the child witnesses that often contradicted each other, also snowballing into ever increasing levels of grotesqueries that seemed a bit too much. There was also very little physical evidence to any of it, although a doctor did testify that he had found tears in the hymen of the Chaviers girl the day after she had confessed to the abuse, which would in later years be deemed a mistaken prognosis but which at the time was fairly damning, to the advantage of the prosecution. There was also an expert on “Satanic ritual abuse” brought in who said that all signs were indicative of this going on. The attempt to flee the trial did not paint a good picture either, and Fran Keller didn’t do herself any favors with her allegedly seemingly cold, distant, and remorseless courtroom demeanor, but she adamantly stuck to their innocence, and would later accuse the trial of being unfair and biased towards what she called the “lies” of these children. Fran Teller would say:
They painted us as monsters and ogres. On the witness stand, I told them that the little girl [the Chaviers child] was a liar and a manipulator, and the prosecutor jumped me and said, ‘Don’t you think it’s an uneven match, a forty-year-old woman taking on an emotionally disturbed child?’ let me tell you something. I was as scared as that child. It was my life and my husband’s life they were ruining. We have lost everything we ever owned or cared about because of that little girl.
In the end, they were each convicted of multiple charges related to molestation and sexual assault and given 48-year prison sentences, but it doesn’t end there. In later years it came out that the doctor who had provided the only real physical evidence had been mistaken and based on a flawed medical exam, with the district attorney stating “There is a reasonable likelihood that (the medical expert’s) false testimony affected the judgment of the jury and violated Frances Keller’s right to a fair trial.” A reevaluation of the trial also came to the conclusion that the only direct witnesses of the abuse were children, and that together with their behavioral problems this made them unreliable, easily suggestible witnesses, with testimonies that could also be twisted and shaped to get false claims. It was further found that the prosecution had withheld information from the defense and displayed other instances of misconduct. All of this resulted in the state dropping all charges against the Kellers in 2013, proclaiming them actually innocent, setting them free, and even agreeing to pay compensation for being wrongly imprisoned and losing so many years of their lives, in the end netting them a total of $3.4 million.
We are left with quite a doozy of a case, which has never really been fully put to rest in the minds of many. Yet before you condemn the Kellers as monsters, there are also those skeptical of the supposed guilt of the Kellers as well. For one is that this was during a time when there was a sort of Satanic panic going on in the United States, with countless stories of Satanic rituals and brainwashing coming forward, few with any evidence at all. It was most likely a mass hysteria, but whether it was or wasn’t, the stories could have definitely seeped into the minds of these kids. There is also the fact that there is no concrete incriminating evidence, and the added fact that all of the direct eyewitnesses were children. What difference does this make? Well, for one there were many other students at the day care who had nothing bad at all to say about the Kellers, and the ones who did were undeniably deemed to be troubled kids, one of them even deemed to be a pathological liar by her own mother. Add to this the fact that children are impressionable and their minds can be aimed, coached, warped and twisted by outside influences. Does this mean they were all lying? No, not necessarily. But the author and researcher Gary Cartwright has said of this during the Kellers’ imprisonment:
A conventional wisdom has emerged that children are innocent beings who do not lie. Children under the age of six probably do not recognize the difference between the truth and a lie, but they are extremely suggestible. A review of a scientific study of children’s suggestibility published in Psychological Bulletin concludes that police officers, child-care workers, and therapists who specialize in ritual abuse have a preconceived notion of what happened. “In the course of questioning, [they] suggest it to the child, who then reports it as though it were true,” says the author of the article, Maggie Bruck, a psychologist at McGill University, and Stephen Ceci, a psychologist at Cornell University. “The more often you ask young children to think about something, the easier it becomes for them to make something up that they think is a memory.” Austin therapist Vivian Lewis Heine, who has testified an estimated five hundred times in child abuse cases (almost always for the prosecution), told me that young children hardly ever give false accusations without the influence of an adult. “The majority of the time when a child falsely accuses someone,” Lewis Heine said, “there’s a co-conspirator. It’s usually a parent involved in a divorce case or an adult who had post-traumatic stress disorder, someone who was either abused as a child or believes she was abused.”
What happened at Fran’s Day Care Center was a tragedy. If the Kellers did even a fraction of what is alleged, they got what they deserved. If they didn’t, then the tragedy is compounded beyond measure, because the children believe that the stories of humiliation and torture that they were encouraged to tell are real and also because innocent people are in prison, their lives and the lives of their families wrecked. Stories of unimaginable horrors have been told and repeated and refined so many times by parents, therapists, and law enforcement authorities—told with such passion and conviction—that they are permanently planted in these children’s minds. In that respect, some form of ritual abuse obviously took place.
In the end we are left to wonder just what is going on here. Were the Kellers really such monsters? Or were they perhaps warped and twisted, viewed through the cracked lens of impressionable minds and the masses screaming for blood, all fueled by the Satanic panic rampaging at the time? Did they really commit these unspeakable crimes and acts, or are these just distorted fabrications? Were they wrongly accused, or are they the grim, evil force that they have been painted as? Although the official court has found them innocent, to many in the mainstream masses the jury seems to be very much still out.