Most people think the Satanic Daycare Panic took place in the 1980s, but it stretched into the early 90s as well. One of the lesser known cases took place in Lorain, Ohio, and was started on May 7, 1993, when parent Margaret Grondin claimed to police that her 4-year-old daughter, referred to in court documents as N.Z., had been sexually abused while attending the Head Start program in her town.
Grondin claimed that Nancy Smith, a bus driver contracted with the program, had molested N.Z. along with a man she said might have been named “Joseph.” The allegations were immediately printed in the media and broadcast on television, prompting the parents of 15 children to come forward and also claim their children had been abused. As the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations noted, however, most of those claims were quickly dismissed, since some of the children didn’t ride on Smith’s bus and others had left Head Start before Smith was even hired.
Detective Thomas Cantu on May 25 interviewed the 11 children who rode Smith’s bus, and concluded the allegations were unfounded. The children told him no abuse had happened, as he wrote in his report of the interviews: “The children were questioned if Nancy had ever touched them in a bad way, or in any way which would hurt, or upset them, and each one stated that she had never touched them. The children were questioned if they knew anyone named Joseph, and they all indicated that they did not. All of the children stated that they liked Nancy, their bus driver, and that she was nice.”
Smith also passed a polygraph test, though they are notoriously unreliable and inadmissible in court. Still, Cantu wrote a report insisting the allegations were unfounded. He was then removed from the case.
The new officers assigned to the investigation began looking for “Joseph.” At the same time, the parents began their own “investigation.” She took her daughter, N.Z., and another girl referred to only as A.W. past a peach-colored house that belonged to a man whose last name was Ellis. A.W. and another boy, A.P., claimed the abuse happened at that house. But weeks later, after A.P.’s father searched neighborhoods in the town and identified a man whose last name was Jones, A.P. started saying the abuse took place at Jones’ house. A.P. identified Jones in a lineup and claimed Smith, the bus driver, would drive him to Jones’ house. Grondin’s daughter N.Z. also identified Jones from a lineup. Two other children claimed to be scared when driving past Jones’ house.
Jones and Ellis were excluded as suspects, but the children were still believed. Police then focused on Joseph Allen, 39, a black man who wasn’t connected to the Head Start program but did have a previous child molestation conviction and was currently suspected of a separate crime. Allen reportedly matched the identification some children gave of the man who molested them.
As with other false accusations of child abuse from the era, the children in the Lorain case made wild allegations that ranged from possible to impossible, yet they were still believed. The children in the Lorain case claimed at times that one of the assailants was black, or white, or Hispanic. “They identified seven different houses as the house where the abuse took place. They gave inaccurate descriptions of Allen’s house and its contents. Some children said the abuse happened in the basement, but Allen’s house sat on a slab,” the Registry reported.
This followed at the trial, too, with one child claiming Smith stuck a needle into her vagina, another claiming Allen tied them to a tree outside of his house even though it was on a busy street, and another claiming Allen had shot another child in the face with a gun.
Smith tried to get the trials separated, arguing that jurors would be prejudiced against her by Allen’s previous conviction. Judge Lynette McGough denied the motion, in part because she didn’t want the children to face two trials.
Five children testified against Smith and Allen, but two of them recanted while testifying and a third was deemed incompetent at trial. The only two left were Grondin’s daughter, N.Z., and A.P., the boy who changed his story. A.P. now claimed that Smith had taken him to Allen’s home three times. He claimed Smith stuck a needle into his bottom, told him to get on top of her, and touched his genitals. He also said he saw Smith touching another child’s bottom and genitals.
N.Z. claimed that Allen sometimes drove her to his house in his car and that she and other children, including A.P., would play games at Allen’s house with their clothes off. She claimed she saw Smith touching the boys’ genitals.
A.P.’s father and Grondin testified that their children’s demeanor changed during the school year. The mother of J.G., one of the kids who recanted his testimony, said her child didn’t want to ride the bus and claimed his “butt was burning,” she and A.P.’s father testified that their children began engaging in sexual acts with other kids.
Of course, there was no physical evidence of anything the children or parents claimed. Smith and Allen maintained they didn’t even know each other, but the prosecution had witnesses who claimed otherwise. One grandmother whose child was in Head Start testified she once saw Allen on Smith’s bus. Another witness, bus aide Elizabeth Powell, claimed Allen once tried to get on the buss while it was stopped at a store and Smith was inside. Powell claimed Allen said the name “Nancy” (Smith’s first name) and that he then went into the store and left arm-in-arm with Smith.
But defense witness Michael Taylor said that he was the man Powell told to get off the bus. Taylor testified that he came forward after reading about what Powell said and that he had tried to get on the bus to see his son, but Powell yelled at him and slammed the door. Taylor said he went into the store to find Smith, who apologized for her colleague’s actions.
Glen Thaler, Lorain County Community Action Agency’s transportation manager, testified at the trial that bus mileage was checked regularly so there couldn’t have been any detours. Another Head Start employee testified that the program had a system that ensured children were properly accounted for and never got into unauthorized vehicles.
Despite this, Smith and Allen were convicted on all counts on August 4, 1994. Smith was sentenced to 30 to 90 years in prison. Allen received five consecutive life sentences and an additional 22 to 50 years in prison. Both maintained their innocence. Both of their appeals were denied.
In 2008, Smith filed a motion to correct an error in her sentence. Allen filed a similar motion in 2009. Judge James Burge of Lorain County Court of Common Please ruled after a hearing that their sentences were not a final judgement, which led to Smith and Allen being released from prison. While preparing for a new sentencing hearing, Burge looked over the evidence and decided to vacate their sentences on June 25, 2009. The state appealed the ruling and the Ohio Supreme Court on January 27, 2011, restored the convictions.
In 2013, Smith was resentenced to 12 years in prison, but didn’t have to return to prison since she had already served more than 14. She also no longer had to register as a sex offender. Allen was resentenced to 10 to 25 years and sent back to prison. As part of their agreements, the two agreed not to challenge their convictions unless a local prosecutor approved.
On October 21, 2021, Lorain County Prosecutor J.D. Tomlinson told seven accusers and others in the original case that he was considering asking the convictions to be vacated. Smith was now represented by an attorney with the Ohio Innocence Project. That attorney, along with Allen’s attorney, filed a motion for a new trial on December 14, 2021. The motion contained an affidavit from Cantu, the original investigator in the case, who described his earlier findings and his belief that the children were coached. The motion also included sworn statements from Grondin’s – the mother who started everything – ex-husband and her son. Her ex-husband said he witnessed Grondin “coaching her daughter on what to say in order to make the allegations of sexual abuse in the Head Start case.”
“I asked Margie what had happened. Her daughter, one of the child ‘victims’ in the Head Start case was present during these conversations. Margie would state a narrative and would ask her daughter, ‘Isn’t that how it happened? Tell him that’s how it happened. Isn’t that right?’ Margie would try to get her daughter to repeat what she was saying or to agree with the story she was telling. Over time, this story would change and grow. Margie was persistent in trying to get her daughter to agree with what she said happened. This was something Margie wanted her to practice,” the ex-husband said.
Grondin’s son, too, said his mother had coached N.Z. He said Grondin even tried the same thing recently, making false allegations against his wife in an attempt to get money from “someone with deep pockets of money.” He said it was all similar to how his mother acted during the Head Start case.
“My mom on some occasions had the other kids from the Head Start case down in the basement, and coached them the same way. The allegations I read in the court documents online were the things my mom was coaching them to say, and a lot [of] it was sexual abuse that had gone on in my own family. My mom played ‘school’ with the kids in the basement, and actually set the basement up like a little school with tables or desks, and created educational games. My mom was the ‘teacher.’ The tables and desks are still in storage at my grandmother’s house. The kids had to say the allegations of sexual abuse the way she wanted them to say it in order to advance in the game,” the son wrote.
As with other cases, it was later revealed that parents, investigators, and social workers all interviewed the children in highly suggestive ways, insisting abuse had happened and asking leading or suggestive questions to get the children to say what the adults believed to be true.
On December 21, 2021, the original prosecutor appeared in court to claim that Tomlinson, the prosecutor looking to vacate the sentences, violated his oath of office to “defend public from crime.” A day later, Judge Chris Cook of the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas ordered Allen to be released from prison with GPS tracking.
On February 25, 2022, Cook vacated the convictions, though he didn’t explicitly say Smith and Allen were innocent.
“This court finds by a significant margin that the new evidence is substantial, credible, and without a reasonable doubt, would affect the outcome of a new trial such that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to secure a conviction of either Smith or Allen at a new trial,” he said, according to the registry.
“To Miss Smith and Mr. Allen, I want to say that I apologize to you, especially for what was done to your families as a result of this ill-conceived prosecution. On behalf of the state of Ohio, I wish nothing but the best for you and your loved ones,” he added.
Smith thanked her attorneys and made a comment directed at Grondin, “who orchestrated this horrible, alleged crime that never happened.”
Allen also commented on his freedom: “It took me almost 30 years, for me to get justice here today. I hope those suffering in the same situation can get justice, too.”