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Martensville is a small "bedroom" community, located a short distance north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It is near the center of the most populated southern part of the Province of Saskatchewan, some 186 miles (300 km) north of the U.S. border and the states of Montana and North Dakota in the U.S. 

During the 1990s, as the North American Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) scare was winding down, two allegations of SRA materialized in the province. The other one was in Saskatoon itself and involved the Klassen family.

The Sterling Family, (consisting of Ron Sterling, Linda Sterling and their 25 year old son Travis along with an unidentified minor female), and 5 other men were charged in 1992 with 190 counts of physical and sexual abuse against two dozen children at the Sterling's baby-sitting service in Martensville, SK, Canada. (Their service is often incorrectly referred to in the literature as a day care center). Six of the males were involved in law enforcement as police officers; one was a prison deputy director. Travis and the unidentified female were convicted.

The triggering event was an infant's diaper rash. This led to suspicion of child abuse and the interrogation of more children at the service. The number of accusations exploded in what was referred to as the Martensville Nightmare. Children testified that they were driven to "the devil's church" in the country where they were forced to drink urine, eat feces and submit to abuse. One child claimed that an axe handle had been forced into his penis. 1 Another claimed that one of the abusers had cut off a child's nipple and eaten it. (No scarred child was ever found. Townspeople didn't question how an abuser could get away with child mutilation; any real abuser would avoid carving up a child because it would certainly be detected). The children claimed to have been stimulated with penis shaped, battery operated vibrators. Wild rumors of evil Satanists circulated through the town; many citizens saw Satanic cults everywhere; many still do.

One fascinating incident occurred which illustrates how false memories can be created in children. The police raided the Sterling home one night and tipped off the media in advance. The police uncovered incriminating evidence: issues of a porn magazine and a battery operated vibrator! This find was recorded by the TV crews. Because of the poor lighting on the scene, the vibrator appeared on the TV newscast as multi-colored (red, white and blue). It was in fact flesh colored, and of a uniform hue. A child apparently watched the program, remembered the image of a tri-color vibrator and later incorporated it into his memory. He later reported being abused with a red, white and blue vibrator. But no such device was never found because it did not exist.

A second incident related to a rural building that the police thought was the "devil's church". They photographed the building thoroughly. Some interior pictures showed small wire bird cages on the wall. Later, some of the children recalled being confined in wire cages on the wall of the "church". The  problem here is that the children were much larger than the cages; it would have been quite impossible for them to fit in. Other wild accusations extracted from the children included murder, animal mutilation, and Satanism. 6

The child interviews were conducted by a female police officer, Claudia Bryden who had received essentially no training in safe, child interview techniques. She was motivated to uncover abuse allegations; she had herself been abused as a child. Her interrogations allegedly used repeated, direct questioning. Such methods are now known to produce false accusations in children.

One investigator, suspecting that police officers were involved, showed a book of photographs of Saskatoon police officers. One of the children picked out a picture of officer John Popovich.

According to Globe and Mail reporter, Margaret Wente, "Satanic panic had swept the town. Among the true believers was the Martensville police chief. His evidence of cult activity included some writings by a local man that featured odd, occult-sounding words. (They turned out to be excerpts from a fantasy novel he was writing.) The chief even warned his forces that gun-toting Satanists were about to kidnap the children and sacrifice them. He armed them with assault rifles, and told them to keep an eye out for the high priestesses, who could be identified by a tattoo of a scarab beetle on their wrists." The scarab beetle is a symbol that was used in ancient Egyptian Pagan religion. 4

The Stirling parents were acquitted after a trial that lasted three months. The charges against Popovich were eventually dropped when none of the children could identify him in a lineup; they had apparently never met him. Charges against the remaining police officers were finally dismissed. Travis and "Jane Doe" were found guilty, but these convictions were later overturned when it was discovered that all of the children's testimony was worthless. The manipulative nature of the child interviews was at last recognized. As is usual in these cases, there was no physical evidence of any abuse. Yet if the abuse had actually happened as the children disclosed, there definitely would have been evidence present.

Most of those charged in the case have had their reputations and finances ruined. Margaret Wente wrote: "Mr. Popowich was suspended from his job without pay. His daughter was beaten up in school, and relatives froze him out. He and his wife held garage sales and sold their possessions to raise money." They instituted million-dollar lawsuits against the various governmental agencies involved in the nightmare. David Dees, a Toronto ON journalist, is writing a book about Martensville.

At a pre-trial conference in 2002-MAY, Court of Queen's Bench Justice George Baynton predicted that the province would be found guilty of malicious prosecution if these cases went to trial. Saskatchewan Justice Minister Chris Axworthy met with Mr. Popowitch and his family to apologize in person. Axworthy said on JUN-18 that the Province had decided to settle out of court rather than run the risk of losing at trial and paying out an even greater amount. He also promised that no one involved in prosecuting the Martensville case would lose their jobs. John Popowitch, now 56, has negotiated a CDN $1.3 million (about US$ 850,000) settlement. "Of that, $500,000 has to come from the individual prosecutors, investigators and police involved in the original case." 5 He also received a formal written apology from the provincial government. It stated: "The government of Saskatchewan affirms that you are innocent of all charges and that you are entitled to enjoy a reputation as a fully innocent citizen." Popowitch told a newspaper reporter on 2002-JUL-31: "The most important part was getting my name cleared....I've quit walking around looking at the sidewalk all the time. Now I can keep my head up again." 4

Justice Minister Frank Quennell announced on 12004-NOV-15 that the province will pay $925,000 in Canadian funds -- roughly equivalent to $US 740,000) to Ron and Linda Sterling as well as to a person who was a youth at the time the charges were laid in 1992. Quennell said: "This case has caused suffering and upheaval in the lives of many, many people for more than a decade. This is truly a regrettable situation and I extend my sympathies to Mr. And Mrs. Sterling and the young person involved." Three additional lawsuits related to this case have yet to be settled. 6

Four Square Productions of Regina, SK, plan to start filming of "The Martensville Nightmare" in 2005. It is expected to be a movie of the week on a TV network.

Again, we believe that no sexual or ritual abuse ever occurred at Martensville.

This case bears many points of similarity to a case in Red Deer, SK, involving 13 adults and three children.

This essay continues below.

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Sponsored link:

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Multimedia production:

DiskoTech has produced a multimedia CD-ROM of the Martensville Nightmare: "The two CD-ROMs contain actual video of the police interrogation of Popowich, the alleged crime scenes, and local TV newscasts. This package also includes the transcripts of the Popowich trial, numerous copies of local newspaper articles, and photographs. All of these are combined with voice narrations, music and riveting text by the author." See: http://www.diskotech.com/

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Final financial settlements:

The provincial government will pay former Martensville police constable James Elstad $142,500 CDN as part of a $285,000 settlement. The town's former police chief, Edward Revesz, will get $87,500 from the province out of a $175,000 settlement. The other part of each settlement will be paid by the now-defunct Martensville police service and the Saskatoon Police Service or their insurers.

Lawyer William Roe, who represented Revesz, said:

"No amount of money will ever compensate any of the plaintiffs in the Martensville case. They were charged with probably, from society's viewpoint, the most serious type of offence that can be alleged against a person. I mean, sexual assault, sexual intercourse with children and then add in the abuse element and the whole Satanism aspect, I think we've forgotten just how chilling those allegations were. They were outlandish but they were also horrific and I don't think any amount of money will compensate any of them ever for the pain and suffering they went through."

Lawyer Richard Gabruch, who represented Elstad, said his client is relieved by the settlement, but agreed there is no adequate compensation for the damage caused by the allegations. He said:

"The challenge is getting over the emotional hurdle related to that. However, this provides some closure on one facet of that and I think they do feel better, Jim and his family do feel better about moving forward now."

Justice Minister Frank Quennell read from a statement, calling the time of the Martensville investigation:

"...a unique period in the history of the justice system throughout North America. Knowing what we know now about child victims and witnesses, a case with similar circumstances as this case would have been handled differently. This case has caused suffering and upheaval in the lives of many, many people for more than a decade. This is a truly regrettable situation and I extend my sympathies to Mr. Elstad and Mr. Revesz....I think we've learned a great deal over the last 15 years about how to treat these cases." 7

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  1. Debbie Nathan & Michael Snendeker, "Satan's Silence", BasicBooks, New York NY (1995), P. 230
  2. Mark Pendergrast, "Victims of Memory", 2nd Edition, Upper Access Books, Hinesburg VT (1996), Page 367.
  3. James Parker, "Province pays Popowich $1.3 million: Former police officer wrongly accused in sex case," The Leader-Post (Regina, SK), 2002-JUN-19, Page A1.
  4. Margaret Wente, "Satanic Panic Attack," The Globe and Mail, Toronto, ON, 2002-AUG-1, Page A21.
  5. "Popowich has name cleared after 10 years," CBC Saskatchewan, 2002-HJUN-19, at: http://sask.cbc.ca/
  6. Tim Cook, "Three compensated in bogus abuse case. $925,000 to Martensville accused. Ritualistic child sex ring was alleged," The Toronto Star, 2004-NOV-16.
  7. James Wood, "Martensville saga ends: Lawsuit settlements reached; ex-officers get total of $460,000," The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), 2006-MAR-08, Page A1.

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Copyright © 1998 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1998-AUG-5
Latest update: 2006-MAR-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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