THE "MARTENSVILLE NIGHTMARE"
RITUAL ABUSE CASE
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
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.
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:
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
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
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
Debbie Nathan & Michael Snendeker, "Satan's Silence",
New York NY (1995), P. 230
Mark Pendergrast, "Victims of Memory", 2nd Edition, Upper Access
Books, Hinesburg VT (1996), Page 367.
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.
Margaret Wente, "Satanic
Panic Attack," The Globe and Mail, Toronto, ON, 2002-AUG-1, Page A21.
"Popowich has name cleared after 10 years," CBC Saskatchewan,
Tim Cook, "Three compensated in bogus abuse case. $925,000 to Martensville
accused. Ritualistic child sex ring was alleged," The Toronto Star,
James Wood, "Martensville saga ends: Lawsuit settlements reached; ex-officers
get total of $460,000," The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan),
2006-MAR-08, Page A1.