It took more than three decades for Robin Boles Byrum to tell her story. But what a story it is. In a gripping new book, author Betsy Hester joins forces with Byrum to recount her personal tragedy and perseverance, after being falsely accused along with six others of unspeakable crimes against little children.  

The book, “Twenty-One Boxes, Robin’s Story and the Tragedy of the Edenton Seven,” recounts in gripping detail how, in 1989, more than 90 children at the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, North Carolina, were coerced into accusing a total of 20 adults of 429 instances of sexual abuse over a three-year period.

Of those 20, prosecutors would charge only Robin Byrum, Darlene Harris, Elizabeth “Betsy” Kelly, Robert “Bob” Kelly, Willard Scott Privott, Shelley Stone, and Dawn Wilson — the Edenton 7.

“In this true, modern-day witch hunt, the hysteria led to North Carolina’s longest and most expensive criminal trial,” writes Hester.

In the 1980s, allegations of ritualized child sexual abuse were made against dozens of preschool and daycare workers across the United States and Canada.

Almost all these cases had similar fact patterns. No actual adult witnesses. No credible physical evidence. The sole “evidence” in these cases was often the testimony of children who were 2-5 years old at the time of the alleged abuse. These cases are now collectively referred to as the satanic daycare moral panic or the daycare sex-abuse hysteria scandal.

The Little Rascals Day Care Center was owned and operated by Betsy Kelly, with occasional help from her husband Bob, who ran a plumbing business and was also a local golf pro. In January 1989, a parent accused Bob Kelly of abusing her son at Little Rascals. Mr. Kelly had allegedly slapped a child for misbehavior, which he later apologized for. There was no sex-based allegation at the time. 

Over the next year, rumor and innuendo consumed the small Chowan County town of Edenton. After repeated questioning by police and their parents, a small number of children made disclosures of ritual sex abuse; other children made disclosures only after long periods of therapy, some lasting nearly a year. Ultimately a total of 90 children made allegations of physical and sexual abuse, which was said to occur between September and December 1988, although no specific allegations ever pointed to an exact time, day, and date of the offenses, making refuting them even harder.  

Seven were arrested: Bob Kelly in April and six others in September 1989. These included Betsy Kelly; the day care facilities’ cook (Dawn Wilson) and two teachers (Robin Byrum and Shelly Stone); Scott Privott, the son of a local judge, owner of a video store and golfing buddy of Bob Kelly; and Darlene Harris, who managed a nearby Head Start Program facility.

Mr. Kelly was the first to be put on trial in what because the longest and most expensive trail in state history. Testimony lasted nine months with 12 children providing descriptions of sexual and physical abuse: babies ritualistically killed, blood drinking, knives inserted into victims, children taken out on boats and thrown overboard, swimming with sharks, child sacrifices, and flights in hot air balloons and space ships.

In the book, Byrum recounts how utterly impossible the allegations were against her and the others.

“How could anyone believe all these things happened? We were a block from downtown, in a building with huge windows and no curtains. Parents walked their 2- and 3-year-olds there, and they dropped by all the time…

“Didn’t a light bulb ever once come on that made somebody use their common sense?”

In an interview with Carolina Journal, Hester described the gross incompetence of the investigation and the legal system failing to protect the rights of the accused.

“It was just part of a nationwide hysteria,” Hester tells CJ. “If any one of the prosecutors and investigators had just slowed down and asked, ‘Could this really happen?’ this tragedy could have been avoided.”

Byrum, not long out of high school and pregnant with her first child, went to work at Little Rascals Day Care Center in September 1988. A year later she was in prison under $500,000 bond, charged with 23 counts of child sex abuse. Prosecutors had no credible evidence against her, but they were betting the youngest defendant would implicate Bob Kelly and the others accused.

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. They thought I would tell on the others. That was the only reason I was swept up.”

Byrum was arrested in January 1990.

“Three men from the SBI came to my mother’s house. It was so frightening. They intimidated me. One of them put his foot up on the table and I could see the gun in his ankle holster. He said, ‘I’d hate to see you taken away from that child.’

“Then we went to the police station in Edenton. [SBI agent] Kevin McGinnis said he would give me one more chance to talk. I could hear my baby crying in the next room. When I told him again I didn’t know anything, he was so angry he kicked the desk across the room.”

As time progressed and Byrum sat in a Raleigh women’s prison, the state offered Byrum ever-more favorable plea deals. In 1997, Byrum told PBS’ Frontline why she had even turned down a deal offering no active prison time in exchange for an admission of guilt:

“That would mean knowing I would not ever have to be separated from my child again. But then I’d have to live with the rest of my life that I [said I] did something when I didn’t do it.’”

Mike Spivey, Robert Kelly’s original defense attorney, writes:

“Twenty-One Boxes tells the inspirational story of an eighteen-year-old girl caught in the satanic child abuse hysteria that consumed Edenton. Robin Couto (Byrum) faced an agonizing moral choice: lie to save herself or tell the truth and lose everything. In a time when moral courage and steadfast principles are in short supply, Robin’s courageous decision to follow her moral compass when so many others cast theirs aside should inspire us all.”

In April 1992, “Robert Kelly Jr. was convicted of 99 of 100 counts of rape and related crimes against children.”

Kelly was convicted and sentenced to 12 consecutive life terms in prison. It is worth noting that all seven of the accused who all faced possible life in prison, refused significant plea agreements that would have reduced exposure if they pleaded guilty and assisted in the prosecution of others. All refused to admit to what in retrospect clearly could not and did not happen.

Dawn Wilson, the daycare center’s cook was tried next, found guilty, and also sentenced to life in prison.

In January 1994, Betsy Kelly had been in prison for two years awaiting trial. She accepted a plea of “no contest,” and a sentence of seven years in prison. She served an additional year in prison and was released in 1995.

Six months after Betsy Kelly’s release, the North Carolina Court of Appeals, in a rare unanimous decision, blistered the trial court for numerous legal errors and reversed the convictions of both Robert Kelly and Dawn Wilson, stating that there were significant legal errors by the prosecution. On May 23, 1995, the prosecution dismissed all charges related to the Little Rascals case against the two.

The state dismissed its charges against Shelly Stone, Darlene Harris, and Robin Byrum. Byrum had by then spent one year in prison awaiting trial away from her newborn child.

After serving three years in jail, Scott Privott had his bond reduced from $1 million to $50,000, and he was released on bond. Rather than face a trial, Scott Privott accepted a “no contest” plea. No evidence was ever presented that Privott had ever met even one of the children or ever even stepped foot inside the daycare.  

Across the country and specifically in Edenton, the testimony of extremely young children tainted by misguided therapists, resulted in dozens of convictions and incarcerations. In virtually all these cases, charges eventually were dropped, convictions overturned or plea agreements accepted with no admission of guilt.  

According to retired Charlotte Observer reporter Lew Powell, who has chronicled the gross miscarriages of justice in the Little Rascals Case for more than two decades, “Today there is no dispute among respected psychiatrists, psychologists and social scientists: The defendants were innocent victims of a ‘moral panic’ that bore striking similarities to the Salem witch hunts 300 years earlier.”

 Powell backs up his assertions by pointing to the award-winning 2021 college textbook “Case Studies in Social Psychology,” which cites the Little Rascals case as a costly abandonment of rationality.

“Like rising floodwaters,” the authors write, “powerful attitudes about child sex abuse swept away critical thinking, lifelong friendships and even established legal standards.”

Dr. Allen Frances, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Duke University and chair of the DSM-IV Task Force, has expressed shame for not refuting “satanic ritual abuse” therapy and for not defending “the completely innocent day care workers who were indicted and often convicted of ridiculous charges that could not possibly have any foundation in reality.”

Byrum’s story is also one of perseverance. After the charges were dropped, she divorced an abusive husband, furthered her education, remarried, had more children and became a grandmother. The other defendants have moved on in their own unique and different ways.

It has been nearly 35 years since the Little Rascals allegations first surfaced. Looking back, it is hard to fathom how anybody could believe that seven average people would together conspire to commit unspeakable crimes against humanity in broad daylight in downtown Edenton. One would think that today that a lack of forensic evidence, surveillance cameras, and cell phone records would easily disapprove these types of dubious false allegations. However, we know that those who forget history will repeat it, as the Salem Witch Trials were repeated across the country in the 1980s, and in Edenton in particular.

That is why the tragic story of the Edenton Seven, written from the firsthand perspective of Robin Byrum, is worth reading and remembering.

Twenty-One Boxes: Robin’s Story and the Tragedy of the Edenton