Dan and Fran Keller were wrongfully accused of child sexual assault and accused of practicing satanism in 1992. (Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Long before the age of the Internet and the fleeting spasms of mass hysteria that came with it (Remember Jade Helm? Pizzagate?), and going back to the late 20th century, when irrational fears moved slower and lasted longer, there was Satan.

The “satanic panic,” some call it now. It began some time in the 1980s, when newscasters and fundamentalist Christian cartoons warned of the evils of the role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons,” and stretched into the 1990s, when police and psychiatrists saw thousands of unfounded accusations of ritualistic sex abuse and children were seized from British parents accused of devil worship.

One case still stands out.

“This country hasn’t seen anything like it since the Salem witch trials,” Texas Monthly wrote in 1994, in a profile of Austin day-care operators Dan and Fran Keller, who had been thrown in prison two years earlier.

The Kellers had been convicted of sexual assault in 1992. Children from their day-care center accused them — variously — of serving blood-laced Kool Aid; wearing white robes; cutting the heart out of a baby; flying children to Mexico to be raped by soldiers; using Satan’s arm as a paintbrush; burying children alive with animals; throwing them in a swimming pool with sharks; shooting them; and resurrecting them after they had been shot.

They were hardly the only people to be accused by children during the panic. Many were exonerated long ago — like the 20 people wrongly convicted in the infamous Kern County sex abuse cases. Some now blame the phenomenon on “a quack cadre of psychotherapists who were convinced that they could dig up buried memories through hypnosis,” as Radley Balko wrote in a column for The Washington Post.

But the Kellers suffered for decades.

They served nearly 22 years in prison before a court released them in 2013, after years of work by journalists and lawyers to expose what proved to be a baseless case against them.

And only now — when Fran Keller is 67 and Dan is 75 — has the couple been fully exonerated. Their 1992 case was finally dismissed in June after a district attorney declared them innocent.

This week, the Austin American-Statesman reported, they were awarded $3.4 million from a state fund — a belated attempt to refund a quarter-century that they lost to the delusions of other people.

“We can start living,” Fran Keller told the newspaper after learning of the award Tuesday. “No more nightmares.”

Nightmares

“Terror at the day care,” blared the Vancouver Sun in 1992, in prose typical of early coverage of the Kellers. “It didn’t look like a haunted house. But the kids knew better.”

Fran’s Day Care Center actually looked entirely charming, as described by Texas Monthly in one of the few measured stories from that era.

Opened in 1989, it had cages of rabbits and a pony named Dancer, a playground and swimming pool, tucked into a leafy Austin neighborhood “as tidy and pastoral as a cottage in a fairy tale,” Texas Monthly wrote.

The couple lived at the same house — Fran in her 40s and Dan in his 50s — and cared for about 15 children each day, including some who had histories of emotional problems and abuse.

One day in 1991, Fran recalled in an interview with KXAN, only two children were dropped off. Then police knocked on the door and sat with her in the kitchen.

“They told me Dan was accused of hurting a child,” she said. “And I knew that couldn’t be true.”

What began as a single accusation from a 3-year-old girl with known behavioral problems, Texas Monthly wrote, “escalated to monstrous proportions” after authorities closed the day care.

Worried parents sent their children to therapists, where they came back with tales pulled straight from horror movies.

At one point in the investigation, the Statesman wrote, police had a suspect list of “26 ritual abusers, including many of the Kellers’ neighbors and a respected Austin police captain.”

As an appeals court judges recounted decades later, one girl claimed that Dan Keller “had come to her house and had cut her dog’s vagina with a chain saw until it bled, that she was taken to a cemetery, where, after a person dressed like a policeman threw a person in a hole, Daniel Keller shot the person who had been thrown into the hole and cut up the body with a chain saw while all the children helped.”

And parents began to reinterpret day-to-day activities at the day care as sinister omens.

The Kellers had once sent children home with American flags, one parent told the Vancouver Sun. The flag “reminds them, ‘Don’t tell,’ ” the parent said.

The panic was already beginning to subside in other parts of the world. A three-year inquiry by the British government in the early 1990s concluded that “there was no foundation to the plethora of satanic child abuse claims,” according to the BBC.

“These tales are usually just that — figments of imagination,” the New York Times wrote in 1994, citing a study by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect that found not a single substantiated case of cult sex abuse among more than 11,000 reported to psychiatric and police workers.

Nevertheless, the Kellers were convicted after a six-day trial in 1992.

Not of chainsawing a dog’s vagina, of course — but of aggravated sexual assault based on the word of children and police, and a single piece of physical evidence: an apparent wound on a girl’s vagina.

That, too, would turn out to be wrong — but not before the Kellers stood in a Travis County courthouse and heard their sentences read aloud: 48 years each.

Zombies

“You prayed a lot,” Fran Keller told KXAN, remembering when the whole world seemed to believe she and her husband were monsters.

“And you sat there. And you was like a zombie.”

She was sent to a women’s prison near Marlin, where she became a target because of the allegations that she had abused children. She spent her time dodging boiling water and learning about shanks, she told the station.

Dan served his time near Amarillo, Texas Monthly wrote, where he wrote poems and tried “to figure out what happened to the life he once knew.”

They lived like that for years, never seeing each other, fading from the headlines as the 20th century passed away and the satanic panic went with it.

But some remembered.

Then, in 2009, the Austin Chronicle wrote an article called “Believing the Children” — 10,000 words that tore apart what aspects of the Keller’s case had not sounded wholly fantastical to begin with.

An emergency room doctor who had testified of wounds on a little girl’s vagina had since reconsidered after learning more about female anatomy. He told the Chronicle reporter, “I’ll be straight-up honest with you, I could’ve been wrong.”

State troopers had once flown over a cemetery, investigating claims that the Kellers took children there to dig up a grave. Evidence at the trial showed the earth had indeed been disturbed.

But a cemetery worker told the Chronicle that the coffin in that particular grave kept sinking, and the occupant’s son regularly came by and threw more dirt on it. Thus the disturbance. Moreover, the Chronicle reported, police had known this but it had not been mentioned in the trial.

The article has many such examples of evidence that didn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Austin lawyer Keith Hampton read the Chronicle’s story and thought, “Oh, dear God,” he later recalled to Texas Monthly.

Thereafter, Hampton began working for free to overturn the Kellers’ conviction.

They appealed the case in 2013, according to the Statesman. The doctor’s testimony proved crucial. Hampton put him under oath, and he said in no uncertain terms: “I was mistaken.”

That November, around Dan Keller’s 72nd birthday, both he and his wife walked free on bond while an appeals court considered a permanent reversal.

The couple had not seen each other in more than two decades.

“My heart lit up,” Dan Keller told KXAN a few months later.

But officially, they were still sex predators — always looking over their shoulders, accused by many people of horrible things.

“All I can say is I hope one day you change you mind,” Fran Keller said.


Dan and Fran Keller pose outside the Travis County courthouse in Austin. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Witches

The next year, an appeals court unanimously overturned the Kellers’ convictions based on false testimony.

“This was a witch hunt from the beginning,” one judge wrote, comparing the case to the Salem witch trials of the 17th century, in which she wrote nearly two dozen people were hanged before Massachusetts reversed the convictions.

But without explaining why, the appeals court declined one of the Kellers’ central requests: refusing to declare them innocent in 2015. Several children who originally accused the couple still oppose their release, the Statesman reported.

The Kellers kept pushing for public redemption. They were finally declared “actually innocent” by the Travis County district attorney in June, the newspaper wrote. That made them eligible for a state program that pays wrongfully convicted people $80,000 for each year they spent in prison — a very large cumulative sum, in the Kellers’ extraordinary case.

The couple had been getting by on Social Security checks and the help of friends, they told the Statesman.

“It’s been really, really rough,” Fran Keller said. “You can’t get a job as a ‘child molester.’ ”

Nevertheless, they used their freedom to involve themselves in the cases of others they believe to be wrongfully imprisoned.

They were standing outside a Texas jail in support of one such man Tuesday, when their lawyer called with the news that they were millionaires.

“They are now compensated and no longer must fear homelessness or lack of health insurance,” the lawyer, Hampton, wrote to KXAN. “They are buying a home and can live out their lives in peace and quiet.”

The Kellers were expected to pick up a check for $3.4 million this week — though maybe millions isn’t so much when stretched across two decades and the darkest fantasies of children.

Fran Keller put it this way to the Statesman:

“It means we will actually be free.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to those executed in the Salem witch trials as all being women.

More reading:

‘I have been fundamentally condemned to die in prison,’ a drug dealer wrote. Obama listened.

Radley Balko: There’s nothing ‘enlightened’ about executing the innocent

A court feared a sex assault victim wouldn’t testify. So she was jailed with her attacker.

Radley Balko: We need to fix how we compensate the wrongly convicted