My Lie Sent My Father to Jail
By Melba Newsome
For the first time, a family shattered by false claims of sexual abuse
talks about the struggle to rebuild their lives - together.
In 1984, Jeffrey Modahl's 12-year-old daughter, Teresa, told her father
that she'd been molested by two babysitters. Like any other concerned
parent, Modahl, a diesel mechanic whose wife had been killed in an
automobile accident five years earlier, immediately reported her charges to
the authorities. In a nightmarish turn, California police and prosecutors
then accused Modahl himself of sexually abusing his two girls.
Teresa and Carla Jo, 10, were separated and put into foster care, and their
father - along with about 50 other adults - was eventually charged with
being part of a bizarre ring of Satan worshipping pedophiles. The only
evidence against Modahl had been the testimony of Carla Jo, who now says
she made up her story under pressure from investigators.
Most of the convictions of the so-called Bakersfield Witch Hunts were
overturned on appeal by judges who found that prosecutors had badgered
young children into giving false testimony and suppressed evidence that
would have cleared the alleged abusers. On May 18, 1999, Modahl's sentence
was finally overturned. He had spent 15 years in prison.
Redbook: The case against your father began with an allegation against two
babysitters. How did the focus shift so quickly onto him?
Teresa: The investigators put us through these long interviews, going over
and over the same things. The two people questioning me kept trying to
pound it into my head that it was Grandpa and Dad who abused me, not the
babysitters. They kept saying, "Why don't you just tell the truth? They
need to be punished for what they did."
I kept saying, "But they didn't do anything." Now I realize they were
trying to get me to say things that weren't true. They said that if we
didn't tell them Dad had molested us, we wouldn't be able to see our
families ever again. I said, "I can't get somebody in trouble just for
Jeff: When Teresa wouldn't say I did it, they started on the others. Carla
Jo was the weakest link, and she finally relented. She just wanted to go home.
Carla Jo: The investigators told me my sister had named my Dad and Granddad
and that they saw pictures. They told me that in order to get others
convicted, I had to say that Dad did it. During the trial, they coached me
and took me out to lunch and shopping.
Jeff: They bought her patent leather shoes and purses, even Cabbage Patch
dolls. The foster mother had to tell the D.A. to quit spoiling Carla Jo
because she couldn't get along with her. Every time she went to court,
Carla Jo was queen for a day.
Redbook: How did you feel when you realized you had become a suspect?
Jeff: I was in a total state of shock. I kept believing and hoping that it
would work out. I thought I couldn't be railroaded for things I hadn't
done. I didn't even go in front of a jury. I took my chances with a judge,
thinking he would see through this. But he didn't. It went on so long, they
made me doubt myself. Then the district attorney told me if I took a
polygraph and it showed I was telling the truth, then they would back off.
I did, but they pressed ahead with the case anyway. That's when I realized
they weren't searching for the truth.
Redbook: How did you feel when you found out that Carla Jo was making these
Jeff: I was dumfounded; I didn't know what to think. I knew somebody had
put something in her head, but I didn't know how or why. Later, I found out
they had her on Thorazine [an antipsychotic drug] to make her compliant. If
you knew Carla Jo, you would see it wasn't her on the stand when she was
Teresa: But I didn't lie. Why did she have to?
Carla Jo: They tricked me. They told me that nothing bad was going to
happen. I just read the transcript from the trial, and I don't see how a
judge or a jury could have convicted Dad. What I said was so bogus and so
way out there, you could tell it wasn't the truth.
Jeff: I was convicted in August. In November, they asked Carla Jo what she
wanted for Christmas, and all she asked for was to visit me. So her foster
mother got permission to bring her to the prison. That's the first time she
saw me face-to-face outside the courtroom, and she started bawling right
off the bat. She realized I wasn't coming home. When she got home, she
wrote a letter to me saying, "I'm so sorry. I didn't know that you were in
prison. The investigators tricked me into lying. Forgive me."
Redbook: But that recantation wasn't enough, was it?
Teresa: No. She'd lied the first time. What was to keep the judge from
thinking she was lying again?
Jeff: When the judge read the letter, he said, "I don't believe it - go
back to prison." That's when all of my hopes were dashed. At that point,
even my attorney said there was nothing to appeal.
Redbook: How did you feel knowing your father was in jail because you had
lied on the stand?
Carla Jo: I hated myself for the longest time. No matter how many times Dad
wrote me or I talked to him on the telephone and he told me that it wasn't
my fault and he didn't hold it against me, it didn't matter. I was holding
it against myself. That's why I was so self destructive. I was a rebellious
child, into alcohol and hanging out with a rough crowd. From the age of 10
until two months after my 16th birthday, I was in 15 different foster
homes. I feel really old because of everything I've been through. I'm only
25, and I've already been married and divorced with two children.
Teresa: It was hard for me to deal with Dad being in prison. I thought
about him and what happened all the time and cried a lot. Foster parents
don't want older children, so I was moved around a lot. I was in about
eight foster homes and two group homes. I hung around with a bad crowd and
started drinking when I was 13. I remember going to visit Dad in jail when
I was six months pregnant with my oldest child - I couldn't stand to see
him there. So I wrote, sent pictures of the kids, kept him updated. I
couldn't go back there again.
Jeff: I can understand the way she felt, because my parents used to come
see me a lot. I had to ask them not to because it bothered me to see them
Redbook: Teresa and Carla Jo, What was your relationship with each other like?
Teresa: I couldn't even talk to Carla Jo. I blamed her for everything. When
I found out that she was saying these things, I said, "Typical Carla Jo.
She will do anything to get what she wants."
Carla Jo: After Dad was convicted, Teresa and I didn't see each other. I
felt so much guilt because I knew she blamed me.
Redbook: How were you able to finally win your freedom?
Jeff: When the girls turned 18, they signed a release giving my lawyers
access to their files, which had been sealed because they were underage.
They also signed affidavits saying they had not been molested. Finally, it
was enough for a new hearing. During the discovery process, my lawyers
found a tape recording of Terrazzo's initial interview and the medical
records, which were a total shock. At four different trials we tried to get
medical examinations of the kids, but the D.A. argued that it was too
damaging to the girls. Finally, one of the investigators admitted that she
had taken the children for medical exams, which showed no signs of sexual
Redbook: How did you feel about reopening the case?
Carla Jo: I was very excited, but I was afraid they wouldn't believe me
again. I had been there before.
Teresa: It was hard because I have a family of my own now. Even now people
still walk up to me and say, "Aren't you the Modahl girl?" It makes me
uncomfortable to drag it all out in the open again - the memories, the
nightmares. But I did it because my Dad didn't deserve to be there in the
first place, and I wanted the county to admit that they were wrong.
Redbook: How has going through this ordeal changed each of you?
Carla Jo: If Dad hadn't gone to prison, I wouldn't be going through this
stuff I'm going through now. They yanked my whole family apart.
Jeff: I keep thinking, what would the girls have been like if I had been
out of jail? They had to grow up faster because I wasn't around. My
brothers and sisters have grown apart. My mom is ill, and Dad died while I
was in prison. We lost all our land. We had a nice place, a successful
business - but they ruined it. I got out of prison in paper clothes. I had
nothing. No money, no driver's license. The whole world has changed. When I
went to prison, computers were barely coming in. It's like going from the
Stone Age to Buck Rogers.
Redbook: How are you adjusting to being a family again?
Carla Jo: Teresa and I don't really talk. A couple of times we tried to
talk about what happened, but it was too emotional for both of us. For a
while I still felt that Dad blamed me for what happened. He wouldn't take
the time to sit down and talk to me.
Teresa: That's because he needs his space. He has to adjust to being on the
outside again and learning to show his grandkids and me the love he wants
to show us. I'm getting to know him all over again. But Carla Jo and I are
like strangers. I'm still very angry at her, although I know I shouldn't be.
Jeff: I'm beyond angry, but I don't want to destroy myself. It has been a
very rough, slow road for all of us. We've been apart for so long that we
don't how to approach one another, how to get started again. They're not
babies anymore. Now they have their own babies. But here is no question
that my girls and I love each other. This is all going to take some time. I
thought I could just jump right back into my life again, but I can't. I'm
not ready to go back to work yet because even mingling in public is hard
for me. Even the slightest decision - which television show to watch, what
cereal to eat - is overwhelming.
Carla Jo: All I want is forgiveness. I know Dad has forgiven me. I just
have to forgive myself.