Out in the Open

Satanic cult scandal that rocked a small Saskatchewan town in '92 continues to haunt the falsely accused

John Popowich was never convicted. He received both an official apology and a settlement for malicious prosecution. And yet, he says, none of that could fully wipe away the stain left by heinous — and false — accusations.

John Popowich’s life was forever altered by false accusations that he belonged to a Satanic cult

John Popowich received an official government apology and a $1.3 million settlement for malicious prosecution in the '92 Satanic child sex abuse case. Yet, the former police officer says, the heinous false accusations originally made against him will be 'associated with me until I go to my grave.' (Ben Shannon/CBC)
Listen23:40

John Popowich had only been to Martensville, Sask., once in his life. He stopped briefly in the town, a 20-minute drive north of Saskatoon, to buy a bag of chips and a can of pop.

But in the spring of 1992, a series of bizarre events would forever tie his name to Martensville.

Strange rumours of heinous violent crimes spread, alleging a local daycare was linked to a Satanic cult ritually abusing nearly 30 of the town's children.

The Satanic cult rumours turned out to be false. They were a part of the Satanic Panic, a wave of hysteria in the 1980s and '90s that included allegations of bizarre rituals, sexual abuse and sacrifices performed by secret Satanic cults across North America, sparking a wave of criminal investigations and prosecutions

Popowich, a police officer in Saskatoon at the time, had never heard of anything like this before.

"One day I asked the investigator how things were going out there. Little did I know that was going to bite me in the butt later on," he told Out in The Open  host, Piya Chattopadhyay.

"Because I had showed interest in the case, I became a suspect."

Popowich was one of over a dozen people facing a total of more than 100 charges, including unlawful confinement and sexual assault of a minor.

Ultimately, his charges were stayed when the children couldn't pick him out of three separate lineups.

Travis Sterling, the son of the family that ran the daycare, was convicted of two counts of sexual assault. He was the only person convicted in the Martensville case. 

There are some policemen that still think I'm guilty.- John Popowich

In the aftermath, Popowich launched a malicious prosecution lawsuit against the Justice Department. In 2002, the government agreed he had always been innocent, apologized and paid a $1.3 million settlement.

Popowich retired from the police force in 2006. But the fact that his name was cleared hasn't stopped the false accusations from trailing him, he told Chattopadhyay.

"There are some policemen that still think I'm guilty."

Here is part of their conversation.

On the interrogation

And so with all this swirling around you got called in for questioning, as you say ...

I wasn't called in. I was interrogated. I was hammered from one wall to the other. The polygraph operator used every technique he had learned and was successful with to try and break me. But when you're not guilty of anything … I mean, what are you going to say? 

Do you remember how you responded when they said, "We allege that you belong to some sort of Satanic cult?"

You got to be friggin' kidding me? What are you talking about? I know nothing about that! You know I've got a wife, I got two kids. I love my job. I'm part of the community. I coach ball and go to church — like, I'm a normal guy.

I'm sitting there in a room getting grilled [thinking], "What the hell's happening?" At one time I'm sitting there and thinking to myself, "Have I blacked out for a complete year? Like is there a year I can't account for in my life?" And then I said, "No, no, there's no way." It was bad.

You were a police officer, had an inside view of the system so to speak … it must be 'helluva' scary.

Oh, it is because I know what the system could do. How it can be manipulated to make you look guilty. Well, I deal in facts. I still deal in facts.

In June 2002, the Saskatchewan government settled out of court with John Popowich. Popowich was charged in 1992 with sexual assault in the Martensville child abuse investigation. He was acquitted at trial and launched a civil suit accusing authorities of malicious prosecution. This CBC News item originally aired on June 18, 2002. 2:24

On losing friendships and family connections

I imagine as much as you encircled yourself with the people you trust and loved, there must have been people who you were close to that you lost as a result of accusations … people who believed you were guilty.

It started with my own family.

Really?

In my family, we're made up of policemen. And if you're charged, you're guilty. So you try and rifle and chisel that through somebody's head who's been indoctrinated with the police mentality — pretty tough to handle.

Other guys I worked with, that I shot in competition with, you know, shared a beer and lots of laughs, lots of crying, [they] wouldn't talk to me. They were scared that if they were seen associating with me, they'd go down too.

John Popowich was stabbed in the eye with a broken bottle by assailants who believed he was guilty in the Martensville case - years after the charges were stayed. 0:35

On looking ahead to the future

Do you think it's possible something like this could happen again?

Yes.

And why do you think that?

Because people are human. They're going to come up with something different. Another buzz word will come up from something. You know, the police are going to be involved, the church will be involved and there's nothing stronger than, "Oh, if the church says this, God must say this."

It'll be around again. Hope to hell it's not in my lifetime.

It's incredible in a way. I mean that this entirely invented story – and those are the important words — invented story — could have such a profound and long-lasting effect on a person's life and of your family's lives, too.

Oh yeah. But it is what it is. I can't keep kicking that can down the road. "Oh, poor me, it happened to me." Well, it did happen. Suck it up. Let's move on.


With files from CBC News. This Q&A was edited for clarity and length. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Fighting Falsehoods."

'Hell to Pay': A Fifth Estate documentary on the Martensville case

The Martensville, Sask., scandal erupted in the first week of June 1992. Nine people, including police officers and private citizens, had been accused of bizarre satanic crimes. They were arrested and charged with sexual abuse of children. The case collapsed, however, and only one person was charged. This documentary about the case originally aired on The Fifth Estate on Feb. 12, 2003. 45:10

Clarifications

  • The audio version of this story has been updated to include a response from investigator Claudia Bryden, who we were not able to reach at the time of publication.
    Jan 29, 2020 12:40 PM ET

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