David McMahon hated the design of his classroom.
Located on the ground floor of the Pudong campus of the Shanghai French School, its almost floor-to-ceiling windows made him feel like he was “teaching in aquarium,” in the words of one of McMahon’s colleagues. Passersby couldn’t help but look in, and their attention would inevitably distract the kindergarteners inside.
But when, in 2013, he was accused of abusing several of his students, the windows suddenly seemed to McMahon and his defenders a saving grace – proof the claims being made against him could not have happened. How could he have molested multiple children over the course of months, his lawyers planned to ask in court, in full view of anyone walking through a heavily-trafficked area of the campus?
It was one of many strands of a defense that seemed relatively iron tight to McMahon and his fiancée Linnea, who said that while they were appalled and upset at the charges, they weren’t overly worried, figuring the truth would come out at trial.
“At the beginning it just seemed like this couldn’t possibly go any further, there wasn’t enough evidence, like how could this happen?” said Linnea, who requested to be identified only by her first name in order to protect her privacy.
But when McMahon’s case came to court, just one of McMahon’s witnesses was allowed to testify, and she was only permitted to speak to his character. Almost all the evidence put forward by his lawyers was summarily dismissed, court documents show, demonstrative of the difficulties defense teams often have in the Chinese justice system, where around 99% of prosecutions end in a guilty verdict.
On July 2, 2014, McMahon was found guilty of child molestation and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
To this day, McMahon maintains he is innocent of all charges against him, despite what supporters say is ongoing pressure from the Chinese authorities to sign a confession, which could bring a reduction in his sentence and better treatment while in prison.
No physical or forensic evidence was ever presented to tie McMahon to the crime, with the case relying solely on the testimony of very young children. Claims that their testimony may have been flawed were dismissed by the court, as was the suggestion testimony may have been inappropriately influenced by parents or police.
CNN has interviewed over a dozen people involved in the case, including former colleagues of McMahon’s and parents at the school where he taught, and reviewed Chinese and US court documents, witness statements, US State Department records, and communications sent by McMahon and his accusers ahead of the trial.
None of McMahon’s accusers responded to requests for comment. In a statement, the Lycée Français de Shanghai said it had “no comment to make.”
Prosecutors and police in Shanghai also did not respond. Previously, Chinese officials have stated that the country’s “judicial authorities handle cases involving criminals of different nationalities in accordance with law” and that “every criminal is equal in the application of the law.”
Since he was first arrested, McMahon’s family and friends have attempted to get US officials and lawmakers to lobby on his behalf, with little success. Media coverage has been limited to a handful of stories around the time he was charged, largely repeating what was put out by Shanghai prosecutors.
Thanks to years of work behind the scenes, however, this has gradually begun to change. McMahon’s case has recently been taken up by the James Foley Foundation, which advocates on behalf of Americans detained overseas.
In a statement to CNN, Executive Director Margaux Ewen said that “based on the evidence we’ve seen from many sources,” including FBI agents and US State Department officials, the Foundation believes “David is innocent of the charges against him.”
“We hope the United States government will be helpful in securing his release and repatriation home to the US,” Ewen said.
Rob Saale, a former FBI Special Agent and director of the US Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, who sits on the Foley Foundation’s advisory council, said that on examining the case “there were a number of factors that caused me to believe that David’s conviction was suspect.”
“What was most troubling was the process for the interviewing of the victims of the case,” Saale said, adding that “some of the allegations seemed far fetched,” and did not line up with other testimony or evidence.
One thing that everyone involved in the case agrees on is that there was a pedophile who abused two of McMahon’s students.
Over a year before McMahon was arrested, in November 2012, the mother of two of his students, twin 5-year-old girls, had come into class very upset, describing how she had walked in on the girls’ English tutor – an American called Hector Orjuela, Jr. – molesting one of them in the basement of the family home.
“It was shocking to all of us. The guy worked here two or three years ago. I knew him at work, but we didn’t socialize outside of work. I didn’t know him well, but he worked here for two years and a lot of people here remember him. Obviously, we had no idea he was a pedophile,” McMahon emailed his friend and former colleague Hannah Miller, shortly after speaking to the twins’ mother.
The woman had been angry at McMahon, believing he was a friend of Orjuela.
“She met the man while shopping and he mentioned that he used to work at the French School … and that he knew me,” McMahon wrote to Miller, who shared the email with CNN.
Interviewed by Chinese and US law enforcement, Orjuela confessed to having molested one of the twins and attempting to molest the other. During a search of his devices, police found large amounts of child pornography, including images which appeared to have been taken by Orjuela. He subsequently admitted to having abused a 7-year-old girl during a visit to Maryland in the summer of 2012.
Rather than prosecute Orjuela in Shanghai, the Chinese authorities chose to deport him to face trial in the US, where he was eventually convicted on multiple counts and sentenced to 30-years in prison.
The twins’ mother traveled to the US to testify against Orjuela, telling the court, “there are times when I would like to go to sleep and never wake up again so that I no longer have to see the suffering and the pain in the eyes of my daughters.”
McMahon was heartbroken for the girls, telling his colleague Roshni Ismail that “these kids went through such a tough time, they were so traumatized.”
The French School is a $15,000-a-year private academy spread across two campuses in Shanghai.
McMahon had joined in 2008, four years after he arrived in China from Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, where he’d been a high school teacher. While the 32-year-old didn’t volunteer for after school activities or extra work, he was adored by his students, according to two educators who worked alongside him.
“We used to tease him, because we would get off the bus and the kids would swarm around Dee, like a rockstar, trying to hug him,” Ismail said, using his nickname.
This made him a natural person for the twins to turn to for comfort and protection, she added, with McMahon fulfilling the role of caregiver during school hours.
But seeing her girls being close with another American man, one whom Orjuela had given as a reference, appears to have given the twins’ mother a deep sense of disquiet, and she would become suspicious of his motivations, her actions later show. Her concerns were echoed by the girls’ psychologist, who emailed the headmaster of the French School, Eric Veteau, on April 10, 2013, to warn that the twins had grown “too intimate” with McMahon, who was playing “the role of the mother” with them.
Veteau called McMahon and his supervisor, Laurent Delattre, in for a meeting, and told him not to hug the girls, court documents state. According to a description of the meeting McMahon gave to his friend Miller, he replied angrily that he never initiated hugs, but it was difficult to refuse a five-year-old, especially when they had been through trauma.
Linnea, McMahon’s then girlfriend and now wife, said he was left in a bind by the girls’ obvious need for comfort. “In some ways, if a child tries to hug you and you push them away, that could be a lot more traumatic for them,” she said.
Two days after the twins’ psychologist emailed Veteau, Diplomatic Security Service agents at the US Consulate requested McMahon come in for an interview. He thought the agents, who work under the State Department and in close cooperation with the FBI, wanted to talk about Orjuela, who was due to go on trial in the US.
But after about 30 minutes, the focus turned to McMahon. “(It) was a full on interrogation,” he wrote to Miller, several days later. “The guy says we must have been close because we were both Americans. I said he was ridiculous. He asked me about my sexual history, who I’d dated, how many women during that time. He asked me why I like to work with young kids, do they hug me, am I attracted to them, all this sh*t.”
A partially redacted record of the interview with McMahon, acquired via a freedom of information request, confirms his account, including that he was questioned about his sexual history, and what he “thought about pedophiles.”
Towards the end of the interview, McMahon told Miller, the DSS agent had told him to calm down, adding: “I just attacked you so I could see your reaction. There’s nothing to be upset about.”
But he was disturbed, writing that “an accusation alone is enough to ruin a person’s career.”
In response to a request for comment for this article, a State Department spokesperson said that “DSS works with foreign law enforcement partners on investigations that may involve or affect US citizens.”
“Due to law enforcement considerations, we cannot provide additional details on specific cases,” the spokesperson said, and declined to provide any specifics on why McMahon was interviewed or what cooperation may have taken place between DSS and Chinese police.
Under US law, Americans who commit child sex abuse overseas are guilty of a crime, regardless of where the acts occurred. But unlike in Orjuela’s case, seemingly no effort was made by DSS or any other American law enforcement body to seek McMahon’s prosecution or deportation to face trial in the US.
According to court documents, the twins’ mother, Clara, first spoke to one of her daughters about McMahon during a family holiday to Thailand in the spring of 2013, soon after the school had told him not to hug them.
Clara is not the woman’s real name. CNN is withholding a number of names in this story in order to protect the privacy of the children involved.
Her daughter told her “that she had been molested by Mr. Mac in the school,” the court said in a summary of witness statements from the family. On returning to Shanghai, Clara immediately contacted the police and raised the alarm to other parents in her daughters’ class.
On May 13, the day after Clara alerted the authorities, McMahon was picked up by police at the school and taken to pre-trial detention, where he would spend the next month before he was officially charged, as is the normal procedure in China.
Once there was a suggestion that McMahon as well as Orjuela could have preyed on the twins, “there was just mass hysteria,” Ismail said. “The parents started panicking, started rallying other people to ask their kids about Dee.”
The day McMahon was arrested, two other children came forward with accusations against McMahon, while on May 16, Clara’s second daughter lodged an accusation against him. Two other accusers would come forward during the investigation.
McMahon’s defenders believe Clara and other parents, traumatized by Orjuela’s crimes, were on high alert for any potential danger to their children, and this may have caused them to misinterpret normal behavior as predatory or to press their children to support their suspicions.
In an email sent to a group of parents on May 15 – seen by CNN – Paul, the father of one of the accusers, said “our child (told us) that it happened with many students … I strongly advise you to have a discussion with your child as soon as possible.”
Throughout May and June, the parents of the initial accusers urged others to question their children and testify against McMahon, according to texts and emails seen by CNN.
According to three former and one current member of staff at the Lycée Français, parents at the school had access to each other’s email addresses through a class mailing list, used for arranging field trips and other events. Many also knew each other both socially and professionally. In its verdict, the court also noted that the school, “briefed the parents about the situation through emails and parents’ meetings,” an understandable move that may have nevertheless played into the panic spreading through the community.
Brian Sullivan, a former employee, said the French community “was much tighter” than at other schools where he’d taught, and parents were “more close knit and more involved.”
In the email to parents, Paul wrote that McMahon “raged for many years in the school and it is urgent to know the extent of damage. I cannot remain silent, it is my duty as a parent to inform you.”
Neither Paul nor Clara responded to requests for comment.
On July 1, Paul’s wife texted another parent at the school, Katie, to say their son saw McMahon abusing her child, according to an exchange seen by CNN. On questioning, Katie’s son said nothing had happened, she wrote in a statement provided to McMahon’s defense team and shared with CNN.
During the trial, communication between parents was one of the key points McMahon’s legal team raised in his defense. McMahon’s lawyers argued that the parents may have influenced each other and their children’s testimony, sharing stories and suggesting potentially leading questions.
This argument was dismissed by the court, which said in its verdict “parents cannot be expected to remain silent and not contact other parents when they know there are other children who may have been molested.”
Of the more than 30 students Linnea said McMahon taught across two classes – homeroom and English – six came forward with accusations, while one testified to witnessing abuse. Most of the remaining children were not questioned by police, while those who were denied witnessing or suffering any molestation, according to court documents.
No forensic or physical evidence was introduced to tie McMahon to his alleged crimes. While this is not necessarily unusual in child molestation cases – due to the delay which often occurs between the crime and it being reported – it does put extra onus on witness testimony to be fully accurate.
In most jurisdictions, this can present a problem for prosecutors, as children, especially young ones, are known to be susceptible to making false or misleading testimony if they are questioned in a leading manner, such as being asked to confirm that they had the same experiences as another child, rather than being encouraged to describe something freely.
“For more than a century, there has been a question about the reliability of child testimony and this concern has centered around heightened suggestibility in children,” writes lawyer Wendy Koen in “The Psychology and Sociology of Wrongful Convictions.”
Koen uses as a case study the experience of John Stoll, who was convicted in California in 1985 on 17 counts of child molestation, based on the testimony of six children aged six to nine.
“Unaware of how suggestible children can be when interviewed incorrectly, social workers (had) pulled horrible stories of sexual abuse from all the children interviewed,” Koen writes, much of which was contradictory or not possible, but was effective in initially convicting Stoll.
Stoll’s conviction was finally overturned in 2004 after four of the witnesses, now adults, recanted and said they had been coerced into making false allegations.
According to a report by the California Innocence Project, which worked on Stoll’s case, recantation is often the only hope for exoneration in cases where a conviction is based solely on child testimony.
“Child sex abuse exonerations primarily involve fabricated crimes,” the report said, referencing a study by the National Registry of Exonerations and others. “The false accusations are by large produced by pressure on the children from relatives, police officers, or therapists; these accusations generally unravel when the witnesses recant.”
In their submission to the court, McMahon’s lawyers said video testimony played during the trial showed that witnesses appeared to have been “induced to make their statements and significantly modified their statements” in response to pressure from “their parents and/or investigators.”
The allegations themselves also raise questions.
Of the seven children who testified against McMahon, all described a similar situation: molestation of the genitals or buttocks, either in the “library” section of the classroom, or in front of the class after other children had been ordered to turn around.
In finding McMahon guilty, the court gave him an “aggravated” sentence on the grounds that “he molested a number of children in the presence of other people in public places including the classrooms in the school repeatedly over a long period of time.”
According to multiple former and current members of staff at the French School, the circumstances described in the witness testimony were extremely unlikely.
“Most of the classrooms had your regular-sized windows, his had these big windows,” said Ismail, McMahon’s former colleague. “David used to be so upset, saying I have these kids who struggle to pay attention and they just look at everyone walking by and get distracted.”
As for the library section, which the court focused on as a potential location where children could have been molested in private, “it’s not separated, it’s a little library corner where the kids sit in a circle,” she said.
Two former and one current member of staff confirmed these descriptions. “It was like teaching in an aquarium,” former colleague Brian Elkin said of the classroom.
Nor did McMahon teach any of his classes alone. There was always a Chinese or French co-teacher helping with the students, as well as caretakers who regularly came in to the class to help tidy up after lessons, three former colleagues said.
Sullivan said he split classes similarly to McMahon, teaching alongside French and Chinese colleagues, and that “in my classroom, if there was anything going wrong or going poorly, the students would definitely confide in the French teacher.”
CNN attempted to reach all the staff who taught classes with McMahon for this story. Lesley Murray, who worked alongside McMahon, said she did not believe any of the accusations; as did another teacher who requested anonymity as they still work at the school. Two others did not respond to interview requests.
While they were interviewed by police, McMahon’s lawyers were unable to call any of his co-teachers – Chinese or foreign – to testify at his trial. When this issue was raised during McMahon’s unsuccessful appeal, the court stated that his co-teacher sometimes “had to leave due to errands, thus Petitioner McMahon had the conditions to commit the crime.”
One fellow teacher did testify against McMahon, after her son said he witnessed abuse in the classroom. The teacher – who did not respond to a request for comment – said her son “told her that when Mr. Mac was molesting the children, neither the Chinese assistant nor the French teacher was there,” according to court documents.
Everyone interviewed by CNN agreed that the likelihood of multiple instances of abuse taking place in the classroom without being witnessed by another adult was highly unlikely.
Brian Elkin, who taught at the school during this period but has since left, said it was “always baffling to think that he was accused of some kind of molestation in the classroom, where he would have been in plain sight the whole time.”
“There was no privacy in these classrooms, there was a wall of windows, and we had Chinese staff and hall monitors walking in and out,” he said. “Even had he wanted to I don’t think he could have done.”
Saale, the former FBI agent and Foley Foundation advisor, said the idea that any abuser would have chosen the classroom as a place to molest children “struck me as highly unlikely and highly unusual that they would have been able to pull that off.”
At trial, the court dismissed concerns about the size or visibility of the classroom, saying “there was time and space for the defendant to commit the crime.”
CNN reached out to all the parents involved in McMahon’s case to request comment or an interview, but received no response. Speaking to French media at the time of McMahon’s arrest, an unidentified parent of a victim described the experience as a “living nightmare” and said their child was deeply traumatized.
In its verdict, the court said that “although some facts in the statements made by the victims were not corroborated, e.g. the facts that other students had been molested were not confirmed by the said students, we can neither say that the sexual assault has not existed nor indicate that the statements made by the victims that they had been molested are lies.”
Judges repeatedly dismissed concerns about testimony, or parents influencing what the children said, as suggestions that witnesses were lying or that there was a conspiracy to convict McMahon.
But in other cases involving testimony from children that has been proven to be false, witnesses fully believed what they were saying. In some cases of wrongful imprisonment, witnesses have stood by their stories, even after DNA or other evidence has exonerated the accused. In other instances, child witnesses have recanted years later when they reconsidered the case as adults.
Nor do parents who influence their children’s testimony, or even the police interviewing them, necessarily realize what they are doing is leading the child on or shaping what they say.
In one of the most notorious cases involving false allegations of child sex abuse, in the 1980s, staff at the McMartin Preschool in California were accused of a host of crimes ranging from sexual abuse to Satanic torture and animal murder, all based on interviews with alleged child victims.
The case eventually fell apart, becoming “one of the great judicial debacles in California history,” writes Richard Beck in “We Believe the Children,” his book on the trial.
Even as questions were raised over the testimony, Beck writes, “the most obviously coercive therapeutic interviews were often allowed to stand until research psychiatrists documented and quantified child suggestibility in controlled experiments.”
That research, which has been built upon considerably since the 1980s, has resulted in the creation of guidelines and best practices for how children are interviewed by police, psychologists and social workers, in order to try and avoid false testimony.
While McMahon was the only person prosecuted in his case, his lawyers argued that the accusations against him stemmed from Orjuela’s molestation of Clara’s twin girls. Both twins testified against McMahon, and the specifics of the abuse they described are almost identical to that which Orjuela confessed to inflicting upon them. The abuse described by the other children – molestation of the genitals and anus – also lined up with that committed by Orjuela.
In its verdict, the court said it did not accept “the opinion of the defense that the victims might have confused other criminals with the defendant.”
If, as McMahon’s defense argued, Orjuela’s crimes were transposed onto him amid what multiple interviewees said was an atmosphere of paranoia and distrust following the latter’s arrest, there are also indications that a full, McMartin-style panic almost took hold at the school.
“A lot of the male teachers were afraid for their own jobs and safety,” said the current member of staff at the Lycée Français.
One victim of this was Elkin, an American who taught a class two grades above McMahon’s. Elkin said that parents began to whisper “that I was in cahoots with him, it made it extremely uncomfortable at work.”
He was eventually moved to teaching an older grade, but soon left the school because of the hostile environment.
“The parents were all talking about me behind my back, ‘is he another one of them,’ it was like being under a microscope,” Elkin said. “There was a deep paranoia among the parents that there was some kind of ring, that he wasn’t working alone.”
While Elkin said “if there was going to be a witch hunt they’re not going to find anything on me,” he added that McMahon’s experience shook his confidence in the Chinese justice system.
Elkin’s ex-wife, Lesley Murray, also taught at the school during this time, and she said the accusations and the paranoia “really messed up” Elkin, prompting a breakdown that was “the beginning of the end of our marriage.”
“It messed all of us up,” she said. “But it was really hard for my husband because of the way he was treated.”
Following a three day trial in the summer of 2014, the Shanghai court found McMahon guilty. An appeal later that year was unsuccessful, as almost all such efforts are in China.
McMahon was sentenced to 12 years in prison, to run until May 12, 2025. He is serving that sentence in Qingpu Prison, one of the main detention centers for foreigners in China.
According to Linnea and two former prisoners who knew McMahon, since going to Qingpu, he has been pressured repeatedly to confess to his crime, despite already being found guilty.
“You have to swallow a lot of pride if you want to get out as early as possible,” said Daniel, a German man who was released from Qingpu in October 2020. He requested to use a pseudonym for privacy reasons.
“(McMahon) refuses to acknowledge his crime, refuses to give them anything that would count as proof that he is guilty,” he said. “They try to pressure you very hard into signing a letter where you confess, repent, every year you have to write this, and if you don’t, you don’t get any sentence reduction.”
McMahon has also refused to comply with many prison requirements, such as shaving or taking part in work, which has resulted in him being punished and sent to solitary, Daniel and Linnea said.
“He’s not following the rules, he gets punished a lot, they try to use everything in their power to make his life as miserable as possible,” Daniel said. “He lost his temper several times when he was mistreated, and they put him on medication, anxiety pills, sleeping pills.”
In response to a request for comment, the US Consulate in Shanghai said it was in “regular contact with David McMahon and is closely monitoring his case.”
“We are aware of Mr. McMahon’s health issues and are providing all appropriate consular services,” the statement said.
Daniel said that McMahon has gained weight in Qingpu – “it must be from the medication because it’s not like there’s a chance to eat a lot” – and has a long beard because he refuses to shave.
Linnea said her husband’s mental state has deteriorated significantly during his time in prison, and at times he has expressed suicidal thoughts. He also sometimes took his frustration out on her, blaming her for failing to get political or media attention for his case.
“All this pain and emotional trauma travels through me, and I often bear the brunt of Dee feeling angry or upset,” she said.
Linnea has not seen him for over 18 months, as in-person prison visits have been suspended since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Currently, all we have is phone calls, which are monitored, so I’m limited in what I can say to him,” she said. “I try to communicate what I am doing, but sometimes I have to say, ‘I can’t tell you everything that’s happening.’”
While McMahon has long expressed a desire for greater media coverage, Linnea said she was worried about how this article could impact how he is treated by the Chinese authorities.
Nor was she necessarily optimistic that publicity would be any help, she said, adding there have been a number of occasions over the years where a breakthrough in McMahon’s case appeared imminent, only to fall through.
“It’s been so long, it’s been really challenging,” Linnea said. “Back in 2013, I could never have expected it would go on this long. He just walked out of our apartment one day and he’s never come back.”