A famed folk singer won a presidential pardon after molesting a child. Did he prey on others?
Gillian Brockell, The Washington Post, May 17, 2021
No one from the government notified Barbara Winter about the pardon. Not the White House, not the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, not the prosecutor who handled her case. She found out from her mother, who read in the newspaper that one of the country’s most famous folk singers, who had admitted to and been convicted of molesting her when she was barely 14, had been pardoned by President Jimmy Carter on his final full day in office in 1981. Winter says now, “It’s telling him, ‘It’s okay what you did, just don’t get caught next time’.”
This pardon by Carter — perhaps the only one in U.S. history wiping away a conviction for a sexual offense against a child — escaped scrutiny when it happened. It was granted just hours before the American hostages in Iran were freed, which captured headlines for weeks. The Washington Post didn’t write about the pardon until Feb. 7, 1981. Even then, it was buried in the back of the Metro section, and only seemed notable because of who the recipient was: renowned folk singer Peter Yarrow of the group Peter, Paul and Mary, who co-wrote the beloved children’s song, “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Yarrow’s crime was mostly forgotten after he served less than three months in jail.
Forty years after Carter’s pardon, another woman stepped forward with an accusation of her own. In a lawsuit filed in New York on Feb. 24, 2021, she alleged that Yarrow lured her to a Manhattan hotel when she was a minor in 1969 and raped her.
The first time Yarrow publicly apologized for assaulting Winter, he did not include her in the list of people to whom he was sorry. The day he was sentenced for taking indecent liberties with a child, he said, “I am deeply sorry. I have hurt myself deeply. I hurt my wife and the people who love me. It was the worst mistake I have ever made.”
Yarrow turns 83 this month. Born and raised in New York City, Yarrow assembled his folk trio with Mary Travers and Noel Paul Stookey in 1961. Their first album, released in 1962, sold more than 2 million copies. “Puff the Magic Dragon,” which Yarrow wrote based on a college acquaintance’s poem, became a hit single in 1963. The politically active trio sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the 1963 March on Washington. By the time of the incident with Winter, Yarrow was engaged to Mary Beth McCarthy, the niece of Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
Winter was not a fan of Peter, Paul and Mary. But her eldest sister was the president of Washington’s Peter Yarrow fan club. On Aug. 31, 1969, their mother dropped the girls off at church, Winter said. But instead of staying for the service, her sister, then 17, invited her to meet Yarrow, who was in the nation’s capital for a series of concerts at the Carter Barron Amphitheater. They walked several blocks to the Shoreham Hotel (now the Omni Shoreham Hotel) and called his room from the lobby. He invited them upstairs. In the sworn statement she gave to police more than 50 years ago, the 14-year-old Winter said that when she and her sister arrived at his hotel room door, he was nude. Within minutes, she told police, Yarrow made her masturbate him until he ejaculated. “I can’t say for sure [what happened],” Winter’s sister, Kathie Berkel, said in a phone interview, “because I wasn’t in the room … she was in the room by herself with him for five minutes, and I was right outside.”
Winter told police she resisted but did not shout or try to escape the hotel room. “It happened when I was just an innocent child,” Winter says now. “I didn’t know anything. I was just a little girl.” She was terrified afterward, she said, and Yarrow told her “not to tell anybody except for, because I was a Catholic, I could tell the priest in confession.” Winter kept the secret for six months before she confided in a friend in the spring of 1970. Soon afterward, Winter’s mother and stepfather sat her down at the dining room table and asked her what had happened with Yarrow. Her mother called the police.
Before he was indicted by a grand jury, Yarrow pleaded guilty to taking “immoral and improper liberties” with a child, which carried a sentence of up to 10 years. At a hearing, Yarrow contended Winter was a willing participant — a claim she denied then and continues to deny now. The judge also took issue with the claim, rereading aloud Winter’s statement that she had resisted. At his sentencing in September 1970, Yarrow’s attorney argued “the sisters were ‘groupies’,” according to a United Press International report. He told the judge Yarrow had been seeing a psychiatrist since 1964 and that his condition had improved since marrying, and that after this, Yarrow’s career was clearly finished.
The judge sentenced him to one-to-three years in prison but suspended all of it save for three months. On Nov. 25, 1970, Yarrow was released three days early so he could be home in time for Thanksgiving.
Before Yarrow was sentenced, Winter’s mother had filed a $1.25 million lawsuit against him, alleging that not only had there been other incidents of abuse between Yarrow and Winter but that Yarrow had also seduced her eldest daughter into performing indecent acts over a four-year period starting when she was 14. Yarrow had encouraged her to run away from her home when she was still a minor and join him in New York, the lawsuit alleged.Berkel calls these allegations “lies.” “He’s a very nice man, very intelligent,” said Berkel, now 69. “He had a problem. He went and got help with it. He moved on. I would love to see everyone else move on too.” Winter confirmed her mother’s claim that while the hotel incident was the worst incident, it was not the only one. In the six-month period before she told her mother what had happened, she saw Yarrow with her sister several more times, during which Yarrow held her close to his body and placed her hand over his clothed genitals, she said.
The other teenager had seen Peter, Paul and Mary perform throughout her childhood and had met members of the band before. “Yarrow acted in a way [the girl] perceived as paternal toward her,” her lawsuit alleged. “In fact, he was grooming her.” The suit was filed on Feb. 24, 2021, in New York, where the state’s 2019 Child Victims Act granted a one-year window for children who’d suffered abuse to sue their alleged attackers no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. The window was later extended to two years because of the pandemic. According to the lawsuit, the girl ran away from her home in St. Paul, Minn., in 1969 when she was still a minor. She went to New York, where Yarrow told her to meet him at a hotel. When she arrived, he brought her up to a room and raped her, the lawsuit said. The next morning, he bought her a plane ticket back to St. Paul and told her to go home. The lawsuit alleged that Travers and Stookey “knew that Yarrow liked to have sexual intercourse with and perform other sex acts on minor children.” “This is all a surprise to me,” Stookey told The Post. “It’s not in his character. If anything he’s over solicitous in making people comfortable.” The woman reached a settlement with Yarrow and the band in April.
At Yarrow’s 1970 sentencing, his lawyer claimed the folk singer’s career was ruined. But within two years, he and the band were singing on the campaign trail for South Dakota Sen. George McGovern’s (D) failed presidential bid. Throughout the 1970s, Yarrow performed at celebrity-studded events for the Equal Rights Amendment, nuclear disarmament and abolition of the death penalty. He released four solo albums and produced CBS children’s specials based on “Puff the Magic Dragon.” In an interview promoting the cartoon, there were no questions about his conviction, but he did tell the press, “It’s a sad day when the innocence of childhood departs, and this is what Puff represents to me.”
Yarrow and his wife had two children before separating around 1979. They divorced in 1991. It was concern for his children that Yarrow cited in seeking a pardon, according to the pardon application quoted by The Post in 1981. They were coming of age, he said, and he wanted to lessen “the sense of shame they will inevitably feel” by knowing “society had forgiven their father.”
The application included letters of recommendation from McGovern and former New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay (D). Both men are now dead.
Yarrow told the Baltimore Jewish Times in 2006: “In Washington, it was considered a felony. In New York, it would have been a class B misdemeanor.”
In a phone interview with The Post, McCarthy Yarrow said she had no involvement in the pardon application. “But I support it,” she said, “and I’m in favor of a person like Peter deserving a pardon.” He “made a mistake.”
Over the years, Yarrow was occasionally asked about his molestation conviction. He always pointed to Carter’s pardon as evidence that he’d earned forgiveness. “With the mean-spiritedness of our time, it gets hauled out as if it’s relevant,” he told the Baltimore Jewish Times in 2006. “You don’t get a presidential pardon if you’re not doing great work, have paid your debts to society.”
Then the #MeToo movement began. In 2019, Yarrow was set to headline a folk festival in Upstate New York when his crime was brought up. His appearance was canceled, and he told the New York Times, “I fully support the current movements demanding equal rights for all and refusing to allow continued abuse and injury — most particularly of a sexual nature.” Yarrow has always discussed his crime as a singular incident: “the worst mistake I have ever made.”
Yarrow, through his attorney, declined to answer a question about whether there were other victims. But the lawsuit filed by Winter’s mother alleged both her daughters were sexually abused by Yarrow. The 2021 lawsuit accused him of raping another teenage girl the same year he molested Winter. And more than 50 years ago, when the Cincinnati Enquirer published a wire story about Yarrow’s 1970 sentencing, the newspaper added this at the end: “A similar charge against Yarrow in Cincinnati was ignored about three years ago by a Hamilton County grand jury. The father of a 15-year-old girl had signed a complaint charging Yarrow took indecent liberties with his daughter when the singer appeared at the Music Hall October 27, 1967.” (Cincinnati Enquirer, Sept. 15, 1970)
Barbara Winter said she’s always had a difficult relationship with her eldest sister, and they are now estranged. In 2012, she learned her sister was still in contact with Yarrow and had brought her granddaughter to meet him.