FALLS CHURCH, Va. (WUSA9) -- It was a child sex abuse scandal that ripped apart the city of Falls Church. A politically powerful man molested three of his daughter's friends during sleepovers at his house.
The girls are now going public and taking a stand to help others.
"It was disgusting. Something that should not have happened," said Caitlyn Knittig, 14. She was nine-years-old when she was molested by Michael Gardner. He was the Democratic Party leader in Falls Church and the husband of the former mayor.
She didn't tell anyone at first. "I was too scared and I didn't want to hurt my best friend," said Knittig.
Gardner molested two other girls the next night at his daughter's slumber party. Those two girls told their parents right away. Angela Garcia will never forget the moment her daughter Miranda told her what her friend's father did.
"I will always remember almost hitting the car next to me as I turned around to look at her," said Garcia.
Before this, "I had never let my daughter go to any non-family place for a sleepover. Ever. And with eight or nine other girls in the room, I would never have thought something like this could happen. So, even if you try to do everything right, this can happen," said Garcia.
DNA evidence collected from Miranda's pajamas was a direct match to Gardner and an important piece of evidence that helped lead to his conviction.
Still, there was doubt in the community that he really did it. Some just did not want to believe the girls or the jury. The atmosphere was so difficult, that the Knittigs moved to Arlington County.
"People just don't want to believe that this could happen. Especially friends and family and loved ones that are pedophiles. Nobody wants to believe that," said Jenni Knittig, Caitlyn's daughter.
Red "We Support the Girls" signs started appearing in yards around Falls Church. They were a public sign of support that had a huge positive impact on the victims and their families.
"First time we saw the signs we were literally bouncing up and down in our seats in the car. It meant everything. I had not seen my daughter smile like that in years," said Garcia.
The idea for the signs came from Rob Hof, a Falls Church father of two grown daughters who was angry at Gardner and the doubters. He wanted to do something to help.
"It was a public demonstration recognizing their bravery and courage," said Hof.
Now, Hof, the girls and their parents have turned the "We Support the Girls" message into action. They've created WeSupportTheGirls.org, a website filled with information for victims, and parents.
"I blamed myself for awhile. But then I realized he [Gardner] was the only one to blame," said Caitllyn.
"There's no shame in being attacked. You can get through this. It'll be hard, and it'll take time, but you can get through this," said Caitlyn.
Caitlyn did not know what to do when it happened to her.
She says children should be taught to scream and say, "No!" and to tell a responsible adult immediately if they're touched inappropriately or sexually abused.
The group plans to lobby Virginia lawmakers to pass legislation called "Erin's Law," which would require age-appropriate sex abuse education in schools. They say it will equip children with the knowledge so they can help protect themselves by screaming and shouting, and then by reporting the behavior.
The group is also putting together care packages and information for victims and families. They'll give the material to police to hand out when needed.
Michael Gardner's first conviction was thrown out, and he was set free, pending a new trial. Then, a bombshell. His niece came forward saying he had molested her as a child. During his retrial in September of 2015, he pleaded guilty and is serving a 20 year sentence.