In initial interviews
the children claimed
nothing had happen-
ed, but persistent
included leading the
children to believe
they were only
Boston and Wentachee
|By Bill Capron|
The Amiraults’ Nightmare
On Labor Day, 1984, 60-year-old Violet Amirault, proprietor of the thriving Fells Acres Day School in Malden, Massachusetts, was told her son, 31-year-old Gerald, was being accused of raping a five-year-old boy, a new pupil at her school. Following a review by authorities, Gerald’s crimes multiplied, and Violet Amirault and her newly married 26-year-old daughter, Cheryl, were also charged with multiple monstrous sex acts against preschool children. Within three years Gerald had been convicted and sentenced to 30 to 40 years, and his mother and Cheryl were both given eight to 20 years. All three were serving their sentences (since 1986) at the time Rabinowitz’s first article appeared. The Amiraults’ case is just one of a number of high-profile child-abuse cases occurring in the wake of the Southern California McMartin day-school case. The shared modus operandi of these crimes is more reflective of the consistency of interrogation methods than consistency of perpetration.
Violet Amirault, a single mother, had built a successful day-care center in which she managed thousands of children over a 20-year period. According to prosecutors, at the age of 60 she began raping small children and then terrorizing them into silence. Despite subtle threats, however, police investigators were unable to develop a case from the testimony of teachers and staff to support the children’s “magic room” with flashing-eyed robots, where animals were sacrificed and children were raped.
The key testimony was developed by pediatric nurse, Susan Kelley. In initial interviews the children claimed nothing had happened, but persistent questioning, which included leading the children to believe they were only corroborating the claims of their classmates, eventually yielded confirmation. “In the world of these examiners, children are to be believed only when they say abuse took place. Otherwise, they are described as ‘not ready to disclose’,” states Rabinowitz. She goes on to say, “No sane person reading the transcripts of these interrogations can doubt the wholesale fabrication of evidence on which this case was built.” When forced to provide a motive, prosecutors charged child pornography, despite having no evidence. Throughout the trial, some parents remained unconvinced their children had been molested.
The Amiraults were front-page news, along with the ever increasing number of victims and tales of kiddie-porn videotapes - which never surfaced. They had entered a world where being accused meant being treated as a leper: They could not defend themselves against the testimony of children who must be believed and the awful visions of heinous crimes presented by the prosecutors and the media. The Amiraults’ lives and business were ruined by these unsubstantiatable accusations.
Upon sentencing, Prosecutor Hardoon announced it was “imprudent” of the Amiraults to continue to maintain their innocence - which they do to this day. At a later parole board hearing, a board member told Cheryl that until she confessed, she’d be going nowhere (As we will see in the Wenatchee cases, confessions by the innocent were a shortcut to injustice). After Violet and Cheryl were denied parole, the original trial judge issued an order revoking their sentence; but prosecutors overturned the order in a ruling which was unprecedented in Massachusetts history. The women were returned to prison just as they were about to leave. Harshbarger, the district attorney, was propelled to Attorney General of Massachusetts by the case, and prosecutor Hardoon practices in a firm specializing in civil awards for sex abuse.
“Can such a miscarriage of justice - if one can use so bland a term for so horrific a tragedy - be sustained by the will of state prosecutors?” asks Rabinowitz. “Violet Amirault lies locked in prison along with her son and her daughter, while the days and years of life slip past.”
The Amiraults were back in the news in 1995 as the key assumption - that children must be believed even when their testimony is incredible - was challenged. As newspaper headlines focused on debunked, overturned child sex-abuse cases, the Amirault prosecution team went on the defensive, claiming their case was different from the McMartin, Wee Care and Edenton cases. They fought against any release of the Amiraults. According to prosecutors, those who questioned their motives or methods were abandoning the child-victims. The juries and judges had spoken; to continue to question was to expose these real victims, the children and their families, to more pain and suffering.
Rabinowitz’s articles elicited letters to the editor from Hardoon and Harshbarger. Hardoon addressed the process: The Amiraults had been found guilty by two separate juries, and their cases had survived appeals. He called Rabinowitz’s portrayal of the testimony one-sided and superficial, finishing with “Justice was done.” Harshbarger called Rabinowitz’s articles an “ill-informed rehashing of allegations.” According to Harshbarger, if her views were to prevail, many child-abusers would go free. One instructive sentence from his letter stated, “... due to the type of crime we are dealing with, many times such additional evidence just doesn’t exist. We don’t just throw up our hands and let the abuser walk away in such cases, but that is what Ms. Rabinowitz would have us do.”
Whatever happened to the principle that it is better to free ten guilty men than to imprison one innocent man?
In a second letter, following a salvo from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial staff, Harshbarger reiterated that justice had been done. “The only miscarriage of justice occurring here is Ms. Rabinowitz’s misguided effort to orchestrate a media campaign that portrays the Amiraults as victims of a run-away justice system.” According to Harshbarger, readers were not presented the views of the real victims who, by reopening the wounds, were being forced to relive the pain of their tragedy. He described the appeals to Governor Weld to commute the Amiraults’ sentences as sanctimonious, comparing the Amiraults to John Wayne Gacy and Joel Steinberg.
Readers responded to Harshbarger’s assertion that “justice had been done” with letters to the editor headlined “The Amiraults got a trial, not justice.” In one letter, Tom Boman of Missouri stated, “I have read these appellate opinions. They fail to adequately address the real issue of this case - whether the children were unfairly coached into believing they were abused.” Boman called Harshbarger’s criticism self-serving, especially given the lack of physical evidence, pornographic videotapes, scars, impartial witnesses, and dead bodies [animal or otherwise].
In August 1995, Massachusetts State Judge Robert Barton overturned the convictions of Violet and Cheryl, finding they were denied a proper forum to confront their accusers. A Wall Street Journal editorial pointed an accusing finger at the 1979 Mondale Act which heavily increased funding for child-abuse investigators and made a cottage industry of child sex-abuse investigations and cases. “The public and juries are beginning to see how the child-interrogation techniques of zealous investigators can lead four- or five-year-olds to say anything the investigators want,” the Wall Street Journal stated.
Wenatchee - The Dark Side of the Law
We now have the Wenatchee child-abuse sex-rings and, unlike 1986 when we were more naive, we’d need blinders to claim ignorance.
In March of last year Wenatchee Pastor, Robert Roberson, and his wife, Connie, were arrested on charges of child abuse against their 4-year-old daughter, Rebekah, and another 11-year-old girl. In this small town, seemingly unnoticed by the outside world, 40 people have been arrested. Some have been charged with more than 2400 counts of child and sex abuse. Fifty children were placed in foster homes, inaccessible to defense attorneys and families, to undergo therapy. Of those arrested, 28 were imprisoned, and 11 are awaiting trial. Some plea-bargained or confessed because, they now say, of threats of a lifetime in prison and the loss of their children. The Robersons spent four months in jail before being released prior to their November trial.
The protagonist, Police Detective Robert Perez, is the sex-crimes investigator for the Wenatchee police. The chief accuser and witness is an 11-year-old girl, Detective Perez’s foster daughter. In what became known as the “Parade of Homes,” Perez, the girl and two child-care workers took a reconnaissance ride around town as Perez’s foster daughter pointed out abusers on the sidewalks and identified 22 sites where abuse allegedly occurred. Among these was the Roberson’s church. Throughout subsequent interrogations Detective Perez made no tapes of his interviews, and even destroyed his notes.
The mayor and police chief pointed to the terrible losses of the child victims, but are they the real victims? What of the accused?
During the pre-Roberson indictments and trials, a core of four accusers had described various heinous acts, including mass child-rape by large organized groups (i.e. sex rings) of adults. Among the accused was Robert Devereaux, a former businessman. He was, by all accounts, a committed foster parent, providing stability and support to more than 200 girls in Wenatchee. When Detective Perez arrested him in July, he was charged with hundreds of counts of child-rape and molestation, based on the confessions of one former foster daughter. This girl later recanted her story to a Mr. Glassen of Child Protective Services, confiding she had “told the police a lot of lies about Dad.” For his efforts to bring this recantation to the attention of his superiors, Glassen was arrested on grounds of tampering with a witness, immediately suspended from his job for misconduct, and finally fired. Glassen left the country rather than risk having Child Protective Services take away his 5-year-old child. Devereaux agreed to a plea for spanking a child and rendering criminal assistance (warning someone he might be arrested).
Kerri Knowles was imprisoned four months while her trial was postponed because of problems (fits of rage) with the chief witness, Detective Perez’s foster daughter. Prosecutor Roy Fore assured the press, “Recantation is not a concern for us.” Should we conclude that recantation by the prime witness is no reason to doubt the guilt of the accused?
Mark and Carol Doggett, devout Mormons, are each serving 11 years for regular sexual assaults on their children. But their oldest child, Sarah, 16, has been on the run from Child Protective Services since she appeared on television to denounce the charges against her parents. She talked of her encounter with therapists who sought to help her overcome her denial of her parents’ behavior, and raged at the “memory recovery” treatment given her small sisters.
The Robersons had monitored the arrests and kept records. Having seen so many others named over the previous months, they were not surprised by their arrest. Robert Roberson had publicly criticized the investigators’ tactics. Once in jail on one million dollars bail, Roberson was beaten regularly by other inmates after guards informed them he was a child molester.
In November, the Robersons came to trial. The investigation, previously conducted out of the view of a skeptical America, was held up before a nationally interested audience. Prior to the trial, the prosecution lost both of its prime witnesses; Perez’s foster daughter had a breakdown, and the other girl admitted to lying in another hearing. One of the remaining witnesses was a repeat sex offender who had struck a favorable deal for his testimony. During the trial, Perez admitted to two occasions of physical abuse against his foster daughter. The national press asked pointed questions about the sex-ring prosecutions, Detective Perez, the child witnesses and more. Wenatchee was under siege as a media war was waged on their community.
In one instructive comment, child-abuse investigator Karen Winston explained that taped interrogations of children are not used in the state of Washington because, “They don’t work for kids. They work against the kids.” The point was obvious: Taped interrogations leave a devastating record of leading questions and of therapists and interrogators putting words into children’s mouths. On using a sex offender as the prime witness, prosecutor Eric Biggar declared, “It takes a sex offender to catch a sex offender.” The implications of this inane statement are endless.
Of those accused in Wenatchee who could afford a lawyer, not one had gone to prison. The Robersons had come armed with attorney Robert Van Siclen, a Seattle lawyer who has won an acquittal in the first Wenatchee sex-ring trial. It took the jury less than five hours to unanimously acquit the Robersons. As one juror noted, “There was nothing to this case. Why did they bring this to trial? Here are all these people who had attended every church service for the past three or four years, who had never seen anything like what the prosecution was describing, and the prosecutors had never even talked to them.”
The Robersons are now reunited with their daughter Rebekah, but 19 Wenatchee residents are still in prison. These 19 will have the support of Roberson who has announced his intentions to continue seeking justice for the wrongfully accused. Pierce County Public Defender, Kathryn Lyon, has filed a 200-page Wenatchee Report with Governor Mike Lowry, strongly criticizing the prosecution and requesting the Governor have Attorney General Janet Reno investigate whether something went amiss in the state’s administration of these cases.
Why is this injustice so important? Because the innocent were found guilty; lives were ruined, even when the accused were found totally and unquestionably innocent; the ignorant were made to confess to crimes they did not commit; children who have never been abused will live their lives convinced they were, taking a first step into a lifetime of victimhood; and, lastly, well-intentioned psychotherapists, convinced they’ve done good, created victims on both sides of their manufactured crimes.
We in the skeptics community have read many articles on repressed and implanted memories. We tend to think such cases cannot survive challenges from either the courts or public opinion. But we are wrong. Wrong because we, like other people, think others must see things as we do - they don’t. As I read the articles from which the stories above are based I thought, “How could anyone believe this?” But juries have. And they have been supported by an unquestioning press, reporting to a credulous public. Lives were ruined based on tainted testimony. People have been jailed for uncommitted crimes, crimes so heinous that even when the accusations are proven baseless, these individuals will never again be trusted with children.
How can we prevent these injustices in the future? How can we mitigate the pain of all involved - even the false-accusers and their parents? Rabinowitz’s articles were an important first step. She shone a light into the dark recesses of child sex-abuse cases, exposing unfairness, the acceptance of accusations without credible proof, flawed evidence, the single-minded pursuit of guilt instead of truth, a kangaroo-court and a witch-trial mentality. This light has brought delayed justice for Violet Amirault, her daughter and the Robersons.
Horrifying to me is how police and prosecutors responded to previous setbacks: Don’t record the children’s interviews because, in the hands of a competent defense, they will be used against the prosecution. Unlike many cases where the prosecution attempts to bring a preponderance of supporting data, these child-abuse prosecutors decided less was more: Ignore (by not recording) the trail to the facts; and, instead, destroy the defense using pitiable child-witnesses equipped with only the memory imparted to them from a therapist. Child sex-abuse investigations demand to be conducted openly, so the jury knows all the facts. If the Wenatchee jury had seen tapes of all interviews and interrogations, would these individuals have been convicted?
When O. J. Simpson was set free, it broke my heart because I thought there was a preponderance of evidence that he was guilty. That one jury can walk away from hard evidence, while another can find guilt based on the softest testimonial evidence means there is a gigantic gap between justice and the judicial system. In Boston and Wenatchee, ignorance and credulity have destroyed lives. Sex-abuse cases like these happen all across America, off the beaten path, in the dark. We, as skeptics, must illuminate them whenever possible. We must preserve justice for the innocent.
On December 8th an Oregonian headline read, “Detective admits using force on girl.” According to the article, “An investigator [Bob Perez] of alleged sex-rings in the Wenatchee area admitted Thursday that he twice used violent physical force on his foster daughter, a key witness in the child sex-abuse trial of a Pentecostal preacher and his wife.”
A December 12th Wall Street Journal editorial stated, “The defense attorneys charged that the case against the Robersons was the creation of an unholy alliance of child-welfare workers, the police and prosecutors. It was an example, they said, of what could happen in a system in which advocacy had become more important than investigation. The jury clearly agreed.”
The Oregonian, December 12th, carried a story titled, “Roberson backers want detective, system put on trial.” The title is self-explanatory. In a December 14th editorial the Oregonian stated, “A growing body of evidence has begun to suggest that child witnesses are highly susceptible to influence, intentional or not, by caseworkers and investigators who question them. The Wenatchee cases underline the critical need for stronger standards of conduct and documentation by people who interview children in such cases. The implications of the Wenatchee cases go well beyond the borders of Washington’s Douglas County. The conduct of the authorities there undermines the legitimate and difficult efforts of other child-protection workers who pursue child-abuse and sexual-abuse cases elsewhere.”
Rabinowitz, in the December 29th Wall Street Journal, described
talk radio interviews where the prosecutors stated the Amiraults “very
skillfully manipulated the media” - from their prison cells! Again, Attorney
General Harshbarger maintained the Amiraults are guilty, and the children
are being further victimized. Rabinowitz detailed cross-examinations and
evidence that leads one to wonder how anyone could have been put in jail
based on such testimony. But from just such testimony Violet Amirault,
who attained the American dream by rising from rags to riches, has been
left penniless by assault tactics of the state.
Wall Street Journal. 1/30/95. Dorothy Rabinowitz. A darkness in Massachusetts.
Wall Street Journal. 2/24/95. Letters to the Editor: Laurence Hardoon, Boston, MA; Scott Harshbarger, Attorney General, MA.
Wall Street Journal. 3/27/95. Review & Outlook. The Amirault case.
Wall Street Journal. 5/12/95. Dorothy Rabinowitz. A darkness in Massachusetts, pt. III.
Wall Street Journal. 5/12/95. Letters to the Editor: Scott Harshbarger, Attorney General, MA.
Wall Street Journal. 6/20/95 - Letters to the Editor: George Chapman Singer, Burlington, VT; James D. Irvine, Rockford, MI; Sherry Levine, Huntington Beach, CA; Philip Wood, The Speed Press, Berkeley, CA; Joel Sanders, Montclair, NJ; Tom Boman, Glencoe, MO; Lloyd Martinson, Haddonfield, NJ.
Wall Street Journal. 8/30/95. Review & Outlook. Justice for the Amiraults.
Wall Street Journal. 9/1/95. Review & Outlook. And what about justice?
Oregonian. 9/17/95. Wenatchee: Sex-ring theory itself isn’t on trial.
Wall Street Journal. 9/29/95. Dorothy Rabinowitz. Wenatchee: A true story.
Wall Street Journal. 10/6/95. Review & Outlook. Wenatchee update.
Columbian. Editorial. Wenatchee needs look through federal glass.
Oregonian. 10/5/95. John Wiley. Lowry calls in feds on child sex rings.
Wall Street Journal. 10/13/95. Dorothy Rabinowitz. Wenatchee: A True Story, pt. II.
Wall Street Journal. 11/8/95. Dorothy Rabinowitz. Wenatchee: A true story, pt. III
Wall Street Journal. 11/27/95. Review & Outlook. A Wenatchee trial.
Wall Street Journal. 11/29/95. Paul-Noel Chretien. What the Wenatchee prosecutors should remember.
Oregonian. 12/8/95. Detective admits using force on girl.
Oregonian. 12/12/95. Pastor, wife cleared in sex trial.
Oregonian. 12/12/95. Robersons’ backers want detective, system put on trial.
Columbian. 12/12/95. Acquittals in child-sex trial.
Wall Street Journal. 12/12/95. Review & Outlook. Asides - Not guilty in Wenatchee.
Oregonian. 12/14/95. Editorial. Wenatchee witch hunt.
Wall Street Journal. 12/15/95. Dorothy Rabinowitz. Verdict in Wenatchee.
Wall Street Journal. 12/29/95. Dorothy Rabinowitz. The Amiraults: continued.
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