On Labor Day 1984, 60-year-old Violet
Amirault--proprietor of the thriving Fells Acres Day School in
Malden, Mass.--received a call about a child abuse accusation
against her son. Two days later the police arrested 31-year-old
Gerald (who worked at Fells Acres) on charges of raping a
five-year-old boy, a new pupil.
In short order, the hideous crimes supposedly
committed by Gerald began to multiply--as did the number of the
accused. Soon, Violet Amirault herself and her newly married
26-year-old daughter, Cheryl, were also charged with having
perpetrated monstrous sexual crimes against children ages three
to five. Police asked the Amiraults no questions. Instead, they
summoned parents of Fells Acres children to a meeting at the
station house--where they were instructed to look for symptoms
of sex abuse.
Within three years, Gerald Amirault was
convicted of assault and rape of nine children. In a second
trial his mother and sister were convicted of roughly the same
crimes against four children. Gerald, sentenced to 30 to 40
years, has now been in prison since 1986. His mother, now 71,
and sister Cheryl, now 37, were given eight to 20 years. Both
have been imprisoned, at the Massachusetts Correctional
Institute at Framingham, for nearly eight years.
At the time of their sentencing, prosecutor
Lawrence Hardoon complained that the punishment was too light
for such crimes: and indeed, the prosecution had brought forth
some remarkable accusations against the Amiraults.
Children had supposedly been raped with
knives--which miraculously failed to leave any signs of wounding
or other injury--and sticks, and been assaulted by a clown
(allegedly Gerald) in a "magic room." Some children told--after
interrogations by investigators--of being forced to drink urine,
of watching the Amiraults slaughter blue birds, of meeting
robots with flashing lights. Violet Amirault was accused of
shoving a stick into the rectum of a child while he was standing
up, and of raping him with "a magic wand." Mrs. Amirault was
convicted of these charges. The child also testified he was tied
naked to a tree in the schoolyard, in front of all the teachers
and children, while "Miss Cheryl" cut the leg off a squirrel.
Who would have credited such witnesses, such
testimony? The Amirault family was charged in the midst of the
great wave of high-profile child abuse cases sweeping the
country in the 1980s--all of them magnets for ambitious
prosecutors. Among them was that of day-care worker Kelly
Michaels, reported on these pages. But the prime child abuse
extravaganza--and the one the Amirault prosecutors clearly took
for their model--was the now notorious McMartin Preschool case
in California, involving alleged abusers Ray Buckey and his
mother, sixtyish administrator Peggy McMartin Buckey.
True, there was a certain inimitable grandeur
to the McMartin epic, involving as it did claims of abuse in
underground tunnels, of molestation in hot air balloons, and
similar marvels. As recently as three years ago die-hard
believers among the plaintiff parents were still to be found at
the school site, faithfully conducting their searches for the
That the wave of spectacular child-abuse
trials emerged in the '80s was no accident. The passage in 1979
of the Mondale Act ensured a huge increase in funds for child
protection agencies and abuse investigators. With the outpouring
of government money came a huge increase in agencies and staffs,
which in turn begat investigations and accusations of child sex
abuse on a grand scale. An industry had been born.
Nowhere was the fervor of the search for
abuse more evident than in the case constructed against the
Amiraults. Her husband gone from the household, an impoverished
Violet Amirault had built her highly successful day care
center--in operation for 20 years--alone, and from nothing. Over
the years the school became her life, next to her children. It
was clear, when the sensational prosecutions began, that of the
thousands of children previously graduated from Fells Acres,
none had any stories of abuse to tell.
So the world was left with the state's
contention: that Mrs. Amirault, at the age of 60, had suddenly
taken to raping small children and terrorizing them into
silence. When her daughter, Cheryl, was married in 1983, all the
pupils and their parents were invited to the church--an event
that occasioned a front page picture of the "kindergarten
teacher with a hundred children" in the Boston Herald. Among
those children happily giving their teacher kisses were those
who some months later would be served up to tell of terrors
inflicted by Miss Cheryl, her mother and brother.
As soon as the accusations surfaced, the
school's teachers were grilled--but none could be found who saw
anything wrong going on at the school. One or two of them
disliked Violet, an exacting school head, but still they could
come up with nothing, frightened though they were by unsubtle
threats from the police, who repeatedly accused them of lying.
Still, the police investigators' effort to
find abuse testimony pales beside the surreal interrogations
conducted by such as pediatric nurse Susan Kelley, who developed
most of the children's allegations of abuse. Over and over, the
interviews show, the children say nothing happened, nobody took
their clothes off, they know nothing about a magic room or a bad
clown. But the interviewer persists. 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
The Fells Acres children were bribed with
gifts, assured that their little friends had already told about
the bad things and "helped so much." At one point the
interviewer tells a child that her friend Sara had said "the
clown had you girls take your clothes off in the magic room."
Child: "No, she's lying."
Nurse: "She's lying? Why would she lie about
something like that . . .?"
Child: "We didn't do that."
Next the interviewer tells the child, "I
really believed her [Sara] because she told me all about it, and
she even told me what the clown said."
Child: "What was it?"
No sane person reading the transcripts of
these interrogations can doubt the wholesale fabrications of
evidence on which this case was built. Nor could any reasonable
person who looked at the trial transcript doubt that three
innocent citizens were sent to prison on the basis of some of
the most fantastic claims ever presented to an American jury.
Forced to come up with motives, the
prosecutors hit on child pornography. With no evidence
whatsoever that the Amiraults had engaged in such crimes, the
Commonwealth brought forth a postal inspector Dunn to regale the
jury with detailed descriptions of child pornography. When the
Amirault women's appeal was refused, Justice Paul Liacos said,
in an eloquent dissent, "the court today condones the admission
in evidence of highly inflammatory and prejudicial evidence."
Clearly, the justice charged, the Commonwealth wanted the jury
to infer that because pornographers having no connection with
the defendants took pictures of children, so had the defendants.
The accused in the McMartin case are now
free. Kelly Michaels, too, now has her freedom--but for the
Amiraults, a far grimmer story from the outset, prospects remain
bleak. The thought of the whole family in prison, Cheryl says,
"is too much for any one of us to endure. I can't look into my
When the Amirault women were sentenced,
Prosecutor Hardoon announced that it was "impudent of them" to
continue maintaining their innocence. Nevertheless, after eight
years in prison they continue to do so--as does Gerald, in
Plymouth Correctional Facility. One parole board member told
Cheryl that until she confessed she'd be going nowhere. None of
the Amiraults are about to confess to what they have not done.
After the first time the women were refused
parole, the judge who presided over their trial decided they had
served enough time and issued an order to revise and revoke
their sentence. Agitated prosecutors succeeded in getting the
courts to overturn the revise-and-revoke order--a ruling
unprecedented in Massachusetts history. As in some crude
melodrama, the women, unaware and thankful to be going home
again, were stopped just before they got to the exit. Back they
went deeper into the system--to be refused parole again and
Scott Harshbarger, the district attorney
whose office prosecuted the Amiraults--and who ran for
re-election advertising that fact--is now attorney general of
Massachusetts. Some months after the Amiraults were all
convicted and in prison, Mr. Harshbarger presided over a
celebratory convocation on the Fells Acres case, billed as "a
model multidisciplinary response." Prosecutor Hardoon is now in
private practice--in a firm specializing in civil awards for sex
In Massachusetts armies of journalists from
the Boston Herald, the Boston Globe, and local TV followed this
prosecution and its preposterous evidence. Today only silence
reigns on the Amiraults and the great abuse trials that
occasioned so much fevered reporting. Not long ago a Boston
Globe editor dismissed a would-be contributor on the subject,
saying "I sent two reporters to cover the story at the time and
they said the Amiraults were weirdos."
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? As was true of the witch trials
of an earlier Massachusetts, this prosecution will, in time, be
the source of amazement and horror. In the meantime Violet
Amirault lies locked in prison along with her son and her
daughter, while the days and years of life slip past.