and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

The Wall Street Journal
May 15, 1996

The Children Behind the Glass

In March the former assistant manager of the Fells Acres Day School passed his 42nd birthday, an occasion unmarked by celebrations. Gerald Amirault has by now spent almost ten of his 42 years imprisoned for atrocious sex crimes allegedly committed in concert with his elderly mother and his sister--all participants, according to the prosecutors, in a family conspiracy to assault preschool children. In September, Gerald's now 72-year-old mother Violet Amirault--the closed school's former proprietor--and his sister Cheryl, 37, were released after eight years in prison when Massachusetts State Judge Robert A. Barton overturned their conviction. Gerald, tried separately, will have to depend on the decision of the state's Supreme Judicial Court, scheduled to take his case up early this fall, along with that of the Amirault women, whose reversal of conviction the state is appealing.

The day after the women were released a state prosecutor troubled to tell this page that he believed in the case against the Amiraults and that he was glad to be taking part in it. Former district attorney and now Attorney General of Massachusetts Scott Harshbarger, whose office prosecuted the Amiraults, has continued to offer assurances and proclamations that justice was done in the Fells Acres case. The Amiraults were serious child abusers, he has explained, and those saying otherwise were attempting, as Mr. Harshbarger put it, to smother the voices of the victim children and parents.

When the state sent Gerald Amirault to prison he left behind three children of his own, ages seven, six, and 22 months. The family now began a new existence revolving largely around the absent Gerald, a tumultuous life in which his wife Patricia, a schoolteacher, tried to make ends meet by working at three jobs. The eldest daughter, Gerralyn, now 17, recalls the first years of her father's imprisonment, when he sometimes brought a ball to the visiting room and played catch with her young brother. Those days, when she had seen her father run around the chairs having fun, she would leave the visit feeling happy and light-hearted--not the way it felt most of the time, saying goodbye. With the passing months she began to adjust to the chaos of the new life, the prison visits. The Amirault children accustomed themselves, as they had to, to everything--everything except daily traffic in a world which viewed their father as a monstrous criminal and tormentor of children, as he had been described for so long in the Boston press.

Gerald concluded, early in his imprisonment, that he could keep himself intact by concentrating on the present, rather than how he had come to be here--a useful resolve impossible to keep. Memories of the charges mounted against the Amiraults, beginning in 1984, are not easily repressed. Reported previously, those charges are worth repeating.

He had, it was alleged, plunged a butcher knife into the rectum of a four year old, which he had had great trouble removing, according to the prosecution's child witness--and, according to this witness, when Gerald told another teacher what he was doing with the knife, she simply warned him not to do it again. Nothing about this testimony prevented Gerald Amirault's conviction on the charge that he raped the child with a butcher knife--one which miraculously left no signs of injury. The same young witness produced testimony about a visit from a green and yellow and silver robot from "Star Wars," who bit her on the arm. There were charges of molestation in magic rooms by bad clowns, extracted by determined interviewers. The Amiraults had slaughtered bluebirds, child witnesses said, tied a naked boy to a tree while all the other teachers and children stood around watching. Violet Amirault allegedly assaulted a child anally with a stick while he stood up, and raped him with a "magic wand"--charges of which she was convicted. Gerald Amirault was sentenced, after a trial ending in 1986, to 30 to 40 years. A year later his mother and sister would be tried, convicted and given eight to 20 years.

After nearly eight years at the ancient Middlesex House of Detention, Gerald was transferred, in 1994, to the newly built Plymouth County Correctional Facility, not far from Plymouth Harbor. Here he spends much of the day reading in the unit established for prisoners in protective custody, most of them convicted of sex crimes. Frequent targets in prison, people charged with such crimes against children are at the lowest rung of the social ladder--the highest being reserved for those in for killing a policeman.

Gerald Amirault's section houses some 51 men. Here, securely separated from the rest of the inmate population, everyone wears a uniform of blinding orange, as opposed to the general population's indeterminate green. In this impeccably modern prison complete with air-conditioning, prisoners get up for breakfast delivered on trays beginning at 6:30. Afterward, Gerald watches the morning television news in the area immediately beyond the doorless 12-by-12 cubicle shared with three other inmates. His own corner of this world is a bunk bed sitting just at the edge of the open corridor: a bottom bunk, to be sure--one of the perquisites of a senior prisoner.

When Gerald's middle daughter, Katie, saw her father in the new prison for the first time, she cried bitterly. In the old prison closer to home they had all been able to visit several times a week and sit with one another. In Plymouth, which allows no contact with prisoners (to prevent the passing of drugs and other contraband), visitors and inmate talk via phone, through a glass wall. Gerald would give much to be back in Middlesex, decrepit and non-climate-controlled, but where, once or twice a week, he could hold the children and hug his wife. Here, the children recall, there were the bumps on the visiting room wall that their father had used to show them how tall they were growing.

The children's strong attachment to their father, obvious early, had its reasons. Wherever Gerald was, his wife notes, there the children were sure to be. When year-old Katie had trouble sleeping he would be the one to sit up rocking her. "Try letting her cry," Patricia Amirault would urge when the child woke up for the fifth time--directions Gerald invariably refused. Not for nothing did the children grow up adoring him. When he was brought to trial his daughters were just old enough to grasp the terror that had befallen the family. The youngest, P.J., knew nothing at 22 months. Long after Gerald had been taken away, the child continued to grow excited when the floorboard creaked--a sound he associated with Gerald--and to call for his father.

When the Fells Acres trials ended in convictions, and the TV cameras were gone, when the state's attorneys had finished celebrating their model prosecution (as the case was billed at the time) and Scott Harshbarger had won re-election--when it was all over the Amiraults were left holding on to one another, and what remained of life. And they lived--if with difficulty--brought up children, celebrated holidays and christenings and hope when they could find it. When the time came for them to receive Communion, the girls wore their white dresses to the prison, and P.J. his suit, so their father could see them and in this way, take part.

For most of their years on earth he had been shut away because the state prosecutors had found a case to build and had built it, on testimony whose manifestly incredible nature jurors were told to discount, in order that the war on child sex abuse could go forward. It is on the grounds of high moral principle, as well, that determined prosecutors let it be known a few weeks ago that they will be retrying Robert Kelly, the chief defendant in the notorious Little Rascals Nursery School case in North Carolina, whose conviction on similarly absurd charges of molestation was thrown out last year. It is on grounds of high principle, too, that prosecutors are now preparing their efforts to return Violet and Cheryl Amirault to prison, and to keep Gerald there.

Pondering what may come, Gerald lies awake in the small cubicle he considers quite spacious. In prison, he is by now a man of small expectations, and of fears of unspeakable depths, the central one of which is of years more to come looking at the children behind the glass.

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