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The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, August 8, 2001

Witnesses for the Prosecution

By Dorothy Rabinowitz
A member of the Journal's editorial board

Massachusetts prosecutors, bent on keeping Gerald Amirault behind bars despite the parole board's unanimous vote in favor of commutation, summoned local reporters to a last-resort meeting of sorts last Thursday. The commonwealth prosecutors had evidently come to the conclusion -- an indisputable one -- that their side of the Amirault case had not been faring well in the press. This state of affairs had come about, District Attorney Martha Coakley informed journalists, mainly because the Amiraults' victims had remained too much in the background.

Accordingly, the DA last week presented three former pupils -- now adults -- who told of terrifying crimes supposedly committed against them by Violet, Cheryl and Gerald Amirault at the Fells Acres Day School, and who voiced outrage at the possibility of Gerald's release. It was, all in all, an occasion guaranteed to attract coverage. Here, for the first time, the accusers spoke without cover of the anonymity in which they lived, protected, from the beginning of their involvement in this mid-1980s prosecution, down through the present.

Former Plaintiffs

Which is not to say that they had been silent. Over the years, as the nature of this prosecution became known to the world -- and as the charges connected to the case began crumbling -- the former plaintiffs had periodically emerged, to declare the truth of their claims, and to say that they lived in terror of the Amiraults. This they always did in disguise, their voices and faces altered for TV interviews. More often, plaintiffs' mothers showed up swaddled in concealing wigs, hats, and dark glasses.

The three accusers meeting the press last week were roughly four years old when they were first interrogated by investigators looking for disclosures about sexual assaults. One of the three was 21-year-old Brian Martinello, whose mother gave reporters a new and enlarged list of abuse symptoms she had noticed in her son 17 years ago -- details of how he had come home from Fells Acres with sores on his penis, stories about penises in his mouth, even before investigations began. All this, never mentioned at trial, must have come as news to those acquainted with the case, the Amiraults' trial prosecutors included.

Her son Brian declared Gerald Amirault guilty of disgusting crimes, and told reporters that it was "an absolute disgrace" to let such a person out of prison.

The investigators, who had so assiduously sought disclosures of the Amiraults' crimes, would have been greatly relieved of their burdens, back in the mid '80s, if they had encountered anything like such certitude when interrogating Brian Martinello at age four. An age, like that of most Fells Acres children, at which it was hard to figure out what the interrogators wanted them to say, what all the questioning was about, and what bad things in their school they were supposed to be afraid of. The boy would in due course learn, but his interview record shows -- he was interrogated eight times in three weeks -- that it was not easy going for investigators trying to build a case against the Amiraults.

"A bad guy called Steve" had taken them to Boston in a big black car, the child informed them. Also, "Miss Vi" (Violet Amirault) had made him eat a frog, the frog tasted like salad, and it went "quack-quack." Violet Amirault wore a wicked witch dress, he told interrogators while jumping up and down on their couch, and Miss Vi had scratched him with her fingernails and also stuck a knife inside him. At the end of the session, the record shows, the boy asked to have someone pin his junior police badge on.

Another of the former witnesses to come before the press, Phaedra Hopkins, had, as a child, continued to deny that anyone had molested her at Fells Acres. This denial, an interviewer notes, caused the child to be subjected to "much prodding" by her mother. The child, in time, obliged with stories about the bad things that had happened -- how she had been sitting in a classroom when one of the Amiraults came to put a fork in her vagina, while another teacher looked on, and more of the kind.

The most vocal of the former witnesses, Jennifer Bennett, wept and raged during the press conference, the Boston Globe relates. She told how, as a child, she had awakened screaming, thinking that her bed was on fire -- the punishment, with which, she said, Violet, Cheryl and Gerald Amirault had threatened her if she told about the attacks on her at Fells Acres.

In his 1988 Findings of Fact on the case, Judge Isaac Borenstein assessed the way in which Jennifer Bennett first came to give accusing testimony against the Amiraults. The way in which she was questioned stood, the Judge wrote, as "an example of one of the most blatant, unfair and unreliable treatments of a child by investigators." She had been subjected to parental pressure to disclose abuse, to suggestive, coercive interviews, and play therapy. Though young Jennifer adamantly denied any abuse, and there was no evidence of any, interviewer Susan Kelley met with the parents and told them the child needed psychiatric help, and that she had been molested. She told the child to come back if she wanted to talk about the clown. She treated the child's denials as though they had never taken place.

Interviewer Kelley employed peer pressure, the judge charged, by invoking her school friend A.J., who she said, knew all about the clown and the magic room and said that Jennifer knew about them too. When the child remained steadfast in her denials of abuse, and contradicted A.J., interviewer Kelley's answer was, "I believe her." A.J., she meant. When young Jennifer maintained that A.J. was the one who was lying, Susan Kelley responded by asking, " Why would she lie?"

The child was subjected to repeated questioning, in order, the judge noted, to get her to give the right answers. Four times the interviewer asked the girl if she had ever seen her little friend A.J. without clothes on. Four times Jennifer said no. Asked again, the child finally said yes, which answer brought an enthusiastic response from her interrogator, who exclaimed, "You did? Where?"

The answer was not the sort for which the interviewer hoped. She saw her friend without clothes, Jennifer explained, "When she had to go to the bathroom and she didn't know where the bathroom is and I bring her."

"Every trick in the book was used," Judge Borenstein declared, "to get the child to say what the investigators -- and eventually her parents -- wanted her to say, rather than to learn in a fair manner whether anything had actually happened to her." By the time of the defendants' trial, he said, her testimony had been suggested to her repeatedly. By this point -- she was now eight -- she had, the judge observed, "truly become a victim of the system."

The four victims of the system assembled in the DA's office last week long ago internalized the beliefs instilled in them at age four -- the nightmare images of torture, terror and sexual violation at the Amiraults' school. She had spent 15 years in therapy, Phaedra Hopkins told reporters last week.

"This family raped me, molested me, and totally ruined my life," declared Jennifer Bennett, who had said much the same when she appeared at Gerald's hearing, to oppose his commutation.

Vile Crimes

No one can miss, in the comments of the witnesses, the continuous references to the vile crimes alleged against the Amiraults -- against the terrifying Miss Vi, and Cheryl, along with Gerald. And still, the protesters had nothing to say when Cheryl was given her freedom. They had been brought to the DA's office, though, to oppose release for Gerald -- a measure of the prosecutors' desperate wish to hold on, at least, to the Amirault now presented -- in the DA's reconfiguration of events -- as chief and master criminal.

The former child witnesses appearing with District Attorney Coakley last week may, some day, possibly come to understand something of what actually happened to them -- and just who it was who ensured that they would look upon themselves, for the better part of their lives, as despoiled and hapless victims.

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