The Fells Acres Nightmare

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from Mark Pendergrast, Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives (2nd edition), Upper Access Books, Hinesburg VT, 1996; pp. 374-378. It can be ordered by phone at 1-800-356-9315

Copyright © 1996 by Mark Pendergrast

But it was in the United States that the majority of the sex abuse hysteria cases occurred, and many innocent people remain in prison there.

In a case that was virtually forgotten when the first edition of "Victims of Memory" was published, three innocent people Gerald "Tooky" Amirault, now 41, his sister Cheryl LaFave, 37, and his mother, Violet Amirault, 71 were found guilty of horrendous sexual abuse and sentenced to prison in Massachusetts. Because I have become particularly well-acquainted with this situation, and another that relates to it, I hope I can help raise public awareness of these cases.

The Amiraults' troubles began one sunny spring day in 1984, when four-and-a-half-year-old Murray Caissie, a newcomer to the long-established Fells Acre Day Care Center in Malden, Massachusetts, wet himself during his nap. Deeply embarrassed, he was happy when Tooky changed his pants, cleaned him up, and provided him with alternate clothing kept on hand for such emergencies. Murray carried his wet underwear and pants home in a plastic bag. Nothing more was said of the incident.

Over the summer, Denise Caissie took Murray out of the day-care, but she wrote a note of thanks to Violet Amirault, asking her to hold a place for her son in the fall. All was not well in the Caissie household, however. Murray's father, an unemployed custodian with a violent temper, moved out in April of 1984, returned in October, then left again. Murray had always had a bed-wetting problem, but it worsened that spring. He began to imitate the baby-talk of his 16-month-old brother and to act up more often. One night when Murray was crying because he had trouble urinating, his mother told him how one of her brothers had been molested at camp and how Murray should tell her if anyone ever did that to him. The events that followed are unclear, because several conflicting versions were presented in court. What is undisputed is that on Sunday, September 2, the eve of Labor Day, Denise Caissie called a Department of Social Services (DSS) hotline complaining that a man named Tooky had taken her son to a "secret room" and molested him. It was almost exactly a year after Judy Johnson had sparked the McMartin case.

The following day, two Malden policemen came to the school to request a list of all the children. Violet Amirault sensed that the school, which had been her life for the last 20 years, was in jeopardy, and she protested angrily. "I'll have you people shut down," one of the policemen told her. And he did.

On Wednesday, September 5, two days before the birth of his third child, Tooky was arrested on rape charges, without anyone ever questioning him. A week later, the police summoned over a hundred parents to a meeting at the station. There, social workers passed out a laundry list of behavioral symptoms which they said might indicate sexual abuse -- bedwetting, nightmares, poor appetite, crying on the way to school -- and asked parents to report any such problems. Very quickly, about 40 cases surfaced. [FOOTNOTE: Frantic parents looking for symptoms also had a financial incentive: a $300,000-per-year-per-child insurance policy covered molested children at the day care. Eventually, 18 families would receive about $20 million collectively, over their lifetimes. Money has been a motivating factor in some cases because of Victims Assistance programs, a well-meaning source of funds for crime victims which has, unfortunately, been misused in false accusations of sexual abuse.] Of the children questioned, 19 eventually corroborated, after many sessions, that Miss Vi, Miss Cheryl, and Tooky had molested them in grotesque ways. (They also named most of the other teachers, as well as a mythical Mr. Gatt, but they were never arraigned.) Only nine of the most believable children testified in the trial.

The investigators had help. Prosecuting attorney Lawrence Hardoon traveled to California to talk to the McMartin trial team and came back full of information and ideas. Not so coincidentally, the children's allegations took on many of the same ritualistic, bizarre aspects. Like Ray Buckey, Tooky Amirault had supposedly dressed as a clown. Whereas the McMartin molesters had taken the children to tunnels underneath the school, Tooky had performed his sodomy, forced fellatio, and assorted other disgusting acts in a "magic room" hidden somewhere in the day-care center. Pediatric nurse Susan Kelley, who has published widely about the horrors of ritual abuse, conducted leading interviews with many of the children.

Like Kee MacFarlane in the McMartin case, Susan Kelley refused to take no for an answer. Here is a slightly edited excerpt from one interview, in which she used Bert and Ernie puppets:

Another exchange with a four-year-old shows how Susan Kelley jumped on any comment that might lead to a stereotyped accusation -- in this case, the notion that day care abusers took pornographic photos of naked children:

[FOOTNOTE: Susan Kelley's persistence and obvious belief that abuse had occurred isn't surprising, given her published remarks on the reality of satanic ritual abuse. In 1989, she wrote that ritualistic abuse was "often characterized by forced ingestion of human excrement, semen or blood; ceremonial killing of animals; threats of harm from supernatural powers; ingestion of drugs or magic potions'; and use of satanic songs, chants or symbols."]

In testimony before a grand jury, Denise Caissie asserted that Tooky had taken her son out of his classroom to this magic room every day. The evil Amirault also supposedly forced the boy to drink his own urine in front of his teachers, though none of the teachers witnessed such a thing; nor had they ever heard of a magic room, or remembered Tooky taking the child out of the classroom.

Judge Elizabeth Dolan presided over the 1986 trial, pioneering in an attempt to spare the children -- who were two to five at the time of the alleged abuse and now a year and a half older -- from normal confrontive courtroom procedures. The public was barred from the courtroom. Children were seated in little plastic chairs at a miniature table. To make herself less threatening, Dolan removed her black robes and perched on a small chair next to them. The children were positioned so that they did not have to see the accused, and their parents were allowed to sit just behind them to lend moral support. Rules against leading the witness went out the window for the children. When Hardoon asked the children if they had been abused, they often answered that they had not. With sufficiently pointed questions, however, they usually came around. Defense attorneys had to whisper objections. Judge Dolan routinely disallowed them.

The clear presumption was that the day-care providers were guilty, that these children had been so terrorized and abused that the leading questions were justified, and that to subject them to normal courtroom procedures would be to "retraumatize" them. It did not seem to occur to anyone that the children were being psychologically traumatized by the Department of Social Services, the police, and the court, and that they might sustain life-long psychic scars as a result.

Logic, in fact, had little to do with the trial. Children said that they had told their teachers they were going to a magic room, even though no teacher had heard of such a room. They told stories of attacks by a robot, being forced to eat a frog Miss Vi had killed, and being molested by clowns and lobsters. One boy told how he had been tied naked to a tree in the school yard in front of all the teachers and children. Though the teachers denied the incident, and no other child verified it, Amirault was found guilty of other offenses this child recounted -- how Tooky had raped him with a thick pointed stick which looked like a gun, for instance. [FOOTNOTE: During Tooky's trial, the boy asserted that he had been hung upside down from the tree and forced to eat white pills; at Vi and Cheryl's trial, however, he claimed to be right-side up and did not recall eating pills.] Even the accused man's nickname, which derived from the sound his mother made when she chucked him under the chin as an infant, came to sound sinister and revolting in Hardoon's mouth. "Yes, and what else did Tooky do to you?"

After a 13-day deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict. The following year, in a separate trial, his mother and sister were also convicted. For more than seven years, they have all languished in jail, losing subsequent appeals and repeatedly being denied parole.

Two days after Tooky Amirault's conviction, his lawyers discovered that Shirley Crawford, a 54-year-old juror, had not told the entire truth about her own background. When she was 14, she had been raped and testified at a trial which sent the rapist to prison for ten years. When confronted with this information, Crawford denied having any memory of the rape. She must have repressed it, she said. Judge Dolan believed her and refused to order a mistrial.

Amirault tries not to hold a grudge. "I don't blame the kids and parents. They were as much victims as we were," he told me from his jail cell. He is still bitter that the media coverage and the judge were so one-sided. "When the kids said 'No,' it meant 'Yes.' It was unbelievable. Talk about the deck being stacked against you. You're almost better off killing somebody, really committing a crime. This sex abuse stuff is like fighting ghosts. I just want people to know what really happened, not what was reported in the scandal sheets or the 'Boston Herald American.' I'd sit in the courtroom all day long, and we'd have a real good day in court. Then the paper would come out the next day, and I'd say, 'Wow, I can't believe this is the same trial I sat through.' Now when I read the newspaper, I only believe the sports pages; the scores and standings are probably accuČrate. I take everything else with a pound of salt."

For years, Violet Amirault and her daughter Cheryl LaFave were denied parole because they insisted on their innocence. The parole report for 71-year-old Violet read: "Parole denied. Vigorously denies the offense(s). Until such time as she is able to take responsibility for her crimes and engages in long term therapy to address the causative factors, she will remain a risk to the community if released." Fortunately, in 1995, in the wake of a public outcry fomented primarily by articles on Fells Acres by "Wall Street Journal" reporter Dorothy Rabinowitz, the mother and daughter were released from prison. They won an appeal based on their inability to face the accusing children in court.

Unfortunately, unlike his mother and sister, Gerald "Tooky" Amirault's appeal on the same issue went before Judge Elizabeth Dolan, who had presided over the original trial. Not surprisingly, she denied his appeal, stating in her decision: "The courtroom seating arrangement at issue reduced the risk of trauma to the child witnesses." In other words, Dolan continues to assume that abuse took place and that Amirault was guilty. He remains in prison.

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