A few months after Violet and Cheryl
Amirault were imprisoned for committing, the State alleged,
barbarous sexual assaults on small children, the prosecutors
sponsored a seminar titled "The Fells Acres Day School
Case--A Model Multidisciplinary Response."
At this meeting, led by then-District
Attorney Scott Harshbarger (now attorney general of
Massachusetts), social service workers, therapists and other
State witnesses paid tribute to all who had brought the case
to its fruition. Sixty-three-year-old Violet Amirault,
proprietor of Fells Acres in Malden, Mass., and daughter
Cheryl had been sentenced in 1987 to eight to 20 years.
Tried separately, Gerald, Violet's son, received 30 to 40
Among the speakers at the convocation was
co-prosecutor Patricia Bernstein, who told how, thanks to a
sensitive and creative judge, the child plaintiffs had been
allowed to sit facing the jury, rather than the accused.
Other speakers pondered problems encountered in this model
case. Some Fells Acres parents, for instance--described as
being "in denial"--had refused to believe the charges.
Another expert spoke on physical evidence of abuse at Fells
Acres--a delicate issue, given the fact that the prosecutors
had been unable to produce any piece of such evidence. A
prosecution witness, this speaker (a pediatric gynecologist)
had provided one of the more memorable pieces of medical
testimony heard at Gerald Amirault's trial.
Testifying with regard to a child who
claimed that Gerald had penetrated her anally with a knife,
Dr. Jean Emans offered a supporting statement--namely that
an object could "touch the hymen on the way to trying to
find the anus" without penetrating the vagina. The object in
this instance was a butcher knife.
Informative as the district attorney's
seminar was, certain questions remained unanswered. The
State, for example, had charged only the Amiraults--though
child after child had named other teachers. Promised
rewards, children repeatedly offered details about how Miss
Anne Marie or Miss Joanne or Miss Carol had (along with the
Amiraults) assaulted them. The State had chosen, as the
theme of its sensational case, a story of a dark family
conspiracy. It was a story, clearly, in which other
teachers--family outsiders--had no place.
The case against the Amiraults began in
1984, when the parent of a five-year-old filed a complaint
of abuse against 31-year-old Gerald, father of two and
expecting a third. Employed at the school, Mr. Amirault had
changed the child's wet underpants, later delivered to the
pupil's house. The complaining parent, who said she had been
concerned with abuse because her brother had been molested
as a boy, would subsequently offer several different
versions of events. In the meantime, the first charge
brought a pile-on of others.
Following Gerald Amirault's arrest
without questioning, the Malden Police called a meeting.
Here, some 80 parents of Fells Acres students were
instructed to go home and question their children about a
magic room, a secret room and a clown. Not for nothing did
the word quickly spread among the children that Gerald
Amirault had done something bad and that it involved a magic
room and a clown.
Then and later, prosecutors would ask,
rhetorically, how so many children could all talk about a
magic room and the bad clown (allegedly Gerald) if the
charges were not true. The answer, of course, was to be
found in the continuous introduction of these subjects by
parents and investigators. The well traveled bad clown of
this case had already shown up in headline-making child
abuse trials across the country, as had the alleged
mutilated animals that surfaced here.
At the district attorney's seminar on
Fells Acres, Malden Police Inspector John Rivers revealed
perhaps more than he intended when he told the assemblage
that interviewing the children was "like getting blood from
a stone." But the children were not stones and so would, in
the end, yield to persuasion and "tell things." One child
said more than a dozen times in her interview that Gerald
Amirault had not touched her sexually.
Interviewer: "Did anybody touch Penny
[the child's friend] on her bum?"
Child: "Nobody. Nobody didn't do it."
Four more times the interviewer asks if
anybody touched the children--to which she gets the same
answer of "no," "no." Asked still again, the exhausted child
"Nobody didn't do it!"
In time, with subsequent interviews, the
child would finally say what the interrogator wanted her to
say. So was born another set of charges.
It was clear, after the first charge,
that nothing in the Amiraults' heretofore abundant and busy
existence would ever be the same. Someone twice fired
bullets into Gerald's house, one barely missing his wife,
Patricia, another lodging in the wall a few feet from their
infant son's crib. Violet Amirault's school was closed down
permanently before any of the Amiraults were tried, on the
grounds--according to the official ruling--that children had
been sexually molested in a magic room.
One month after the first accusation, a
Fells Acres parent put a lien on all of Violet's property
and that of Gerald. To get it lifted, Violet had to agree to
give the parent $50,000 in addition to a nearly $2 million
insurance settlement. The plaintiff families would receive a
collective total of more than $20 million. In addition to
money for their children, parents themselves received
settlements to compensate for what the legal papers
typically described as their child's being "unable to
perform his usual duties."
Still, money had little to do with the
passions driving the plaintiffs. What drove them--as was
true in all other such cases--was the faith of true
believers, instilled by investigators and abuse "experts."
According to this faith, the power of the abusers was
limitless, their cunning unimaginable. So did it become
possible to argue that 19 children could be raped by adults,
assaulted with knives, without injury, without anyone
telling or noticing.
It was in this era of belief that it was
possible to develop new and unique standards of justice such
as the one expressed in the Boston Globe by Fells Acres lead
prosecutor Lawrence Hardoon. Should not society, Mr. Hardoon
asked in 1992, be "willing to trade off a couple of
situations that are really unfair, in exchange for being
sure that hundreds of children are protected?"
Early in the development of the first
case (against Gerald), the prosecution let it be known that
it was seeking evidence of child pornography. Local
newspapers all trumpeted the news of 29 photos and a camera
"Seized"--as the headlines said--at the day school. The
pictures turned out to be routine--of birthday parties and
such. The prosecution conducted a fruitless nationwide
search for the Amiraults' alleged pornography. "Just because
no evidence of photographs was found," Mr. Hardoon recently
told this page, "doesn't mean that there were none."
Gerald's trial by jury was held before
Judge Elizabeth Dolan. In 1993, Judge Dolan would preside
over another notable Massachusetts case--that of 61-year-old
Ray and Shirley Souza, whose 24-year-old daughter had a
dream that her parents had raped her as a child. The mass
abuse trials involving nursery schools were now past. The
era of repressed memory syndrome had arrived. The Souzas'
pre-school-age grandchildren testified--after countless
interrogations by therapists--that their grandparents had
tied them in a cage in the basement, raped them with feet
and elbows and a big machine. Judge Dolan ruled that the
children's testimony was credible and sentenced the Souzas
(who had waived a jury trial) to serve nine to 15 years.
A few weeks ago, a well-known Boston
journalist who had covered Gerald Amirault's trial called to
say that he had been kept awake at night, eight years ago,
by the knowledge that Gerald Amirault was innocent. He had
been a reporter a long time. He knew, said the caller, the
difference between evidence and nonsense, and he knew, too,
that guilty men did not talk as Gerald did.
Otherwise, eight years ago and today,
local journalists held devoutly to the belief that some
terrible crimes must have been committed at Fells Acres--if
not all that the prosecutors said. It was difficult, indeed,
to grasp that such a case had been built on air--and that
nothing had happened to the children but the arrival of the
In turn, the psychologists in prison and
the parole board had difficulty grappling with the fact that
all the Amiraults continue affirming their innocence.
"Parole denied. Vigorously denies the offenses," said the
reports of the board members in 1992, when they concluded
that Violet Amirault remained a "risk to the community if
released." "Heinous crimes for which she takes no
responsibility," said the reports denying Cheryl's parole.
(Gerald has not yet come up for parole.)
By their failure to confess, former
prosecutor Hardoon has charged, the Amiraults have
"compounded the injury" done to the children and their
Why criminals so depraved and callous as
these are supposed to be would all these years decline to
shorten their terms by offering a confession is not a matter
on which the prosecutors offer any speculations. The
Amiraults in turn spend little time thinking about what they
could have by confessing themselves guilty of crimes never
dreamed of. Existence is too much of a daily struggle: but
at night there is time for Violet and Cheryl--and Gerald,
whom they have not seen these eight years--to lie in their
cells remembering the life that once was and is no more.