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interview: arthur cohen

He was Frank Fuster's appeals attorney from 1992 to 1995. He traveled to Honduras in 1994 and conducted the deposition in which Ileana recanted her damning trial testimony against her husband, Frank Fuster. Cohen recounts how the recantation happened, why he believed Ileana was telling the truth and his shock at hearing, not long after,that Ileana had suddenly repudiated her 60 page recantation in a one-page letter which Cohen doesn't believe she wrote. This interview was conducted in July 1998.

... When did it occur to you, and why did it occur to you that Ileana might turn again?

I don't want to use the words "turn again." But what happened was this: Frank Fuster's daughter Christine came to my office -- this is after I was representing Frank -- and she was very helpful in a lot of matters. She did a lot of legwork on the case, got me documents that I thought I was going to need, educated me on certain matters about the case, because she was pretty well versed in it.

And we began to talk about Ileana. I believe I had asked her, I said, "If I wanted to talk to Ileana, how would I go about it?" She indicated that she had been in contact with Ileana's mother, just to sort of keep tabs of where Ileana was and what was going on with her and various matters like this. So I said, "If I wanted to go see Ileana, would we be able to do it?" She said it would be very difficult, but maybe in speaking with Ileana's mother, she may be able to get through to her. I said, "Why don't you see if you can do that?"

Why did you want to speak to Ileana?

I wanted to talk to her to say, "Did this really happen?" I wanted not only for my own self-edification, but for Frank's case also. And under the rules here in Florida, what had been filed on Frank's behalf and what we were putting together, was ... a post-conviction relief motion. What you can do is you can go back after a conviction and file this motion and bring forth any new evidence or any matters that were not looked into at the time of trial.

So this was really our only way in the door -- to shed new evidence or new circumstances on the matter and attempt to convince the judge that, "Hey, we've got something of some substance here. Let us present it."...

[Did you have any idea what Ileana might tell you?]

No idea whatsoever at first, when we first looked into this. But to continue what happened, it finally came to pass that Ileana's mother had spoken with her, told her there was an attorney back here in the States that was representing Frank and looking into his case, attempting to get back into court, and he wants to speak to you about the case. She was very hesitant. And it started to bring back all of the bad memories.

After Frank was convicted, what had happened to Ileana?

She was sent to the Women's Detention Center in West Broward County, I believe it was, to serve her sentence. While she was in the Dade County jail, she was befriended by one of the guards there; I think her name was Shirley Blando.

I just asked her a few questions about the trial and what happened.  And as she got into it-- she started to tremble a little bit. Tears came down her eyes. And she told me. What I testified to at trial was not the truth.

In any event, she took a liking to Ileana, I guess for whatever reason; maybe she felt sorry for her or whatever. But she got Ileana hooked up with this church, this missionary that did work all over the world, and I believe Shirley Blando was active in it. So she would talk to her about the church and their work and what they did. And at some point in time, the church agreed to look after Ileana and basically take care of her throughout the term of her sentence. When I say that, I mean like spiritual. ...

Ileana serves part of her time and is released but isn't allowed to stay here in the United States.

No, she had to be deported. I mean, that is federal law; when you are a convicted felon and you are not a citizen of this country or you don't possess a green card, you are deported back to your homeland.

So she returned to Honduras. To her family, or--

What happened was this church and this missionary was active over in Honduras. They took her under their wing and she went into the missionary over there, and that is where she lived.

She wanted to go to college. I mean, she wanted to continue her education. She was a very bright young woman. And that is what she did. She went to school. She didn't have any money. Her mother certainly didn't have the means or the money at that time to send her to college. ... So the church said that they would pay for her schooling, which they did. And this went on for several years. ...

So what happened when you found Ileana?

I took two trips there. The first trip I went over, I was anticipating taking a statement from her, so I brought a court reporter with me. Flew into San Pedro Sula, which is the second-largest city in Honduras. Got there, went to the hotel, hadn't met Ileana, didn't know when I was going to meet her. I believe I went there on a weekend, might have left on a Thursday or a Friday. ... It was the night before [I left] in the hotel downstairs in the lobby and she came in with a girlfriend of hers. That was my first contact with Ileana.

And at that moment when you met her, did you have any idea what kind of statement you would get from her?

No. And I had to handle her with kid gloves, because I didn't want to come on too strong; I didn't want to scare her. At that point in time, I knew that I wasn't getting a statement from her. It was just too soon. So my purpose was to just introduce myself, let her know who I was, what I was doing, and what I would like to do.

We just socialized a little bit that first evening and just sort of felt each other out. I guess you could say [I] let her know that I was a real person, I was a decent person, that I am not there to harm her in any way or stir up any trouble for her. We left it at that that evening.

She agreed to come back the next morning and talk to me. But she didn't want to talk on the record. So I said, "Fine." She and I met. I remember the hotel we stayed at. It was a nice quaint hotel in the downtown area there. There was an open-air veranda upstairs, outside. She and I sat up there, just her and I, and we started to talk. I just asked her a few questions about the trial and what happened.

And as she got into it -- and I will never forget this -- she started to tremble a little bit. The tears came down her eyes. And she told me. She said, "What I testified to at trial was not the truth." I said, "What was the truth?" She said, "None of this happened. They made me say it. They came to me." That was when she started going into Janet Reno coming to visit her and her being naked in the jail cell; at nighttime, the lights not being turned off and how she was tortured. She just broke down, crying and crying. She said, "Excuse me, I apologize, but this is bringing back really bad memories. I thought I wouldn't have to think about this anymore." So it was very, very difficult for her, and I was very sympathetic for her. And I knew that there was no way I could push her at all. And I didn't.

She was concerned at the time that if she would decide or if she would agree to give me a formal sworn statement, she wanted to know if she was going to get into any trouble, number one. She wanted to know if she would be represented by legal counsel. And I told her, "I am sure when I get back to the States that I will be able to find an attorney for you pro bono, who will take the time necessary to make sure that your rights and interests are protected." So she said that would be fine. She was very adamant about that.

So the way we left it on that first trip was, "I'm not going to bother you, I'm not going to come here again unless you want me to. When you are ready to give me a statement if you so desire, I will be back." And that's the way we left it.

But it was a hugely important development.

Absolutely. When I left there, I knew that if she gave a statement and told what the truth really was that it would be a tremendous boost to the case, absolutely tremendous.

So did there come that time when she decided that she was ready to give a statement?

Yes.

What happened?

I can't recall exactly how much time went by, whether it was two or three months. I don't think it was any longer than three months. Word got back to me that she was ready to give a statement. So I said, "OK," and I made the appropriate arrangements, travel arrangements, got another court reporter, went back over there.

This time we went to Tegucigalpa, which is the capital of Honduras. School was in session, university was in session, and that is where Ileana went to college.

So my court reporter and I flew over there and again I believe it was going to be over a weekend. My concern was I had to have a notary or an attorney or someone over there in Honduras that could oversee this statement and notarize a document which would have to be in Spanish and English indicating that, yes, she was Ileana and she showed me identification and she gave this statement and the contents of the statement are true and correct.

Surprisingly, Ileana took care of that. Because I had asked her. I said, "I'm going to need a place to go." I didn't want to do it in my hotel room. There were no facilities at the hotel we were going to stay at to do this in. So she said, "I will find an attorney." So she did find the attorney and we went to his office ... and she gave us a statement.

Under questioning?

Yes. I know you've seen a copy of that statement and it is public record. It was filed in the case. I did some preliminary questions just to establish where we were and who we were and what we were doing. And I more or less asked her the types of questions where she could elaborate on the answer. My questions didn't call for yes or no answers.

And in the statement, did she essentially repeat what she had told you on your first trip to Honduras?

Yes.

That she had been locked away naked and alone, tormented in jail?

Yes.

Visited by Janet Reno several times, who personally undertook the matter of eliciting her testimony against her husband, Frank Fuster?

Yes. And then a lot of other stuff, too. She went into certain specific allegations of the trial that I had asked her about items that she had testified to. And she said, "No, it wasn't true, it didn't happen." She was very emotional again. Not quite as bad as the first time, but there were tears in her eyes and she was reliving this nightmare.

Did you believe her?

Absolutely.

Why?

First of all, I got to spend many hours with her. I am pretty good at reading people, and I could tell my reading of her was that number one, she was very sincere. Number two, she did not hesitate at any answers. And number three, she was really going out on a limb by doing this, because she really didn't have to do this.

I mean, she was back in Honduras, had been there for several years, did her time here in the States, was going to university, was going to graduate, and out of the clear blue sky here comes this attorney down from south Florida that is going to re-open this nightmare again. So she certainly wasn't getting anything from me or any type of promises from me, other than an attorney to represent her interests.

So I asked her. I said, "Why do you want to do this?" She said she wanted to clear her name. She was concerned and she wanted her good name restored. And she didn't want to be known as a child sexual abuser.

So it was a full recantation?

Absolutely. It was about 40 pages, if I recall.

And by the way, it wasn't just regarding her own participation in the alleged abuses, but regarding Frank as well, right?

Yes. Her statement contradicted every and all testimony at trial. ...

But how did you satisfy yourself that Ileana was telling the truth this time? Now she is saying, "No, none of this happened. Janet Reno and the others forced me to say it." Did you prove the truth of her statement?

Well, you can never be totally 100 percent satisfied. I mean, 99.99 [percent] maybe. I'm the type of person that I'm always going to leave a little room just for a little doubt. I think you have to. But again, I have spent considerable time with her and got to know her and her disposition, the way she answered my questions, the way I would pose a certain question to her and she was able to give an answer that disproved what she testified to back at trial with credence and with credibility. And in the back of my mind also was, you have to remember, what did she have to gain by doing this? ...

Were you able to corroborate [Janet Reno's late night visits to Ileana] in any way with either jail records or by interviewing any of the guards or by finding, talking to her counsel at the time?

There were no jail records of Ms. Reno's visits.

No jail records at all or none of Ms. Reno's visits?

None of Ms. Reno's visits, to my knowledge. Standard procedure when you go into any jail or prison -- and I've been in many of them, loads of them, all over this country -- is you have to sign in and you have to show ID, show your bar card, your license and you sign in on a log that they keep. And I believe that some point in time, I mean prior to when I got on the case, there was an investigation that the defense had done to see if they could find some records of Ms. Reno going into the jail. And either they were misplaced, destroyed or never existed. I don't know the answer to that. All I know is there are none. ...

So you now have just exactly what the defense attorney arguing the appeal for Frank Fuster needs: namely, a recanting by the principal and only star witness.

Yes.

So how did it work out?

I had to file a motion with the court. We had a brief hearing. [The judge] made a ruling, and said that I would be able to present this testimony in court and to find the most expeditious way to do it. A hearing date was sent.

And how would you do it? Bring Ileana into court?

What we were going to do is I was going to fly back over to Honduras with one of the prosecutors. We were going to do a live audio hook-up into the courtroom. The questions and answers would take place in Honduras, and I would have co-counsel in the courtroom in Dade County, as would the prosecutor's office.

Did Ileana give her testimony?

No.

No? Why?

About a week, maybe less, prior to the date that was set for the hearing, I get a phone call from a reporter at The Miami Herald who I never heard from before. The individual says, "Have you heard or seen, have you heard about the news and have you seen the letter in the Fuster case?" I said, "What are you talking about?" They said, "I have a letter here signed by Ileana, recanting her statement to you."

You can imagine; I almost fell out of my chair. I said, "I've got to see this. Can you fax it to me?" He said, "Sure." Within minutes, I had it. I sat there at my desk. It was typewritten. I believe it was one page, it may have been two, I can't recall. It wasn't that long, maybe four or five paragraphs or so. And the contents of this letter in brief -- that "What I told Mr. Cohen wasn't the truth, these things did in fact happen. He tricked me. I didn't know that all of this was going to be taken down by a court reporter." Outlandish stuff. And her signature was at the bottom.

And also I recall, I think it was the last paragraph, where she requested that I not bother her anymore, and I not have any further contact with her, and to basically leave her alone.

Now, by this time, the State Attorney Janet Reno is the attorney general of the United States?

Correct.

You had to wonder what had happened. Did you ask Ileana? What did you do?

I looked at the statement and I studied it. I studied it, because on my first reading of it, there were certain words in there that told me that these were not the words of Ileana. I spent enough time with this woman to learn the type of words she would use to describe certain events, certain actions, certain anything. And there were words in this statement that I am convinced now were not hers. I could tell. She wouldn't have used these particular words.

This is more legalistic than you would have expected?

Yes. Just words that were outside the realm of her vocabulary that she would use. And plus the fact that the statement is saying that I tricked her, and that she didn't know that the woman I had with me was a court reporter.

I mean, she knew it. The court reporter unpacked her suitcase with her tape recording machine and the tripod and put it on there. Everyone knew it was going to be taken down. And plus, I had a recording. And on the recording, I specifically state that I'm recording this statement and "Am I doing it with your knowledge and your consent?" "Yes."

So how do you explain this?

Well, first you've got to understand where it came from. A gentleman by the name of Tommy Watson, who was the pastor or the head person of the local missionary here in south Miami, went over to Honduras, physically went over, got on a plane and went over to Honduras and met with Ileana. He is the one who came back with this statement and he is the one who sent it to The Miami Herald and former prosecutors.

What went on over there in Honduras between Rev. Watson and Ileana and her family and whoever else was involved, I couldn't tell you. I mean, I can speculate, as many of us could speculate, what may have happened. But I have no proof of any promises that were made to her. I have no proof of any threats that may have been made to her. I have no proof of anything. And that was my problem.

I had to go back into court, totally devastated of what had transpired. We had come this close to that hearing, a matter of a few days. And this happened. During the hearing, the judge asked me, "Other than this statement, what else do you have to offer?" I had to answer, "Nothing." I mean, I had nothing. I had nothing else now regarding Ileana's recantation. The judge still left the door open for me though, and said, "At this time, we are going to cancel the hearing. There will not be a hearing. If in fact anything changes in the next couple of weeks, let me know." She also instructed me, on the record, not to try to contact Ileana. I agreed. And that was it.

It had to be devastating.

It was.

Rev. Tommy Watson -- was he associated with this church, with the religious circle that had befriend Ileana down here?

Yes.

And had arranged for her well being back in Honduras?

Yes. ...

Had you known of Tommy Watson? Is he a prominent figure in south Florida?

No. I had never heard of the man before, and I had no idea who he was until this came to light. ...

So the hearing is cancelled. You are given a couple of weeks if the door is open. But nothing happened in that couple of weeks, right?

That is correct.

And ultimately, you withdrew from the case?

Yes.

And Frank got a new lawyer?

Yes.

Has Ileana yet made a new statement?

No.

So the statement, her one recantation of her testimony is that 40-page statement that you took in Honduras and is still part of the public record?

That is correct. ...

Let me just see. What we have here is children whose testimony was elicited through this very suspect process. You have some possibly bogus physical evidence in terms of this faulty test. You have Ileana, who has been persuaded through dubious means to become the prosecution's witness; testimony which she later recants, although she does recant her recantation. When the judge looks at you and says, "Do you have nothing else?" You did have plenty else, it seemed to me, did you not?

But you've got to understand, at this stage of the legal proceedings, you can't retry the case again on every issue. You can only come back with new evidence. And that's what makes it difficult. If in a trial you have got an individual or certain testimony or physical evidence that is brought forth and a police officer is up there testifying to what he observed and here is the gun and here is this and here is that, you can't just go back and retry those issues again. You've got to have--

New evidence--

New evidence that, at the time of the trial, your defense counsel was unaware of, and also could not, through due diligence, have found out about this potential evidence. Those are two key things that you have to show also.

That is precisely why Ileana's testimony was so valuable to you.

Right. Because no one knew about it back then. This was a total recantation. So it's considered new evidence. ...

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