The prosecution was alleging that a 13-year-old boy sexually
molested a group of children that were under his care while he was baby-sitting
them at a church. The abuse took place while their parents were praying in
church sometimes during Sunday services, sometimes it took place at night when
the parents went to church meetings and they left the kids in his care. Three
kids were actually mentioned in the indictment, but a total of 21 kids were
allegedly sexually abused by this boy, this 13-year-old boy, Bobby
What kind of evidence did they have to make that
The prosecution had had a trained interviewer interview the kids
on videotape as to what happened. They had the testimony of the kids and they
had the physical evidence. They were each brought in to the rape crisis
treatment center and there was, according to the physical experts who
testified, physical evidence that something had happened to these kids,
something sexually had happened to these kids.
As a reporter, what most affected you?
There was a tape that they played of a little girl..., very graphic, very
descriptive and very specific as to what Bobby allegedly had done to her.
Curiously enough, she was not mentioned in the indictment. Her testimony was
introduced under William's Rule, and that's a rule by which the prosecutors are
able, by law, to introduce other testimony that's related to the indictment
even though the testimony is not actually part of the indictment. It's to show
corroboration that the alleged, that the defendant had a pattern of doing this.
That, I remember the first time I saw that tape, I was like, well, why isn't
she mentioned in the indictment. I mean, this testimony was powerful. She was
so specific. She was so detailed and so graphic as to what he allegedly did to
her and I thought it was the most believable of all the videotapes and it was
curious that this child was not on the indictment, but I remember the battle to
show this tape in court and I remember the importance of the victory when the
prosecutors were given the OK by the judge to show this tape in court and the
impact that it had. I mean, that was chilling stuff, the stuff that was coming
out of this little girl's mouth, really chilling.
Graphically describing what had been done to
I think that was the strongest point of the prosecution's case.
The strongest part of the prosecution's case was that you actually heard from
the kids. That's what won Country Walk. Country Walk was won when those kids
went up to testify and then later on when Ileana [the wife] confessed on the
stand, but very powerful, very powerful stuff.
And those powerful elements nevertheless didn't convict
Well, you know what? You get what you pay for. Mel [Black] had
his parade of witnesses come in and these so-called experts who did a very
convincing job of convincing the jury that these kids made up these
allegations, that these were just made-up stories that were inspired by fairy
tales that their parents played for them on their VCR and that there was a
cross-pollenation of stories because the kids interacted with each other.
That's how the stories spread because one kid told another kid and that kid
told another one and that's why you had 21 victims, because the kids all hung
out with each other.
Why didn't that convince you?
I did. I believe that the stories became so exaggerated because
of that. I believe because the kids may have talked amongst themselves about
what was going on. I mean, who knows what kids talk about? It is possible
that that did happen, but I believe that the kids didn't know what was
happening to them. When you're four or five years old, you don't know that
much about sex. The reasons why I believe these stories were so outlandish
sometimes and you had these really wild tales, witches and zombies and animal
sacrifices because the kids didn't know how to relate to it. They didn't know
what was going on and I believe that maybe because they did talk to each other,
these wild stories came out, but I don't believe you can have 21 kids saying
that something happened that didn't really happen, you know, all of them
telling the same story.
The jury would later say if only you had told us that you
had not just these three, but six, eight, ten, 21 victims, we might have voted
another way. You all in the press knew that there were this many. That must
have been compelling.
Very compelling. The prosecution's strategy was keep it simple.
As it was, for three victims, we were in court for six months. Can you imagine
if they had introduced other victims in the case? We would have been there
forever. Country Walk took forever to prosecute. What about the McMartin
trial in California? How many years did that take? Wow. They didn't want us
to make the same mistakes that they made in McMartin. They wanted to get the
strongest, in their belief what the strongest cases were and present that to
the jury and have the verdict come from that.
In the five, six years, that have passed since that trial,
have you ever thought - what if Bobby Fijnje were truly innocent?
Yeah. I thought that during the whole trial. What if he really
is innocent? Terrible. Three years in the juvenile. He grew up in jail, for
the most part, in the juvenile detention center. What a horrible thing for his
family to have gone through. I don't know what Bobby did to those little
girls. But, again, I an 99.9% convinced that something happened. What and to
what extent I don't know.
Now, you were in Miami when the story broke?
I was working for Spanish language television, the Telemundo
affiliate. I remember the ominous promos, that ran on the local CBS affiliate.
It instantly grabbed your attention. It was like, 'Is there a devil in our
church?' You wanted to watch it. Just a riveting story. I mean, 21 kids
allegedly sexually molested in a church by a 13-year-old kid. Wow, what an
outrageous story that was! I think it gripped anybody who watched the report.
So as a reporter, you didn't cover it until you went
Until I got to Channel 10. My first job as a reporter was for
the ABC affiliate in Miami. I was green, 22 years old. The story was dumped in
my lap. I remember the story like it was yesterday because when it aired, it
had touched me emotionally. So I wanted it. I loved covering the court trials
and cases. The news director says, 'Well, we're committed to covering these
cases from beginning to end, so you're in for the long haul.' I said, OK. And
then it was mine and I ran with it. They... left me in court. That was
beneficial to me because I knew all the background and I knew all the
players... it served as background so that when something did happen, you had
all your facts.
And over the course of any story, but especially a story
like this, a reporter can get affected by the emotional power of what he or she
is reporting. When you're covering this, is there an opportunity to actually
hear the voices of the children?
Well, of course. That's what got to me. I think the story had a
big impact when you read the narrative of what allegedly happened. But it only
hit home when you actually got to listen to those little kids testifying on
videotape as to what they say happened. The first time I saw that first
videotape, I was chilled to the bone.
Where did you see it? In the trial?
No. The prosecutors forwarded a copy of the videotaped
testimony weeks before it was presented to the jury on the caveat that I could
not air the video until they were ready to present it to the jury. I aired the
tape the day before, I think, the day before it was played before the
You saw the tapes, and eventually the jury did, of these
very affecting interviews. But in this case, the defendant had the resources
to hire a hot-shot attorney.
The insurance company for the church financed the whole [Fijnje]
And so the defense that was mounted - did it become a
contest of experts?
The one that came to mind was a Dr. Gardner. I was given a tape
of one of his debriefing sessions to an alleged child victim of sexual abuse.
And I was just appalled by his method because many of the prosecutors and the
so-called interviewers in these cases - the ones who initially interviewed the
children - the main critique is that they ask leading questions that would
solicit that kind of a response from the child - 'Did he touch you?' instead
of, 'What happened?' They would ask them more specific questions and that might
solicit a very definite response. Well, if you can accuse the child
interviewer of being leading in the questions, well, Gardner - [who] blasted
these interviewers as being very leading with their question - then he was the
opposite. He scared the pants off these kids into denying that these things
ever happened. It was just incredible to see his debriefing techniques on that
one piece of video that I had. The thing that gets to me is that these guys are
hired guns. These people pay for their testimony and they've been published
and they're very well-known in their field. They come across as very
believable witnesses. That's not to say that his testimony didn't have any
merit or any weight. Maybe it did. But it's just amazing how much these
people make for their testimony and I don't know that he ever really
interviewed any of the kids in this case, so how could he make that kind of an
In the milieu of that courtroom and trial, was it
significant that Janet Reno showed up?
Oh, sure it was significant, absolutely. I had been a reporter
in Dade Country for three years and I had covered everything from a sensational
murder-for-hire trial... and I covered the trial which sparked the third or
fourth Miami riots. [And] it was only during those crisis situations that you
would ever see Janet Reno in an actual courtroom. So I knew that there was
something heavy going on.
Can you recall your memory of what the courtroom
was like awaiting the jury's verdict?
It was a packed house. I remember a lot if not all of the
parents of the kids in this case were in the courtroom. They were all huddled
together in prayer, as was the family and friends of Bobby Fijnje. Bobby had a
lot of support. Bobby had a lot of fellow baby-sitters who came and testified
on his behalf and friends of the family. I think the courtroom was packed
equally with the supporters for the Fijnje and supporters for the alleged
victims in this case.
I think the jury was given the case on a Friday afternoon. They
deliberated for three or four hours into the night. They were sequestered,
sent to the hotel...By noontime, [Saturday], I think, the verdict came down.
You could just feel the tension in the air. I know that sounds very cliche,
but you could really feel the tension in the air and the anticipation that
everyone was feeling at that moment.
To some degree, you were the main reporter there in the
trial phase of this story. How did you resist not taking sides, or coming at it
from one point of view or another?
It's very hard... But of course you have to stay objective, you
have to present both sides. The hard part is that especially during a trial
when the prosecution is presenting its case and the defense has not begun its
rebuttal and all you're saying is reiterating what the prosecution witness said
that day or what the allegations were that were coming out that day and you
don't have the other side to rebut, it's really hard to stay objective. You do
your attributions and you use the word allegedly every other time, but it's
very hard to do that.
But every reporter on every story has a gut
My gut feeling, Peter, was that something happened to those kids.
Of that, to this day, I have no doubt. I am certain that something happened to
those kids. Now whether everything that came out in trial and everything that
was released in the indictment - did all that happen? Did Bobby Fijnje do all
those terrible things? Was his father and sister and possibly his mother
involved? Were the kids taken away from their day care center at church into
some horrible mysterious haunted house/torture chamber? I don't know. I don't
think so. But did something happen to those kids? Yeah, something happened.
Something happened to freak those kids out. Of that I have no doubt.
Looking back does it say to you that our society as
represented by that jury, was unwilling to believe the children?
It's such a horrific crime. We look at what we're facing now
with the Kip Kinkels and the Paducah shootings, and we know what kids are
capable of doing. But back then, and it wasn't that long ago, the thought of a
13-year-old boy doing this to a group of pre-school kids makes your stomach
turn. You don't want to believe something that ugly can actually happen. I
think it's a natural human response not to want to believe it. I think that
Mel [Mel Black, defense attorney] was very successful at planting the seed of
doubt into the heads of the jury.
Bobby himself, this 13-year-old kid...was there anything
about him that was sympathetic?
Bobby was very sympathetic. Bobby looked like your typical boy
next door. You looked at Bobby, he was this tall, lanky, gangly kid, face of a
cherub. Wouldn't harm a fly, just by looking at him. So, I mean, appearances
can be very deceiving. It's very hard to stomach that something like this
could actually happen. I could totally put myself in the jury's shoes and see
why you wouldn't want to believe this. Now, did Bobby do everything he was
accused of doing? Probably not, no. Did he do something? I think so.
Do you remember anything about that report you filed?
I remembered a huge sense of accomplishment is what I remember.
I have to bring you back and let you know that I was very young. I was 22, 23
years old back then and even though the verdict came down the way it did,
feeling this huge sense of accomplishment and to some degree a relief that it
was over because I had dedicated six months to covering this trial. It was
affecting my life, it was affecting my day-to-day living. Personally I was
having fights with my girlfriend at the time because of the trial, I wasn't
sleeping, I was talking in my sleep. I mean, I was taking the story home with
me, literally, every day for six months the story went home with me.
A story like that doesn't leave you. Five or six years may have passed
since the story broke, but you don't really forget something like that and
every once in a while you'll get a flash and you'll remember something specific
about the story and you wonder - Gee, I wonder what she's up to? How old the
kids are, how the kids are coping and how they are psychologically with all
this? You wonder. You wonder what happened to everybody that you knew so well
for a good six, seven months out of your life, people you were used to seeing
almost every day.