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A Summary of the Frank Fuster Country Walk Case

In 1984, Frank and Ileana Fuster were accused of sexually molesting numerous children who were cared for by Ileana in their home in the Country Walk section of Miami. The abuse case started when a 3-year-old boy asked his mother to "kiss my body" when she was giving him a bath. He said, "Ileana kisses all the babies' bodies." The mother became concerned and reported the comments to the Dade County child protection authorities.

The Fusters were arrested in August 1984. Both denied the charges. Frank Fuster, a 35-year-old Cuban immigrant, had previously been convicted for a 1969 manslaughter (he served four years) and for fondling a 9-year-old (he was placed on probation).

More than 20 children ultimately reported being raped and molested by Frank and Ileana. Janet Reno was then the state attorney in Dade County. Her office built its case against the Fusters based on the testimony of the children, one specific medical test suggesting abuse, and a confession from Ileana Fuster. But serious questions have been raised about all three elements.

The videotaped interviews of the children were conducted by "child experts" Joe and Laurie Braga in a special children's unit within the state attorney's office. In their videotaped interviews, the children revealed horrifying tales of abuse involving masks, snakes, drills and other objects.

But the taped evaluations of children have received repeated scrutiny from child psychologists who, based on more contemporary research, argue the methods utilized by the Bragas (who were not psychologists) were highly leading, suggestive and unreliable.

The only child who showed physical evidence of abuse was Frank Fuster's son, Noel, who tested positive for gonorrhea of the throat. However, the critical lab evidence was destroyed after just three days and before the defense had any opportunity to retest. In addition, a number of questions have been raised about the reliability of the particular testing procedures used by the lab at that time.

For many months, both the Fusters maintained their innocence. When the case was brought to trial, Ileana's attorney decided to sever their cases. Reno's office offered her a reduced sentence in exchange for a confession that implicated her husband. Ileana at first refused, and was subjected to what many critics would later condemn as questionable interviewing techniques, in an attempt to elicit a statement of guilt from her. She was kept in solitary confinement for weeks, and visited by a series of psychologists and therapists, including two from Behavior Changers, Inc., who used relaxation techniques to help Ileana "recover memories." Some experts believe such techniques can elicit unreliable hypnotic recollections. Billing records indicate that Ileana was visited nearly 30 times by the Behavior Changers during the months of August and September 1985.

At the end of the "treatments," Ileana pleaded guilty, but stated to the court:

I am pleading guilty not because I'm guilty but because it's best for my own interests, for the children, for the court and all the people working on the case... ... I am innocent. I have never done any harm to any children. I have never seen any harm done. I am pleading guilty to get all of this over and I think it's the best for the parents and everyone.
Based on the evidence presented at trial, primarily the chilren's testimony and Ileana's confession, Frank Fuster was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Ileana served three years of a 10-year sentence and was then deported to Honduras.

While in Honduras, however, Ileana repudiated her guilty plea at Frank Fuster's trial. She gave a sworn statement to Frank Fuster's attorney Arthur Cohen in 1994, describing in detail the "visualization" techniques employed by Behavior Changers to recover her memory and reasserting, as she had originally, that neither she nor her husband had commited any abuse of the children. Fuster's attorney went to a judge who agreed to hold an evidentiary hearing based solely on Ileana's new testimony that she had not told the truth on the witness stand.

Shortly after her statement became public, however, Ileana retracted her sworn statement. In a letter sent through a clergyman, Rev. Tommy Watson, Ileana claimed that Fuster's lawyers had confused her and tricked her into giving the statement. She wrote, "Frank Fuster did horrible things to me and I know he did the same to the children, he deserves to be where he is now."

Then, in the summer of 2001, Ileana contacted FRONTLINE. She knew FRONTLINE had remained interested in the Fuster case; several years earlier the case had been part of its investigations for a 1998 report "The Child Terror." Ileana told FRONTLINE she wanted to tell her story, explain why it had changed so often, and set the record straight.

In her FRONTLINE interview with correspondent Peter J. Boyer, Ileana says her testimony in the 1985 trial was false and neither she nor Frank Fuster are guilty of child abuse. She says her trial testimony (as well as the letter sent through Rev. Watson several years later) were both the result of enormous physical and psychological pressures. She recounts a harrowing tale of being kept naked in her Dade County jail cell, forcibly held under cold showers, and subjected to repeated psychological badgering aimed at convincing her that she had repressed memories of Fuster's abuse. She even recalls late-night visits from Janet Reno.

Frank Fuster continues to serve his 165-year sentence. His attorneys say the appeals in his case have faced serious uphill obstacles all along the way. His one last chance for the case to be reopened may depend on the very thing most responsible for sending him to prison in the first place -- the questionable word of his former wife Ileana.

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