the child terror
Interview: Louis Aguirre
see below for text
Louis AguirreLouis Aguirre was an ambitious young reporter in Miami in 1989 when the Fijnje story hit the news.  Aguirre became the star reporter on the case, his coverage of the sex abuse scandal propelling his career.  He is now a morning news anchor for the Fox News Channel in New York.

Names of all children, except Bobby Fijnje, and their families have been changed.

If you were to have to encapsulate what the case against Bobby Fijnje was, how would you recount that? What did the prosecution have?

...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.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 Fijnje.

What kind of evidence did they have to make that case?

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 her.

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 Bobby....

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 where?

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 jury.

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] defense.

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 assessment?

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 feeling--

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.

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