The Case From Hell, Part I

The girls' sobbing protests that they'd never been abused were ignored. "I'm sitting out there listening to [my sister] screaming and crying and it broke my heart," recalls Jeanette, now fourteen. "I really blew up. I was hitting the door saying, `You monsters, let her out!'" Jeanette refused her exam. The other two sisters showed no signs of sexual abuse.

The Nogueses' attorney, Juan Carrera, would later term the event (58) "tantamount to an act of rape," and even today he fumes at the exams, which he feels were an attempt to strengthen the state's weak case. "For them to take little children and subject them to such intrusive medical treatment on a hunch, on some kind of perverted institutional theory, is outrageous," he says angrily. "And to do this at a point they're supposedly no longer at risk. It makes me physically sick."

Attorney Ed Carhart says when he initially reviewed the case, he was at a loss to explain the state's conduct. He now believes it was a matter of pride turned delusion. "They locked into a position," Carhart says, "and they were not big enough to say, `Hey, you know something? We've been had by a fifteen-year-old girl. Let's straighten this thing out.' Aimee Nogues captured the hearts of all these people. They fell in love with her as the victim."

Once they were accepted as truth, Aimee's claims became an affirmation of the comforting myth that kids are by definition good, incapable of evils such as lying. By implication the Nogueses -- allegedly abusive parents -- became enemies of the state. "In too many cases, this mission of protecting kids turns into `squash the parents,'" maintains Theresa Pooler, an attorney who used to head the Dade County Child Assessment Center. This punitive ethos, she says, is especially prevalent among some Guardians Ad Litem, whose advocacy role too often presumes guilt. Witness June Shaw's response to Andres Nogues's pretrial offer to leave the house so that his family might remain intact: "NOT UNTIL WE GET A GUILTY PLEA!" she wrote in her notes of October 22, 1989.

Rightfully yanked from the closet two decades ago, the specter of child abuse -- especially sexual child abuse -- has devolved into a kind of pervasive bogeyman lurking in the shadows of our cultural neurosis. In Florida the furor has been stoked by the 1984 conviction of day-care operators Frank and Ileana Fuster on multiple sex-abuse charges, and the 1989 death of Bradley McGee, an angelic tot who died of massive brain injuries after HRS returned him to his mother and abusive stepfather. These media shark-feeds -- and their attendant political grandstanding -- have helped child-protection agencies secure sweeping new powers and have fed a collective paranoia in which the state feels duty-bound to disrupt, and sometimes destroy, families, based on little more than a child's testimony. "The child-protection workers of this county, from the judges on down, are petrified of being crucified in the press for letting a child go back to an abusive home," observes Virginia Stanley, a veteran defense lawyer in juvenile court.

In January of this year, Stanley had considered taking the Nogueses' case. "It was the most incredible abuse of a family by the system I'd ever seen," she says, no small tribute given her scathing accounts of juvenile court. "But ultimately I told them I couldn't take it because I could see that there were so many people lined up on the other side and they all seemed committed and willing to do and say anything to win. It was the kind of thing that could financially sink a sole practitioner."

Stanley says once advocates are convinced abuse has occurred, facts are contorted to fit the premise. In the Nogues case, for instance, when Andres passed his polygraph test, it simply proved polygraph tests aren't reliable. When Aimee said she'd kill herself if Andres were sent to jail, it became proof of her love affair with him, rather than her fear of sending an innocent man up the river.

Those who stand by Aimee's original story explain her recantation, which has been steadfast and consistent over the past eighteen months, as a classic case of "denial." Psychologist Simon Miranda, a child-abuse expert involved with the Nogues case, disagrees: "This whole area of psychology [involving `denial'] is a soft science, not one that should be used to prove the existence of a problem."

Det. Ellen Christopher is not one for soft sciences. Colleagues describe Christopher as the ultimate straight shooter, right down to the Jack Friday monotone. In seven years with the Metro Dade Police Department's sexual battery unit, Christopher says she's dealt with HRS incompetence, the agency's failure to inform police when they suspect abuse, and its tendency to drop a case against someone police have arrested. But nothing, she says, prepared her for the Nogues affair, which she wearily calls "the case from Hell."

Because Andres was a medical resident in pediatrics at Miami Children's Hospital, Christopher says she was anxious to determine his guilt or innocence as quickly as possible. In the first weeks of her criminal investigation, she worked long hours, building the basis of what would eventually be a single-spaced, typewritten, 187-page report. To Christopher, Aimee's story wasn't adding up. There were too many inconsistencies, too many lies, and not enough hard evidence. A version of the truth was emerging that Christopher had seen before. "We get it all the time in our office, girls who see on the TV that they can get out of the house if they cry sexual abuse," Christopher says. "They have no idea it involves the police and social workers and everything."

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