Reno Reconsidered (Part B)

The evidence was not there. The kids' stories were outrageous beyond belief. But that didn't stop Janet Reno from trying to destroy Bobby Fijnje.

Donna, though, was less forthcoming. She told a state investigator that she was afraid of Fijnje because he had played too roughly with her. She denied that Fijnje had abused her. The State Attorney's Office, which had initiated an investigation, dropped the matter.

But Keeley remained suspicious about Fijnje. In June 1989, Donna began making what her psychologist characterized as "disclosures." On August 8, Donna's mother brought her to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Rape Treatment Center, where doctors found possible signs of sexual abuse -- two "healed tears" on her hymen. Two weeks later, with the aid of Keeley's coaching, Donna told Pam Garman, a Children's Assessment Center counselor, that Bobby had "touched my pee-pee."

By this time Fijnje's suspected abuse was being discussed weekly by nervous parents at the prayer group. A psychologist had visited the church to point out signs of child sexual abuse. And a second mother had contacted the police after recalling a comment her son had made six months earlier about Fijnje doing "something bad to his bottom or whatever."

On August 28, Metro-Dade police officer Mark Martinez arrested Fijnje, who suffers from juvenile diabetes. After several hours of grilling, Fijnje, woozy from hypoglycemia, told Martinez that his fingers "had slipped" mistakenly into a girl's vagina two or three times while he was wiping her in the bathroom. Fijnje would later testify in court that Martinez had promised to release him if he made the "confession." When it became clear that wasn't the case, Fijnje denied the claim. He was sent to Youth Hall.

The arrest kicked up a squall of terror at Old Cutler, an affluent South Dade congregation. Parents who had once regarded Fijnje as the nursery school's best babysitter now began asking their children about his alleged abuse. Keeley served as a nerve center for worried parents, referring a growing number of children to private therapists. What began with Donna's murky comments, quickly mushroomed.

Children began telling therapists stories of feces-eating, urine-drinking orgies orchestrated by Fijnje. One four-year-old detailed Fijnje's mutilation of live animals. Another described being stabbed by Fijnje, and dancing naked on a roof. Two brothers eventually accused Fijnje of decapitating and eating newborn babies. Fijnje reportedly also led an expedition to a cemetery near Old Cutler to unearth dead bodies, and led naked dances around a campfire. His alleged victims said he shoved everything from swords to teapot handles to his own penis up children's anuses and vaginas. More perpetrators soon emerged. Children named other teenagers, respected daycare teachers, even a member of the Old Cutler clergy. One child alleged that he had watched the father of another victim murder a man.

Janet Reno, realizing she had another Country Walk on her hands, assigned several staffers to work with police in gathering evidence. She would later deploy three of her highest-ranking prosecutors to prepare and try the case. While the state investigated, parents hired their own "satanic" expert to confirm their kids' increasingly outlandish scenarios.

Even the FBI was called in. Based on a few children's claims that the Fijnje parents, devout church elders, had filmed the alleged rituals, agents launched a probe aimed at uncovering an international child pornography ring. "The alleged videotapes may have been transported out of the country," an FBI spokesman told reporters. "We have no physical evidence. The information was developed from interviews."

Indeed, the only physical evidence ever uncovered to support any of the allegations were the medical exams of three girls, showing the "healed tears" on their hymens. More curiously, no adult witnesses ever came forward, despite the fact that virtually every member of Old Cutler's 2500-person congregation was questioned. No one had seen Fijnje abuse his nursery school charges. Or dig up graves. Or rip apart a baby with his bare hands. Except his alleged victims.

Prosecutors nonetheless moved swiftly to file charges against Fijnje. His indictment, made public in November 1989, accused him of 108 separate acts of abuse against 17 children. He was formally charged with eight counts of sexual battery. But because he was indicted as an adult, he faced a maximum of life in prison for each count.

Criminal defense attorney Mel Black, aware the case would take months to come to trial, asked Judge Norman Gerstein to release Fijnje on bail. Prosecutor Abbe Rifkin argued that the teen was a flight risk because his family was originally from Curaçao, in the Dutch Antilles, and he had relatives in Holland. Black countered with a plan to place Fijnje under house arrest in Connecticut, wearing an ankle monitor, under the supervision of his aunt and uncle, a former justice of the state's Supreme Court.

The judge rejected this proposal after listening to the pleas of two alleged victims' mothers, who testified that their children would not be able to sleep at night knowing that "Bobby was out of jail."

Fijnje returned to Youth Hall to wait for more than a year. Black pondered how to dismantle the claims that his client was the Devil incarnate.

To anyone who followed Fijnje's travails -- and in Miami it would have been nearly impossible not to -- the case held an eerie familiarity. Hadn't the same sordid affair played itself out a few years earlier in Country Walk? Hadn't both cases begun with a child's offhand remark to a nervous mother? Hadn't both evolved into dark tales of ritual abuse?

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