By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
After a seven-week trial in late 1985, Frank Fuster was convicted of all fourteen charges against him and was sentenced to six consecutive life terms in prison. Ileana did not stand trial. Instead she confessed to twelve counts involving child molestation and also testified for the prosecution at her husband's trial, accusing him of initiating numerous sexual assaults against the children in her care. Following her confession and testimony, she received a ten-year prison sentence. In 1989 she was released after serving three years and was deported to her native Honduras.
The only comprehensive account of the Country Walk case, and Janet Reno's role in it, is Unspeakable Acts, by Tampa author Jan Hollingsworth. When they can be checked against the discovery and trial records, the facts Hollingsworth selects for her story -- excerpts from depositions, memos, and trial testimony, for instance -- are reliable and can be cited with confidence, as they are in this article. Apparently the State Attorney's Office agrees. In a recent interview, Hollingsworth said that after Unspeakable Acts was published, Reno sent her a letter praising the book for its accuracy.
The problem, though, is what Hollingsworth leaves out. In addition to the consistent omission of information that might raise questions about the state's case against the Fusters, Hollingsworth has omitted from Unspeakable Acts a fact that, until now, has never been publicized, and which casts serious doubt on her objectivity as a journalist: She had a direct relationship to the Country Walk prosecutors. According to a sworn deposition she provided in 1985, Hollingsworth quit her job as an assignment editor at WCIX-TV (Channel 6) within a month after Reno's office began its investigation of the Fusters. She then became a paid consultant to the husband-and-wife team prosecutors recruited to interview Country Walk children.
In 1984, while at Channel 6, Hollingsworth became interested in "ritual" daycare sex abuse, which had exploded into the national media after the McMartin Preschool case surfaced. The station, she writes in Unspeakable Acts, frequently took calls from Joseph and Laurie Braga, local child development specialists who offered tips for stories concerning child-welfare issues.
In May, according to Hollingsworth, the Bragas phoned Channel 6 and suggested the station do a "tie-in" story to McMartin. The idea piqued interest, and Channel 6 staffers began researching an investigative series on daycare regulation. Hollingsworth spent almost three months helping to produce it. The finished piece was sharply critical of Florida's failure to check criminal records of people applying for positions in daycare centers, and of prosecutors' inability to bring accused perpetrators to justice because of children's perceived inability to testify in court.
The series, with its damning view of the child-protection prosecution system, was broadcast in mid-July. Joseph and Laurie Braga appeared in a follow-up story and stressed the need for reforms. The couple then approached State Attorney Janet Reno. Hollingsworth writes that Reno, who faced an election in November, was concerned about the competition to her incumbency posed by challenger Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, a Miami attorney. According to Hollingsworth, Garcia-Pedrosa was thought to be considering the issue of child protection as one of his campaign issues. Reno had already demonstrated interest in the topic by successfully lobbying for a change in state criminal codes that would allow children's personal appearances in court to be replaced with videotaped testimony.
When the Bragas gained their audience with Reno, they suggested she organize a special section of the State Attorney's Office in which child sexual assault cases could be processed and the children's testimony recorded. Reno was reportedly excited by the idea.
Two weeks later, in early August, Hollingsworth got a call from the Country Walk mother who was convinced her child had been drugged at the Fusters'. Hollingsworth herself lived in Country Walk, and the worried mother was her neighbor and a long-time friend from high school. She was also a former criminal prosecutor, and she had heard rumors circulating through the community about the Fusters being child molesters. Hollingsworth's friend feared that her son, too, was a victim.
Hollingsworth promptly called Christopher Rundle, then head of the State Attorney's sexual battery unit, and reported the allegations. Rundle lost no time opening an investigation, and immediately discovered Frank Fuster's previous conviction for fondling the nine-year-old girl. Reno quickly made available an office in which to conduct and videotape interviews with Country Walk children. And according to Hollingsworth, Reno also suggested that Joseph and Laurie Braga do the interviewing. The Bragas, whose family money has supported their child-welfare activities, agreed to interview the children at no charge -- a volunteer relationship they maintained throughout the case. Jan Hollingsworth soon left Channel 6 to become a paid consultant to the Bragas' Coconut Grove-based National Foundation for Children. Things started to snowball.
Five days after prosecutor Rundle began his inquiry, interviews and medical exams of neighborhood children were in full swing, and their parents began gathering at nightly meetings to discuss the situation. On August 10, Frank Fuster was arrested. Two weeks later Ileana was also taken into custody. She was still seventeen years old and legally a child. The Fusters had been married only eleven months.
Frank hired attorneys Michael Von Zamft and Jeffrey Samek to represent him and Ileana. The Fusters were soon declared indigent, and Samek and Von Zamft were court-appointed to continue their defense. According to private investigator Stephen Dinerstein, who worked for Samek and Von Zamft on the case, both attorneys were convinced at the outset that Frank Fuster was a pedophile. Their main interest, Dinerstein says, was that their clients find a way to plead guilty. (In a recent interview, Von Zamft said that though he "was not convinced Frank was innocent from the beginning," he did not recall telling Dinerstein he wanted the Fusters to plead guilty. Samek died several years ago.)