By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
In any case, the Fusters insisted they were innocent, and their protestations were unwavering. According to Hollingsworth, this became increasingly touchy for the prosecution. Intense media coverage of Country Walk had thrust Janet Reno into the glare of public scrutiny during her re-election campaign, and her handling of the case was sure to be a factor in its outcome. Reno's response was to assume high visibility, a marked change from her customary style of prosecuting and campaigning. Public outrage at the allegations against the Fusters was answered by Reno's vows to "do everything humanly possible to see that justice is done" in Country Walk.
There can be no doubt what "justice" meant to Reno. She assigned to the Country Walk case senior prosecutors such as Dan Casey, chief of the robbery division, and John Hogan from major crimes, and promised them all necessary resources. She appeared at a Fuster pretrial hearing and argued before the court, which for Reno was highly unusual. She described the Country Walk children as "victims of a horrible crime." She wanted the Fusters convicted.
But as the investigation progressed, the Fusters continued to proclaim their innocence, and the children had little or nothing spontaneous to say about their experiences at the couple's house. In fact, videotaped records of those interviews show investigators subjecting children to methods that research psychologists and other experts have condemned as being far too leading and suggestive to develop evidence for criminal investigations or prosecutions.
In early interviews, all children -- with the exception of the five-year-old boy -- denied having been abused. Only later (in some cases, months later) did they give affirmative statements. And the videotapes make it clear that these were produced only after the children were pressured by either the investigators or their own families or both. (See sidebar for an extended excerpt from one such interview.)
Even the child who provided prosecutors with their "hard" evidence -- Fuster's six-year-old son, who had tested positive for gonorrhea -- required intense pressuring. When the boy denied that his father had molested him, interviewer Joseph Braga insisted that since he had gonorrhea, he must not be telling the truth. After Braga became notably coercive, the child stated that he had fellated his father.
But in a deposition taken a few months later, the boy repeatedly told prosecutors he had no memory of his father molesting him, and that the reason he earlier had told Braga otherwise was because Braga refused to end the interview unless the boy made such claims. The text of the deposition strongly suggests that he was not recanting because of pressure from his extended family. Rather, its tone suggests a child thinking out loud, trying earnestly to figure out if he could have been molested without knowing it. At one point, for instance, he speculates about whether his father could have gotten on his bed at night while he was asleep, just like his pet cat sometimes lies down with him without his knowing.
(Three years after Frank Fuster was convicted, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control warned that the procedure used to test his son is highly unreliable as an indicator for gonorrhea. During 1983 and 1984, more than one-third of samples from children around the United States who tested positive by that newly introduced procedure were later confirmed by the CDC to actually contain other organisms. The Fuster boy's positive test results were introduced as evidence at his father's trial, but because his mouth and throat cultures had been discarded, they could not later be retested.)
Jan Hollingsworth writes that Reno's office, faced with little in the way of incontrovertible hard evidence, concluded the best strategy would be to develop an adult witness: Ileana. In October 1984, shortly before Reno was re-elected by a landslide, Deputy Chief State Attorney Abe Laeser offered to recommend a drastically reduced sentence if she would plead guilty and turn state's evidence. Assistant State Attorney Dan Casey formalized the offer in March 1985. The next month Reno herself repeated it in writing to Ileana's attorneys, Michael Von Zamft and Jeffrey Samek. But Ileana refused.
Her intransigence was becoming as tricky for the defense attorneys as it was for the prosecutors. According to Hollingsworth, the case was so notorious, and the Fusters so vilified in the media, that Von Zamft was losing clients and being ostracized in the community simply for defending them. The pressures on him apparently were becoming unbearable. Was there any way he could continue as one of the Fusters' court-appointed attorneys without suffering the negative consequences?
The dilemma was resolved when Von Zamft, in effect, became one of Frank Fuster's prosecutors. In April 1985, he and Samek decided a conflict existed in their joint representation of the Fusters, and within weeks the couple's defense was legally separated. Von Zamft chose Ileana as his client. Samek took Frank.
Von Zamft began developing his strategy: to admit that Ileana was indeed a perpetrator, but only as a result of being a child victim herself -- of her husband Frank. For Ileana to convincingly present herself in this light, she would have to testify that even though she and Frank both abused the children, she did so only under duress. Logically, the way to elicit such testimony from Ileana would be to cast her in the role of a battered wife.