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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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In late 1991, when Metro-Dade Police Sgt. David Simmons was assigned to investigate the latest child abuse allegations lodged against physicians Lisette and Andres Nogues, his colleague Det. Ellen Christopher issued an ambivalent sigh. On the one hand, she was thrilled an officer as competent as Simmons had inherited the Nogues case from her. On the other, she flat-out pitied him.
In the two years since state social workers had removed the Nogueses' seven minor children from their Kendall home, the "Case from Hell," as Christopher dubbed it, had devolved into the most tortured and time-consuming custody battle in Dade County history.
The ordeal, Simmons would learn, was rooted in a bitter feud between neurologist Lisette Nogues (pronounced no-guess), a strong-willed mother of nine, and her psychologically troubled eldest daughter, Michelle Porras. It had begun in September 1989, when fifteen-year-old Aimee Nogues accused her parents of abuse. Aimee soon confessed to police that she had fabricated the claims, at the bidding of her sister Michelle, in order to escape her mother's strict household. But juvenile court judges who believed her abuse story had forbidden the Nogueses from visiting their children, and entrusted care of the four youngest ones, aged four to nine, to 21-year-old Michelle and her husband Rick. By late 1991, when Simmons was handed the case, these children had begun alleging that they had been abused by their parents more than two years earlier, when they still lived at home.
A supervisor in Metro-Dade's child exploitation unit, Sergeant Simmons prided himself on being the sort of cop who could make sense of such quagmires. In two decades with the department he had won acclaim as a dogged and detailed investigator. Cautioned about the volatility of the Nogues case in a special meeting with prosecutors, Simmons set down three ground rules: He would bring along a witness to every interview, record all statements, and attempt to reconstruct the case from its outset.
It took just one interview for Simmons to gauge what he was in for. On December 4, 1991, he met with June Shaw, the court-appointed advocate, or Guardian Ad Litem, for the four youngest Nogues children. In the course of a six-hour interview, Shaw assured Simmons that the Nogueses represented a "textbook incest case." She branded Aimee Nogues a "compulsive liar" and declared that the parents were "mentally unstable." When Simmons raised the possibility of removing the children from the Porras household, Shaw uttered one menacing sentence: "Over my dead body."
"I was shocked," Simmons says now. "She knew the mother and Michelle were sworn enemies. She knew state law requires that kids be placed in a neutral setting. And yet she was ready to fight against it to the death."
Thus far Shaw has won. The Nogueses have not seen their four youngest children, who still live with Rick and Michelle Porras, in more than three years. Whether the kids will ever be returned to their parents A who have devoted their lives to that cause A is an issue slated to be resolved, once and for all, by a two-week evidentiary hearing in juvenile court commencing this Monday, April 12.
But whatever the outcome, Simmons says the Case from Hell has exposed the state's child-protection system as a bureaucracy so out of touch with the human consequences of its actions that it can hold kids captive to an alleged sociopath, imprison innocent parents, and ultimately destroy a family -- all supposedly for the sake of the children.
Even back in 1991, before he began his investigation, Simmons says he was dumbstruck by what he discovered in a review of the case history:
Det. Ellen Christopher, who spent seven months scrutinizing Aimee's claim, had concluded there was no evidence that Andres or Lisette Nogues abused any of their children.
In March 1990, just weeks after her parents had been found guilty on three of ten counts at a juvenile court trial, Aimee had confessed to Christopher that she concocted the allegations, with Michelle's encouragement.
Michelle Porras had a documented history of psychological problems, including sociopathic tendencies. As a teenager she had lodged false allegations of sexual abuse against Andres Nogues, an aspiring pediatrician.
After a second investigation, Christopher determined that the youngest Nogues, a five-year-old girl, may have been sexually abused while in the Porras home.
In the spring of 1990, Aimee and two of her siblings had run away from the Porras household, claiming that Rick was physically abusive to them and that Michelle had tried to turn them against their parents.
A few months later the Nogueses had been arrested for allegedly trying to contact their children. Andres spent five months in jail, Lisette two.
Christopher had filed a criminal complaint against June Shaw and Guardian Ad Litem attorney Robin Greene, alleging they had tried to sabotage her investigation. (Both women are currently targets of a criminal probe by a special prosecutor in Fort Pierce.)
Following an inquiry by the Governor's Office of the Inspector General, the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) had filed a set of emergency motions in November 1991, urging immediate removal of the four Nogues children from the Porras home.