The Case from Hell Part 5

The most notorious child-custody battle in memory heads for its bitter end

Virtually all that is known about life in the Porras household during the children's first year of exile comes from their older siblings, who describe Rick Porras as a bully who threatened to banish disobedient kids to a shelter, and Michelle as a master manipulator who waged a tireless campaign to vilify her parents. "I know what Michelle was able to do to my head," says Aimee, now a mature eighteen-year-old. "I was old enough to know better and get out of there. But I'll always regret leaving the little ones behind."

With good reason, according to court-appointed therapist Sim centsn Miranda, who evaluated the children on December 22, 1990. After fourteen months with the Porrases, Miranda found, the children's loyalties were woefully divided. The seven-year-old son, for instance, immediately identified his mother as the person he loves most in the world, but claimed he didn't want to see her. When Miranda asked why, he responded, "I cannot tell you." Asked if his mother spanked him, the boy answered, "No, she never spanked me but...yeah, she spanked me."

One daughter admitted she cried when she sees old family photos, but said she didn't know if she wanted to see her mother. "Because every time I'm next to her I start crying and then I cry for a long time," she explained. "I just don't want to lose my happiness." The eldest daughter, then eleven, swore her mother beat her and her father molested her, though she didn't have any memory of the molestation. Later she abruptly began to weep as she described her fear that her mother doesn't love her any more. Deeply troubled by the sessions, Miranda warned that, unless reunified with their mother, the alienation would deepen.

Fifteen months later psychiatrist Diane Schetky offered grim confirmation. "They are getting a very skewed picture of the parents," she testified. "[One child] at this point views his mother as Saddam Hussein. I find that rather extreme. I'm also hearing things that suggest they are parroting things they have heard from adults, such as, 'My daddy sex-abused us.' That's adult terminology, not something you expect from a seven-year-old child."

Schetky's bold testimony, in fact, prompted Rick Porras to dash off an ominous letter to Judge Gladstone. "I am willing to give my life for these children," he wrote in May 1992. "Now more than ever. I feel the doors are closing on us." Two weeks later the eldest of Porras's four foster children went a step further, phoning Lisette Nogues. "I'd rather die than go back with you," the twelve-year-old told her mother. "I wish you were dead."

In videotaped depositions taken this past July, all four children claim their father sexually abused them and their mother beat them. They insist they want to live with Michelle and Rick forever. The daughter who once cried at the sight of old family photos, now an extremely angry eleven-year-old, claims she doesn't want to see any of her older siblings, and echoes the threat of suicide if forced to return to her parents.

During the 1992 videotaped interviews, the eldest child is asked by her parents' lawyer to read a letter she wrote to her mother in March 1990, just six months after the state took her away. She recites the missive impassively, as if it were a court document: "We want to live with you. Every time we tell Michelle that we want to live with you she gets mad. [The two youngest siblings] always cry because they miss you. I love you and papa and so does everyone else. I hope the judge lets us see you soon. I am going to give this letter to someone to give to you because Michelle will not let us mail it to you." Asked about the letter in hindsight, the girl remarks: "I don't remember writing that.... People forge these days."

"It makes me cry to look at videotapes of these kids," says Ellen Christopher, a normally staid sex-battery detective. "To see what's happened to them in three years just kills me."

Ironically, Karen Gievers prepared these depositions for the express purpose of presenting them as evidence that her "clients" want and deserve to be placed permanently with Michelle and Rick Porras. Judge Ralph Person has declared that he intends to settle the Nogues affair with a two-week hearing set to commence April 12 in juvenile court. Each side has submitted a witness list in excess of 100 people.

An investigator from the prosecutors' office in Fort Pierce, meanwhile, will probably arrive in Miami amid this legal showdown to continue his probe of alleged wrongdoing by June Shaw, Robin Greene, and more than a dozen other child-protection officials who have played parts in the Nogues case.

Lisette and Andres Nogues, who have abandoned their medical practices and plunged into bankruptcy fighting to regain their children, frame the upcoming hearing in disturbingly simple terms: "We've got the facts," says Lisette Nogues, "and they've got the kids."

Aimee Nogues says she worries most about what will happen if Judge Person returns her siblings: "Michelle has got them convinced their parents hate them. She has them talking about suicide. I know Michelle. I don't want to think about what she's capable of if she gets desperate." Aimee, though, remains confident the kids will quickly readjust to their old home, if ordered by the judge to return.

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