The Girl with the Tonton Heart

Years after the Haitian diaspora, Papa and Baby Doc's children are still wandering

The next day Ledice went to the North Miami police station asking for help finding her children and claiming to have been kidnapped herself and driven aimlessly around Broward the day before. The police beeped Marilise, and when she called back, it was to the cell phone of a man the kidnappers thought was Ledice's friend but who was in fact a Kreyol-speaking North Miami police officer.

North Miami detectives, who by then had enlisted help from the FBI, the Broward Sheriff's Office, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, arranged a ransom drop -- $15,500 in exchange for the children. The kidnappers would meet Ledice's "friend" outside a KFC in a Fort Lauderdale strip center. The brothers again loaded Marilise, and six children this time, into the van. Inestin parked about three blocks from the KFC, and he and Ignace walked to the restaurant.

Unable to convince the brothers to hand over the children before pocketing the money, the "friend" gave the take-down sign five minutes later, and a crowd of officers moved in. Incident reports state Ignace drew his gun and was killed in an ensuing shootout. Waiting in the van, Marilise remembers hearing a helicopter overhead and then a burst of gunshots. Inestin led officers to the van, where the children were extricated and Marilise handcuffed.

Steve Satterwhite
Steve Satterwhite

Marilise and Petit-Homme were tried together before separate juries in Broward Circuit Court in September 1999. Ever since the incident, news coverage had portrayed Emite Ledice as a churchgoing mom betrayed by a friend -- the image presented by police and prosecutors. Marilise's defense attorney, Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale, managed to introduce some testimony and evidence supporting a different view of Ledice and her role in the crime. "The jury believed Marilise and not [Ledice]," Thurston says. "Her story about being kidnapped was bullshit. She was out trying to come up with the money for the drugs. Even [Ledice's] children testified that Marilise had been kidnapped, too. She is completely innocent."

"She's guilty as sin," retorts North Miami police Det. Jerome Brown, lead investigator on the case. "Just because you're not convicted doesn't mean you didn't do it." Brown says today he suspected that Ledice was indeed involved in drug trafficking but that the police never came up with enough evidence to press charges. Instead they targeted Marilise; some witnesses interviewed by investigators accused Marilise of plotting the kidnapping as a way to get money from her friend.

The jury acquitted both defendants of the murder charges; Inestin Petit-Homme was found guilty of all the kidnapping charges and received a life sentence. Marilise, declared innocent on all counts, was not free to go back to whatever life she'd had before. Since she is not a U.S. citizen, she was turned over to the INS, which locked her up at Krome to await deportation.

3. The Krome School for Young Ladies
"Are you cheating on your lover and feel it's time to confess? If so, call Jerry!" Marilise isn't watching Jerry Springer today, but she keeps the TV on most of the time, medium-loud. She shows no interest in the private lives of the lowlifes trading insults and punches, but it's safe, controlled contact with the outside world. She says she hasn't made friends with many of her neighbors. She doesn't trust anyone. She doesn't want her address published, because she is certain that would enable any number of people from Haiti to track her down and kill her. "I don't talk to nobody but my TV," Marilise offers, not joking.

She keeps the curtains and blinds closed over the two windows at the front of her apartment. In the dim light the oversize black-vinyl sectional sofa pieces that take up most of the living room loom like the backs of animals herded into a corral. There's a giant stuffed gorilla sitting on one sofa cushion and an even larger stuffed dog standing on the burgundy carpet, facing the front door. The toys, bigger than Marilise's own children, are waiting for the two girls to return, she explains with a hopeful grin. Before the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) will allow her to reclaim the children, she has been required to complete three parenting classes. She is still attending classes, for which her half sister is paying the cost -- $60 each. Nadia is tired of bailing her out but doesn't see any alternative as long as Marilise continues to want for wisdom in her choice of friends and lovers. "If you go right, things go right," Nadia declares. "If you hang out with losers, you're a loser. I've spent all my money, I borrowed money from the bank, to stop her from being deported, to get her out of jail, to try to get her kids back. I'm doing it for her daughters; they've gone through too much."

In a corner of the living room, displayed on an étagère, are several framed photographs of Barbara and Vanessa. The latest portrait, a colorful eight-by-ten with the girls sporting frills and bows against a backdrop of blue sky and powder-puff clouds, was made shortly before Marilise went to jail. Since January 1998 she's seen her daughters twice, most recently this past August at a DCF office in Fort Lauderdale. Taped to the wall just above the étagère is a certificate she received upon graduation from a parenting class. Next to that is a grainy black-and-white snapshot, about three-by-five inches, of Marilise at Krome, in a jail uniform. Her hair is swept up in an elegant coif, and she's bending toward the camera, hands on her hips. She looks amused.

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