The Case From Hell, Part I

It sounds, at first, like a faint siren, the shrill announcement of far-off disaster. Only after the fourth or fifth tone do you locate the source, a beeper concealed beneath the clutter on Dr. Lisette Nogues's nightstand. Two years ago, when Nogues (pronounced no-guess) was earning $300,000 annually as a consulting neurologist, the device was an indispensible professional tool. These days the tiny brown box serves a more personal purpose.

"MAMA...LOVE...YOU...BEBA." Nogues reads the words out loud, haltingly, decoding the glowing red numbers as they march across the display screen. Somewhere in Dade County, fourteen-year-old Jeanette Nogues has punched this message into a phone, aware that her mother could land in jail if she dares to respond. Along with Andres Nogues, her husband of thirteen years, Lisette is forbidden from having any contact with her children, a ban stemming from a 1989 allegation of child abuse and exacerbated by the simple fact that both parents maintain they are innocent of any wrongdoing.

"When you first hear her story, it comes across as the ravings of a madwoman," attorney Ed Carhart says of Lisette Nogues. "I brushed her off six times before I took her case. But this woman is not nuts. Most of what she says can be substantiated with court documents. What it comes down to is, they are holding six kids without communication or visitation rights with their parents for 700 days. And we're not talking about serial killers or brutal sex abusers or crack addicts. We're talking about two doctors. Come on, it's insane."

For Lisette and Andres Nogues, an aspiring pediatrician who fathered the family's three youngest children and adopted the other six, the insanity is crowned by a senseless irony: their primary accuser, daughter Aimee, admitted a year and a half ago that she'd lied about being abused in the first place -- the same conclusion police reached after a seven-month investigation.

So far state officials handling the case have managed to explain the ordeal as the unfortunate product of a dysfunctional family. (Now that the case is under investigation by the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office, most state officials involved in the matter refused to comment for this article.) But the Nogueses, once-prosperous doctors who have plummeted into bankruptcy battling to reclaim their kids, insist the dysfunctional family behind their dissolution is Dade's own child-protection system. And Lisette Nogues, who must now rely on financial help from relatives to continue the fight, has a closet full of documents to prove her claims. "Do you understand what it's like for me as a mother to not be able to see my children? To not even know what they look like?" asks Nogues. "What mother could live with this?"

It all started when Aimee Nogues refused to go to confession. At fifteen, the petite brunette had good reason to avoid the rite: her romantic adventures were well known to her siblings and to the string of boyfriends she'd had since age twelve (1). According to a coded diary in which she recorded her liaisons, by the fall of 1989 Aimee had been seduced twice by an uncle and had taken a 28-year-old lover (2). None of this, of course, was known to her mother, a devout Catholic so worried about bad influences that she had pulled her kids out of public school the year before and taught them at home.

Aimee's confidante in her secret life (3) was her older sister Michelle Porras, the perfect foil to her mother's righteousness. Back then, Aimee says, the duality was simple: taskmaster versus idol, superego versus id. If mom dispensed rules, 21-year-old Michelle waved a backstage pass to liberation, the glamorous prospect of clubhopping with an older crowd and sowing oats as she pleased. Aimee wanted to move in with her sister. But there was a catch. Aimee says Michelle told her she would have to accuse her parents of abuse if she wanted to get out of their house (4). In her hormone-happy mind, Aimee says, the plan made sense. After all, Michelle had accused Andres of making sexual advances to her three years earlier (5) and run off to live with a family friend. Michelle eventually recanted (6)those accusations, but no authorities got involved, and in the end, no one seemed much worse for the wear. "Michelle made it sound like nothing would happen," recalls Aimee, now seventeen. "I'd say there was abuse and -- ta da -- get to live with her."

So in the dusky hours of September 23, 1989, when Lisette Nogues called out to see which of her children would accompany her to church, Aimee pitched a fit. She railed at her mother and vanished to her room after Nogues slapped her in exasperation. Then she crawled through her bedroom window and ran to a neighbor's home. Michelle and her new husband Rick came over, and after talking with Aimee, they instructed the neighbor to call the police. (7) Aimee and Michelle told the two officers who arrived that Lisette had beaten Aimee and that Andres had sexually assaulted her. (8) Later that night Michelle drove her sister to the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) office on Coral Way. Aimee also was taken to the Rape Treatment Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where examiners found she was not a virgin and had the venereal disease chlamydia.

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Steven Almond