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.

Aimee's eldest brother, Andy Nogues Cabo, now 24, recalls talking with Aimee on the phone that night, after she and Michelle returned to the Porras home. "I said, `Aimee, what's this all about? Why are you saying this?' And she said she just wanted out of the house. I told her maybe I could negotiate something. Then Michelle got on the phone and she had this whole master plan to take over the kids and get my parents' money for child support and their house. I said, `You are just absolutely crazy. You don't have a job. Your husband doesn't have a job. They'll never give you seven kids.'"

Andy was wrong. That same night at 1:00 a.m., two HRS investigative caseworkers and seven Metro-Dade police officers descended on the Nogueses' Kendall home and removed the six remaining children, ages four to sixteen, initially telling the Nogueses only that Lisette had been accused of physical abuse. Though HRS supervisor Alex de Calvo noted that there were allegations against Andres, too, he did not specify them. He also rejected Lisette's offer to leave the premises so the family could remain intact -- despite his eventual admission, in a sworn deposition, that Aimee's allegations against her mother were insufficient to deprive Lisette of custody (9).

The children were sent that night to stay with Michelle and Rick Porras in his parents' two-bedroom home, a placement in apparent contradiction (10) of HRS's own rule that children in a dependency case should be placed with custodians not adversarial to the parents. Michelle Porras wasn't merely adversarial. Like her sister Aimee, she was an accuser.

Late that first night Metro-Dade Police Det. Ellen Christopher, of the sexual battery unit, called to inform Andres he'd been accused of sexual assault against Aimee. The Nogueses were stunned. Detective Christopher began a criminal investigation of the claim, while HRS began building a case for juvenile court. The next morning Christopher brought in Andres for questioning. He and Lisette both waived their Miranda rights and gave full statements, vehemently denying Aimee's allegations. Andres volunteered to take a polygraph exam (four days later he did take a police-administered test, and passed it). (11) Christopher, convinced the case merited further scrutiny, released Andres, and pressed forward with her investigation.

At a juvenile court hearing two days later, both parents offered to leave their house, entreating Judge Bruce Levy to move the seven kids back home, with Andy Cabo and a grandmother as guardians. On the advice of HRS investigative caseworker Shelly Snodgrass, Levy rejected the plan. But that same day Detective Christopher moved sixteen-year-old Javier Nogues from the Porras home back to his parents' at his request, after watching him trade threats with Rick Porras, who outsized him by some 80 pounds and eight inches (12).

Christopher had called HRS officials to approve the move, but was later opposed by June Shaw, a volunteer for the state-funded Guardian Ad Litem program assigned by the court to represent the children's best interests. The Nogueses filed a motion to allow Javier to stay at home, but the court rejected it on the advice of both HRS and a Guardian Ad Litem attorney speaking on Shaw's behalf. Javier was sent back to the Porras home, but weeks later he ran away. He ended up being placed with his older brother Andy Cabo.

"I was very worried," says Cabo, "because...HRS and the Guardian Ad Litem continued to protect [the Porrases] for no apparent reason. I told June Shaw, `Look at the contrast between my sister and I. It's not black and gray -- it's black and white. She has a psychiatric record (14), she doesn't have a job. On the other hand, I'm extremely stable. I have a good job.' I showed her my honorable discharge, my college transcript, which is straight A's, even credit reports."

Rick Porras says neither he nor Michelle will answer questions, respond to allegations, or discuss the issues in the case. "I don't think it's worth it for us to comment," he explains, "because we didn't get a fair shot [in a Miami Herald article last year] and we don't think we will get a fair shot now. To tell you the truth, we want to be left alone, we don't want to be bothered by anybody. We're doing great.... Every time this issue comes up, it causes trouble, because the kids can read and it upsets them.

"Since the kids left [their parents], they're doing great," Porras continues. "Now that they're not being abused any more, they're different kids. They're making a tremendous turnaround." Porras also asserts that "anything Lisette Nogues says, anything Andres Nogues says, is a lie."

A week after accusing her parents, Aimee told her friend Eric Schraner she'd lied about the allegations of abuse. (16) Schraner, in turn, took the advice of an attorney and recounted Aimee's confession to investigators in a sworn statement. In the ensuing days, Schraner's grandmother says she received half a dozen calls from Shaw, (17)who described the Nogueses as a family with incestuous tendencies. Shaw's handwritten notes (18) recorded her concerns. Told by Schraner's lawyer that Schraner would testify to the recantation in court, she wrote: "Remedy -- go to judge to stop this."

In spite of the private admission to her friend, Aimee publicly held to her story of abuse. On October 3, she told Det. Ellen Christopher (19) she had disclosed the abuse to a Catholic priest during confession. Aimee believed that clergy would never reveal information regarding confessions, and so she also supplied the detective with a detailed description of the man. (20) Christopher tracked him down, explained the situation, and showed him a picture of Aimee. The priest, Father Yordi Rivero, told Christopher there must be some mix-up.(21) He had never heard such a confession or seen the girl. Hoping to clear up the matter, he went to visit Aimee, who had been placed at Jackson Hospital's Crisis Center after threatening to kill herself if her father was sent to jail. But the priest says his entry was blocked on orders from Guardian Ad Litem June Shaw. (22)

Baffled, Rivero later called Shaw. (23) "This lady was extremely aggressive, as if I'd been bought by the parents," recalls the soft-spoken priest of Coconut Grove's Hermita de la Caridad Church. "I didn't even know the parents. She talked like someone completely sold on the abuse." Shaw again recorded the incident in her notes. (24) "I cannot understand," she wrote, "how someone who is saying that Aimee's story is false is an appropriate witness."

Guardian Ad Litem policy prohibits the disclosure of information about a case to anyone but the parties (25) and their attorneys. But Shaw's notes, sworn statements, and interviews indicate she discussed details of the case with a number of people (25a), including court-appointed psychological evaluator Iris Bruel and Dr. Alberto Iglesias, a psychiatrist in private practice who had evaluated Michelle Porras in 1986. Iglesias, for example, says Shaw revealed to him a week after the case began her firm conviction that the Nogueses represent a "classic textbook case" of child abuse and that Andres Nogues was a psychopath. Iglesias did not think it wise, apparently, to share his own professional opinion that if anyone in the Nogues family was a psychopath, it was Michelle. (26)

Attorney Karen Gievers, hired by the Guardian Ad Litem program to represent June Shaw, insists, "Mrs. Shaw has done nothing wrong. She has done a heroic job as Guardian Ad Litem.... We're satisfied that matters eventually will come to light that need to come to light and that the children will be protected in this way." Daniella Levine, acting director of the Guardian Ad Litem program during much of the Nogues case, says that guardians routinely question witnesses, custodians, and others involved in a case to aid in determining the best interests of the children. "The fact that the same guardian [Shaw] is [still] on the case speaks for itself," says Levine.

On October 13, HRS caseworker Shelly Snodgrass filed a "dependent petition" in juvenile court, seeking to make the seven minor Nogues children temporary wards of the state. Among the charges on the petition: that for seven years Andres Nogues had sexually abused Aimee, that he fondled Michelle's breasts in 1986, that he whacked Javier in the head with a lead pipe and threw him into an empty swimming pool repeatedly, that Lisette Nogues physically, emotionally, and mentally abused Aimee, and that both (27) engaged in "dysfunctional rearing practices."

These allegations formed the basis of a later trial, despite the fact that the Nogueses say no HRS investigator has ever interviewed them about the abuse accusations. What's more, Det. Ellen Christopher had already told the court that she found Aimee "not credible," based on two weeks of criminal investigation (28) that revealed glaring inconsistencies in Aimee's and Michelle's stories. When the other Nogues children gave sworn statements, all denied abuse by either parent (29). Occasional spanking, they said, was as lurid as it got.

But on October 27, one of the younger Nogues girls told an interviewer that someone had touched her "peepee." Initially she stated it had happened at her mother's house, then corrected herself and said Michelle's house. "At Michelle's house?" she was asked. "Yes," she answered. (30) Her exam at the Rape Treatment Center three days later showed vaginal redness indicative of a "recent trauma" that occurred after she had been moved to the Porras home. (31) The exam also showed that she had an irregularly shaped hymen with a notch on it. In light of this disturbing information, Assistant State Attorney Esther Blynn, the lead prosecutor in the case, proposed immediate removal of all the children from the Porras home, but HRS caseworker Shelly Snodgrass successfully opposed the plan, saying she would have to investigate first.

In her subsequent report, Snodgrass attributed the girl's vaginal redness to overzealous washing by two of her sisters, (32) even though both sisters denied the claim, and the girl -- in a videotaped interview (34) -- clearly stated that she washes her own peepee. HRS officials concluded that she had not been abused in the Porrases' custody, but they did add an allegation against the Nogueses, claiming the young girl had been abused while in the custody of her parents, based on the irregularity of her hymen. (Though Snodgrass stated she would like to add her comments to this article, she was constrained from doing so by confidentiality rules governing HRS juvenile cases. An HRS spokeswoman confirmed that Snodgrass could not comment.)

On November 16, almost two months after Aimee first accused her parents of abuse, she told another friend, Bruce De Costa, that she had lied. June Shaw tracked down the boy and called him the next day. In a later sworn affidavit, De Costa said that Shaw told him not to contact anyone about Aimee's confession (35). When he called Shaw back weeks later to see if he needed to appear in court, he says she told him his testimony would not be needed. Ellen Christopher and the Nogueses' lawyers only found out about De Costa's involvement a year later. (36)

The day after Aimee's meeting with De Costa, attorney Robert Koeppel, acting in his judicial capacity as a juvenile court general master, began to question the placement of the seven children with the young Porras couple. He might not have been familiar with records that cast doubt on the credibility of the Porrases (37); he might not even have been familiar with Michelle's past, which included two unsettling previous psychiatric evaluations, and a 1983 incident in which police suspected her of mutilating her pet rabbits. (38) What set off Koeppel was seeing Rick Porras lunge at Javier in the juvenile court building. (39) "He was about to erupt, if I didn't get a bailiff to intercede," Koeppel told the court at a hearing. (40) "Violent, no word can describe it more aptly. Aimee's care was entrusted into that atmosphere, not by my doing. I would not have done that." Koeppel even considered removing the children from that atmosphere, before two phone conversations with therapist Robert Kelley helped to ease his concerns. (41)

Indeed, Kelley, a clinical social worker with Dade County's Victim and Family Services Program, along with psychologist Iris Bruel, played a crucial role in building the state's case against the Nogueses. For example, Kelley wrote his initial report based largely on a single interview with Aimee, (42) and then called at least eighteen people to inform them that Aimee had, in fact, been abused. (43) Without interviewing either Andres or Lisette, without even filling out the sections of the agency's form regarding Aimee's development, family dynamics, or background, Kelley later proffered his opinion to the court and in sworn deposition that the Nogueses were an incestuous family, that Andres was a pedophile, and that Lisette was emotionally abusive. (44)

Bruel, the court-appointed psychological evaluator, compiled reports that mirrored prosecutors' vision of the case. In Michelle Porras's glowing evaluation, for instance, Bruel recounted Michelle's version of her family history (45)without questioning its veracity, while including no information from a previous psychiatric evaluation that described Michelle's "tendencies to exaggerate or misinterpret events and project her own sexual impulses onto others." (46) Bruel also reviewed, but neglected to mention in Michelle's evaluation, the letters of recantation Michelle wrote following her 1986 accusations against Andres. (47) So too, Michelle's admission that Andres denied abusing her back then -- recorded in Bruel's handwritten notes -- (48) was not included in her final report. (49) (Bruel and Kelley were asked for comment regarding the Nogues case and allegations discussed in this article. Both of them declined to be interviewed.)

By mid-November of 1989, Aimee recalls, (51) she was ready to put an end to the hoax. Her quick ticket to freedom had caused her brothers and sisters to be dragged from their home, and had landed her in Jackson Memorial Hospital's Child Crisis Center for a month. But Aimee says Michelle was not about to give up the ruse, especially with regular child-support payments coming in. (By court order, the Nogueses paid Michelle and Rick Porras more than $8300 for child support in the first eight months of the case.) (52) So Aimee says she hatched a plan, again employing the threat of suicide. This time she would fake a suicide attempt: "I thought, maybe if [Michelle] thinks I'm that upset, she'll see I can't go through with this." When Aimee told her sister she'd attempted suicide by taking a handful of aspirin tablets, Michelle responded by telling her (53)she could be institutionalized for life. According to Aimee, her sister said it didn't matter that her "attempt" consisted of swallowing seven aspirin, the only way to avoid being categorized as suicidal (54) would be to claim that some specific incident set her off. Out of this quandary, Aimee says, Michelle fabricated a traumatic meeting at a Kendall convenience store between her sister and Andres, and convinced her to go along with it. Michelle contacted HRS and the guardians -- with dramatic results.

Without the Nogueses or their attorney present, Judge William Gladstone on November 17 approved a motion (55) denying the parents all contact with their children. After a total of four supervised visits, each conducted in English by court order, despite the youngest children's difficulty with that language, Andres and Lisette Nogues were completely cut off from the children.

But of all the actions taken in the name of protecting the Nogues children, an HRS-ordered medical examination marked the low point. On December 11, Jeanette and two of her younger sisters were taken to the Rape Treatment Center, to be probed in the anus and vagina for about an hour each (56). The tests were considered a necessary precaution in light of the other young Nogues girl's exam six weeks earlier (57).

The girls' sobbing protests that they'd never been abused were ignored. "I'm sitting out there listening to [my sister] screaming and crying and it broke my heart," recalls Jeanette, now fourteen. "I really blew up. I was hitting the door saying, `You monsters, let her out!'" Jeanette refused her exam. The other two sisters showed no signs of sexual abuse.

The Nogueses' attorney, Juan Carrera, would later term the event (58) "tantamount to an act of rape," and even today he fumes at the exams, which he feels were an attempt to strengthen the state's weak case. "For them to take little children and subject them to such intrusive medical treatment on a hunch, on some kind of perverted institutional theory, is outrageous," he says angrily. "And to do this at a point they're supposedly no longer at risk. It makes me physically sick."

Attorney Ed Carhart says when he initially reviewed the case, he was at a loss to explain the state's conduct. He now believes it was a matter of pride turned delusion. "They locked into a position," Carhart says, "and they were not big enough to say, `Hey, you know something? We've been had by a fifteen-year-old girl. Let's straighten this thing out.' Aimee Nogues captured the hearts of all these people. They fell in love with her as the victim."

Once they were accepted as truth, Aimee's claims became an affirmation of the comforting myth that kids are by definition good, incapable of evils such as lying. By implication the Nogueses -- allegedly abusive parents -- became enemies of the state. "In too many cases, this mission of protecting kids turns into `squash the parents,'" maintains Theresa Pooler, an attorney who used to head the Dade County Child Assessment Center. This punitive ethos, she says, is especially prevalent among some Guardians Ad Litem, whose advocacy role too often presumes guilt. Witness June Shaw's response to Andres Nogues's pretrial offer to leave the house so that his family might remain intact: "NOT UNTIL WE GET A GUILTY PLEA!" she wrote in her notes of October 22, 1989.

Rightfully yanked from the closet two decades ago, the specter of child abuse -- especially sexual child abuse -- has devolved into a kind of pervasive bogeyman lurking in the shadows of our cultural neurosis. In Florida the furor has been stoked by the 1984 conviction of day-care operators Frank and Ileana Fuster on multiple sex-abuse charges, and the 1989 death of Bradley McGee, an angelic tot who died of massive brain injuries after HRS returned him to his mother and abusive stepfather. These media shark-feeds -- and their attendant political grandstanding -- have helped child-protection agencies secure sweeping new powers and have fed a collective paranoia in which the state feels duty-bound to disrupt, and sometimes destroy, families, based on little more than a child's testimony. "The child-protection workers of this county, from the judges on down, are petrified of being crucified in the press for letting a child go back to an abusive home," observes Virginia Stanley, a veteran defense lawyer in juvenile court.

In January of this year, Stanley had considered taking the Nogueses' case. "It was the most incredible abuse of a family by the system I'd ever seen," she says, no small tribute given her scathing accounts of juvenile court. "But ultimately I told them I couldn't take it because I could see that there were so many people lined up on the other side and they all seemed committed and willing to do and say anything to win. It was the kind of thing that could financially sink a sole practitioner."

Stanley says once advocates are convinced abuse has occurred, facts are contorted to fit the premise. In the Nogues case, for instance, when Andres passed his polygraph test, it simply proved polygraph tests aren't reliable. When Aimee said she'd kill herself if Andres were sent to jail, it became proof of her love affair with him, rather than her fear of sending an innocent man up the river.

Those who stand by Aimee's original story explain her recantation, which has been steadfast and consistent over the past eighteen months, as a classic case of "denial." Psychologist Simon Miranda, a child-abuse expert involved with the Nogues case, disagrees: "This whole area of psychology [involving `denial'] is a soft science, not one that should be used to prove the existence of a problem."

Det. Ellen Christopher is not one for soft sciences. Colleagues describe Christopher as the ultimate straight shooter, right down to the Jack Friday monotone. In seven years with the Metro Dade Police Department's sexual battery unit, Christopher says she's dealt with HRS incompetence, the agency's failure to inform police when they suspect abuse, and its tendency to drop a case against someone police have arrested. But nothing, she says, prepared her for the Nogues affair, which she wearily calls "the case from Hell."

Because Andres was a medical resident in pediatrics at Miami Children's Hospital, Christopher says she was anxious to determine his guilt or innocence as quickly as possible. In the first weeks of her criminal investigation, she worked long hours, building the basis of what would eventually be a single-spaced, typewritten, 187-page report. To Christopher, Aimee's story wasn't adding up. There were too many inconsistencies, too many lies, and not enough hard evidence. A version of the truth was emerging that Christopher had seen before. "We get it all the time in our office, girls who see on the TV that they can get out of the house if they cry sexual abuse," Christopher says. "They have no idea it involves the police and social workers and everything."

But rather than working with her, Christopher says, HRS and the Guardians Ad Litem began working against her. "I got opposition from the very beginning," the detective recalls. "I don't know why." During court appearances, Christopher would watch the prosecution in disbelief: "It was this whole crew of people, and if they won a motion it was like they were at a football game and their team made a touchdown. It was embarrassing." By contrast, her testimony seemed to carry no weight with the court. The guardians, Christopher asserts, went to absurd lengths to frustrate her investigation: refusing to let her speak to Aimee, withholding evidence, manipulating witnesses. (59) The kind of stuff, Christopher says, "that if a police officer does, we go to jail. At one point I threatened to arrest June Shaw. That's how frustrated I got. I sure had enough to make an arrest. If I'd known all this was going to happen, I would have." (In fact, Christopher filed a thirteen-page complaint in September of last year [see sidebar on page 13], alleging a dozen criminal violations by Shaw and Guardian Ad Litem Robin Greene, who is also an attorney. That complaint is one of the documents now being reviewed by the Palm Beach State Attorney's Office. Both Shaw and Greene cite confidentiality rules governing juvenile cases in explaining why they are unable to comment about the Nogues case for this article.)

While Christopher was trying to make sense of the case, the state began accusing her of colluding with the Nogueses, of losing her objectivity. (60) Robin Greene sent a letter to the Metro-Dade Police Department's Internal Review Bureau, accusing Christopher of "badgering" Aimee. The bureau found no basis for the complaint. But James Smart, then head of the State Attorney's Juvenile/Dependency division, conceded in a sworn deposition that he knew there was "a great deal of animosity" between Christopher and the guardians and that he "did want the allegations [against Andres Nogues] further investigated by other detectives." (61) Though Christopher remained the sole detective on the investigation, Smart added in a recent interview, "I wanted a fresh perspective on the case."

He might have gotten just that if he and other officials had bothered to read Christopher's painstaking police report, which completely deconstructed Aimee's claims. Smart admits he hasn't read the report, and Christopher says as far as she knows no one else from HRS, the State Attorney's Office, or the Guardian Ad Litem program has come to her office to read it since she closed the case in April. Nor, says Christopher, did officials seek her opinion of the case, despite the fact that she sent them her major findings, most of which debunked Aimee's and Michelle's claims. In a broader sense, Christopher worries about the implications of a case in which an objective, in-depth criminal probe by police carries less weight with the juvenile court than investigations by HRS and Guardians Ad Litem. "All I found was a strict mother and a kid that wanted to run away," Christopher says. "They kept saying this family was dysfunctional. If they were, the system made them that way.

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Steven Almond