Longform

The Case From Hell, Part I

Page 6 of 7

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."

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Steven Almond