The Case From Hell, Part II

On September 23, 1989, Lisette Nogues, a consulting neurologist, and Andres Nogues, an aspiring physician and her husband of thirteen years, were accused by their fifteen-year-old daughter Aimee of child abuse. That same night, caseworkers from the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) removed the Nogueses' seven minor children from their Kendall home and sent them to stay with their 21-year-old sister Michelle Nogues Porras and her husband Rick. Det. Ellen Christopher, of the Metro-Dade Police sexual battery unit, initiated a criminal investigation of Aimee's allegations that Andres had engaged in vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse with her for the past three years. Christopher concluded that Aimee's stories -- which included claims that Lisette was physically abusive -- had been fabricated in the misguided hope that she could escape her mother's strict household. Aimee's own private confessions to friends supported Christopher's theory; Aimee later insisted she made the allegations at Michelle's urging. But HRS officials and Dade State Attorney's Office prosecutors building a case for juvenile court believed Aimee. And the Nogueses, a month into the investigation, were denied visitation rights with their children altogether.

On January 8, 1990, after seventeen weeks of rancorous pretrial hearings, Lisette and Andres Nogues finally came to trial in juvenile court on the ten abuse charges lodged by HRS. The proceeding, formally called an adjudication hearing, carries no criminal penalty, but if a judge finds parents guilty of even one charge, their children remain wards of the state until the parents meet certain conditions -- such as undergoing therapy or taking parenting classes -- set out in a "performance agreement."

During the seventeen-day trial, which dragged out over a two-month period, Lisette Nogues's forceful personality made her a lightning rod for scorn. Born in Cuba, Nogues was orphaned at five, married young, and later put herself through medical school as a single mother with five children. Strict and demanding, she ran her close-knit household with an unbending sense of morality. To the state, she became a dragon lady. Defense attorney Juan Carrera says prosecutors and Guardians Ad Litem privately carped at her righteous manner, her crucifixes, even her taste for black skirts. "I've never experienced anything like it," recalls Carrera, an eight-year veteran of juvenile court. "When you look at the transcript, you see the amount of time the state spent trying to prove that Lisette Nogues was inherently wicked. At one point I sat down with [Assistant State Attorney] Esther Blynn and told her, `Look, this is totally out of hand.' And the attitude coming back was like, `You have devils for clients.'"

The state cast Lisette Nogues as a religious zealot who terrorized her children and kept them isolated from their peers. At one point prosecutors called a neighbor to document the family's strange chant for sun -- San Isidro el labrador/quita el agua y pon el sol -- a Cuban folk rhyme so well known that several courtroom observers couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of its evil portrayal. Even the state's first major witness, family friend Nidia Carrero, confirmed what Lisette's own records show: that she was a mother so concerned about her children's welfare that she wrote to their schools in 1985 stating she would not tolerate corporal punishment of them. "I told them she was a very, very loving mother and they all looked at me like I was crazy," recalls Carrero, who lived with the Nogueses for four years. (62) "They portrayed her as something out of the Dark Ages, a monster. It seemed to me like all they had was Michelle's word."(63)

Juan Carrera says once prosecutors saw their case against Lisette was fizzling, they changed tack, pursuing the central charge against Andres Nogues: that he regularly engaged in sex with Aimee. Prosecutor Esther Blynn pointed to Andres Nogues's own admission that when Aimee was eight years old, he had accidentally touched her between the legs as he dozed. She also cited Michelle Porras's 1986 allegation that Andres fondled her breasts as she pretended to sleep -- discredited by Michelle's own recantation and polygraphs of both parties -- as confirmation of Andres's abusive history.

But the state's case was principally founded on the emotional theatrics in Aimee's two depositions, videotaped before the trial. They were masterful performances that Aimee now insists reflected mostly the inner torment she felt about ruining her family with lies. On two occasions Judge Seymour Gelber requested that Aimee testify in person, but prosecutors said she was too "fragile" to appear in court.

Beyond Aimee's and Michelle's depositions and the analyses of state-commissioned psychologists, the hard evidence seemed to favor the Nogueses. Ellen Christopher, for instance, had discovered that on two particular days when Aimee had called a friend and told him she'd been molested, Andres Nogues was working 24-hour shifts at Miami Children's Hospital. Aimee also claimed they had sex in a storage room that Christopher determined was so full of junk not even the exterminator could get the door open. (64) Aimee tested positive for the highly contagious venereal disease chlamydia. Both her parents tested negative on a pair of tests, confirming neither had had the disease in the past ten years. (65) Dr. Robert Greenman, an expert on infectious diseases at the University of Miami Medical School, testified that Andres would have run a 70-to-90 percent chance of contracting chlamydia from Aimee if he had sexual contact with her as frequently as prosecutors alleged. (65a)

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Steven Almond