The public was shocked. Country Walk parents demanded action. An election was near. Janet Reno was going to send someone to jail. No matter what.

Country Walk, the housing development northwest of Metrozoo, is best known today for being brutally victimized by Hurricane Andrew. But not so long ago, in 1984, the affluent neighborhood suffered a different sort of tempest. It was the site of one of the most widely publicized child-abuse cases in U.S. history. The villains in that sordid affair were a 36-year-old Cuban immigrant named Francisco ("Frank") Fuster and his 17-year-old undocumented Honduran wife, Ileana. Together they were accused of molesting at least eight children at the babysitting service Ileana operated from her Country Walk home.

The Country Walk case produced its share of heroes as well. Chief among them was Dade State Attorney Janet Reno, whose national reputation as a vigorous advocate for children's welfare is expected to help propel her to swift confirmation as U.S. Attorney General.

Among child-protection workers nationwide, Country Walk is now the stuff of legend. For one thing it was the only multiple-abuse case in which children's testimony was backed by the seemingly "hard" evidence of a child's positive test for venereal disease. More important, the state's prosecution of the case was buttressed by an adult eyewitness's confession and testimony. The book Unspeakable Acts, published in 1986, and a televison docudrama of the same title that aired in 1990, thrust Country Walk into the national consciousness. Both versions have become a bible for professionals who research, investigate, and prosecute such crimes.

Countless articles have been written noting that while the infamous McMartin Preschool case in Los Angeles County was child protection's biggest fiasco, Country Walk has been its greatest triumph. The McMartin prosecution, which was the most costly legal proceeding in American history, lasted nearly seven years and resulted in not a single conviction. Country Walk, on the other hand, has been portrayed as a textbook example of how to proceed successfully with the tricky business of prosecuting complex abuse cases.

But a closer inspection of Country Walk suggests that the testimony provided by children was the result of questionable interviewing techniques, and that the pivotal confession of the prosecution's star witness was coerced and perhaps false. The re-examined evidence also suggests that this confession -- indeed the entire case -- was fueled by opportunism, zealotry, and highly unusual behavior on the part of Janet Reno.

The case seems to have its roots in an incident in the spring of 1984, when a three-year-old boy who attended the Fusters' babysitting service said to his mother, as she was bathing him, "Kiss my body. Ileana kisses all the babies' bodies." The mother expressed concern to her neighbors, and rumors about Ileana Fuster spread through Country Walk. A few months later, in August, another mother took her toddler to the Fusters. It was the first time she had ever left her boy with a babysitter, and when she came to pick him up, he seemed disoriented, irritable, and sleepy. The mother became convinced her son had been drugged.

The State Attorney's Office, notified of this mother's concern, began an investigation by interviewing several children, who had nothing to say about abuse. Then a five-year-old boy was questioned. His first interview was unrecorded, but the next day two more sessions with him were videotaped. His first recorded interview was hesitant and contradictory. But a few hours later, during his second interview, he provided vivid descriptions -- not directly elicited by investigators -- of the Fusters fondling his baby brother's penis and playing games with other naked youngsters.

He and other children who were subsequently questioned also spoke of activities that came to characterize Country Walk, like McMartin before it, as a prototypical case of "ritual abuse," filled with bizarre charges: that Frank Fuster sodomized the children; that he and Ileana gave them mind-altering drugs; that Frank waved monster masks and killed animals in front of them; that he made kiddie porn; and that during these assaults, he and Ileana chanted prayers to Satan.

Investigation into Frank Fuster's background revealed that several years earlier he had pleaded guilty to manslaughter in New York, and served prison time for the offense. In 1981 he also was convicted of lewd assault, for fondling a nine-year-old girl. (The terms of Fuster's probation in that case supposedly prohibited his involvement in child-care facilities, but Fuster's probation officer was aware of his role in Ileana's babysitting business.) A stranger had also shot Fuster in the head in 1980; relatives noted that afterward he seemed more irritable and emotionally volatile. Finally, Fuster's six-year-old son, who lived with the couple, was tested for gonorrhea of the throat and the laboratory reported positive results.

While this evidence appeared to be incriminating, much of the investigation tended to be exculpatory. When Reno's office ordered exams, Frank and Ileana both tested negative for venereal disease. Frank's relatives described him as normally affectionate, nonviolent, and nonsexual in his relations with children. He had been married once before, and his ex-wife denied he had any interest in deviant or violent sex. Investigators found no pornography in the Fuster house. Several children were examined at Jackson Memorial Hospital's Rape Treatment Center, but none had genital or anal injuries that would point directly to sexual abuse. And except for the five-year-old boy, no children described graphic sexual acts or ritual and sadistic behavior until being exposed to repeated, leading questions during interviews.

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Debbie Nathan