Now that Janet Reno has sent her swat team to tear a traumatized Elian Gonzalez from his relatives — who can forget the child’s terrified face staring at the helmeted figure whose machine gun is directed at him — it is worthwhile to consider her record as a so-called champion of children. The public remembers that she ended the lives of 25 children at Waco, Texas in the name of saving them. But what few people remember or recognize is her record on this issue prior to her becoming Attorney General.
Before her appointment by Clinton, Reno was district attorney in Dade County. There she catapulted to national attention on the basis of her prosecutions of child sex abusers: the only trouble was that the cases on which she achieved her fame were phony from top to bottom.
Grant Snowden was a police officer, named North Miami Officer of the year in 1983, whose wife had provided day care in their home for 15 years. Under relentless pressure from Reno’s office (he was prosecuted a second time, after the first case was thrown out) Snowden was railroaded on spurious charges of sexually abusing a four year old and her 6 month old brother. Key to the conviction was the testimony of self-styled child-abuse experts Laurie and Joseph Braga (she had a PhD in speech, he in education)whom Reno installed in the D.A.’s office, complete with a special interrogation room for small children, from whom they elicited preposterous charges. Snowden was given five life sentences and served twelve years. Thanks to the well known efforts of the Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz and the unsung dedication of attorney Robert Rosenthal, a federal court of appeals finally overturned Snowden’s conviction in 1998.
Reno’s most famous case, the one that made her a national figure, was Country Walk, named after the upscale suburban Miami development in which it took place. This time day care was provided by newly wed 17 year old Ileana Fuster, supplementing the income of her 36-year-old husband Frank. What makes Robert Rosenthal call this case “the worst I have ever seen” is the brutality with which Reno’s office extracted a confession from Ileana, scarcely more than a child herself. For much of the eleven months she was held before she cracked, Ileana was kept in an isolation cell. In a sworn deposition, Stephen Dinerstein, the experienced investigator employed by the Fusters’ attorneys, described how the bright, attractive girl with shiny black hair came to look as if she were 50, her skin covered with sores and infections. “That she is in a cell with nothing in it but a light in the ceiling and that she is often kept nude and in view of everybody and anybody.” Reno personally came to the prison to put on the screws. Ileana, whose condition deteriorated so badly she could hardly move, told Dinerstein that “the woman State Attorney [Reno] was very big and very scary and made suggestions as to problems that would arise if she didn’t cooperate.”
Finally Ileana “confessed.” Clutching Reno’s hand, she gave her deposition. Frank had hung his own 6 year old son Noel by the feet in the garage and twisted him like a punching bag, hung her up by her arms in the same garage, spread feces on her, forced her to perform sexual acts on the children at knifepoint; put snakes in her genitals and those of the children; and stuck a cross in her rectum. Ileana was rewarded for her cooperation with a ten year sentence (she was released after three and deported to Honduras). Her husband Frank, who never confessed and in the courtroom kept appealing to the notions he harbored, as an immigrant, of American justice, was sentenced to six life terms plus 165 years. Sixteen years into that absurd conviction, Frank Fuster remains in a Florida prison.
Even worse, if that is possible, was Reno’s behavior in the case of Bobby Fijnje, a fourteen year old boy active in his church and the son of a Dutch diplomat. Bobby was accused of a litany of absolutely ridiculous Satanic crimes including delivering babies by Cesarian section and forcing the children at the church day care center to eat them while their parents were next door at prayer. Reno put tremendous pressure on the family to have him plead guilty, offering a very light sentence if he would do so. If he would not, she would try him as an adult and put him behind bars for 99 years. The family was told he would have AIDS within a week and even the family’s lawyers and expert witnesses urged the boy and his parents to take the plea bargain.
Bobby and his father stood firm and by some miracle, given the hysterical atmosphere, the jury found him innocent. Another black mark for Reno is that she insisted that the verdict not be read until she arrived. As a result the Fijnje family was forced to sit frozen in terrified suspense for almost two hours after the jury came in with their verdict. Reno wanted to savor publicly what she assumed would be another great triumph, another notch in her belt as the champion of abused children.
Yes, these cases were tried at a time of generalized hysteria over alleged widespread child sexual abuse at day care centers and Salem witch trials of this sort were not confined to Dade County. But Reno was District Attorney. It was her duty to examine evidence (there was none)soberly, not become Hysteric-in-chief. When the hearings on Reno’s nomination as attorney general were conducted, Bobby Fijnje’s parents bombarded Clinton and Congress with information on what she had done to their son. No one was interested.
The young children of Grant Snowden were torn from their father. Frank Fuster’s young son Noel was torn from his father. Bobby Fijnjne was torn from his parents for a year prior to the trial, and if it had been up to Janet Reno, would never have been reunited with them. And all this was on the basis of charges that would be laughable if it were not that they had destroyed lives. Even now, when the absurdity of these cases — and others that rocked the country in the 1980s is almost universally recognized — Janet Reno has made no effort to secure the release of her victims. Frank Fuster still rots in prison. Snowden would still be there, were it not for Dorothy Rabinowitz and Robert Rosenthal. As for Bobby Fijnje, John Hogan, Reno’s right hand man in the D.A.’s office, whom she brought to Washington as Chief of Staff at the Justice Department, has summed up the prosecution’s view: the state’s major mistake was not spending enough money on the case.
This writer does not presume to judge whether Elian Gonzalez should grow up with his father or his Miami relatives. That is something a U.S. family court should decide on the basis of the child’s best interests and feelings. What is absolutely clear however is that Janet Reno’s history uniquely disqualifies her from making that determination.
Dr. Rael Jean Isaac is a National Advisory Board member of the Independent Women’s Forum. Her most recent book is Madness in the Streets: How Psychiatry and the Law Abandoned the Mentally Ill(co-authored with Virginia Armat), published by the Free Press.
This article appeared in the Manchester Union Leader on Thursday, April 27, 2000.