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As Baker seeks pardons in Fells Acres abuse case, those who testified as children see ‘betrayal’

Governor Charlie Baker has defended his decision to recommend pardons for Gerald Amirault and Cheryl Amirault LeFave.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker’s push to pardon Gerald Amirault and his sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave, has incensed those who maintain that they or their child was sexually abused at the Fells Acres Day School nearly 40 years ago, highlighting the complications that have long underpinned the case.

“We were not coaxed. We were not coerced. We were not brainwashed” into making allegations, said Jenn Bennett, who testified in the mid-1980s that Amirault sexually abused her and has repeatedly stood by her testimony since publicly identifying herself as a victim more than two decades ago.

At issue is Baker’s decision this month to recommend pardons for Amirault and his sister, saying he had “grave doubt regarding the evidentiary strength” of the siblings’ convictions.

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For Bennett, now 44 and a mother of three, Baker’s recommendations felt like a “betrayal,” one that she only learned of from a relative who saw it in a news report, she said. On Monday, Bennett said she had called Baker’s office a half-dozen times since he announced the pardons on Nov. 18, but had yet to receive a response.

Baker’s office confirmed Tuesday that it didn’t perform any direct outreach to victims.

“I’m reliving my case all over again. Why are they doing this again?” Bennett said. “[Gerald Amirault] should have gotten a life sentence. Instead I got the life sentence.”

Baker, who is leaving office in January, issued the pardon recommendations against the advice of his Advisory Board of Pardons, a first for him amid three batches of pardons he’s issued in the waning months of his tenure. In a September letter, the board urged him to deny Gerald Amirault’s clemency petition and, a month earlier, told LeFave in a letter that the court system was the “appropriate avenue to pursue vacating a conviction.”

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The Governor’s Council, which has to approve any clemency recommendations from the governor, has scheduled a Dec. 13 hearing for the pardons. Councilor Terrence Kennedy, who is chairing the hearing, said he has recommended to their lawyers that Amirault and LeFave not appear at the hearing, saying he’s concerned it could tip into “retrying the case.” But Kennedy said he would give those others who want to testify the chance “to be heard.”

“The people whose children went to the day care absolutely believe that their children were 100 percent sexually assaulted. Do I know if it’s true? I don’t,” said Kennedy, a Lynnfield Democrat who said he served as the prosecutor at Gerald Amirault’s initial arraignment but was not involved in the case beyond that.

“It’s not about whether they committed the crimes,” Kennedy said of the hearing and considering the pardons. “A lot of people feel they were unjustly convicted. A lot of people feel they were justly convicted. Whether they have a pardon has more to do with where they are in their station in life.”

Gerald Amirault, 68, spent 18 years in prison after being convicted in 1986 of sexually assaulting nine children at his family’s day-care center, the Fells Acres Day School in Malden. LeFave, and their mother, Violet Amirault, were convicted in a separate trial in 1987. Violet Amirault served eight years in prison, and died of cancer in 1997 less than one year after being freed on bail. LeFave also spent eight years in prison.

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Gerald Amirault has long maintained his innocence, and the case fell under scrutiny after some of the methods investigators used to obtain child witness testimony were discredited and abandoned. A Globe story about the controversy from 1995 noted that videotapes and transcripts of interviews conducted with the children included several instances of them denying abuse only to have the interviewer plead and cajole, at times offering gifts, for the “correct” answer.

The case included accusations that Gerald Amirault dressed up as a clown and that children were raped with knives. Police at the time suggested that parents ask their children about a “magic room.” Bennett testified in 1986 that Gerald Amirault took her there and sexually abused her, according to court records.

“I will stand on my parents’ grave and say it happened. I’ll stand on a stack of Bibles,” Bennett said in an interview. “I still suffer with the nightmares. I still suffer not being able to go out in public without someone with me. I can’t hold a job.”

Baker said Tuesday that he leaned heavily on past court decisions in issuing the pardon recommendations, particularly a 1998 ruling issued by Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein, who at the time voided LeFave’s abuse conviction. Borenstein ruled in a 140-page decision that LeFave’s alleged victims were manipulated by “overzealous” investigators who succumbed to a “climate of panic, if not hysteria.”

Borenstein wrote that investigators were intent on charging the Amiraults, and ignored “incredible” claims by children of talking robots and being tied naked to a tree in front of the school.

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The Supreme Judicial Court later overturned Borenstein‘s decision granting LeFave a new trial. But prosecutors ultimately agreed that LeFave should not return to prison, and a judge in 1999 reduced her sentence to the time she had served.

“You work with the tools you have. But the fact that those tools have been discredited so significantly over the course of time raises very serious issues about their credibility during that process,” Baker said Tuesday about investigators’ methods. “That’s why we believe at this point this is the right thing to do.”

The case has hung over Baker for years. Amirault told the Salem News in 2016 that he met Baker in the North End in 2014 while the Republican was campaigning for governor, and that Baker promised “once he was elected, one of the first things on his list would be to take care of my situation.”

Barbara Anderson, the late antitax crusader for Citizens for Limited Taxation, wrote in a column before her death that year that her dying wish was that Baker keep his promise of “getting Gerald off parole and his ankle bracelet.”

To others, the decision now to recommend pardons does little more than tear into old wounds. Barbara Standke, whose son, Brian Martinello, testified during the 1986 trial that Amirault sexually abused him, said he underwent years of counseling but “never got his life back.”

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“I shouldn’t have to keep trying to convince people [about] what happened to my son,” said Standke, 68. She said Martinello is “not up to speaking to anybody.”

“I lived through it. My child lived through it. If they weren’t there to witness it or to witness what my kid went through, they have no right to say this crap didn’t happen,” Standke said.

She said she voted for Baker, but, like Bennett, was upset that she was not told ahead of time about the pardon recommendations. Standke said she has since gotten a notification letter from the Sex Offender Registry Board, where Gerald Amirault is currently listed as a Level 3 offender, considered the highest risk to the public.

“It’s wrong. It’s just wrong,” Standke said of the pardons. “It’s a slap in my face to my son. It’s a slap in the face to me.”

James L. Sultan, an attorney for Amirault and LeFave, welcomed Baker’s pardon recommendation, saying in a statement that his clients did not receive a fair trial and served time for “crimes they did not commit.”

He also cited support for the pardons from Borenstein and the late Superior Court Judge Robert Barton, who in 1995 ruled that LeFave and her mother’s rights to confront their accusers had been violated by a special courtroom seating arrangement for the child witnesses. The SJC later agreed that the seating arrangement denied the women their right to face their accusers, but it maintained the evidence against them still pointed to guilt.

Janet Fine, a longtime victim witness advocate who worked at the Middlesex district attorney’s office at the time of the convictions, said she has been in touch with roughly a half-dozen victims or their relatives since the pardon recommendations were announced.

That Baker’s office didn’t contact them beforehand is “unconscionable,” she said.

“The issues that are being put forward now as justification for seeking a pardon for the Amiraults are the same issues that have been thoroughly litigated and vetted over and over again,” Fine said. “They have stood the test of time. The convictions have stood the test of time.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.