Untying the Gordian Knot: A Return to Reason
Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield*
ABSTRACT: The Country Walk case in Miami, Florida, in which Ileana
Fuster confessed, is often used as an example of a day care case where
the bizarre, ritualistic abuse was, in fact, corroborated. Recently
however, Ileana Fuster gave a sworn statement in which she described
extremely questionable behaviors on the part of her defense attorney, two
psychologists, and the state's attorney, Janet Reno. Ileana's statement
suggests that her confession was most likely false and was elicited by
highly coercive procedures over the two years she was in solitary
confinement prior to the trial. This introduction is followed by the
transcript of Ileana's deposition.
In the Fourth Century, B. C., Alexander the Great solved the
problem of untying the Gordian knot with one swift slash of his sword.
With this solution to loosening the knot that artfully concealed the
ends, Alexander fulfilled the oracle that predicted the person who
solved the knot would rule Asia. Ever since, his swift choice of a
reasonable alternative to an intractable problem has served as a
paradigm of the exercise of reason to cut quickly through a difficult
morass of foolishness.
The transcript of a statement by Ileana Fuster that follows this
introductory essay may show how a modern Gordian knot may be cut with
a swift, decisive stroke. At the least this transcript points to how
it is beginning to unravel. It may well lead to an appellate reversal
of the conviction of Frank Fuster in the 1986 Country Walk child
sexual abuse case in Miami. It may also result in an opportunity for
courageous leaders to remind the entire justice system that there can
be no tolerance of malfeasance or misconduct by any prosecutor,
including Janet Reno, the Attorney General of the United States.
The unfounded dogmas, theories, assertions of fact, guesses,
policies, procedures, early flawed research, techniques, laws,
networks of professionals, bureaucracies, politicians, and rhetoric
that form the current sexual abuse system, like the Gordian knot, is a
huge, tangled mass with no easy way to pick out an end to start
untying it. There may be no sharp blade available to cut through the
tightly bundled strands. But untie it we must. Scientific analysis of
the level of error of the decisions made in accusations of sexual
abuse suggests this knotted up system may be doing more harm to more
people, children and adults, than it benefits or protects (Wakefield
& Underwager, 1994a, 1994b). It must be changed.
It is important to understand that the development of this flawed
contemporary approach to child abuse is an anomaly when the history of
psychological investigation of child witnesses is understood (Ceci
& Bruck, 1993). It is an aberrant eruption of irrationality in a
situation with few facts. It may serve as a corrective to past
oversights, but the cost is far too high. The damage done to
individuals, to children, to parents, to our nation, and to our
culture by this mistaken rush to reach the goal of reducing the abuse
done to children is beyond calculation. Nevertheless, the cost of this
folly is beginning to be apparent to more and more people (Armbrister,
The two cases that alerted the national consciousness to
accusations of sexual abuse were the 1984 Jordan, Minnesota sexual
abuse allegations and the McMartin case in California, which came to
trial several years later although both began at the same time. In
those two instances, there were no convictions but rather sufficient
evidence for a jury to conclude that adult influence on children
produced mistaken accounts.
However, there have also been highly publicized, controversial
cases in which there were convictions. A number of these cases have
been used to support and validate the dogmas and speculations that
make up and maintain the massive knot we face. The Miami Country Walk
case is one of them. If these cases, which are cited to prove claims
otherwise quite vulnerable to a reasoned skepticism, are overturned or
reversed, it helps us return to rational efforts to improve the
accuracy of decisions.
There are two processes going on that are loosening the strands and
opening up the possibility of a return to a more reasoned and accurate
way to make decisions about accusations of child sexual abuse. The
first is in the science of psychology where continuing research is
producing more clarity and more accurate knowledge of the factors
involved. This development is carefully described by Ceci (1994).
growing body of more ecologically valid research with greater
specificity leads him to conclude that, on balance, the weight is on
the side of the defense concern about false allegations and adult
behaviors toward children that increase the likelihood of false
positives. In addition to the growing body of more adequate research
in memory; suggestibility, and social influence, we are also beginning
to understand at least a little bit more about how to increase the
accuracy of the decisions made.
The second process that is beginning to unravel the knot is in the
justice system where, after several years, appellate reviews are
recognizing some of the errors that have been made and are moving to
correct them. While there are many appellate decisions involving
lesser known cases, some of the high visibility and highly
controversial convictions are being overturned as well. The
possibility of false accusations and wrongful convictions is evident
in many cases that have been overturned on appeal. The most recent
highly visible instance has been the decision of the New Jersey
Supreme Court in the Kelly Michaels case (State v. Michaels, 136 NJ
299, Supreme Court of New Jersey, 642 Atlantic Reporter, 2d, 1372).
were witnesses in the defense case in that trial and find it
heartening that the New Jersey Supreme Court validates and affirms the
testimony we gave in that case. The decision also establishes a
procedure for a "taint hearing." If the defense can demonstrate a reasonable cause to believe adult influence on children
in the course of disclosure, investigation, or therapy, has tainted or
contaminated their statements, then the state has the burden of proof in
a pretrial hearing to demonstrate that the statements are reliable
enough to be admissible in a trial. A summary of other review decisions
is Mason (1991) who reviews 122 appellate decisions involving child
sexual abuse cases. There have been many more since then, of course.
The Country Walk case in Miami, 1986, in which Frank Fuster was
convicted primarily on the basis of a purported confession by his
young wife, Ileana, has been cited frequently by the proponents of a
prosecutorial view. There were incriminating statements by a number of
children but it is also the case that there is ample evidence of
extremely leading, coercive, and suggestive interviewing and
investigation of the children.
The conviction and Ileana's purported confession are claimed to
demonstrate that children's accounts can be reliable even when they
have been subjected to coercive, leading, and repeated interviews
(Goodman, Aman, & Hirschman, 1987). Crewdson (1988) asserts that
this case proves the allegations of satanic, ritualistic abuse are
true even when accounts by children seem bizarre and impossible.
Finkelhor, Williams, and Burns (1988) use it to show that individuals
establish day care centers for the express purpose of abusing
children, that abuse occurs in family day care settings, that women
procure children for men to abuse, that it corroborates ritualistic
abuse, that it proves criminal record checks must be required of day
care employees, that children in day care are at high risk for
molestation, that attractive children are abused more frequently and
systematically, that children are forced to sexually abuse other
children, that children are drugged, that parents miss obvious signs
that abuse is going on, that fantastic accounts by children can be
believed because this case corroborated them, that parental pressure
to pursue an investigation is desirable, that parents and
investigators should be partners in the investigation, that strong
cases can pressure perpetrators to confess, that media coverage can
aid a prosecution, and, finally, that angry parents who organize can
accomplish desired changes in policy and law. Summit (1993) maintains the Country Walk case refutes the
defense claim that children can be indoctrinated by adults to produce
accounts of abuse.
The conviction of Frank Fuster in the Country Walk trial is now in
the first stages of an appeal seeking review by higher courts. The
appeal is based on the claim of new evidence emerging after the
conviction. The new evidence includes the recent scientific research
mentioned as the first unraveling factor. The second is the
development of evidence strongly suggesting that Ileana's confession
was coerced and that it is the product of improper, unethical, and
possibly even illegal acts by attorneys, mental health professionals,
and the then Dade County District Attorney, Janet Reno.
The first public indication of evidence that the confession cannot
be seen simply as full and reliable corroboration of all the
accusations was in the article by Debbie Nathan (1993), "Revisiting
Country Walk," published in this journal. Nathan carefully and
responsibly investigated the facts available, interviewed many of the
persons involved, and presents hard data demonstrating that Ileana's
defense attorney had strong motivation to get out of the case and
cooperate with the prosecution, even to the extent of proffering a
confession before she had confessed. He brought in two psychologists
who engaged in intense, highly coercive procedures to elicit a
confession. During this effort, the psychologist reported that Janet
Reno visited Ileana in her cell at least 30 times. Nathan shows that,
even in what is supposed to be the corroborating confession given in
court, Ileana denied any guilt and claimed she was innocent.
Following the appearance of that article, during the time when
Janet Reno was nominated and subsequently confirmed as Attorney
General of the United States, several other print media raised the
question of Reno's involvement in this coercive effort and suggested
the possibility of a forced false confession. Now we have a statement,
under oath, by Ileana Fuster that substantiates and affirms Nathan's
account. She describes her experience from her arrest to the trial and
her forced testimony.
Ileana's statement, if accurate, presents an astonishing portrayal
of coercive, inhumane, unjust, and emotional and psychological
torture, perpetrated by a justice system that has abandoned any pretense of seeking justice for
all, but is concerned only with winning cases. To be sure, the District
Attorney's office did not use thumb screws, the rack, or electric shock.
But psychological and emotional techniques devised to reduce a human
being to an obedient, compliant, and cooperative slave were inflicted
upon a 17-year-old woman who came to this country to seek a better life
but found horror.
We do not believe that this young woman could have the
sophistication, knowledge, or imagination to fabricate her account
given in the transcript. We believe the details and the description
she gives could only come from having gone through the experiences she
relates. When she says that she remembers other things from that
period but then says she has no memory of any abuse, this is the way
human memory actually works.
When you read Ileana's statement you will find a high level of
correspondence between what was done to her and the descriptions of
the coercive techniques used with captive Americans analyzed by Lifton
(1961) and Schein (1961) following the Korean war. Lifton describes
twelve psychological steps in the process of coercing a confession.
First is the assault upon identity in which a person is placed
"in the position of an infant or sub-human animal, helplessly
manipulated by larger and stronger adults." Second is the
establishment of guilt by the infallible environment, "You are
guilty," and the psychologically demanding, "You must learn
to feel guilty." Third is self-betrayal in denouncing friends and
colleagues and accepting "help" and in turn helping others.
Fourth is the breaking point when the total environment is understood
to be inflexible and the "stubborn criminal" has to change.
Then follows leniency and kindness where the total environment does
not budge but lets up on the pressure sufficiently for the prisoner to
absorb its values and adapt to them. The next step is the compulsion
to confess because only those who confess will survive. Once this is
begun, then the guilt is channeled into reinterpretation of events.
Next comes re-education during which the prisoner is faced with
endless repetition of the required "truths" until he thinks
and feels in terms of the new reality. When the no longer strange
total environment is accepted, a sense of harmony is nurtured by receiving positive reinforcements.
The final confession and summing
up is the delivery of a correct and acceptable version (pp. 67-85).
Schein's (1961) analysis of the reports and descriptions he studied
as an Army research psychologist includes three successive stages
labeled "unfreezing," "changing," and
"refreezing." He provides detailed analysis of each of these
three steps and discusses the factors needed to bring about the
change. Unfreezing is overcoming the resistance of the prisoner to
confessing something that is not true. This is accomplished by the
agent strengthening the forces toward confession and weakening the
forces against confession. Almost all of the ways Schein describes how
this is done are evident in the account of Ileana. Once unfrozen, the
influence agent provides guidance for altering beliefs. This is
changing. Then come refreezing or fixing the prisoner in the changed
The steps to accomplish this are set forth. First is precipitation
of an identity crisis. Then comes the induction of a motive to find
acceptable beliefs about the self within the total environment. The
third step is providing information helpful to the prisoner in finding
acceptable beliefs. Fourth is presentation of another person whose
identity is acceptable to the total environment. This is followed by
identification with the other person. Finally, what the other person
says is accepted as credible information (Schein, 1961, pp. 117-139)
This brief summary of these two reports cannot do full justice to
the close parallels between their description of the coercive process
that produced false confessions and the experience described by this
young woman. We urge you to read carefully through the statement, then
obtain Lifton's and Schein's reports and study them in light of what
you have learned about the things done to Ileana in Dade County,
Another documented instance where coercive persuasion led to false
confessions of child sexual abuse, including bizarre and impossible
ritualistic and satanic behaviors, is the Paul Ingram case in
Washington. The procedures and techniques used in eliciting erroneous
confessions that led to subjective belief by Ingram are similar to
those evident in the statement by Ileana and Nathan's 1993 article.
What was done to Paul Ingram is described by Ofshe (1992), Ofshe and Watters (1994), and Wright (1993).
Although there are many
similarities, Ileana's experience includes even more severe and
unconscionable acts by the authorities than are found in the Ingram
record. In the Ingram case, for example, there is no indication of two
years of solitary confinement, enforced nakedness, freezing cold,
special evenings at restaurants, or multiple visits by the District
The psychologists, sent by the defense attorney, also used hypnotic
procedures, fantasy inductions, memory work as the recovered memory
therapists do it, interminably repeated questions, anger, pressure,
mockery, affection, rewards, and reinforcements. Ileana was kept in
solitary confinement, often naked and cold, for over two years. She
had no contact with people other than those who created a total
environment of pressure and conformity. At least twice she was taken
out to a restaurant for dinner by investigators from the District
Attorney's office. Often, while the psychologists applied their
coercive techniques, Janet Reno sat next to her holding her hand.
close cooperation, if not collusion, between prosecutor and defense
attorney is quite unusual, to say the least. If outlined in a human
rights report to Amnesty International or the United States Congress,
the methods endorsed, approved, and practiced by Ms. Reno would
"justly be called brainwashing" (Cockburn, 1993).
The article by Nathan and the statement by Ileana Fuster present a
picture that suggests Janet Reno suborned perjury. At the very least,
it indicates that Reno either approved or allowed procedures and
techniques that are so coercive that the best comparison is the
techniques and approaches used by the Chinese with American prisoners
If this were the only time Janet Reno directed a questionable child
sexual abuse prosecution, it might be seen as an isolated instance of
poor judgment. However, Reader's Digest, hardly an extremist
publication, carefully examined the case of Bobby Fijnje, a
14-year-old lad prosecuted by Reno in 1991 (Armbrister, 1994). This
report shows that Reno, once again, presided over an inept, coercive
investigation in which little children were led to produce accounts of
events that clearly could not have happened. The Reader's Digest
description of this includes a closing comment: "Then you had an ambitious State Attorney who wanted to
make a name for herself. The result was a tragic miscarriage of justice"
(Armbrister, 1994, p. 40).
When it was first announced that Ms. Reno was being considered for
nomination for the Attorney General's office, the article by Nathan
(1993), published in this journal was faxed to the White House. Assuming it was read by someone, the administration of President
Clinton proceeded with her nomination with knowledge of the likelihood
that Reno may have behaved very badly in coercing the confession from
Ileana. In addition to this, Bob Fijnje, who had a distinguished
career in the Dutch Foreign Service, father of Bobby, "sent a
letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee; in it he charged that Reno
had 'abused my son by her actions and robbed him of one year, eight
months and one week of his life' (Armbrister, 1994, p. 40). Nothing happened.
Nobody talked to the
Fijnjes. No senator even questioned her about the case or the Country
Walk case. She was confirmed by the Senate without a dissenting vote.
No one pursued any inquiry then. Even with the addition of the
statement from Ileana, an investigation of this case may well never
occur. Janet Reno is now the chief law enforcement official in the
country, a fact which should cause considerable alarm. It may also
mean that no one will dare attend to the credible evidence of at least
strikingly poor judgment if not wrongdoing. Established power does not
deal with perceived threats to its position with empathy,
understanding, or admission of error. In his nomination of Reno,
President Clinton cited her record in prosecuting child abuse and said
it shows "She has truly put people first" (Armbrister, 1994,
p. 40). This may be another instance of the ambiguous attitude toward
truth that many American citizens believe characterizes this
In her first press conference Reno said she was personally opposed
to the death penalty but that, as prosecutor, when she believed the
evidence and the law justified it, she consistently asked for it.
least since the days of Thomas More and Henry VIII there has been a
strong tradition in our culture that when desires of the sovereign,
laws, or policies are morally and intellectually repugnant to you,
you do not take jobs or responsibilities that require you to act against your
conscience. This principle was clearly enforced in the Nuremberg trials
following World War II. Cockburn (1993) observes that Reno's position is
no different than Adolf Eichmann who said he, too, was opposed to the
Final Solution but went ahead with the calculations of how many Jews
could be forced into a cattle car on their way to the gas chambers.
Reno's readiness to respond with poor judgment when there is an
allegation of child sexual abuse and her willingness to put the
requirements of the job ahead of her own moral persuasions may well
have come to fruition in the conflagration at Waco where 87 American
citizens, including 17 children, died under the treads of American
battle tanks. She said that night, after the nation had watched the
killing flames all day, that her decision to invade the compound was
prompted by the report of sexual abuse of children in the community in
Waco (Wakefield & Underwager, 1994b). The official FBI report on
the tragedy acknowledges that the report of sexual abuse was false.
While it is troublesome that ambitious individuals with records of
disastrous errors in judgment can rise to positions of high authority
and considerable influence, both in mental health professions and the
justice system, it is more common than most realize. Yet there is also
hope that the continued shared search for factual knowledge in both
areas can ultimately prevail. Science has a built in corrective that,
while there may be a delay until sufficient facts are known, uncovers
errors. The justice system, when wrongdoing is known and acknowledged
to have produced error, seeks exposure of the wrongdoing and righting
the injustice. However, this requires strong and courageous leadership
by someone with sufficient position to run the risks.
Surely, we all understand that it is good to protect children from
abuse. But in order to do this, we must strive for the most accurate
decisions possible. In this manner the confusing and puzzling Gordian
knot can be untied and we can pursue true justice and good lives for
our children together.
If the appeal in the Country Walk case is successful and the
admission of the coerced confession is recognized as a reversible
error, there will be a powerful precedent that may well permit the review of other cases where the
presence of similar factors can be shown. Justice may finally be granted
to innocent persons who have been victims of error in a justice system
gone crazy. Such a shift in the direction of more attention to accuracy
will be beneficial to adults and children alike. It is essential for the
well being of the nation as well. No nation can long endure such
institutionalized and systematic error in the justice system to which
citizens look for fairness and protection of their liberties (Tyler,
Armbrister, T. (1994, January). Justice gone crazy. Reader's Digest,
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|* Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield are psychologists at the
Institute for Psychological Therapies,
5263 130th Street East,
Northfield, MN 55057-4880.