“Everything that I came across for 40 years has been a battle.”
It seemed that last week a decades-old controversial case was headed for a pardon vote.
Outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker had recommended a pardon for Cheryl Amirault LeFave and her brother, Gerald, in the well-known and highly disputed Fells Acre Day Care case. The Amiraults were accused and found guilty of sexually assaulting more than a dozen children in 1984 at the Malden daycare.
Amirault LeFave, currently 64 years old, was convicted in 1987 and served eight years at MCI Framingham. (Full disclosure: This reporter taught literature/theatre classes to Cheryl and her mother Violet at Framingham over the course of their incarceration.) The Amiraults and their mother, owner and director of the center, have always maintained their innocence; Baker stated that he had “grave doubts regarding the evidentiary strength of their convictions.”
Terry Kennedy, who chaired the pardon proceedings since the Amiraults live in his district, asked them, via their lawyer, James Sultan, not to attend the Gov. Council hearing on Dec. 7. He said it would be “long,” and indeed it was a contentious five-hour procedure, with the Council (which must approve all of Baker’s nominations) clearly split on whether or not to pardon the Amiraults. The governor ultimately withdrew his pardon, leaving the Amiraults reeling.
Amirault LeFave hasn’t done an interview for 20 years, she said, but wanted to speak out since she was unable to attend the hearing.
Jean Trounstine: What has it been like since you got out of prison in the 1990s?
Cheryl Amirault LeFave: I can talk about this because it’s still so fresh to me. Reentry was challenging, but what I had to do is, I had to guide my mother through it as well as myself.
Were you living together?
No, we were not. She had her place. And I had mine. My husband and I were newlyweds when I left. And when I came home, my husband Al had moved his dad in with him so that they could, you know, they could maintain the property. And so my mother had her place, which was separate. When we came home, we immediately figured out that mom had some challenges. Her marriage, apparently. He had a relationship going on. So she came home to having to deal with that. I pulled her out of her home, brought her to my house. And now I had myself, Al’s dad, and my mom all trying to deal with reentry. It wasn’t easy. So we did the best we could. I did funny things. Like I would say, Okay, I understand there are challenges going on … so let’s have a house meeting, I would take the prison terminology and bring it home.
Because that’s what you would do if you were in prison and things weren’t going right?
Yes, and you know, it was a struggle, I got lost. When I tried to walk around my neighborhood, I had no idea where the streets were. My friends would say come on over to my house, but I didn’t know how to get there. All the things that you would expect from being pulled in so suddenly and destroyed for eight years. But we were making it manageable. Mom got very sick very soon. And so that became something that we focused on.
What did she get sick from?
She came home and was diagnosed with stomach cancer and passed within three months. Yeah. So the reentry was interesting. I came home, you know, Al was expecting everything to be just perfect. And, you know, I had issues. I wasn’t myself. I just didn’t want to be in the house. I felt like the sense of freedom that I was given was overwhelming. And so I would stay out. I wouldn’t be by myself. I would go run and I would jog. I would work out. And you have to realize this whole time we still have the pending doom that we’re going to be returned to prison.
Could you explain how you got out?
We got out on a revise and revoke. My trial judge called me before him in … ’90, or maybe ’95? And he said, You know, you’ve done enough time. And, you know, I’m gonna release you early. And the district attorney came and said, We’re appealing that decision. So we didn’t get released from prison, we stayed there. And we started to fight this new battle, which was the fight for freedom. And we lost every battle. And eventually parole started to see us. And they were denying us, because we weren’t admitting to the offense. So that threw a whole new light on the case for people that were, you know …
Maintaining their innocence …
Yes, I mean, there was nothing we could do differently. And I would sit in front of the board. And I would say, I am innocent of this crime. What can I do next time I meet with you that might help you with this decision? And they would say, Cheryl, this is like AA. You don’t get cured until you admit. And that’s how they would leave the hearing. So we were at pre-release by this time. We got refused three times, and then they sent us back behind the wall. And the fights began. That’s when Dorothy Rabinowitz came on board. She wrote “A Darkness in Massachusetts” for the Wall Street Journal. And Charles Sennott wrote a Globe series and then we started to get some life. We got out [on bail] because we filed a new motion. We filed a couple of them, actually. One was on the right to face the accusers. And the second one was on the validity of the testimony of children.
On Oct. 21, 1999, LeFave reached a deal with the prosecution to settle her case and stay out of prison. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, she agreed not to appear on television to discuss her experiences or profit from the case. In exchange, she did not have to return to Framingham.
So then you got out, What were some of the other difficulties of reentry?
I was lost in my own city. I had no income. I lost my career. But it was funny because after three months, I said, you know, I gotta go get a job. So I went down to a temp agency, and it was in Malden. And I held my head up high and I walked in. I filled the application out. They never asked the question, Have you ever been convicted of a crime? So I called my attorney. I said, Is this okay, this is legalese. Yeah, he said, you’re on appeal. There’s no conviction. So go ahead. And they sent me to John Hancock for a temporary agency. And I couldn’t believe it. When I pulled up I found that John Hancock—this is pretty big. So, I worked for them for three months. And the HR woman had a position available, and she said she’d like to hire me permanently.
The day she hired me, the 48 Hours piece came out on TV and David d’aLessandro [Chairman of the Hancock Board] came down to greet me and welcomed me and said he was proud to have me as his employee. I nearly died because it was a sense of relief. And it was an acknowledgment that somebody’s finally listening. And I have a 20-year full career there. I mean, it couldn’t have gotten any better for me. But meanwhile, I was still tethered to probation, I had 10 years probation. I had to see them every 14 days, eye-to-eye contact, couldn’t be a phone call. It had to be face to face. In the midst of all that, my career was building, And opportunities started to come to me that would involve travel. But the stipulation of my probation was no travel.
I went with my attorney, Charles Ogletree, and I presented my case in front of one of the judges in Essex County. And he granted it. He said, Absolutely, you can travel. So I went back to my probation office. And the Essex district attorney called me into the office and he said, Over my dead body, I’m in charge of this house and you’re not going anywhere. That was the end of that. I said, Okay, these people in power are still crazy. And I said, let me just do what I have to do. And that’s what I did.
And, you know, everything that I came across for 40 years has been a battle. I mean, I fill out an application to go volunteer somewhere, it’s a challenge: Cheryl, have you ever been convicted? What is the nature of the offense? Are you kidding me, like, you know, this faces me all the time, it never goes away. And, you know, that’s something we were talking about in the hearing, the continued humiliation of this conviction. It’s never gonna go away. But we need to have a life that’s truly a free life.
The first week I went home, I went to my attic, I threw out every single thing that I had in my house out the door. These are things I had to cleanse. I did not want to see anything that was reminiscent of my life before 1984. I got rid of it all. And, whether it was a good decision or a bad decision, it’s the one I made. Then I started to chip away at my whole circle of friends. New friends? I very seldom do that. Because, the question is, So do you have any children? What did you do for work? It’s like, constant. My circle got smaller and smaller, and my family got stronger and stronger. And that works for me. That’s how it is but it’s still not easy.
So daily activities … Did you make a life where you have some anonymity?
Nobody knows who I am. Anonymity, unless, you know, with this recent coverage. I try not to put myself out there. I have not done one interview. My routine really is yoga, gym, and then a bike ride. Outside of that, it’s just taking care of, you know, the necessities—doctors’ appointments, etc. … and I’m dating Michael.
I want to hear how you met Michael. You retired from the Hancock job?
I did. Yeah. I retired four years ago. And, yes, it was because of Michael that I retired. I could have stayed there forever. I had a wonderful job working as an executive assistant. And they all wrote letters for me, by the way. I retired and our plan was, let’s do it. You know, you can rent your property. You can come up to the White Mountains with me. And we’ll spend summers up there and winters out west. But my being on the sex offender registry prohibits spontaneous travel.
So how did you meet Mike?
So about seven years ago, we went to a barbecue together in Mike’s backyard. My brother introduced me to Mike. And, you know, he was enamored right away, believe it or not. And I was too. I had not dated. Al had passed in 2014. So it only had been two years. And we developed a friendship. I told him that I was too busy. And the timing wasn’t right. So we continued a phone relationship, maybe once a month, checking in, and then eventually he got me to go out on a date. He grew on me. I felt like I struck gold for the second time. Because I had beauty with Al and I have beauty with Michael. He loves me as much as Al did.
What’s your next step?
So my next step is to just take a breather. We are happy that we have another opportunity because the pardon was withdrawn. But there’s been no discussion as of today about our next steps. I’m just going to enjoy the holiday, But we’re not going to let this go away. Until we get it corrected. We don’t know how long it’s gonna take, or whatever news that will be. But we have to do this for my mother.
Being on the sex registry means I can’t live with Michael. Where it stands now, I can’t leave Massachusetts for more than two days.
Why don’t you marry? Wouldn’t that change it?
If I lived in New Hampshire, NH would put me on their sex-offender registry. And that’s a problem for me. You know why I care? When you’re put on that, and you go to do anything. If you sign up for a neighborhood app, you get denied because you are on the registry.
What’s different for Gerald? I know he served 18 years in prison and was released on parole in 2004.
He is also on the sex offender registry, and has a multitude of stipulations. Lie detector tests, enforced journal writing with whereabouts, no travel without permission, and he has an ankle bracelet.
What is your interpretation of how this all happened?
There was never an offense against the school prior to 1984 and we had never had an infraction against us in our lives. But it’s obvious, the initial investigation and the hysteria happened within two days of the hotline phone call. The hotline phone call came in on Labor Day. Monday the school was closed and Tuesday the cops were at the house, pulling lists of all the kids. They arrested my brother the following day. No investigation whatsoever. And then it caused panic because the papers went scandalous. Within a week, probably three days, they brought the parents down there and they gave them the laundry list. … They had four teams of people on these kids, for what, maybe a year and a half before they took the stand?
You said that “the initial child, Michael, came to the school for about 17 days?”
Yes. Gerald, known as Tookie, was the school’s bus driver, and always asked to have the kids sent up to the bus. The teacher said one of the kids had wet his pants, and Tookie said, Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. With doors wide open and teachers running around, my brother got the extra clothes we had for kids who wet their pants and wiped him down and threw the new panties on the kid, put the wet ones in the bag. He brought Michael (four yrs-old) home, and Tookie told his family, Michael wet his pants. And that was it.
But the hype was going on about the McMartin sex abuse case. The McMartin family operated a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, and around this exact time were charged with hundreds of acts of sexual abuse of children in their care. It was national news. And the cousin of the child, I think it was, had apparently been playing sexually with Michael. The mother wanted somebody to talk to Michael … and eventually asked him if anyone touched him at school. And he said, Yes, Tookie did.
The mother called the hotline?
Yes. There was a rush to judgment. … I went to jail, and not one cop, not one social worker … no one ever questioned me, I just went to jail.
It’s hard to believe that this can happen, but it did.
This article is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.