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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

You Better Not Shout...


Congressman Joe Wilson’s shout heard round the world has made him either a hero or a villain, depending on your view of President Obama and his health care reform bill. To me, there was something unsettling about those words. About an hour after his outburst, I found myself repeating those two words, but changing the inflection, making them sound angrier… scarier… OMINOUS (to use a Neil Goldstein term). I had no clue why I did that… at the time. But now I know. It turns out Wilson was not the only person to shout those words (or words that are very similar) at someone who had the floor during an official proceeding.

It happened in Miami… in a courtroom… in 1985. An angry man listened as his young bride accused him of sexually molesting a 5-year-old boy. With rage building and his patience dwindling, the man stood up and screamed “Liar! YOU ARE A LIAR!” In the words of the Gainesville Sun, his wife “shrieked and shirked back into her chair, her mouth twisted in pain, as if she had been shot”. She then told the prosecutor, “get me out of here”, as a stunned jury watched. That man’s name is Francisco “Frank” Fuster Escalona, operator of the infamous Country Walk Babysitting Service, and the center of Florida’s most famous child abuse case. That outburst painted Fuster as some kind of a monster in the eyes of the jury, and most assuredly played a role in his ultimate conviction.

I’ve written before about how former WCIX news director Larry Lyle squelched our initial investigation into Fuster and the Country Walk case, barring it from the air until Channel 10 finally broke “our” story. That’s not the only reason I still have such an interest in the Fuster case. I met the man. It capped one of the most bizarre days in my career at Channel 6.

I was working on an investigation into yet another child abuse case, with anchor/reporter Giselle Fernandez. Our investigation, titled “Devil In Our Church?”, would lead us to several unsavory places, and include interviews with some rather unsavory people. On February 1, 1990, it led us to Florida State Prison in the town of Starke, which had been Frank Fuster’s home since his conviction.

Giselle, Rafael “Ralph” Murciano, and I boarded a plane for Gainesville that morning. We didn’t know it at the time, but rock ‘n roll legend Bo Diddley was also on board that plane. As we headed for the gate, Murciano noticed Diddley, and called out his name. In the chaos, I bumped into the singer-guitarist. Literally! Diddley noticed the TV camera, and pulled out an 8 X 10 photo, which he promptly autographed (with Murciano capturing the moment). He also wrote his phone number on the back, in the hope that we’d be interested in an interview. Well, of course!

(Autographed by Bo Diddley at the Gainesville Airport. Click the image to view it full size.)

We had a little time before our appointment at the prison, so we had breakfast in Waldo, Florida, and checked out a thrift store or two. We noticed a yard sale going on near the prison, so we stopped there too -- just long enough for Giselle to buy a pulp paperback for 10 cents. Its name? Ravaged. Giselle thought it would be fun to read us some of the steamier passages from the book, using her best breathy, orgasmic voice. This went on while driving, while waiting at the prison, and even on the plane ride home. She had us in stitches!

To me, Giselle Fernandez was a blast to work with. Some people at the station disliked her, because she could get bossy, downright ornery, and could be a real prima donna. Those are just three reasons why I thought she was great! Do you think it was easy being a strong female journalist, two decades ago? Giselle knew what she wanted, and was always determined to get it. The two of us made an amazing team.

Finally, it was show time at Starke. Giselle put Ravaged away, and we were led to a special area. There we met the “monster". He did not have horns or a long tail. He was just a man. Model prisoner Fuster was now using the surname Escalona, further distancing himself from his infamy. For hours, he professed his innocence, outlining every hole in the case that it was humanly possible to find. He was SO convincing that Giselle promised to research his claims, and possibly help him, should she find that his story checked out. I do not know if Fuster did the things that Janet Reno’s office, his own son, and several kids in his care accused him of doing. I do know from personal experience how convincing child molesters can be. I was a victim of sexual abuse when I was a young teen, and no one believed me at the time. After all, the hospital worker that attacked me was “such a sweet man who would never do anything like that”. I’m still surprised I was able to carry on a rational conversation with Fuster, and even shake his hand. Guess it was just the journalist in me, trying to do my objective best.

With Janet Reno constantly in the news throughout the 90s, it was only natural for the media to investigate one of her Miami office’s biggest victories. Even Frontline joined the “was Fuster railroaded” fray. Giselle Fernandez made some calls, and corresponded a few times with Fuster, but decided not to pursue his claims. His interview was not used in “Devil In Our Church?”, but instead aired separately, as an Action News update. Several hours of interviews were condensed into a two-minute piece that concentrated on the parts that made Fuster look scary and threatening. Yes, it was Fuster’s fault for uttering scary and threatening remarks, when he knew the cameras were rolling. It would have been irresponsible for us NOT to include that part of the interview, but it may have also been irresponsible for us to make that the focus of the piece. It made for compelling TV, which in that consultant-driven environment, really was the name of the game.

I was rarely paired with Giselle Fernandez during her final year at the station. We were just too strong together. I often was paired with unmotivated anchors or reporters, who needed a push to get the maximum out of our assigned news series. The Jeff and Giselle team did not like to take no for an answer, and could sometimes get insubordinate. Managers don’t like that. We would put a story together, and then tell our bosses that we did so. It would have driven me up a wall, too, had I been a manager. But the thing is – our stories kicked butt. The topics were compelling, and Giselle’s on-camera style always made for great TV. I never enjoyed working with anybody as much as I liked working with Giselle. I even watched her on “Dancing with the Stars”, even though I despise that boring waste-of-time TV show.

(Click the image to view it full size)

When Giselle left Channel 6 in September 1991, I gave her a special present: a book. A dog-eared pulp paperback. It was Ravaged. I’d kept it.

As for Frank Fuster… well, he still maintains his innocence. You can’t help but wonder if his case might have turned out differently had he not shouted those words in court. The jury saw a scary, imposing figure, when he raised his voice and shouted “YOU ARE A LIAR!" Congressman Joe Wilson will have his jury, too: the voters of South Carolina. His judgment day will arrive soon enough.

1 comment:

Jeffers66 said...

I know it's a long shot, but if anyone has a copy of our "Devil In Our Church?" series, I'd love to get a dub. I must not have saved a copy at the time. Jeff