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Opening A Window To The Past: The Jesse Friedman Case

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Beginning  a dialogue with the Great Neck community


On Nov. 25, 1987 Jesse Friedman, along with his father Arnold, was arrested and charged with child sexual abuse.


The genesis of the case began with a postal sting operation in which Arnold Friedman was found to have child pornography magazines, none of which were self-produced. A Nassau County police investigation was quickly launched with five two-member teams of detectives who conducted interviews with 30 children, students in after school computer classes in the Friedman home.

Almost to the date, 25 years later, a team of people led by Andrew Jarecki, who, through their investigations firmly believe in Jesse’s innocence, presented a video of what they assert is new evidence they have gathered to a roomful of community residents on Nov. 18. The event was sponsored by the National Center for Reason and Justice.

“I think everyone in the Great Neck community was damaged in some way by this case, not just Jesse,” said Andrew Jarecki who directed the documentary, Capturing the Friedmans which was released in 2003. By way of introduction he stated, “We are presenting the evidence to you today that we have submitted so far to the Nassau County District Attorney’s office, because we want to start a dialogue with community residents...We think a lot of healing can come from learning the truth about what happened...District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who did not hold the position at the time, has appointed a very distinguished panel of people to oversee the re-examination of the case, as recommended strongly by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit. I believe that Jesse is innocent. It is our hope that the DA’s office will overturn the conviction.”

And with that, the video presentation began.

Out of the 400 children who attended computer classes at the Friedman home, 14 boys ranging in age from eight to 12 years old, testified to a grand jury that sexual molestation had occurred in the classes. Jarecki and documentary producer, Marc Smerling, have spoken with 10 of the complainants. Out of those, three stated there was no abuse, one said he had no recollection of abuse, another said he did not remember abuse until after he was hypnotized and five men, when asked, would not substantiate the abuse. In addition, 11 young men, mostly in their thirties, who attended the same classes as the complainants, unequivocally stated that they “never witnessed any abuse.”

The only young man who has not recanted is interviewed in the video and his statements are filled with numerous inconsistencies. Many of the descriptions he gives of abuse were not in his original complaints. He says in the video that he remembered his abuse after hypnosis.

In the presentation, the names of the young men who were complainants are not given; they are referred to by their first names with “Doe” as a surname.

One Family’s Story


Michael Epstein has chosen to speak out publicly on the matter. He remembers the police coming to his home asking questions about the Friedmans and states, “I was shocked because there was nothing inappropriate, nothing suggestive, nothing sexual about it.” He, only 9 years old at the time, maintained that nothing had happened.

His mother, Arline Epstein, speaks out on the video as well. “It was as if our whole world had exploded, nothing would ever be the same.”

In speaking with the Record, she said that she and other parents at the time, were told by the police and a number of therapists with expertise in the field, that children who were not forthcoming with admitting the abuse were in “denial” and that they needed to go into therapy to help them remember.

She and her husband sent Michael to Dr. David Pelcovitz for sessions twice a week.

Michael says, “It seemed to me that it was going to go on forever.” He came to the conscious conclusion that the only way to “escape spending time talking with my mom about it and Dr. Pelcovitz about it and rehashing it” was to lie. He continues, “I was so tired of it.  I gave up hope of convincing them that nothing happened because they believed in recovered memories. They believed the kids who said that I’d been abused. So I regurgitated these crazy stories I’d heard from other kids. That was the only way to make it stop... Pretty soon after that it did stop.”

However, he refused to go before the grand jury because “I knew I was lying.”

After making the decision to speak out, Michael told Jarecki’s team that he needed to tell his parents the truth first which he did in an email.

Ms. Epstein recounts myriad feelings upon Michael’s revelation. “For 25 years, I had felt guilty that I hadn’t protected Michael from a sexual predator and now I’m regretting that I didn’t protect him from all the craziness at the time...and that I didn’t believe him.”

But Ms. Epstein has been able to make a significant contribution to the accumulation of evidence in the case because she has had a lifelong habit of taking and keeping notes due to what she chuckles and calls “a poor memory.”

She found a folder that she had kept from the time with notes, some on scraps of paper and old envelopes, of what Jarecki calls a “treasure trove” of information. For example, she notes that in the first meeting with the targeted parents, Detective Fran Grasso admitted that in the first round of questioning  the 30 boys, none had recounted any abuse.

Among the papers Ms. Epstein found was a cryptic note that Michael had written at the time. It was written in uppercase letters and in quotes: “IDWTTAI!” “IDR!” “IL!” She now understands what Michael was trying to tell her. “I don’t want to talk about it!” “I don’t remember!” “I lied!”

In a subsequent interview with the Record, Ms. Epstein says that she believes that Michael’s decision to go public is “courageous” and that she is following his lead to “do the right thing. It is awesome and humbling to me that a 9-year old boy had the strength to stand up and tell the truth for as long as he did.”

It is also clear that she has a reservoir of compassion for all the children and parents who were swept up in the tsunami that hit Great Neck 25 years ago. She understands all too well the incredible pressure, guilt and shock that swept through the community. “All of the experts were so persuasive. We were in an echo chamber...Looking back I can see the red flags, but I was too wrapped up in too many feelings to see clearly...When Michael emailed me, all the pieces of the puzzle came apart and came back together. Suddenly, everything made more sense.”

The Record wanted to learn what propelled Michael to come forward publicly, especially since a number of the young men have been reluctant to be interviewed even with the promise of remaining anonymous. His emailed response was, “If I can be a more credible witness by using my name, I’m willing to do so if it helps to bring about justice--however delayed that justice may be.”

Police Tactics


The technique used by the police, as described by a number of the young men and parents who were present for the interviews, was to state, “We know that something might as well tell us.” Those testifying on the video describe leading questions, intimidating comments and what some parents perceived as outright lies...such as “your son was a favorite” and “the Friedmans threatened that if the kids told anyone, they would kill the kids’ parents and siblings.” One young man said that a friend of his who cooperated with the police had been given a “police badge.”

Cooky Blaha, whose son Chris was questioned and steadfastly responded that nothing untoward happened, said, “They just kept at it and at it...rephrasing the same questions...They were so persistent. They hammered away. After hearing the way they talked to my son, I never believed anything after that.”

One man reported, “There was a lot of pressure to tell them some point I just broke down...I was telling myself, ‘It’s not true”… I wanted to get them off my back.”

Another said, “I never said I was God is my witness on my children’s lives...I never saw anything..and if I said it, it was because someone else put the words in my mouth.” One said, “I remember the class fondly.”

A father testified on the tape that the police were “aggressive in their questioning, suggesting answers, overzealous.” An officer interviewed was very forthcoming saying, “You don’t give them an option. Once they realize that other people have come forward, they start talking.”

In Arline Epstein’s notes, she recorded a meeting in which parents were told by police that after five hours of questioning, a 9-year-old boy had made charges which filled 10 pages. Some children were interviewed again and again.

Prosecution and Judicial Issues


Scott Banks, law secretary to Judge Abbey Boklan who was assigned to the original case,  spoke on the video and was present at the Nov. 25 meeting. In his role, he was privy to the grand jury testimony and said, “The lack of any medical testimony, any physical evidence, bothered me at the time.” The charges in the three indictments, that took place over many months, increased dramatically. The charges grew more fantastical and improbable, according to many of those interviewed in the video.

For example, Michael Epstein says, “The room was crowded with kids, computers, desks...the charge that games of naked leap frog occurred were not logically plausible.”

A clip in the video shows the judge being interviewed on television at the time. She was quite outspoken in her belief that the Friedmans were guilty even though they never went to trial. She also indicated to Jesse’s attorney that she intended to sentence him consecutively on each count for which he was convicted.

The video states that Arnold pled guilty in the belief that Jesse would be protected from charges. Later, after his friend Ross Goldstein was targeted as a participant in a “sex ring” and was, in a plea deal, preparing to testify against him, Jesse’s attorney at the time, Peter Panero says in the video, “Jesse was absolutely devastated. It was then that he decided to plead guilty.” He had held his ground until the third indictment.

The Second Circuit ruling underscores the point saying, “The police, prosecutors, and the judge did everything they could to coerce a guilty plea and avoid a trial...In this case, the quality of the evidence was extraordinarily suspect and never subjected to vigorous cross-examination or the judgment of a properly instructed jury.”

Therapy, Disassociation and Hypnosis


Debbie Nathan, who has done extensive research on similar cases nationwide during that era, comments throughout the video. She noted that children caught up in this kind of case where denials are seen as “proof” that something did indeed happen can have a very negative and profound impact on their mental health. She said,  “Kids can’t figure out why they didn’t know that something happened to them. Their ability for reality testing is being questioned. They come out of that having no confidence in their perceptions and that can be very disturbing for kids... almost makes kids psychotic.”

In regard to disassociation as a defense mechanism against painful memories, Ms. Nathan says that studies show that people do remember horrible things such as painful medical procedures and Holocaust experiences.

Questions are raised on the video about the relationship between the police and the therapists who were prominent on the case at various community meetings at the time. The therapists, many from North Shore Hospital, presented their work and findings from the case at national conferences during that period.

Going Forward


Jesse Friedman who attended the presentation with his wife Elisabeth said afterwards, “It was an incredible event.  The outpouring of love and support was beautiful and healing for me.  I really hope people are inspired to get involved and educated on the hysteria  that happened in Great Neck in 1988, and what is being done now in order for the community to talk about what has been silenced for so many years.”

The Record called the Nassau County District Attorneys office to ask if anyone from their office had attended the meeting since it had been widely publicized. John Byrne, Director of Communications and Policy emailed the following statement: “Our office has, and will continue to, review all evidence that is made available to us, but until the investigation is complete, we will have no comment.”

Those people who were unable to attend and who would like to see the video of evidence may call Lonnie Soury at (212) 414-5857 or (917) 519-4521 to arrange for a private viewing online.