On August 8, 1984, Bobby Dean stood on the front lawn of the Fuster home in the Country Walk housing development – a picture-perfect, planned community of relatively upscale suburban homes in Dade County, Florida. By all appearances, this was a small slice of paradise – an oasis untouched by the grim realities of American society.
On this day though, Dean had a loaded gun in his waistband and he fully intended to use it. He was there to finish the job that someone else had failed to complete on December 18 of 1980. On that day, an unidentified assailant had confronted Francisco Fuster Escalona (aka Frank Fuster) at his place of business and shot him once in the side of the head.
Fuster survived the attack, which he explained to the police as a botched robbery, though the officers thought it looked more like an attempted execution. Dean didn’t get the chance to make another attempt; police were on the scene in short order to arrest him.
Fuster himself surrendered to police two days later in response to the issuance of an arrest warrant. He had been under investigation following accusations by neighborhood parents that he and his wife, Iliana, had been brutally abusing their children while in the trusted care of the Fuster’s babysitting service – run out of their Country Walk home.
Fuster had, shall we say, rather questionable qualifications to run a day care center. On January 16, 1969, Fuster pumped two shots into the heart of a fellow motorist in New York City, killing him instantly. An off-duty police officer was, curiously enough, an eyewitness to the summary execution.
Even more curiously, Fuster chambered another round and pointed his gun directly at the armed officer – and yet wasn’t shot. He was arrested though, and tried and convicted before the year was out. On Halloween day (needless to say, yet another occult holiday), he was sentenced to a ten year prison term. He was back on the streets in less than four, after which he received ‘psychiatric care.’
In November of 1982, he was convicted again – this time of a lewd assault on a nine-year-old girl. Despite being his second felony conviction, Fuster was sentenced to just two years probation. It was while on probation for the child molestation conviction that Fuster and his underage wife started up the babysitting service.
His probation officer apparently had no problem with this business venture, although it brought Fuster into unsupervised contact with at least fifty kids. At least thirty of them were horrifically abused. Fuster’s probation officer also had no problem with the fact that Frank had self-terminated his court-ordered psychiatric treatment in August of 1983.
No one really seems to have been too concerned about Fuster’s babysitting service, which – in addition to being run by a convicted child molester – was operating without proper licensing and in violation of local zoning laws. Commercial enterprises were expressly forbidden in the residential community.
Nevertheless, the service operated with the full knowledge of the entity managing the complex. In fact, Fuster’s service used the name Country Walk Babysitting Service, implying that his was an officially sanctioned service provided for the community.
The management company, Arvida, denied there were ever any official links to the Fuster operation after Frank’s past and present activities were revealed. This, of course, was to be expected. Given that Arvida was a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, it wouldn’t really do to be perceived as having connections to a child molestation operation.
The fact remains though that the company took no actions against Fuster for the illegal expropriation of the ‘Country Walk’ name or for violating zoning regulations. Dade County also took a hands-off approach to the Fuster business enterprise. Despite the fact that Frank lacked other required licenses, the convicted murderer was issued an occupational license to run the babysitting service.
Detective Donna Meznarich was the first police investigator sent to look into the allegations being made by the Country Walk parents. She was openly skeptical of the charges before she even knew what they actually were. The parents felt that she came calling with an unmistakable attitude of disbelief.
Nevertheless, enough evidence quickly emerged to issue an arrest warrant for Frank Fuster for probation violations. Considerably more evidence could have been gathered had police conducted a timely search of the Fuster home. Facing imminent arrest, Fuster was observed by his Country Walk neighbors hastily packing boxes into a white van.
Fearing the loss of valuable physical evidence, parents contacted the police – who failed to respond. The detective that disregarded the parents’ concerns that day was Donna Meznarich. She also executed the search warrant the next day, on a home largely – though not entirely – cleansed of incriminating evidence.
With Fuster safely in custody, the stories told by the child victims grew increasingly disturbing. They told of being forced to play “pee-pee” and “ca-ca” games. A photo would be produced at trial showing Fuster’s young son Jaime – one of the most severely abused of the victims – sitting in a bathroom smeared thickly with excrement.
The children also told of being forced to drink “magic punch,” later revealed by Fuster’s wife to be a mixture of Gatorade, urine, and various drugs. It would be revealed at trial that a close friend of the Fuster family owned a pharmacy, providing a reliable source for drugs. This friend was particularly close to Fuster’s mother and uncle.
The children also told of having their lives threatened repeatedly, and of having their parents’ lives threatened as well. They had been compelled to play a game, they said, called “who’s gonna lose their head?” This game frequently ended with the ritual decapitation of an animal, typically a bird.
Finally, perhaps inevitably, the children claimed that they were frequently photographed and videotaped – while being sexually abused and during occult rituals. Fuster claimed to have never owned any video equipment, and none was found in the belated search of the Fuster home. Jaime Fuster though recalled seeing video equipment – as well as guns – being packed into the boxes being loaded into the van just before Fuster’s arrest.
Some investigators have speculated that Fuster was in the business of producing custom, made-to-order child pornography videos. He certainly lived quite well for a self-employed mini-blind installer. He had no problem coming up with the down payment for his Country Walk home, and had no fewer than six bank accounts. He was in the habit of making lump sum deposits of as much as $20,000.
Fuster apparently liked to screen home videos for the kids as well, one of which was said to be a snuff film that the children described as depicting two men butchering a woman in a bathtub and then eating her. Some of the kids also, strangely enough, spoke of being hypnotized by Iliana Fuster, who they said wore a ‘hypnotizer’ on a chain around her neck.
The trial of Frank Fuster had notable parallels to the McMartin prosecutions, though it differed in significant ways as well. The Country Walk parents who actively and vocally worked to see Fuster brought to justice were subjected to death threats by phone, obscene messages in the mail, and dead chickens left on their doorsteps – similar to the harassment suffered by their counterparts in Manhattan Beach.
Also like McMartin, the primary defense strategy was to bring in a hired-gun ‘expert’ of questionable qualifications to attempt to discredit the children’s testimony. The children had been brainwashed by the overzealous therapists, it was claimed, as these villainous therapists were crucified as being the true guilty parties in what was clearly a ‘witch hunt.’
The man originally scheduled to play this starring role for the defense was Ralph Underwager, at the time a prominent mouthpiece for a group calling itself VOCAL – Victims of Child Abuse Laws. As the name implies, this group was largely composed of indicted and/or convicted pedophiles. Underwager had been present at the birth of the organization.
The defense suffered a bit of a setback though when Underwager’s credentials as an ‘expert’ in the field of child development were revealed as being nonexistent at a pretrial deposition. He was quietly dropped by the defense and replaced with Lee Stewart Coleman, who also had close ties to VOCAL. Coleman had played a key role in the unsuccessful prosecution of the defendants in one of the McMartin-linked preschools.
Coleman did not succeed in his mission in the Country Walk case, however. Fuster was found guilty on all fourteen counts. One reason for this is that the children were protected from the abusive pretrial treatment afforded the McMartin kids. Additionally, the police and prosecutors – with some notable exceptions – seem to have actually made an effort to win the case.
Why was this prosecution not subverted as so many others were? That is difficult to say, though the answer may lie in the make-up of the parents seeking justice for their children; among them were a police sergeant, a police lieutenant, two former state prosecutors, a former chief assistant state attorney, and a gun-toting vigilante named Bobby Dean.
In the end, Frank Fuster – the man who appeared at his pretrial hearing in what was described as a “catatonic trance” – was sentenced to be imprisoned until the year 2150. Not even the Santeria priest who attended the trial with Fuster’s mother and uncle had the power to save him. And Arvida – which is to say, the Walt Disney Co. – paid $6 million to seven of his victims.
Even so, justice was not necessarily served. According to the victims, at least two other adults were involved in the abuse. The state knew the identity of at least one of them, but he was never charged with any crimes. Had he been, there’s no telling where the investigation might have led; his wife had once run a babysitting service.
With the heightened awareness of child abuse engendered by the high-profile Fuster case, a number of other cases emerged in the Miami area. In one, police inadvertently stumbled upon a collection of hundreds of photos of a convicted child pornographer engaged in sexual acts with young boys, and promptly arrested the man.
Two days after his release on bond, he was found in a Miami hotel room with a bullet hole in his head. His death was, naturally, ruled a suicide. This timely suicide preempted an investigation that could have, it seems reasonable to conclude, led to the elementary school that was directly across from his home/studio.
Another case that broke in the wake of Country Walk was that of Harold “Grant” Snowden, whose wife also had run a babysitting service. Dozens of kids had passed through her care over the course of a decade. It took two trials, but Snowden was ultimately convicted. In 1983, he had been named the South Miami Police Department’s “Officer of the Year.” Stepping up to handle the appeal of his conviction was F. Lee Bailey (OJ Simpson’s last attorney), who in the late 1960s had represented a U.S. Air Force Captain in South Carolina accused of child molestation involving multiple victims.
1. Hollingsworth, Jan Unspeakable Acts, Congdon & Weed, 1986