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Cranky Cuss

Cranky Cuss
Ossining, New York, United States
February 28
I am the author of "Send In the Clown Car: The Road to the White House 2012," currently available on Amazon and CreateSpace. I'm currently semi-retired after 23 years in a corporate environment. My motto: The conventional wisdom has too much convention, not enough wisdom. Corollary: Even Einstein was wrong sometimes, and you're not Einstein.


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JANUARY 27, 2012 10:52AM

Where There's Smoke...?

Rate: 31 Flag


Six years ago, in a Bridgeport, CT. courtroom, my friend was accused of being a child molester. 


A nine-year-old girl took the witness stand, testifying about the sexual abuse she had allegedly suffered at a local synagogue from its caretaker.  When the prosecutor asked her to point to the man who had done this to her, she pointed at my friend.


One problem: my friend was not the defendant.  He was one of the jurors. 


Flustered by the misidentification, the prosecutor asked the girl if she was sure.  She proceeded to point at a different juror.


As you might expect, the jury quickly acquitted the defendant, a 65-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant named Alfredo Vargas.  If, however, you think the girl’s erratic testimony indicated a youngster intimidated by facing her assailant in a legal environment, you’re wrong.  This was in fact Vargas’ second trial; he had been identified and convicted in the first and sentenced to twelve years in prison. 


Fortunately for Mr. Vargas, several of the synagogue’s congregants did not believe the allegation.  The girl’s family was known to make wild accusations – they had leveled abuse claims against several other people - and there is no privacy in the area where the attacks supposedly occurred.  They raised money for Vargas’ defense and got his conviction overturned.


If you believe justice was thus served, you would again be wrong.  Vargas had been in America since 1969 and had a reputation as a hard worker - he built the sanctuary himself, according to this New York Times article about the case.  However, his arrest led to the discovery that he was in the country illegally.  His reward for acquittal: deportation.


(Note: I’m not printing my friend’s name because I don’t want it to be linked to child molestation in a Google search.)      


Child molestation is one of the most despicable crimes known to man.  We comprehend the lifelong damage it can inflict on innocent children, we are thoroughly disgusted by the details - as we have been by the Catholic Church and Jerry Sandusky / Penn State scandals - and we react with justifiable outrage when such a story goes public.


The Sandusky case is unusual in one respect: we have third-party eyewitness testimony to the crimes.  Molestation cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute because the crimes usually happen behind closed doors to young victims who are often reluctant to come forward.  Physical evidence is often nonexistent or ambiguous.


The flip side, however, is that molestation allegations can be shockingly easy to fabricate. If they are hard to prove, they are also hard to disprove.  Just the allegation can ruin a person’s reputation, so it’s no surprise that allegations frequently arise during times of personal rancor, like a bitter divorce.  The accusers depend on our knee-jerk outrage to soil the accused’s reputation.  And it works.  As the case above – and, say, incidents like the Duke lacrosse case – demonstrate, it’s distressingly easy to convince intelligent people that something bad happened when it most likely did not.  Sometimes, it seems that people want to believe the worst.  Sadly, this makes it harder for true victims of abuse to be heard.


As a former student at Syracuse University, I have watched with dismay as my school has been linked to Penn State with its own abuse scandal.  Not just dismay that sexual abuse may have occurred at my old school, but dismay at the thought that an innocent man may have been ruined by false accusations and an overreaction.


In contrast to Penn State’s see-no-evil response to Sandusky, Syracuse fired assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine in November when two allegations from nearly a decade ago, which had been investigated at the time, were revived and two additional accusers came forward.   The old saying is that where there is smoke, there is fire, but as if to prove that cliché as the most inane in the English language, both subsequent accusers have been unmasked as liars.


Floyd VanHoosen, a prison inmate who once lived with Fine after both his parents died, admitted that he had lied to both the Associated Press and Syracuse Post-Standard about Fine’s behavior because he was angry that Fine had refused to hire him a defense attorney.  In a subsequent interview, VanHoosen claimed that police investigators had led him to make accusations and that he immediately regretted going along with it. "Bernie has been nothing but good to me over the years,” insisted VanHoosen. “He was the only thing I had close to a father. He never did anything wrong. He is a good man."


Zach Tomaselli claimed that Fine molested him in a Pittsburgh hotel room in 2002, when Syracuse traveled there for a game.  Tomaselli, who is himself awaiting trial in Maine on charges of abusing a boy, had also leveled abuse claims at his estranged father, which the state of New York investigated and dismissed. The father, in return, claims that Tomaselli has never met Fine.


After Tomaselli came forward, New York State investigated his claim, deemed them not credible, and turned over exculpatory material to Fine’s lawyers; reportedly, his account of travel and accommodations don’t jibe with documented facts.  Last week, Tomaselli admitted that the contents of emails he had recently forwarded from the police to the Syracuse newspaper had been altered by him. Although Tomaselli still insists the abuse took place, his attorney has dropped his lawsuit against Fine. 


Which leaves the first two accusers, who were deemed credible by state investigators (though their charges can’t be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations). Both of them, now adults, had served as ball boys for the basketball team.  Bobby Davis began making his claims in 2002 (at a time when Davis and Fine were reportedly having a financial dispute over a $5,000 loan to help Davis pay off student loans). The Syracuse police declined to prosecute, though it should be noted that the police chief at the time was himself a former Syracuse basketball player.  According to ESPN, Davis told authorities that his step-brother, Michael Lang, would corroborate his account; Lang did not.  However, after the Sandusky case became public this fall, Lang began to corroborate Davis’ story with abuse claims of his own.


The main evidence in the case is an audio tape of a conversation between Davis and Fine’s wife, made without her knowledge, in which she discusses her husband’s behavior and also admits that she had a sexual relationship with Davis.  Mrs. Fine admits that it is her voice on the tape, but insists that it has been heavily doctored.


In 2003, ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard took possession of copies of the tape. Neither they, nor Davis, ever turned a copy over to the police. The Post-Standard, in a recent editorial, described the contents:


Captured on tape was a conversation that sounds sleazy and sickening -- and vague and ambiguous. Some of the language seems to support Davis' depiction of his relationship with Fine. "Seems" wasn't good enough to publish this story. If you were the target of such damaging accusations, you'd expect that degree of care from us.


Only in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal did either media outlet revisit the story. Some observers, such as the sports website Deadspin, have implied that ESPN only revived the story because they were embarrassed to have been scooped on the Penn State story.


I have no idea if Bernie Fine molested those two young men.  If he did, he will rot in hell.  But if in fact he did not, we have condemned him to a less abstract type of hell – one in which his livelihood has been denied him and his name will forever be soiled with little chance for it to be cleared. Until solid, court-admissible evidence appears, I will continue to consider him an innocent man.


Stories like these have a cost beyond the lives of those involved. I was saddened to read a recent piece by Phil Taylor, a columnist for Sports Illustrated who also coaches a youth basketball team, in which he declared that he is no longer willing to drive kids to and from the games, as he had sometimes done in the past:


I consider how the simple act of driving a 14-year-old boy home might be misinterpreted, especially after reading accounts about how predators often use such rides to gain trust. I recognize that I would have no proof to the contrary if, a couple of months, years or decades from now, one of my players for some reason claimed that something horrible had happened in my car.


Near my desk, I have a large folder bursting with stories I’ve collected over the years of people who have been accused and/or convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, of accusations that have been recanted, of exonerations based on DNA evidence.  I’m a proud supporter of the Innocence Project, which to date has exonerated 289 people who were falsely convicted of crimes. It’s enough to make me initially skeptical of any criminal allegation that appears in the news.  While many respond with predictable outrage, I am more likely to respond with, “OK, prove it.”  I used to be ashamed of that, fearing that I was being insensitive to victims.  Then I realized that, in fact, I was being sensitive to victims.


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Excellent reporting.
By some point in the mid-'80s I took to, as a principal/division head in public and private schools, to interviewing every student, male/female, w my office door open and view of my secretaries' desks.

To do otherwise would've been foolish.

Well said and well written. Innocent until proven guilty, unfortunately, is turned on its head in the court of public opinion. R
Witch burning is a sport that has never truly left us. For some, it's the only way left to feel good about themselves. Logic and reason have no place. Watch "Capturing the Friedmans" for a first hand account of that. The TV series "Dallas DNA" reveals disturbing prosecutorial conduct to boot. Hell, it was policy at one point.

My sister was outraged when I pointed out the Duke students hadn't been actually convicted when the rape charges were levelled against them. These subjects can barely be discussed. Witch burners aren't about truth or justice or victim advocacy, they are only about themselves - and creating victims.
Superb job, Crank. Makes me think false accusers should be treated as harshly by the law as actual abusers.
Very thoughtful and well written. Good stuff.
In the bible false accusation is akin to murder. And, rightfully so. Still, very few care to consider how deadly false accusation is and false accusers very rarely get even a slap on the wrist. In my case, the initial false accusers, a Tig notaro and a Stef Willen, just got away with it and still do. Soon in it was obvious than they were liars and criminals(false reports, perjury etc) but that didn't stop John Gregozek or the city attorney when their friends at a particular law firm , Lavely and Singer, made phone calls and wrote obscenely political letters.
Platitudes like "when there is smoke there is fire" are deadly to those facing the certain hell that is being falsely accused. It is one of those terrible circumstances where no one will make the time to do much but assume that there must be some truth to the accusations. It's a particular hell when you are accused of things that go against everything you are.

I admire you a lot for you blogging about this because most can't be bothered or are too busy enjoying casting stones.
Such a great set up-- how your friend was a juror.

There is so much more to this reality-- prosecutors and cops get demoted if they filed charges and don't "win" and so their is really no incentive in the legal system to get to the truth. Too many defense attorneys don't have an idealistic bone in thier bodies and so you are stuck with them wanting to make nice with prosecutors and judges rather than fighting for the innocent. Prosecutors get promoted for winning and that just is so wrong.Judges loved to clear their calenders and sometimes will do whatever it takes to do so.

The false accusation becomes a perfect storm that takes many out to sea-- never to find their way back to shore.
Such an important and cool post, Cranky. Thank you.
Neither due diligence nor due process sells copy.
I hate that stories like Casey Anthony make it seem as if conviction is some hard thing to do. In fact, it is extremely easy when the resources of the state are used to win. They must win for various reasons but one of them is so they don't get sued. Look at the strange Alford plea in the Memphis three case.

So great that the synogogue stood behind this man and allowed him some measure of justice. The prosecutors must have known that this little girl and her family had major credibilty problems, as did the cops and they still kept going after this guy. That's something that really should alarm us all, but it doesn't because it's too dark and it is easier to think that the accused are guilty.

Unless it happens to you or some you love you just can't grasp it.

Again, I love it that you collect these stories. I think it shows a rare good character-- that such injustice interests you so much.
Very thoughtful, well-written piece, Cranky. May those false accusers rot in hell too. Did you see the film "Conviction" about the man falsely accused of murder? Excellent.
I agree with Harry and I have seen the Friedman doc..
Witch burning..indeed
Great reporting. There are many shades of gray and a world of nuances that those too willing to purport innocence or guilt are willing to ignore.
Fantastic post and worthy topic. And thank the heavens for situation in Dallas that Harry mentions. Upon election, a new DA immediately began exonerated inocennt men convicted of various crimes based on DNA evidence.

Our justice system is corrupt. Justice no longer matters, nor does innocence or guilt. Nothing matters but victory. If the prosecutor gets a guilty verdict all is well in the world. Who cares if the charged was guilty or not. We won !!!
The best and most substantive point of view that I have read on these ugly topics. This is upstairs quality!
Wonderful post. You've brought light to some real truths.
I'm skeptical of anything I read in the news - but very good points, all, Cranky.
I remember one history teacher talking about how important the distiction was between "innocent until proven guilty" and "guilty until proven innocent." It seems to be a hard concept to wholeheartedly accept. I recently watched the three HBO documentaries about the teenagers accused of murdering/torturing the 8 year old boys. I was so sure it was clear who really did it until it became clear it wasn't. It's gruesome to watch and gave me horrid dreams, but the way I jumped to conclusions that later turned out not to be true, (as far as I can tell) has made me rethink some things.

Also...I supervise people who work with children and teens. We have put policies in place that no adult is ever alone with a kid and any discussions or interactions cannot be behind closed doors. It felt awkward at first for my staff to get used to that but it is necessary for everyone's protection.
Giving shots in a room with a closed door is usually standard fare for us, but lord I wish it wasn't with our population

Had a patient and case manager come up to me yesterday. The CM had the patient tell me the delusion (a conversation that didn't happen in reality) she'd shared with the CM as fact. I was floored after listening. How do you guard against that? You can't. And what's even more frustrating is that my patient truly believed what she was saying. When I asked her more and more questions about it, it became clear that she had had this full conversation with me in her head. It had happened for her. Me, I'd only seen her for med pass. :/ hard to make reality line up sometimes among those of us without dopamine issues- with them...good luck finding hard ground
I was (thankfully) never caught up in that embarrassing situation. I was in a courtroom.
I was jailed in a bank.
I was falsely accused.
I trespassed in a bank.
I never will figure that charge.
I just shamed baker crook thugs.
No lawyer would defend my case.

I almost sobbed as my own attorney.
I ask for a break at cross-examination.
I lied (I said I had to pee) and smoked.
I was caught in a bathroom court stall.
I was standing alone smoking a `Kool.
I do like what fernsy said. Serious.
Foolish folk defame and live a lie.
Fools die with felonies and BMW.
Saint petro said we no take thugs.
BP CEO's and banker go to Hades.

If I retold the story Eric Holder cry.
I could mention names of creeps.
I hand carried briefs to Capital Hill.
My briefs do not smell. I no wear any.
I have a 'hunch' ref;, crooked critters.
I may buy my lawyer a antique BMW.
a` 55`Chevy, a 'Porsch, a psychologist.
I've seen Shame on pathetic faces. Sad.
Exemplary work, Cranky. As strongly as I know you feel about these matters, the piece is objective and well-balanced. We have lost completely the innocent-until-proven-guilty aspect of our system of justice. It won't be long before there will be few men willing to coach kids, become scout leaders, etc. for fear of being accused.

You did a complete job on this post. Congratulations for giving us all a reason to stop and think.

My neighbor calls the manager and insists that I am one of two "writers" who live next to her and who are plotting her death with our writing! She should not be living on her own, but nothing can be done.

My heart breaks for innocent people who have had their lives and reputations destroyed by self serving and overzealous law enforcement, dysfunctional witnesses and prosecutors.

And Rick Perry has blood on his hands.
A very thoughtful examination of a very delicate, and very depressing, subject. As I suggested in my post about the Penn State scandal, the presumption of innocence applies only in criminal cases, and not in the court of public opinion.

To cite one obvious example, OJ was acquitted, but he remains guilty as hell in the court of public opinion and nothing is likely to change that save by someone else confessing convincingly to the crime.

Public opinion is largely informed by the media, of course, and overly-ambitious reporters are only to anxious to rush to print or broadcast with an accusation. The media has only to use the fig-leaf "alleged" to absolve itself from ruining the life of the accused.
It's absolutely true, reputations and lives have been destroyed by false accusations and even when those accused are exonerated, it lingers. Remember the McMartin Preschool travesty? I remember being outraged by the Duke lacrosse scandal and then even more outraged when I found out it was fabricated. Plenty of people have spent years, sometimes even lifetimes in jail for crimes they didn't commit. Thank God for DNA testing although it doesn't help everyone and sometimes comes too late. Thanks for writing this and reminding us to be vigilant, although it's emotional and difficult at times. A false accusation is as heinous as the real thing.
Some people as a factual matter have been known to use such a thing as a weapon of mass character destruction, which is why I always withhold an opinion until the legal system says something.
It's done because it's easy & expedient to accuse - but at the same time; we have to remember to listen to a child. But this time - they had to dig deeper. Congrats on the EP Crank. R
Important research and work, thanks for sharing this perspective with us all.
Thanks for writing this. My sister and I grew up with a guy who was falsely accused and convicted of child molestation. He was a teacher. Now he's on the sex crimes list as a pedophile and can't earn his living as a teacher anymore. A mans life and career ruined by a teen's lie.
this is good journalism...
even with its shortcomings, I'll prefer our American justice system to the other options in the world.
Perfectly put. You said it all here so well, and thank you for doing so.
Very clean, smart piece.
Excellent work. At my own school, my dept. coworkers and I decided that it was absolutely necessary that two of us stay late or come in early when students wanted or needed to work beyond class hours because we couldn't take the risk of exposing ourselves to some sort of trumped up charges...couldn't risk helping them on our own time unless we grouped up...

That's the way it is. Rated...
I served on a jury and we acquitted a guy, an immigrant businessman, on a battery charge. The guy, suing him for punching him in the face, put one family member of his after another on the stand and not a one of them could keep their stories straight. Turned out they were con artists headed by a mother who rivalled Ma Barker in her capacity for evil and had already cleaned the immigrant man out of one bank account and were suing to steal more from him...That was long, but what you wrote reminded me that for once my jury did something right. very well done, Cranky.
It's good to remember the passion, to do what we like. And if you like something, put heart and energy and you've done your best proposed. very interesting story