By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Uncapturing the Friedmans
The blocks tucked behind the railroad tracks and the I-95 overpass in Bridgeport, Connecticut,look much as you'd expect from a poor neighborhood in a foundering city.
Among run-down triple-deckers, the low brick slabs of the Marina Village housing project, and cracked cement lots, young men loiter on the corners, drinking out of paper bags. At the nearby University of Bridgeport, safety-minded administrators urge incoming freshman not to leave campus.
Standing on the front porch of his drab clapboard house, Jesse Friedman doesn't exactly blend in with the surrounding neighborhood, but neither does he seem out of place.
With his wire-rimmed glasses, and long strands of hair combed over male-pattern baldness, he could easily pass for older than his 46 years. He's an intense and guileless speaker, but there's a weariness to his lanky frame. Friedman leads the way up a creaking stair to a sunny living room, where he introduced his wife, Elisabeth Walsh, a hairstylist.
"This is a safe place for us, but I don't know if it's home forever," Friedman says as he perches next to his wife.
The truth is, they don't have many other options. As a Level 3 sex offender, Friedman is subject to a wide variety of restrictions known collectively as Megan's Law. They bar him from living near schools, playgrounds, day-care centers, and houses of worship—effectively banishing him from many cities altogether.
"Bridgeport has much bigger problems than registered sex offenders," Friedman says. "I'm relatively anonymous."
When Friedman was released from prison in 2001—after 13 years behind walls—he didn't look much like the 19-year-old who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 14 children in his father's home computer class.
Outside of Bridgeport, Friedman is hardly anonymous. He's the central figure in Andrew Jarecki's Oscar-nominated documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, which chronicled the harrowing story of Friedman's supposed crimes and the resulting panic that swept through Great Neck, Long Island, in 1988.
Today he's on the verge of a different sort of fame: Twenty-five years after it first indicted Friedman, the Nassau County District Attorney's Office is about to release a report that could completely exonerate him.
Out of a dozen major child-sex-ring cases that roiled the country between 1984 and 2005, Jesse's is one of the last convictions still standing. Nearly all of the 72 people found guilty in those cases have had their convictions vacated or overturned.
"When we really win this thing, it will hopefully inspire a lot more people," he says. "This case will become part of law school curriculum. That's where a lot of my hope lies, that it's making a difference somewhere, somehow."
Capturing the Friedmans examined the case of Jesse Friedman and his father, Arnold, who together pleaded guilty to hundreds of acts of rape and abuse against kids enrolled in after-school computer classes the pair ran from their home.
More disturbing than the film's subject was its disorienting ambiguity. Without ever quite taking sides, it unflinchingly probed the deeply flawed investigation, as well as the public hysteria surrounding it.
Jarecki could have moved on, riding his Oscar nomination to a Hollywood career. Instead, he's spent the last decade continuing to scrutinize Jesse's story, uncovering an ever-increasing body of proof that Jesse is innocent.
He's found evidence that prosecutors failed to share with Jesse's lawyers, supposed victims who have disavowed their original testimony. Last month, a principal witness broke a 25-year silence to recant his own accusations. Now, after nearly three years of reinvestigating, the D.A.'s office is expected to release its report in the next few weeks.
The story began in November of 1987, when postal inspectors intercepted a package of child pornography addressed to Arnold. A search of the Friedman home revealed Arnold's stash of 20 magazines containing child porn, hidden behind a piano in his home office.
Police fanned out, interviewing children who took Arnold's classes—mostly eight-to-10-year-olds—to see if any had been mistreated. Detectives didn't find much—at least initially. Until the search, no one had raised suspicions about the Friedmans. In fact, most kids eagerly re-enrolled in the classes.
During a meeting with parents a month after the raid, police admitted that not one of the 30 children they had interviewed so far reported any kind of abuse.
But detectives were still convinced that something occurred. So they kept re-interviewing the children—some as many as 15 times, and often for hours at a stretch. They used suggestive techniques, telling the kids they already knew something had happened.
The children began to buckle, telling tales of extraordinary abuse.
The result was a string of indictments. Arnold and Jesse were charged with hundreds of counts of sodomy, sexual abuse, and employing a minor in an obscene performance.
In the portrait painted by prosecutors, the Friedmans' computer class was a nonstop nightmare of coerced sex acts, where Arnold and Jesse abused kids both singly and in groups, in plain view of other students. According to prosecutors, the Friedmans managed to keep it all quiet with threats of violence should their victims ever talk.
But some of the claims strained credulity. Arnold and Jesse were accused of playing "naked leapfrog," sodomizing kids as they jumped from one to the next. One eight-year-old victim supposedly sodomized teenagers twice his age. And yet another student's accusations led to 124 separate counts against the Friedmans. If true, that would mean that the child was molested an average of six times during every one of the 20 90-minute classes they took.