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.
The Friedmans initially fought the charges. But when prosecutors responded by adding hundreds of new charges in successive indictments, Arnold decided he had no choice but to plead guilty. His collection of child porn was the only physical evidence in the case, and he feared that to fight would only mean pulling his son into the undertow as well.
But Arnold’s plea had the opposite effect. To protect himself from new charges, Arnold submitted a “close-out statement,” in which he offered a blanket confession to sexually abusing every student in every one of his classes—even those who had accused him of nothing. Police used his admissions to solicit still more accusations, telling parents that despite their children’s repeated denials, Friedman had confessed to abusing them. Arnold’s move only tightened the noose around Jesse.
Worse, Jesse’s case was overseen by Judge Abbey Boklan, a former sex-crimes prosecutor. She would later confess to Jarecki—on camera—that she never had any doubt of the Friedmans’ guilt.
Peter Panaro, Jesse’s lawyer at the time, also says that Boklan—who died last year—warned him that if Jesse took his case to trial, she’d make sure he served his sentences consecutively, and he would face more than 1,000 years in prison.
The prosecutors’ trump card was Jesse’s friend Ross Goldstein, who police accused of joining the Friedmans’ molestation.
The two teens were shocked by the news. Both say Goldstein never attended any of the computer classes. In fact, Goldstein was charged with abusing children in the Friedman home before he and Jesse ever met.
Nonetheless, prosecutors leveled 118 charges against him—even more than Arnold faced. Goldstein was left with a no-win scenario: either maintain his innocence before a hostile judge, or cut a deal and negotiate the best sentence possible.
The 17-year-old caved. In exchange for admitting that both he and Jesse had abused the kids, Goldstein was promised six months in jail and a cleansed record upon his release.
Feeling boxed in and facing life in prison, Jesse decided he had no choice but to take his own deal.
He was sentenced to 18 years in prison. The court never heard a witness or saw any evidence.
Terrified of what awaited him in prison as a child molester, Jesse undertook some misguided damage-control. He gave an interview to Geraldo Rivera, inventing a story of his own abuse at the hands of his father.
Once in prison, Jesse reverted to maintaining his innocence—a position that led to being denied parole four times.
Arnold committed suicide in prison in 1995 by taking a massive overdose of antidepressants.
“Witch-hunt? No. To me, this is the Spanish Inquisition,” said a man in the large crowd packed into the conference hall of the Inn at Great Neck last November. It was a popular sentiment. Twenty-five years since hysteria swept the town, memories of the Friedman case were still fresh enough to fill the room.
Andrew Jarecki had just screened his latest cinematic opus—an evidence reel that serves as an addendum to Capturing the Friedmans. Included were new interviews with some of the original victims, now grown up and admitting their claims were false.
Jesse Friedman and Elisabeth Walsh were at the screening, flanked by earpiece-wearing security guards in case passions still ran hot. Nearby, wearing his signature gray ponytail, was Jesse’s lawyer Ron Kuby, a top-tier civil liberties attorney whose hyperbolic exuberance tends to take up even more space than his large suits.
Kuby joined Friedman’s legal team in 2004, lending the high-profile muscle of a former partner of William Kunstler. His goal: to clear Jesse’s name and free him from the “violent sex offender” designation that makes it all but impossible to hold a normal job, go to college, or even to have children, since he wouldn’t be allowed to take them to school, day-care, or the park.
In 2004, Kuby filed a motion arguing that newly available evidence warranted reopening the case. The D.A. fought the petition, and successive courts rejected it on the grounds that it was filed too late.
But after years of appeals, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark ruling. It agreed that Friedman’s claim was filed too late, but it took the unusual step of delivering a scathing critique of the Friedman case.
The court ripped the hectoring and suggestive interview techniques of police, contending they “may have felt comfortable cutting corners in their investigation.” The justices also slammed the D.A.’s office: “In this case, instead of acting to neutralize the moral panic, the prosecution allowed itself to get swept up in it.”
The ruling noted that “the quality of the evidence was extraordinarily suspect.” Taken together, the court said, “the record here suggests ‘a reasonable likelihood’ that Jesse Friedman was wrongfully convicted.”
“It was an extraordinary decision,” says Kuby.
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said she would reinvestigate the case, beginning a delicate balancing act. Though Rice wasn’t on the scene when her office first prosecuted Jesse, complicated political implications remained. She was an elected official charged with investigating her predecessor’s work in a case that still inflamed her constituents.
In the past, Rice had fought Friedman’s motions to consider new evidence. Now, she took the unusual step of appointing an advisory committee to oversee the review. Among the committee members was Barry Scheck, whose Innocence Project has successfully freed hundreds of inmates.
Jarecki leapt at the opportunity, flooding the D.A.’s office with the evidence he’d collected, including hours of interviews and 1,700 pages of raw, unedited transcripts. He cut the new evidence reel showed in the Great Neck convention hall last November. The opening lays out the core argument: “Given the absence of any physical or medical evidence, or prior complaints, the case against Jesse Friedman hinged entirely on the statements of: 14 computer students; Ross Goldstein; Jesse Friedman. Our investigation indicates that all three were coerced.”
Of the 400-some students who attended the Friedmans’ computer class, only 14 ever told the grand jury that they were sexually abused. Jarecki has tracked down 11 of them. Four told him flat out that they were not sexually abused. One had no recollection of abuse. Another said he didn’t remember any abuse until he underwent hypnosis, a practice long since discredited as a reliable way to recover memories. The remaining five also refused to substantiate any abuse.
Michael Epstein, now 35, attended classes in which molestation was supposed to have occurred “in plain view of the other students.” He now vigorously denies that any such thing happened.
“When I first heard about the accusations, I was dumbfounded,” he says. “It didn’t happen to me, and I knew there was no way it could have happened to anyone else while I was there.”
Put into intensive therapy and pressed to “remember,” a nine-year-old Epstein eventually fabricated his own account just to end the constant pressure.
“The tone in Great Neck was like a witch hunt,” Epstein recalls. “There was a really pervasive assumption that the abuse had happened. All the conversation among the kids was ‘Do you remember? Have you remembered yet?'”
But the child witnesses were only part of prosecutors’ case against Jesse in 1988. There was also the testimony of Ross Goldstein, Jesse’s high school friend.
“If there’s ever another movie,” Jarecki told the Great Neck audience, “Ross’s story is at least as chilling.”
By the summer of 1988, prosecutors had good reason to be nervous about their case against Jesse Friedman. With zero physical or medical evidence, their entire argument rested on the testimony of a handful of elementary-school-age children, and even that was looking shaky.
The grand jury had already thrown out the testimony of one boy because he was too obviously unreliable. For another witness, prosecutors made the unusual request that he be allowed to testify by pre-recorded video, rather than answering live questions. If the D.A.’s office was going to put Jesse away, it needed an older witness. It found one in Ross Goldstein.
At the time, Detective Fran Galasso told the Great Neck Record she would soon be arresting as many as four others in the case, “friends of Jesse who were invited to the Friedman home to participate in these sexual performances.”
Police began showing the computer students copies of the Great Neck High School yearbook, asking them if they recognized anybody. This led to three more arrests. Goldstein was among them.
He’d been a friend of Jesse’s, albeit not a close one. In the stratified universe of Great Neck adolescence, Ross was a cool kid. His father was Aerosmith’s accountant. He dressed well, wearing a mullet and gold chain, and dated the head cheerleader. His social circle didn’t overlap much with that of Friedman, who was more of an oddball.
What the two had in common was music. The high school had recently built an 8-track recording studio. Friedman helped put it together and spent long hours behind the engineering board.
“Ross was a magnificent guitar player,” Friedman recalls. “We spent a lot of time in the recording studio, and that was basically how we became friendly. We were never best friends.”
Even so, it was Goldstein—not Friedman’s best friend, Judd Maltin, who had helped with the computer classes—whom police settled on. Friedman’s lawyers believe Goldstein was only targeted because one of the students was friends with Goldstein’s younger brother, and recognized him that way.
Goldstein was arrested the day of his high school graduation. Word of his arrest spread quickly among his friends. The teens of Great Neck gathered that night at Steppingstone Park on Long Island Sound, sharing their disbelief that in a town where parents always managed to save them from trouble with the law, one of the most popular and privileged members of the senior class had been arrested.
From the moment of his arrest, Goldstein protested his innocence. His parents hired a lawyer. But Goldstein soon found himself charged with 118 separate incidents of abuse, including 79 counts of sodomy.
Prosecutors threatened him with a 50-year prison sentence—but also offered a way out. If he testified against Jesse, he’d only do six months, and his record would be sealed upon release.
On September 8, 1988, Goldstein took the deal. But after he testified before the grand jury, the judge reneged. Instead of six months in county jail, Goldstein was sentenced to two-to-six years in prison.
He would do just a little more than a year, followed by five years of parole. In the quarter-century since, Goldstein has quietly pursued a career as a musician and artist in Troy, New York, recording under the name ROGO.
He never spoke publicly about the Friedman case and refused to cooperate with Jarecki. Over the years, he steadfastly ignored Jesse’s attempts to contact him. (He also declined to speak with the Voice for this story.)
Friedman, whose own mother pressed him to take a plea, understands why Goldstein took a deal. “You can’t sit trial as a co-defendant with this admitted child molester down the block.”
But last year, Friedman finally reached him by phone. Goldstein was initially suspicious. Friedman assured him he held no ulterior motive. “I said, ‘We should talk about stuff. We have this shared experience.'” They agreed to meet at a diner in Astoria.
“He brought his girlfriend along, Elisabeth came along, and we talked for hours at the diner,” Friedman says. “We didn’t talk about everything, but I think I was able to give Ross an opportunity to ask me some things.”
Friedman didn’t have all the answers, but it felt good just to meet again. “I think it was obvious to him where I was coming from, that I wasn’t trying to get rich and famous, I wasn’t trying to force him into some position where I needed him to say this, or I needed him to play some role and he was obligated to come forward and exonerate me.”
They haven’t spoken since. But last month, after decades of silence, Goldstein walked into the same D.A.’s office where he had been pressured to testify against his friend 25 years before. He told the review panel of how he’d been coerced into lying, how prosecutors coached him through details of the Friedmans’ computer lab, which he’d never even seen, and how he was imprisoned for something he’d never done.
Sitting with his wife in their sun-dappled Bridgeport living room, Jesse Friedman looks tired. “Yesterday was a really bad day,” he says. “I got up and ended up back in bed, then got up and ended up back in bed a second time.”
Friedman manages to project a remarkably calm and centered demeanor most of the time. Intensive therapy has helped him manage the post-traumatic stress disorder borne of his time in prison.
But there are still days when it all feels like too much. It has been nearly three years since the Nassau County District Attorney began reviewing his conviction. For months investigators have told him that the report would be out “in two weeks,” only to provide the same response two week later.
“He’s holding his breath every time they say ‘eight more days,'” Walsh says. “It gets to the point where you just say, ‘Can I breathe for a minute?'”
The anxiety isn’t just about whether the panel will vacate his conviction. “I know how much exonerating evidence has been presented to the D.A.’s office,” Friedman says. “For Kathleen Rice to not find in favor of vacating the conviction, I can’t even imagine the types of contortion she’d have to do with the truth in order to justify it.”
If anything, Walsh says, her husband is afraid of what it will be like to finally be free.
“Jesse doesn’t have any sense of what liberty feels like,” she says. “He went from being a child in his parents’ home to spending his twenties and early thirties in a prison cell where there’s no civil liberties of any kind, five years on parole, with an ankle bracelet and no civil liberties and constant fear of a ridiculous situation, and then under oppressive Megan’s Law as a Level 3 sex offender. He hasn’t a clue what civil liberties feel like, what it feels like to decide what you want to do for a living, where you want to live, whether you want to be a parent, decide whether you can go to a sporting event or not. He has no sense of that. He has never experienced freedom. He and I have talked about this quite a bit: He doesn’t know what he’s going to feel.”
Whatever he feels, Friedman knows he isn’t the only one damaged by what happened in Great Neck 25 years ago.
“This isn’t at all just about me,” he says. “And it’s not even just about me and the complainants. But it’s about their parents, and all the guilt that they had to deal with, thinking they sent their children off into harm’s way and didn’t protect them.”
For someone who lost 25 years of his life over a crime he likely didn’t commit, Friedman maintains a disarming compassion for the people whose hysteria derailed his future.
That compassion doesn’t extend to law enforcement, but it does give his quest for justice a broader foundation.
“The police hurt so many people and traumatized the entire community,” he says. “A lot of times I sort of feel like I’m the last standing eyewitness to a horrible massacre. I’m the only one left to tell the tale, because I know that nobody was sexually abused in those computer classes. I was there.”