Investigation Discovery’s ‘What Happened at Fells Acres?’ features the Fells Acres daycare sexual abuse trial that took place in the mid-1980s in Malden, Massachusetts. The institution’s owner and her two adult children were tried for sexually abusing children at their facility, with the trio fervently denying the allegations. The case sparked national media attention, with a substantial section of the majority criticizing the authorities’ interviewing techniques with the alleged minor victims. If you want to learn more, here’s what we know.
Who Are Gerald, Violet, and Cheryl Amirault?
Violet R. Amirault opened the Fells Acres Day School in 1966, with her daughter Cheryl Amirault LeFave working as a teacher and her son Gerald R. Amirault as a cook and bus driver. The daycare facility was in Malden in Middlesex County, Massachusetts. The institution earned considerable popularity in the community, with parents trusting their children with the Amiraults. Reports stated approximately 60 youngsters attended the institution, with fees ranging from $75 to $100 per week.
However, it all changed in 1984, with a five-year-old student at the Fells Acres Day School wetting himself while napping. According to Gerald, he changed the boy into spare clothing following the minor’s teacher’s direction. A few months later, the child’s caretaker caught him playing sexually-suggestive games with his cousin. Upon being questioned by his mother and uncle, the minor suggested he had been allegedly sexually abused by Gerald. The guardians immediately notified the authorities.
The complaining parent claimed she had been concerned with abuse because her brother — the minor’s uncle — had been molested as a boy. Within days, then 31-year-old Gerald, a father of two and expecting a third, was arrested in September 1984 on charges of raping a minor, indecent assault, and battery on a child younger than 14. The state also canceled the institution’s license “because of charges of sexual abuse of children while attending the center by the staff.”
Following Gerald’s arrest, the Malden Police called a meeting, which around 80 parents of Fells Acres students attended. The authorities asked the guardians to go home and question their children about a magic room, a secret room, and a clown. The meeting’s instructions were allegedly leaked to the media, and it started a frenzy among the minors that Gerald might have done something evil involving a magic room and a clown. The parents were asked to look for behaviors symptomatic of abuse, such as bed wetting, changes in appetite, and nightmares.
According to the episode, 60-year-old Violet received a call about a child abuse accusation against her son on 1984 Labor Day. Gerald was arrested two days later and subsequently convicted of assault and rape of nine children within three years. Soon, Violet and her newly married 26-year-old daughter, Cheryl, were also charged with perpetrating monstrous sexual crimes against children ages three to five. Gerald later alleged the police asked the Amiraults no questions regarding the charges brought against them.
Gerald also claimed the first complaining parent would subsequently offer several different versions of events. However, he was convicted of assaulting and raping nine children and sentenced to 30 to 40 years in prison in 1986. Violet and Cheryl were convicted of similar crimes against four children in a separate trial the following year and sentenced to jail for eight to 20 years. Contemporary news agencies widely reported on the two court proceedings, stating how the children testified directly facing the jury with their backs to the defendants.
Where Are Violet and Cheryl Amirault Now?
Former reporter Paul Langer said the wave of sensational child abuse trials emerging in the ’80s was no accident. According to him, the government passed the Mondale Act in 1979, creating a massive influx of funds for child protection agencies and abuse investigators. With the outpouring of government money came an enormous increase in agencies and staff, which in turn begat investigations and accusations of child sex abuse on a grand scale — thus giving birth to an “industry.”
Paul alleged the zeal of the search for abuse was most evident in the case constructed against the Amiraults. The episode showed how Violet’s husband abandoned the family, with the impoverished woman building her highly successful daycare center — in operation for 20 years — alone and from nothing. Over the following two decades, the school became her life, next to her children. By the time the sensational prosecutions and demonizing of the Amiraults began, thousands of children had graduated from Fells Acres.
However, none of the alumni had any stories of abuse to tell. Thus, it came as a shock when the state alleged Violet, at 60, had suddenly taken to raping small children and terrorizing them into silence. Reports showed how Cheryl, who married in 1983, invited all the pupils and their parents to the church — an event featured in the Boston Herald with a heartwarming front-page picture of the “kindergarten teacher with a hundred children.”
The picture showed the children — who would allege tell of terrors inflicted by Cheryl, her mother, and brother a few months later — happily planting kisses on their teacher. The police also grilled the school’s teachers, but none could be found who saw anything wrong going on at the school, despite alleged pressure and accusations of lying by the police. However, the episode showed how a pediatric nurse Susan Kelley, who developed most of the children’s allegations of abuse, kept persisting the children, who repeatedly stated nothing happened.
The Middlesex County Superior Court reduced Violet and Cheryl’s sentences in October 1992, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) reversed that ruling in 1993. By August 1995, Violet, the oldest woman in the state prison system, and Cheryl, then 37, had been eligible for parole for nearly three years but refused to accept it because they would have to admit committing the crimes to be released. However, they were freed on a successful appeal in August 1995, with Violet dying of natural causes in September 1997.
The SJC reinstated Cheryl’s conviction in August 1999 and rejected her request for a new trial the following month. Yet, she escaped more prison time by reaching an agreement with the defense in October 1999, whereby she dropped efforts to clear her name. Cheryl agreed to ten years of probation and could not give any television interviews, contact the families of the victims, have no unsupervised contact with children, and not profit in any way from her trial and imprisonment.
Where is Gerald Amirault Now?
The Massachusetts parole board recommended the commutation of Gerald’s sentence in July 2001. Even though the then-Acting Governor, Jane Swift, rejected the decision in February 2002, he was released from the Bay State Correctional Center on April 30, 2004, amidst objections from the victims’ families. Reports state outgoing Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker recommended pardons for Gerald, now 69, and Cheryl in November 2022 due to “grave doubt regarding the evidentiary strength” of their convictions. Nevertheless, he did not receive substantial support and withdrew the recommendation on December 14, 2022.