By Phyllis Saitz
This past April, families near 19 Russell Woods Road in Great Neck received notification that James Eaddy, a highest risk, level-3, violent sexual offender had moved into their neighborhood. While this happens in many communities, it is a particularly tender topic for Great Neck, which has been put on the sex-offender map, thanks to one family—the Friedmans, whose father and youngest son, almost two decades ago, were accused of molesting up to 17 children.
This tale, which has become a Long Island true-crime legend and is currently the subject of an award-winning documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, began innocently enough. One day in 1984, John McDermott, a postal inspector at Kennedy Airport, noticed a plain brown envelope addressed to an Arnold Friedman of Great Neck. As part of an ongoing pornography sting, McDermott opened it and found a copy of Boy Love, a childporn magazine.
It took a year for McDermott, undercover in the guise of a kiddie-porn enthusiast named “Stan,” to establish a correspondence with Arnold Friedman, an award-winning retired chemistry teacher at Bayside High School who, with his wife, Elaine, and three sons, David, Seth and Jesse, had moved to Great Neck from Flushing in the 1970s. The family was well-liked in the suburban neighborhood.
Arnold—who had taught piano lessons to neighborhood kids and knew his way around a computer better than most people at the time— taught computer classes for 7- to 11-year-olds in his basement.
On February 8, 1986, he sent “Stan” a Danish child-porn magazine called Joe and His Uncle. Stan had Arnold fill out a questionnaire for a faux porn pen-pal club. Then on November 3, 1987, McDermott, dressed as a mailman, returned Joe and His Uncle to Arnold. The house was searched 15 minutes later by postal officials armed with a warrant. They claim to have found pornography in the living room.
According to Tony Sgueglia, retired police detective of Nassau’s Sex Crimes Unit (now the Special Victims Squad), Nassau County police also entered the house some time later with a warrant, entered the basement and saw the classroom. They then took the class rosters and began calling families. Of the approximately 400 families they called, about 17 kids claimed to have been sexually molested or otherwise abused by Arnold and his son Jesse, who was a freshman at SUNY Purchase at this time.
Arnold and Jesse accepted plea bargains. On March 29, 1988, Arnold was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison; on May 13, 1988 he was sentenced to serve a concurrent 10 to 30 years by Nassau County Judge Abbey Boklan. Arnold served in Oxford Federal Correction Facility in Oxford, WI, a federal “country club” prison in the Midwest. On January 24, 1989, Jesse was sentenced to 6 to 18 years in prison. He went to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora at 19.
He served time at both Coxsackie, where he spent about a year in solitary confinement, and Attica. He was awarded parole in December, 2001 when he was 32. He had been denied parole four times previously, as he refused to undergo treatment and admit to something he claimed he hadn’t done.
Currently he’s a student at Hunter College in Manhattan, majoring in economics and political science.
The saga is now the subject of one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries in years, Capturing the Friedmans. The Friedmans were a family that had always recorded themselves. There are films of the family’s Passover seders, bar mitzvahs, outings to Jones Beach, even parts of Arnold and Elaine’s courtship. These films were provided to Capturing’s director, Andrew Jarecki, and have been incorporated into the documentary. At first, the family movies are sweet and nostalgic, but they veer close to disturbing at times.
Five years into his prison term, Arnold bought a $250,000 insurance policy on himself with Jesse as beneficiary. In 1995, after the two-year suicide clause was voided, he died. The death certificate says that he died of an overdose of barbiturates, although on camera, in Capturing, his eldest son David says that his father died of a heart attack.
Tears of a Clown
On film, David Friedman is larger than life. A child/man, he verges on the edge of angst throughout much of the documentary. Were it fiction, it would be an Academy Award-winning performance. The David Friedman in Capturing is a natural entertainer. And in fact, David is a performer—Silly Billy, “New York’s number one children’s birthday clown.” But he fears his Silly Billy halcyon days might come crashing to an end shortly, afraid that when people find out about his family’s past, he “will be shunned by the clown community and clients.”
As I approach him inside the Regency Hotel in Manhattan, David seems much smaller than he appears on screen. The brown eyes that were so large and piercing in the film aren’t gigantic, but common; his body frame isn’t large, as I had thought, but medium. We make small talk for a minute or so. He seems like many of my friends, with his Long Island sensibility and ability to listen to problems as well as share his own. I ask, “South or North?” A fellow Long Islander, he knows exactly what I mean. “North,” he answers. He went to Great Neck North High School.
David’s career choice was partially influenced, perhaps, by his father, who also had a larger-thanlife persona. After graduating from Columbia University in the late 1940s, Arnold went up to the Catskills, formed a Latin band and renamed himself Arnito Rey, of Grossingers fame—where he is shown playing in the film.
Arnold lacked the sophisticated veneer David presents, though when I play back the tape of my interview, for the sixth or seventh time, I pick up on some hesitancy behind David’s polish.
“The scenes in the film chronicle the worst time of my life,” he says of the obvious. “It’s on the screen—very difficult for me to watch—the arrest—and death.” His usually well-modulated voice breaks off at “the arrest.” It’s difficult for everyone to watch. It must be excruciating for David.
David is speaking to me not because he wants to, but because he will do almost anything to help prove Jesse’s innocence of the heinous crimes he and Arnold were convicted of in 1988.
At the Q&A session at the Sundance Film Festival, where Capturing the Friedmans won the 2003 Grand Jury Documentary Award, it was Jesse who answered the questions, because, David says, “I wanted, and want, the focus to be kept on Jesse. It is really his story.”
While it is, it’s David who seems to weave the film together, David who was keeper of the family history, by filming their lives during this time, and David who was uncensored throughout the ordeal.
My Brother’s Keeper
“Jesse’s parole officer never had a parolee as young as him for this type of crime,” David says. “And this was the first time in history there would have been a father-son [child molesting] team.” I remember the others who were convicted together of similar crimes during the same time period, but were later exonerated— and always had a woman involved.
Sensational cases like Kelly Michaels in New Jersey and the McMartins in California. The McMartin case was the most notorious of group molestation cases involving family members. In 1984, Virginia McMartin, of the McMartin Preschool, along with her daughter and two grandchildren, were indicted on 208 counts of child sexual abuse. On July 27, 1988, the last charges were dropped.
David, calmly, expertly, defends his family. “We have nothing to hide. Yes, we plea-bargained, but when we decided to make the movie we knew that it would show their innocence. Police use ‘facts’ all the time to convict people without a trial. They tell a story. It is told over and over again [and] people begin to believe it. Then they believe it’s the truth.
“The 12 [pornographic] magazines that were supposedly hidden behind the piano—Galasso’s own files don’t support it.” (Detective Frances Galasso, retired director of Nassau’s Sex Crimes Unit, denies David’s allegation to the Long Island Press, insisting the opposite was true.)
Riveting, David has my complete attention. “If a boy is sodomized by a grown individual there is medical evidence,” he continues. “There wasn’t any evidence. The police have had 15 years to find evidence and the photos the kids said were there. They haven’t. My father gave one-on-one piano lessons before the computer classes. Why didn’t it happen then? Wouldn’t it have been easier? Not one kid ever complained.
“Jesse was 14 when this would have begun. The kids were young—age 7 to 11—and their parents would come to watch the kids learn the computer and learn to socialize. You know the type of parents. They’re professionals, and their children have to take the best classes. Most kids returned semester after semester, and not one ever complained.”
David’s on a roll. “The police kept on going back to the [kids’] houses. If the parents would let them they would interview kids over and over again until they said that they had been abused. They interviewed about 100 kids and about 20 kids said they had [been abused]. One kid said that he had been abused many more times than there had been classes. They figured out a way for the police to stop badgering them.
“The classes were only an hour-and-a-half long. There wasn’t enough time for this to happen. You know the McMartin case and all the other ones? Seventy-five percent [of these cases] have been overturned on appeal.”
Mentioning a family-molestation case begs the question: Where was Elaine Friedman during this time? A seemingly caring mother when her sons were young (at least in the home movies), she became unable, or had always been unable, to express her love.
“Did you catch the scene where she said she felt a feeling of calm the day after Jesse went to jail?” David asks. I had; it was as shocking as if she had physically hurt her child. “My mother felt that instead of deciding that the family was going to fight this together, she decided that for her own sanity she needed it to end as quickly as possible.
“I was disappointed in her every day for 13 months. Important decisions had to be made, and every day, her decisions, for those 13 months were based on her belief that the sooner this ends, the sooner she could get her life back. Selfish. Insane to imagine that this was the way my mother acted.”
Through time and therapy David decided that it is best for him not to have his mother in his life.
The beige neutral tones of the restaurant The Library in the lobby of the Regency Hotel, mixed with the grayish sky clouding the windows, serve to make David look even less like the person in the film as he talks about his alter ego.
The irony of David becoming a children’s party clown is not lost on him. “I was a magic hobbyist since I was 6 years old,” he explains. “After college, I worked at a corporate job for six months and hated it. Magic’s based on psychology—my other passion. I became a street performer. People would come up to me and ask if I performed at parties. I knew nothing about performing for children, but I said yes, quickly studied everything I could on performing for children, and found that the best way to make children comfortable was by being a clown. Silly Billy’s a magician who performs as a clown at children’s parties. I know it’s an amazing coincidence that I’m Silly Billy when my father and Jesse….” His voice trails off.
Laura Ahearn, founder of Parents for Megan’s Law, a Stony Brook-based victim’s advocacy group, is not surprised by his profession. There are two sides to this, she says. “One is that it could be a person trying their best to cleanse the family name. To make things right with the family and the community of children.”
On the other hand, though, she warns, “it could be a giant red flag, indicating that something is not right.” There has always been speculation that the Friedman children might have been abused by their father as well. And the abused often abuse. Ahearn suggests, “You can’t assume guilt by affiliation, by being part of the same family, but it should put people on more heightened alert.” Clowning around for David seems therapeutic.
There’s a scene in Capturing the Friedmans in which David is standing outside of 555 Park Avenue, a very deluxe Manhattan co-op. He looks sad and world weary, but by the time he gets to the apartment, he’s Silly Billy.
Silly Billy doesn’t wear clown makeup. Nor does he wear that frightening red wool wig so many clowns believe to be mandatory. His transformation is complete with just a few props; a floppy red hat, huge yellow oval-shaped plastic glasses without lenses, yellow suspenders and a multi-colored tie over an unmemorable shirt, colorful plaid pants and two different pointy-toe clown shoes. More than just a clown, Silly Billy is a performer. He seems to be more John Barrymore than Barnum & Bailey.
The duality of his life had David juggling well before he was Silly Billy. “I would tell people that I was going to visit my brother and they would ask innocent questions that I couldn’t answer,” David recalls. “Basic questions such as ‘What does your brother do?’ ‘Why are you staying in a motel rather than with your brother?’ These were my friends, my colleagues, and if I slipped… One little thing and I could have lost everything. My whole career. I still could.”
Originally he didn’t want this particular film to be made, but now he feels that it can help vindicate Jesse. That’s as important to him as the career he has spent two decades finessing and making successful.
David’s love for his father is also obvious. “Somebody in the film calls my father a ‘nebbish,’ and he was, but he was a wonderful man who changed hundreds of children’s lives. He was an award-winning schoolteacher who each summer would bring kids out to our summer house. He introduced kids to different industries: TV, computers and chemistry, and now they are professionals in those fields…I was proud, and am proud, to have been his son. He was a great guy, and I still think he’s a great guy.”
Retired Detective Sgueglia tells the Press, “Anybody who was anyone in Great Neck, their children took Arnold’s classes. There were classes Monday through Saturday nights.” He goes on to say that, “Arnold would look for needy and/or vulnerable boys. The boys who responded to his pats on the legs or other overtures would be told that they were special, and would be put into special allboy classes.” Sgueglia, who worked on sex-crimes cases for 19 years and was a profiler for the Nassau County Police Department, claims, “These were the classes where the abuse took place.”
As a sex-crime profiler, Sgueglia’s analysis leads him to believe that “Arnold fit the classic pattern of a sexual pedophile. His daytime job was as a teacher; he worked with children after school hours, and took them to his summer home. Arnold made sure that the children liked him and wanted to be around him.” Ahearn agrees. “This follows the typical pattern. Sexual predators lead double lives.”
While it was Jesse who served hard time, and Jesse who should have been the focus of the film, David is the center of Capturing the Friedmans. In a way, he served his own kind of prison sentence, but David will always try to lead the conversation back to Jesse’s situation.
When Jesse gets excited, his voice becomes highpitched and boyish. He’s the first to admit that in many ways he’s still like a 19-year-old. Sometimes I forget that I’m talking to a 34-year-old man. Remember, he was in prison for 13 years.
Jesse’s easy to talk to; we have spoken several times and have developed an e-mail correspondence as well. “When I first got out I would tell people that I had been incarcerated and they wouldn’t believe me,” he says.
I understand that, but I’m surprised at how easy it is for him to be so open. Does David do the suffering for him?
“I have nothing that I am ashamed of,” Jesse tells me. “Those 13 years were still 13 years of my life. They cannot be dismissed or discounted. I gave my life to become the person I am today. Was it worth the price I paid? I am proud of who I am.”
It’s such a healthy attitude that it almost seems unhealthy. I would be cynical, and think that it’s staged by him or the film people, but nobody can fake the happiness in his voice. It’s too excited by possibilities, though there are so many obstacles in his path.
Jesse’s voice is lacking in the “prison affect” that former inmates often display. All his answers are long, introspective and filled with positivism.
“[I] made a conscious decision early in my incarceration not to allow prison to harden me; turn me into an angry, bitter, aggressive person. I was never a physically imposing individual and knew that I could never win a battle of brutes. Instead I found ways to protect myself and earn the respect of others through intellect.
“A very wise old-timer took me under his wing and taught me ways of surviving in prison. There were many lessons, but there is one lesson that goes to the heart of your question regarding why it seems that 13 years in prison did not affect my personality negatively. My friend demanded that I come to terms with the pain of my circumstances. My friend was very clear. He said, ‘If you disassociate who you are from where you really are; if you become a different person in order to survive in prison…you will no longer be who you truly are…’
“He also said that if I closed myself off from my feelings in order to disassociate from the pain of imprisonment, then when I get out of prison I would no longer be able to feel; I would become a cold, unfeeling person.”
Ahearn, of Parents for Megan’s Law, says that it is not unusual for child molesters to deny their crime, even at the expense of being denied parole, as Jesse has done repeatedly over the years. “Sex offenders are the most cunning and manipulative criminals,” she says, “and the least likely to admit their guilt. They are at the lowest end of the social order in prison, so they probably wouldn’t admit to such a crime, in fear of becoming a target.” But then again, what if, as some people now believe, Jesse is innocent? Denying his guilt is a no-win propositon.
There’s probably a lot that someone who has spent 13 years in prison wants to do once free: For Jesse, the publicity surrounding the film might do the trick. “My ideal goal,” he says, “is certainly to have my conviction vacated based upon the nowadult testimony of former computer students who are brave enough to come forward publicly and talk about the way the police handled the case.”
Christopher Berry-Dee, a criminologist and founder of the U.K.-based Criminologist Research Institute has worked cases around the world (including some on Long Island, such as the DeFeo “Amityville Horror” case). He is not so sympathetic to Jesse Friedman’s argument. “I sense a form of psychopathic self-denial here by Jesse Friedman,” he says. “I have some experience of this after working with serial killers such as Kenneth Bianchi, Arthur Shawcross, and more importantly, Harvey ‘The Hammer’ Carignan—the latter also refusing sex counseling because he claimed he was not a sex offender when he was.”
In a recent interview with the Press, retired Judge Abbey Boklan, expressed anger at the Capturing filmmakers for taking quotes out of context and for being duped into being involved in a film. “You have to understand that we had no idea this [film] was about reopening the case,” she explained. “We had been told it was about a sad and angry clown. I thought that they were doing a documentary on David.” Detective Galasso says she also felt duped.
But Judge Boklan stands by her theory that Jesse was guilty. “The smoking gun was Jesse’s appearance on [the] Geraldo Rivera [show], on February 23, 1989, after he had accepted a plea bargain. He said, in detail, what his father had done to him and others.
The film shows Jesse and his attorney, Peter Panaro, going to visit Arnold in prison at Oxford. It doesn’t say why they went. On that same Geraldo show, Jesse said that he knew he could lighten his term if Arnold told him where the videotapes and pictures of the children were.” Judge Boklan is unaware of the outcome of that visit.
But the question remains: Was Jesse Friedman actually innocent? And if he was guilty at 14 when he would have begun the criminal activity, could he have been a victim as well?
A Student Speaks Out
Ron Georgalis is currently getting his masters degree in anthropology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. When he was 9 years old he took Arnold Friedman’s computer class, and was the one former student to appear in the film in support of Jesse Friedman. The police interviewed Ron and his parents once and never came back.
“When Andrew Jarecki contacted me several years ago, I was immediately interested, as it was an unresolved issue in my life, as the facts had been concealed from me.” Ron hadn’t been aware that Jesse had been in jail for the last 13 years.
“I heard rumors that Arnold had died in jail, but knew nothing about Jesse. Maybe Arnold was guilty of something, but Jesse wasn’t guilty at all.”
Ron recalls what his time at the Friedman’s was like: “We would play computer games in the beginning of class, but nothing of a pornographic nature. The charges were something out of Dante’s Inferno. It was logistically impossible. Simply impossible. Let me put it this way: When I was nine, my mom was still wiping my ass. Frankly, my mom would have seen the blood on my underwear or clothes. Any mom would have. We went to doctors who would have seen tears or fistulas.”
The movie notes the lack of physical evidence. But, according to New York State Assistant District Attorney John Onorato, “Under the law of the State of New York, a person can be convicted of sodomy merely by placing his penis to the anus of the victim. There doesn’t have to be any penetration at all. Under that criteria you can foresee a situation where there wouldn’t be physical evidence to show. That’s only common sense.”
Onorato believes Jarecki wants people to talk about the movie, and purposely edited it so that it would be controversial. “Everybody is basing their conclusion on what Jarecki wants you to think. But if you were there…and I was…and I’m not a rubber stamp of the police department…I’ve been working sex crimes for approximately 15 years… I might have been able to base an ending that showed the Friedmans were guilty.”
Then why did he think the pornographic pictures the children had said were at the Friedman house were never found? He says, “When the postal inspectors went to the house and executed the search warrant…the Friedman family knew at that point it could lead to them being suspected of child abuse…if you’re a postal inspector and you find small desks for children in the basement…it doesn’t take a big leap to see that. So if the Friedmans have now been warned and have any incriminatory pictures saying that they abused children, they would get rid of it. There was a minimum of three weeks between the postal inspectors’ execution of warrant and our execution of the warrant. There was more than ample opportunity for the Friedmans to get the pictures out. Nobody’s disputing their intelligence.”
I asked now-retired Detective Frances Galasso of Nassau County’s Sex Crimes Unit about David’s assertion that her own files didn’t support the finding of documents. “What?” she exclaimed. “He’s never seen my files. We not only found magazines, but we found four or five original pornographic computer discs. You have to understand that these children were in different classes and gave us the same information separately. We also found NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association) pamphlets.”
Galasso feels, about the film, that “just enough of the truth was left out to establish reasonable doubt as to Jesse’s guilt.” She has been retired for 12 years now. She never expected to revisit this case again, but she plans on reviewing the files as “every law person’s integrity was attacked.”
She adds, “You can make any person look innocent if you play with the facts enough.” But more than that Galasso worries about the now-adult children. “I have met with three sets of parents (who wish to remain anonymous for now) since the film came out. They are very worried about how this will affect their children. At the time they worried about how much therapy their children would need. They felt as though they hadn’t protected their children enough. Now they are worried all over again.”
Jesse was 14 when this began. Wouldn’t that have been too young for him to have been a true abuser? “He might have been abused,” Galasso acknowledges. “But he was 18 at the end. It was time for him to accept responsibility for his actions.”
Though Ron Georgalis says he wasn’t molested, he confides he “did have a lingering suspicion about Arnold.
“He would put his hand on my back and pat me on the back—kind of fondle it. But it never went beyond that. And Jesse, I have no doubts about his innocence. He is.”
Jesse is looking for more former students like Georgalis to come forward. “Legally this is a tremendous uphill battle, which is why an exoneration in the eyes of the public [but not the law] is on my mind,” says Jesse. “To achieve that would necessitate a good many of the former computer students being willing to testify in court as to the truth.”
Again, criminologist Berry-Dee sees potential problems: “Many years have passed now. Most of the state witnesses will have vague memories and probably will not wish to become involved in clearing his name.”
All in the Family
Try as I can, I can’t think of a TV or film mother who matches Elaine Friedman’s screaming episodes in the early Capturing the Friedmans scenes filmed by David’s video camera. But unlike David, Jesse wants his mother in his life. “I get along just fine with my mother,” he explains. “Mom respects and treats me as the independent adult that I am. I try my best to forgive her for errors in her judgment and personality while I was growing up.” In the film’s near-present-day scenes, Elaine tries hard to explain and analyze her past actions. Ultimately, she can’t.
There are no mixed feelings about dad, though. “My father was a good dad to me and my brothers,” Jesse tells me. “And I never lacked for anything. He had a very Shakespearian tragic flaw, which eventually led to his downfall, and that is sad, but he was a good father to me when I was growing up.”
Unless Jesse is exonerated, he will never be free. Now released from prison, he is on parole, and under various restrictions. “The first is that I only have to attend sex-offender therapy twice a week, instead of three times a week. The second is that my curfew has been moved from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Otherwise, I am still under intensive parole supervision.”
While he might get frustrated with his parole restrictions, he does appreciate all the support and belief David has in him. “David supported me and helped me every one of those 4,745 days I was in prison, not to mention the year I was out on bail preparing for trial, and a half [year] and counting of adjusting to life outside of prison. I think it is pretty obvious how I feel about that. He’s my big bro and I love him.”
With the success of Capturing the Friedmans, Jesse’s hopes are being buoyed. Public opinion is swirling around his innocence. What is number one on his wish list? “I would be happy to be exonerated in the court of public opinion,” he says.
David had seen the film three times before our interview. Different moments become the most important ones at different times. I ask about the scene in which David, Jesse and their middle brother, Seth, are dancing on the steps of the Nassau County Court House during a break in Jesse’s plea bargain proceedings. Parents of the victims who were there viewed what seemed like inappropriate behavior as a sign of Jesse’s guilt.
“The dancing was like a New Orleans wake,” explains David. “[We brothers] have similar senses of humor and I’m absolutely sure that our humor got us through this. I don’t want to say that the charges were laughable because of the horror that the families felt, but the whole story…children saying that Arnold came at them with a knife— that’s unthinkable. Everything we tried to do to prove their innocence was turned around to show our guilt. Including the dancing.”
But David must get back to the real world— like recovering his personal life. “It would take me a long time to open up,” David confides in me about his love life. “And then only if the relationship turned serious.
“Most recently I fell in love with a woman who has two children. I had to tell her. She took it so well that she went with me to see Jesse in prison, and became a friend to Jesse. She’s still in both our lives.” It’s easy to see how a crime like this reverberates exponentially. Potential girlfriends, girlfriends’ children, friends, clients are affected. And the film about this crime has made a great impact around the country, but nowhere more significantly than in Great Neck, where it opened last week.
Almost two decades after the Friedmans were captured, a Great Neck resident called Laura Ahearn and asked her what she can do about the new sex offender on Russell Woods Road. She didn’t want it to be