UPDATE: Showing considerable composure, an 8-year-old girl testified in Hackensack today that former FOX 5 reporter Charles Leaf never touched her and that molestation allegations she made to a therapist years ago were fed to her by her nanny, whom she called “Weronika.”
“Did anybody ever touch your private parts?” Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Kenneth Ralph asked the younster, the prosecution’s first witness in Leaf’s sex assault trial, which opened this morning.
“No,” the girl replied.
“If they did, would you tell us?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said firmly.
“Weronika told me to say those things,” she said later.
Leaf wasn’t nearly as composed.
He smiled at first as the youngster described living with her mother, brother and “my cat, Alabama….She’s brown and furry. She is 16.”
At that point, he broke down, sobbing quietly.
During a break, Leaf and his wife embraced, crying, in the hallway of the Bergen County Courthouse.
The 15-minute recess came amid nearly two hours of testimony by the youngster, who prosecutors said was molested by Leaf in 2010, when they lived in Wyckoff and she was four years old. She turned 8 this past December.
The child came into the courthouse with her mother and grandfather,
carrying a bag with a doll and other comfort items in it.
Wearing a large pink bow in her blonde hair and holding tight to a stuffed bear, she was escorted to the witness stand by members of the Bergen County Office of Victim Witness Advocacy.
The bear’s name is “Pinkie,” the girl told told Superior Court Judge James J. Guida. Together they placed it in front of her on a ledge of the witness box. Leaf sat with his lawyers at the defense table, in front and to her right.
Guida spoke briefly with the youngster about the people in the courtroom, including the jurors and prosecutor. He coached her on how to recognize truth and told her to answer questions honestly.
The judge asked her to speak into the microphone and always answer “yes” or “no,” and not to nod her head or respond “uh-huh.”
The girl faced the lawyers squarely and answered questions directly, with certainty.
She repeatedly insisted that Leaf never touched her that way, and that she was afraid of the nanny, who prosecutors said expressed concerns that the girl was being molested to a playmate’s father.
That man went to authorities who interviewed the nanny and began an investigation that led to Leaf’s arrest. Investigators said they also found child pornography on his computer that he allegedly tried to delete.
“We’re here because of betrayal,” Ralph, the prosecutor, told jurors during his opening statement this morning. “The child betrayed Charles Leaf by telling a secret he asked her to keep. But really, he betrayed his relationship with her by having her perform sexual acts with him, and ask that she keep it a secret.”
He portrayed Leaf as a man who “shattered the American dream” with “a dark secret, a stain on the image of a perfect family.”
Defense attorney Brian Neary countered with the portrait of a Marine assigned to an elite diplomatic detail stationed at embassies in Australia and Poland.
“His goal, his dream – was to become a U.S. Marine, even a paratrooper,” Neary told the jury. “He was chosen for a special detail to protect our government officials overseas, protecting diplomats and secrets, those things important to the United States.”
While in Poland, Leaf met the daughter of a Polish diplomat and married her. They returned to the U.S., where she helped him get a journalism degree from Syracuse University. Then Monica Leaf went to school and became a nurse.
They had two children, including the girl who testified, while Leaf was working reporting jobs in Arizona, Alabama, Colorado and Missouri before returning to the northeast to work at FOX NEWS in New York, Neary said.
“He would never be involved in the betrayal the prosecutor has described,” he said.
Neary didn’t cross-examine the girl.
Rather, Demosthenes Lorondos, a child sex abuse expert from Ann Arbor, Mich. who is part of the defense team, asked the youngster whether people believed her when she told them what happened.
“I feel like some of them don’t care, but others are here to help us and are coming to court to make that happen,” she responded.
“Now, for some reason, when that lady pulled out the penis doll, you told her a whole bunch of other stuff….,” he said.
“Everything I told [her] was stuff Weronika told me to say,” she replied.
“What did you get for Christmas last year? The year before?” he asked.
“I don’t remember,” the girl responded.
“You were talking to [her],” Lorondos said, “and after she’d been talking to you for 25 minutes, before she took out the penis dolls, she asked you has anyone ever touched you on your ‘peepka’ in a way you don’t like. And you said ….?”
“No,” she answered. “I told the truth because Weronika was gone and I knew she couldn’t do anything to me.
“She threatened to put cheese down my brother’s throat because my brother’s worst thing is cheese. She made us clean the house top-to-bottom.
“After Weronika left, I never saw her again. She lived in Englewood when we lived there, and she and my mom were both Polish and they were friends.”
Lorondos asked the girl whether she would lie.
“I will not lie,” she said.
Leaf, who turns 44 a week from today, is charged with aggravated sexual assault and child endangerment. He has been free on $270,000 bail after spending seven weeks in jail and told CLIFFVIEW PILOT last week that he has been working as a paralegal.
In September, he rejected a plea offer from prosecutors that would have sent him to prison for 7-8 years.
Following Leaf’s arrest in late 2010, his wife went on TV and said that he was set up by the nanny — who also is expected to testify in the trial.
Monica Leaf said the nanny got the girl, then 4, to lie about being digitally penetrated and seeing him masturbate in front of her several times. Leaf’s wife also said he passed a polygraph test, which under the law isn’t allowed to be presented to jurors.
Ralph is expected to show jurors a videotaped forensic interview of the girl by a child sex crimes specialist from his office when the trial resumes tomorrow morning.
STORY / PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter