Sunday, March 23, 2014

Finally, the last chapter in the sad case of Paulette

"Help me return home" - A retrospective on a death in Interlomas

Guadalajara -
Four years ago this week, all of Mexico was transfixed by the case of little Paulette Gebara Farah. Last week the nation's highest tribunal, the Supreme Judicial Court, closed the book on the matter forever.

Paulette, 4, was a child who suffered from significant developmental disabilities, both physical and emotional. She did unusual things, like crawling out of her bed in the middle of the night so she could sleep under it instead of in it. Paulette was enrolled in a school where her special needs could be addressed. She was loved by her teachers and the other students. They released balloons when it was time to say goodbye to her.

Paulette's parents were successful, well educated professionals who lived in the State of Mexico, often referred to as Edomex in Spanish. It lies just beyond the Federal District, which is contiguous with Mexico City. The capital of Edomex is Toluca.

Paulette's parents were separated and living apart. She lived with her mother, Lisette Farah, a seven year old sister and two devoted but poorly educated nannies in a comfortable, well appointed home in prosperous Interlomas. The nannies, who were sisters, had arrived in Edomex years before from their impoverished home state far to the south, hoping to make their way in life. In large measure they had succeeded.

Mauricio Gebar, Paulette's businessman father, was very much involved in his daughter's life and exercised frequent visitation. There was a history of domestic tension between Mauricio and Lisette.

On Mar. 21, 2010, when Paulette failed to appear at the breakfast table at her usual time, Lisette dispatched one of the nannies to wake her. When the nanny descended a few moments later, she delivered disturbing news: "The little señorita is not in her room. She's gone."

The house was immediately searched from stem to stern. When no trace of Paulette was found, Lisette called Mauricio. He arrived soon after and went through every room himself, with the same result. That's when they called the police.

Lisette related the core facts to the first officers on the scene. Paulette had been put to bed at her normal time the night before. Now she was gone. It was impossible for anyone else to have entered the home and taken her. The officers quickly verified that there were no signs of forced entry. Lisette told them about Paulette's sometimes odd behavior, and in the absence of anything else to go on, a tentative conclusion was reached that she must have gotten out of bed in the middle of the night and left on her own. But Paulette had never done that before.

Police and media bulletins quickly went out on the wires, and Mexicans everywhere, especially those in Edomex and the Federal District, began looking for Paulette. When she wasn't located within a few hours, everybody assumed that she must have fallen into the hands of a random kidnapper. A news hungry public devoured the story. The case became a cause célèbre overnight. Mexicans in the U.S. were equally intrigued and followed events closely.

In the days after they were first summoned, police investigators interviewed and re-interviewed Lisette, the two nannies and Mauricio, pressing all of them for the most minor details about Paulette's last few days in the house. It was their job to not discount any possible scenario which might lead to her.

Suspicion quickly fell on the nannies. Perhaps they had spirited away Paulette with a plan to later demand a ransom for her safe return. The nannies were put under the bright lights for hours on end, and were detained in a preliminary form of custody, Mexico's much dreaded averiguación previa. The nannies got a lawyer, which itself may have suggested guilt to prosecutors anxious to solve the case.

Another theory surfaced. Mauricio was convinced that Lisette had something to do with Paulette's disappearance, and he pitched it strongly to the police. Talk soon surfaced of a mother exhausted by the emotional (and financial) burdens of raising a developmentally disabled child in a single parent home. Perhaps she had lost control, struck the child and unintentionally killed Paulette. Perhaps.

Forensic experts scoured the property, especially Paulette's bedroom. They found nothing. Her bed was neatly made, and obviously hadn't been slept in. Everything was tidy and in impeccable order. A canine unit, with police dogs trained to hit on scents undetectable by humans, was led through the house. Nothing interested them in the least, investigators said.

Then the most improbable of the improbable happened. Paulette was found. She was still at home.

While Lisette and Mauricio and two terrified nannies and all of their learned counselors-at-law were busy trading charges and counter-charges, which the Mexican media excitedly broadcast in almost hourly updates, a police inspector decided to carry out yet one more search for clues at Lisette's home on Mar. 31. He went directly to Paulette's room, and focused on her bed. By then there was a slight odor in the room. Pulling back the comforter, this is what he saw.

"Let's see, what's this?" the inspector asked, as the body of Paulette revealed itself.

Paulette was tightly wedged face down in a narrow space between the foot of the mattress and the bed frame. She was quite dead.

A body recovery team was immediately dispatched to the home, and every minute of the painstaking task of examining Paulette and her bed was carefully videotaped so that the crime scene would be perfectly preserved for use in court. There was no longer any doubt about this case, police thought. Mauricio had probably been right all along. Clips of the forensic videos were on millions of Mexican television screens and computer monitors within a few days.

In March 2010 the state prosecutor of Edomex was a man named Alberto Bazbaz Sacal. He said the case was one of clear cut criminal homicide. Bazbaz was a close friend of the governor of Edomex, who later went on to another job. His name is Enrique Peña Nieto.

The Mexican public, for understandable reasons, quickly adopted the murder theory, convinced that someone with access to the home - Lisette, Mauricio or the nannies - must have killed Paulette and then neatly tucked her away in her own bed. The latter was a little hard to explain, of course, since murderers don't generally don't leave the evidence of their crime meters away. But prosecutors would tie up the loose ends when the case was presented in court, everyone thought.

The press, the police, Mauricio and prosecutor Bazbaz all targeted Lisette as the perpetrator, and the suggestion stuck with most of the public. Until everybody found out that Paulette wasn't murdered.

The most methodical postmortem examination was performed on Paulette's amazingly well preserved body a few days after it was found in her bed (a factor attributed in part to Lisette's insistence that the temperature in the home be kept very low, by the liberal use of air conditioning). The highly qualified Mexican autopsy team was assisted by a group of FBI forensic experts with impeccable credentials. Their conclusions were unanimous: Paulette had died from positional asphyxia, after crawling to the foot of the bed and covering herself up face down. She had slowly suffocated without ever waking up. The circumstances, though bizarre, were consistent with Paulette's at times extraordinary behavior.

Paulette's body revealed no sign of trauma, nor any indication that she had been physically abused, the medical team unequivocally reported.

Bazbaz retracted his claim of homicide, and sheepishly told a press conference, "I recognize that there were deficiencies in our initial investigative procedures."

Lisette, an attorney, eventually filed a civil defamation suit against Edomex officials, accusing them of a rush to judgment. It was undeniable that Bazbaz had levied his charge of murder - sparing only the name of the defendant - before physicians ever had Paulette's body on the mortuary table. Lisette claimed that her personal and professional reputations had been irreparably damaged by statements on his part which proved to be completely false.

Lisette Farah lost her case in the trial court, and lost several rounds of appeals, too. Last week she was handed a final rejection by Mexico's Supreme Judicial Court, which refused to overturn the lower tribunals' decisions. That's the end of the legal line for her.

Mexicans remain divided on little Paulette's case. Some flatly rejected the autopsy report, despite the credentials of those who prepared it. Many in this country have no confidence in police, prosecutors and the judiciary. The former governor of Edomex says he is working hard to change that. But as the fourth anniversary of a child's death in Interlomas is observed, some still ask, "What really happened to Paulette?"

Aug. 17, 2013 - The death house on Lope de Vega
Mar. 21, 2014 - Death in the Yucatán

© MGR 2014. All rights reserved. This article may be cited or briefly quoted with proper attribution or a hyperlink, but not reproduced without permission.

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