Francisco De Aragon

Francisco “Fran” De Aragon, age twenty-six was working as a swim instructor at the Deerfield Beach Aquatic Center in 2015 when his world was turned upside down. May 20th started out as a normal day, and he was looking forward to taking a short vacation with his wife, Savannah to visit family. Instead, a deputy arrived at his place of employment and detained him with no explanation. There he sat for hours until police obtained probable cause to arrest him. Then he was transferred to the police station, handcuffs and leg restraints were placed on him and he was interrogated.

He was shocked when police informed him that he had been accused of inappropriately touching two six-year-old girls during their swim lessons the prior day. He was outraged and vehemently denied the accusations. He informed the detective that he had never been accused of anything of this nature and was a law abiding citizen with nothing more than a speeding ticket on his record. Detective Gittens lied and told him that he had DNA evidence to support the allegations. De Aragon maintained his position that he had never inappropriately touched a child and agreed to submit a DNA specimen. He did not ask for an attorney at any time during the interview.

He told the detective that he took his coaching and lifeguard responsibilities seriously. He was with the USA Swim Team where members are educated about the importance of avoiding any inappropriate contact. They are also subjected to frequent background checks. He had been working as an instructor/coach/lifeguard for the past ten years and had never received a single complaint. He’d worked with thousands of children.

The setting of the alleged abuse defies common sense. He and another instructor worked with entire classes of students who were transported to the facility from their schools. They would split the class in half so each instructor could work with approximately ten students at a time. As is typical with beginner swim lessons, the instructor would stand approximately five feet out and have the children take turns pushing off the wall and swimming toward them, often with the use of a kickboard. They would then be turned around and directed back to the wall. The entire class would be watching, and waiting for their turn. The teachers were close by, keeping an eye on the students. How could a child be abused in this setting with no one observing anything?

The Accusations:

The parents of six-year-old A. C. called the police the evening of May 19th and reported that their daughter had been inappropriately touched by a  swim coach that day. Officer Sobrino with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office responded and spoke first to the parents. They told the officer about the alleged inappropriate touching described by their daughter. The officer then spoke privately to A.C., and she told him she was in the pool and a man touched her private parts inside her bathing suit, but there was no penetration.

The next day, at a separate precinct, parents of six-year-old B.E. reported that their six-year-old daughter was inappropriately touched by a swim instructor. The same details were described — that he touched her private parts inside her swimsuit. No penetration had occurred. This report was taken by Investigator Preston, also with the Broward Sheriff’s Office. Note that B.E. attended a different school than A.C. This reduced the likelihood that the children knew each other and possibly made up the claim after discussing it at school, but it shouldn’t eliminate the need for a thorough investigation into these very serious allegations. Unfortunately, police immediately accepted the claims as fact, and confirmation bias was a factor in the children’s interviews.

It’s important to distinguish between an allegation of touching versus penetration as the latter results in a sexual battery charge, which carries a life sentence.

Deputy Gittens

Things happened very quickly . . . almost too quickly. Detective Keith Gittens with the Special Victim’s Unit was assigned to the case the morning of May 20th. He called A.C.’s mother at 10:17 a.m. and then her school teacher at 10:49, but the odd thing is that Officer Sobrino did not speak to Gittens, and did not type up his report until 11:15 p.m. that night . . . so how did Gittens obtain the family’s number and the name of the teacher? At a deposition months later he explained that he must have received a draft copy of Sobrino’s report.

Whatever the case, before he’d even conducted forensic interviews with the children, he contacted the pool where Francisco De Aragon was employed and determined exactly where he was at that time and then sent a deputy to detain him until he secured probable cause for his arrest. De Aragon was detained at 12:22, held at his work location until Gittens completed his interviews. He was arrested at 3:54 p.m.

Normally when young children make sexual abuse allegations, authorities consult with child psychologists and medical professionals to verify or rule out the claims. There are recommended guidelines for questioning children in the 2-7 age range. For example, open-ended questions are supposed to be asked. That didn’t happen in this case. Outside specialists were not consulted, and open-ended questions were not asked. It was later learned that Gittens had never received any formal training in this area.

A.C. was interviewed first. He asked her simple questions — could she count to 100, did she know her alphabet? He felt comfortable that she understood the difference between truths and lies, then he jumped right into the “good touch/bad touch” questions. He proceeded to draw a body and asked the child to name the anatomical parts. Then he asked her if anyone had ever done a bad touch on her privates.

A.C. Yeah.

Gittens: Who?

A.C. When I went to the pool I was trying to swim and I couldn’t and they touched my privates.

If the child had been coached to make the accusation against the swim coach, the detective just led her right to that. There was no open-ended question about her day, or school or the swim lesson . . . just directly to the inappropriate touch questions.

Gittens: What was the person doing with you?

A.C. He was trying to push me on the wall for I can swim. (English was her second language)

Gittens: Uh-huh.

A.C. And then he put his hand on my bathing suit and touched my private.

(note: I am skipping ahead and omitting some of the irrelevant sections to avoid being too lengthy).

Gittens: So while you were in the water with the man is when he touched your privates?

A.C. We were playing and then trying to swim, he was touching my bathing suit and then he went under his hand. And then he touched my privates.

It sounds like A.C. could have been coached by someone to say, “He put his hand under my bathing suit . . .” , but it didn’t quite come out right.

Gittens: Okay. Did he put his hand inside your bathing suit, or outside.

A.C. Inside.

Gittens: Okay, and he touched your privates or?

A.C. Yeah.

Gittens: Okay, when he touched your privates did he do anything with his hand?

A.C. He just touched it.

Gittens: Okay. Did he only touch it like this or did he do something else?

A.C. He was touching it like this because I was with my bathing suit and I was trying to swim. And then when I was trying to swim when I did it wrong he went under my bathing suit.

Gittens: Okay. When he touched your private did his hand move around or stay still?

A.C. He keep his hand still.

Gittens: Okay. Did his hand go inside your private or stay outside?

A.C. A little bit outside.

Gittens: Well, let me ask you . . . did the man’s finger go inside your private or something else?

A.C. Inside my private.

He kept asking her the same question until he received the answer he wanted. Clearly, the detective was manipulating the child to secure the harshest possible charge against De Aragon — sexual battery. Does the child even understand what the detective means? We already know that the officer who responded to the complaint reported that no penetration had occurred, so why was this detective pursuing this line of questioning when it was clear the child denied it in both interviews? Gittens kept at it, and she told him that the coach also put his hand inside the butt area of her swimsuit, but based on the questioning and the responses, it does not seem like the child understands what the detective is talking about.

Gittens: So did he touch your private, then your butt or . . . tell me. Tell me what happened.

A.C. First I was on the bus — and the person on the bus she was staying on the bus. And then I got started and when they tapped me on the head, I had to go this way with my friends. And then when we were doing things what I was saying. And then after that we were playing and kicking. We were playing red light and green light.

He attempts to refocus her but doesn’t seem to be successful.

Gittens: When the man was touching you, was he showing you how to swim?

A.C. Yeah. He was showing some other kids. And then — we were going, my other friends. They were on this side, and my other friends were on this side.

Gittens wrapped up the interview shortly after that, having secured his first sexual battery charge.  A.C. was unable to identify De Aragon in a photo line-up just after the interview.

Gittens interviewed B.E. next. She was crying hysterically as she entered the room, so he allowed her mother to stay for the interview. This interview is very important because the child told the detective that a boy from school touched her, and that a grownup had never touched her inappropriately.

Gittens: Has anyone ever touched you on your parts that they’re not supposed to touch?

B.E. Nods.

Gittens: Who touched you there?

B.E. Elijah.

Gittens: Huh?

B.E. Elijah.

Gittens: Elijah? Who is that?

B.E. Someone from my class.

Gittens: Somebody from your class touched you there named Elijah? Okay. A boy or a grownup?

B.E. A boy.

Gittens: A boy? Okay. Has anybody else touched you on your private? (B.E. shakes her head no) No? Okay. So, besides Elijah has any grownup touched you on your private there?

B.E. No.

At this point the detective should be considering the possibility that the child may have lied in the initial police report about the swim coach. Was it possible that it was the classmate, not the coach? Instead, he keeps pushing — even resorting to the use of a toilet paper roll and pen to simulate sexual penetration, in an effort to coax the child into admitting that penetration had occurred. He was determined to secure a second sexual battery charge.

Gittens: Besides mommy from bathing you there, has any grownup ever touched you there?

B.E. No.

Gittens: It’s okay. You can tell me. Mommy said it’s okay to tell me. Any grownup ever touch you there? Huh? Yes or no? You’re nodding yes?

B.E. (mumbling)

Gittens: I want to be sure I understand you. Okay? So, can you say yes or no? Which one?

B.E. I’m scared.

Gittens: Don’t be scared. No one’s going to hurt you. I promise.

B.E. Yes.

Gittens: So who was the grownup that touched you there?

B.E. I don’t know his name. Someone who works at the pool. And he did it to everybody that had on a bathing suit two-piece.

(skipping some of the dialogs)

Gittens: So, tell me about it. Tell me how the man touched you there.

B.E. I don’t remember.

Gittens: What were you doing at the time?

B.E. I was in the pool.

Gittens: You’re in the pool? Okay. Were you learning to swim? Yeah? And there were other kids there too? Okay. And were you by yourself with the man at the pool? No? Other kids were there? Were the other kids sitting on the wall? Yeah? Okay. So, then you went out when it was your turn? Okay. And was it then that he touched you there? Yeah? Okay. And you had on a two-piece bathing suit? Yeah? Okay. And he used his hand to touch you there? Yes or no?

B.E. Yeah.

Gittens: Did his fingers touch you there? Yeah? Okay. Was it inside your bathing suit or on the outside?

B.E. Inside.

Gittens: Inside? Okay. So, here we have a roll of toilet paper. Right? Right now where is the pen?

B.E. On the outside.

Gittens: On the outside? Okay, now where’s the pen?

B.E. On the inside.

Gittens: Were his fingers on the outside or did it go inside?

B.E. Inside.

Gittens assumed the child understood what he was referring to with this ridiculous pen demonstration, but I don’t believe it’s at all clear that she did . . . and it’s quite possible she interpreted the pen inside to mean inside the bathing suit. Remember that the police officer the night before reported that no penetration occurred.

Gittens then asked the child to pretend the pen is the coach’s finger, and show him how much of the pen went “inside.” The child points to a spot on the pen. That resulted in the second sexual battery charge. B.E. did identify De Aragon in a photo line-up, so this was enough for probable cause. De Aragon was immediately arrested and taken to the police station.

A third six-year-old girl, A.P. was interviewed the following day. She was in B.E.’s class, and it was established during later depositions that the two girls were friends and had discussed the touching. B.E. told her mother that the man touched A.P. too. B.E. then sent an email to A.P’s mother about this, and police were later contacted.

A.P.’s mother told police that her daughter was in the pool, then went to get a drink, and the lifeguard touched her . . . so this was very different than what the other girls had described. But Gittens didn’t ask A.P. anything consistent with her mother’s statement. He stuck with the same script . . . Did it occur while you were in the pool, etc? A.P. said she would scream if anyone touched her private parts . . . yet she didn’t scream at the pool that day. Gittens conducted the same toilet paper roll demo that worked well with B.E., but A.P. maintained that the pen remained outside the toilet paper roll — so no sexual battery charge this time.

B.E.’s mother also told police a contradictory story. She said that her daughter told her that the coach lined up all the girls wearing two-piece bathing suits and touched all of them. In fact, another lifeguard working that day described how she was the one who split the class in half for the lesson, and it was simply the first ten children who were sent to have their lesson with De Aragon. This apparently wasn’t a red flag to police that the stories weren’t matching up with what the children had allegedly described. Also, the mothers of B.E. and A.P. denied knowing each other, and denied that their girls had ever been to each other’s homes, even though the children said that they had.

The investigation was over at the time of De Aragon’s arrest. Gittens never attempted to determine whether A.P. and B.E. may have jointly planned to falsely accuse their instructor. He did not look into B.E.’s classmate Elijah, despite the fact that she’d named him as the person who did the inappropriate touching during her police interview. Shouldn’t he have considered the possibility that she (and A.P.) may have implicated De Aragon to protect Elijah? Someone that they would see at school each day? He did not question the other classmates to see if they’d observed anything at the pool that day.

Since A.P. and B.E. had been to each other’s homes, the parents may have been friends too, and there may have been collusion to frame De Aragon by coaching the children. Gittens never considered the possibility, or that the parents of these two girls may have known the parents of A.C., the third girl who attended a different school. A.C.’s swim lesson was actually scheduled right before the other girls’ lesson, so it’s quite possible the children knew each other from that, but Gittens never asked.

Gittens also failed to consider the possibility that the parents may have had had financial motives to make false claims. He never arranged for the children to be medically examined, did not collect their bathing suits for DNA, and did not inquire if the pool facility had cameras that may have captured the events of that day. In fact, no investigation took place at all, and the parents were actually brought in to make sworn statements after the arrest.

A spokesman with the Broward Sheriff’s Office informed the public about the arrest on the local news. He stated that he believed this man to be a predator, and asked the public to come forward if they had any information. No one ever came forward.

Detective Gittens was demoted from Detective of the Special Victim’s Unit to Deputy a few months after this incident. In his deposition, he stated that it was due to personal reasons. During a pre-trial hearsay hearing a judge was curious about the demotion and even asked the prosecutor if there was a reason why the detective was no longer a detective with the the SVU. He wondered if it was related to his interview technique. He referenced the end of one of the girl’s interviews in which the detective told the child that he believed her.

“It’s fundamentally flawed for him to say at the end we believe you. It’s fundamentally flawed for him to say at the end of the interview for him to tell the child he won’t do this to anyone else. There’s a huge problem with that because you are now making sure the child is now married to her statement and she has to stand by that statement now. She can never recant because she’s now the hero. They believe her and he’s the monster because of her testimony.”

Is it possible Gittens was demoted because he was involved in a set-up? He moved very quickly and did not conduct a proper investigation. Did he have something to gain?

Depositions

Fifteen months after the accusations were made, De Aragon’s private attorney, Scott Janowitz deposed the parents, the children, the detective, and the teachers.

A.C. was very quick to mention the touching. It seemed obvious she had been coached. Janowitz did a poor job questioning the witnesses, failing to ask open questions much like the detective.

Q. When you got into the pool, where did he first touch you?

A. In my private part.

This is clearly inconsistent with the earlier story — that she was touched while he was helping her swim.

Q. When you first got into the pool, he immediately touched your private part or did he touch some other part of your body?

A. No. First he keep pushing me and pushing me. And then until he just touched my private part. And then we were done I went home. And then, like in the night time I tell my mom, and then my dad came, and then my dad called the police.

A.C. did not seem to understand any questions about penetration.

B.E. was reluctant to discuss this again.

Q. Do you remember a day in which the swim instructor touched you? (Again, the attorney’s line of questioning was exactly like Gittens’)

A. No.

Q. Okay. Do you remember a time where the swim teacher put his hands inside your bathing suit?

A. No.

Then Janowitz began asking her about private parts and at that point she responded “yes” when asked about the touching. B.E. stated clearly that his hands remained outside her private part, thus no penetration. Stupidly, Janowitz was trying to encourage her to admit to the penetration, and even brought up the toilet paper roll demonstration. He asked her if she knew a boy named Elijah, and she said she did not.

Incentives to lie

Sometimes children are coached to lie about sexual abuse. Unfortunately, it’s common in divorce and child custody cases. One parent will accuse the other of sexually abusing the children to win full custody. Sometimes teachers, daycare workers, relatives, and youth counselors are falsely accused. The Tonya Craft case is well known — a kindergarten teacher falsely accused of sexually abusing three girls. A possible motive was that one of the mothers was upset that Craft didn’t believe her child was ready for first grade. A vendetta can be the incentive, and children can be coached. Craft had a strong defense team and was ultimately acquitted, but many aren’t so lucky. These cases are difficult because the physical proof isn’t needed to win a conviction. The child’s story is often enough.

One of the other incentives is financial. A false allegation can result in a massive lawsuit. In fact, at a hearsay hearing before trial, Judge Bailey was considering any possible motives for the children to have made false claims, and one of the things he referenced was civil lawsuits.

“I don’t find any motive to fabricate, as far as some of these cases end up in lawsuits, and civil actions, and so on. I don’t find anything of that nature here. It may be a question of whether because there’s a discussion at the school going on, that there’s no motive to fabricate.”

The judge stated that he didn’t see anything of that nature, however, there had been a pre-suit filing just five weeks after the alleged incidents. It was filed against the schools and the City of Deerfield Beach by A.C.’s and B.E.’s mothers, yet De Aragon’s attorney, Scott Janowitz did not bring it to the court’s attention. In fact, at trial, both women denied that they’d gone to the attorney together which was odd since both their names were on the documents. During De Aragon’s trial in May 2017, one of the mothers was asked if she was planning to pursue a civil lawsuit. She stated that she had no plans to do so.

In June 2017, De Aragon was convicted of capital sexual battery, three counts of lewd and lascivious acts and one count of battery. The first charge carries an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The children all testified, yet much like the questioning by police and during the depositions, claims of actual penetration were unclear, despite lots of coaxing. There’s a hearsay exception in cases like this, with children under the age of twelve, so all of the mothers were able to testify about what the children allegedly told them about the touching. All three women cried on the stand, even though they did not cry during any of their interviews or depositions. And this was two years later.

It didn’t matter that the sexual battery charge was never confirmed through testimony, because the jury was shown the taped interviews of the children and the responses to the toilet paper roll demonstrations were accepted as the children having admitted to there being penetration. The defense case centered around witnesses who were at the pool that day. Many lifeguards and teachers testified that they did not witness anything unusual, and that none of the children reported being touched inappropriately. At the sentencing hearing, De Aragon’s family testified about his character and how he’d been swimming since he was very young, and loved teaching people of all ages how to swim. Both of his parents were coaches as well. The family is obviously devastated.

In November 2017 a civil suit was filed by all three families against the school, the City of Deerfield Beach, and Francisco De Aragon. A quick look at their public records revealed that one of the fathers is currently being sued for $170,000 in a lawsuit that was initiated close to the time of the accusations against De Aragon. Another father was arrested in 2018 for domestic violence and drugs. One of the mothers has a history of foreclosures. Maybe police should have investigated the families. The lawsuit could potentially yield a multi-million dollar award. Could this have been an incentive for what appears to be obvious false allegations? Did the families conspire to put an innocent man in prison for life for money? It certainly seems possible.

As an advocate for the wrongfully convicted, I became interested in this case after Francisco’s wife, Savannah posted about it on a social media site. I read the articles, and had to learn more. She provided me with the case files, and I’ve spent many hours reading through everything. I am convinced he is innocent because it defies common sense that any abuse could have occurred unnoticed in a public pool with dozens of people around. I will do what I can to raise awareness to this case, and hopefully one day he will be cleared of these charges.

You can listen to an exclusive jailhouse interview by WFORTV that occurred shortly after the conviction. De Aragon has appealed his conviction, but things seem to be moving rather slowly. I will post updates on this site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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