Norfolk, Mass. -- Gerald "Tooky'' Amirault waved and smiled nervously as he was released from prison Friday, 18 years after his controversial conviction in one of the country's most bizarre and bitterly disputed child-molestation cases.
More than a dozen family members and friends were on hand as Amirault left Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk with his wife, Patti, and his attorney, James Sultan. His three adult children followed in another car.
Amirault was convicted in 1986 of molesting and raping eight 3- and 4-year-old children at his family's Fells Acres day care center in Malden. But he insisted he was innocent throughout his imprisonment, refusing to undergo counseling for sex abuse because he viewed it as an admission of guilt.
"It's a bit overwhelming,'' Amirault said. "I'm grateful to my wife and my children and the family and friends I have that are surrounding me. This is what's representative of Gerald Amirault and his family, not this case, this Fells Acres fraud.''
His sister, Cheryl Amirault LeFave, who was also convicted in the case, smiled broadly and gave the thumbs-up sign as her brother's long ordeal came to an end.
"We won't ever forget what happened to our family,'' LeFave said.
But Amirault's joyous release from prison did not end the controversy that has swirled around the case for two decades.
In a case that came to symbolize changing attitudes toward the mass prosecution of child sex abuse cases, the Amiraults insisted they were victims of the day care sex abuse hysteria that swept the country in the 1980s.
They claimed they were railroaded by questionable testimony from child witnesses who they said were badgered by well-meaning therapists until they concocted their tales of abuse.
"We invite scrutiny,'' Amirault said "We're not afraid of the truth.''
But their accusers - now young adults - insist that Amirault is the monster they said he was during his trial. Their testimony, which included stories of Amirault dressing up as a clown and raping children with knives, and the ritualistic slayings of animals, made up the bulk of the state's case.
His sister and mother, Violet Amirault, were convicted during a separate trial and were released from prison in 1995. Violet Amirault died in 1997.
Amirault victim Jennifer Bennett, now married with two children of her own, said earlier this week that her stomach was in knots just thinking about his release. She said she still has flashbacks, wakes up in a cold sweat and is terrified by clowns.
Larry Hardoon, the chief prosecutor in the case, said he continues to believe Amirault committed the crimes. He defended the interviewing techniques used by investigators, which were later criticized as leading and suggestive to the children.
"Anybody that takes the time to understand and pay attention to what the actual facts were - not the mischaracterization of facts that gets spread by the defense - the convictions have always been upheld as sound and fully supportable,'' he said.
"I believe he had a fair trial and that the system worked the way it's supposed to work. I've never seen or heard anything from the beginning of this case to today - that makes me think otherwise,'' he said.
The state Board of Pardons recommended in July 2001 that his sentence be commuted, but then-acting Gov. Jane Swift rejected the recommendation in February 2002.
He was granted parole last October and Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley announced earlier this month that there was not enough evidence to have Amirault committed indefinitely as a sexually dangerous person.
Amirault will return to Malden, the city of 56,000 north of Boston where the Fells Acres saga unfolded two decades ago. He said he will continue trying to prove his innocence.
"I'm going to fight this case until the day I die,'' he said. "I'm going to get my name back.''