SALT LAKE CITY — As he waited to hear whether jurors would find his childhood caretaker guilty of sexually abusing him over nearly a decade, Rabbi Avrohom “Avremi” Zippel studied a picture of himself as a boy that prosecutors had earlier displayed in the courtroom.
“I told the little boy in the photo that everything that had just transpired over the past four days was all for him, and I wanted him to heal. He didn’t deserve what happened to him back then. And this was all for him,” said Rabbi Zippel, now 28.
Moments later, a judge’s clerk read the verdict reached by eight jurors following about two hours of deliberation Friday, capping off the four-day trial. Alavina Fungaihea Florreich, 70, was found guilty as charged.
She now faces up to life in prison for the five counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony; and two counts of forcible sex abuse, a second-degree felony, when she is sentenced Jan. 13.
“To have your sanity and your integrity and everything about your life questioned, ridiculed, mocked and made allegations about for four days, and for the ultimate authority in this case to say, ‘We got this covered. We know what the truth is,’ there’s no feeling in the world like it,” the rabbi said outside the courthouse. “There’s no greater validation you can ask for.”
Florreich showed little emotion as she was handcuffed Friday and led out of the courtroom, pausing to briefly speak to family members. Her attorney Jonathan Nish said she plans to appeal.
Outside the courtroom, Rabbi Zippel embraced his father, Rabbi Benny Zippel, as both men sobbed. Outside the courthouse, the younger Rabbi Zippel grinned as he spoke with reporters.
His decision to come forward publicly in a February Deseret News article set off a #MeToo movement within the Orthodox Jewish world. He received an outpouring of messages of support and encouragement, including from over 20 people who said they were also survivors of sexual abuse.
Among those cheering the guilty verdicts Friday were Elizabeth Smart and Rabbi Peretz Chein, the co-founder of the Chabad House at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Rabbi Zippel’s disclosure inspired Chein to come forward forward as a survivor of sexual abuse earlier this year.
Smart, who was kidnapped at age 14 and sexually abused, said Friday she is “so happy to hear justice was served today.” She has advised Rabbi Zippel throughout the case and attended a February preliminary hearing.
“It takes a great deal of courage for a victim to share their story to anyone. It takes even more to take the witness stand to testify and be cross examined,” Smart continued.
During the trial, Florreich’s defense attorneys homed in on the reach of Rabbi Zippel’s story and the role it played in raising his profile. They cast him as a scheming boy who pressured his nanny into touching him inappropriately and grew up to falsely accuse Florreich in order to become a star of the #MeToo movement.
“The movement had a pretty rough week in court from where I was sitting,” he said, adding that the defense alleged “there was kind of this few month stretch where it was okay to be a victim of sexual abuse, and then everyone else is a bunch of liars.”
Rabbi Zippel, the father of two young sons and a program director at the Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, had testified in the trial that he hadn’t known of anyone in his own religious community who had been through the same thing and wanted to be able to comfort others.
His case may illustrate challenges for men who come forward as victims and they say the abuse happened when they were teenagers, he said. The rabbi questioned if a woman who reports a sexual assault would then be cast as an aggressor in court.
“I remember before I went to the police, there were many times I was content to tell the police, you know, this stopped at 13. Because at that point, it’s acceptable to be a victim of sexual abuse. In your teenage years, it’s not, and I had to learn and accept the trauma that I went through.”
Florreich’s defense team had alleged that a young Zippel was the perpetrator in a sex act occurred between them when he was 18 years old — a claim prosecutors said was false because Florreich later clarified he had “begged her” but did not threaten or force her.
“The main reason I think that’s shameful is because that deters other people from doing this,” Rabbi Zippel said. The incident was not the basis for any of Florreich’s criminal charges.
The sexual contact first began when Florreich guided an 8-year-old Zippel’s hand to touch her inappropriately while watching a movie in his family’s home, then evolved over the course of about a decade, mostly taking place in a guest bathroom, court documents say.
Prosecutors had argued the nanny created a “warped world” where the boy was encouraged to engage in contact that his faith forbids. His parents were Utah’s first Chabad emissaries.
The state also argued that Florreich made sure the encounters where she touched the child inappropriately — or he touched her — went undetected at the time, yet admitted to some of them in an interview with Salt Lake police last year while insisting she was simply responding to the child’s curiosity.
“It’s clearly a huge imbalance of power in this case,” prosecutor Donna Kelly said in her closing argument. “This is a child who was very sheltered. Even as a small child, he was particularly vulnerable.”
The state’s case largely relied on Rabbi Zippel’s testimony, admissions Florreich made in a phone conversation with the rabbi that was recorded by investigators, and her police interview.
Rabbi Zippel, the eldest of six siblings who were home-schooled, testified that as a child he feared he might die as punishment for participating in the encounters. He acknowledged he sometimes sought out the contact and took steps to prevent anyone from finding out.
Florreich, originally of Tonga but a longtime Utah resident, wore a red jacket and a purple hairpiece for most of the trial as she listened to a Tongan interpreter.
While she did not have any sexual intent when she touched the boy at times, her defense attorney Chad Steur argued, his client did have “intent to maintain her employment” and appeased the child.
Steur needled the police investigation, which he said should have included interviews with the rabbi’s siblings. The probe included a phone call recorded by officers wherein Florreich tells Rabbi Zippel over a spotty connection that she remembers some of their prior sexual encounters.
In an interview with the Deseret News, Chein, the rabbi at Brandeis University, said he admires the bravery of his colleague.
“Seldom do men display the extraordinary courage that Rabbi Zippel displayed in confronting the person who held such power over them,” Rabbi Chein said. “Rabbi Zippel inspired me, many in the Chabad community, and beyond. Today’s verdict is a testimony to what Rabbi Zippel has stood up to.”
Outside the courthouse, Rabbi Zippel criticized Steur’s mention of Adolf Hitler while making an argument about the reliability of a defense witness during his closing argument Friday.
“I will never know — and nor do I want to — the thoughts that go through defense counsel’s head,” Rabbi Zippel said. “And all I can say is it didn’t work.”
He noted that his path to the criminal justice system began with an episode of “Law and Order” that chronicled a scenario like his own. At 20 years old, he questioned for the first time while watching the television program whether he had been abused as a kid.
He said he hopes his story might plant a similar seed for others.
“Everything grows from that one seed. And if there’s someone in their life that this is their one seed, then great, and maybe it’ll fester for a few years. For me it did,” he said “But if one more person out there can be empowered from this experience to know that they can be heard and believed, that’s all I could ask for.”