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‘He was tormented’: Trial begins for nanny accused of sexually abusing Utah rabbi when he was a child

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Alavina Fungaihea Florreich, who is accused of sexually abusing Rabbi Avremi Zippel when he was a child and she was his nanny, looks at Rabbi Zippel and his father, Rabbi Benny Zippel, as she leaves the courtroom during a break in her trial at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Betrayal was the theme in a Salt Lake City courtroom Monday, where prosecutors said the former nanny for an Orthodox Jewish family dragged its eldest son into a “warped world” in which the caretaker he loved encouraged him to do things he knew were not right in secluded rooms of his childhood home.

On the first day of the trial for 70-year-old Alavina Fungaihea Florreich, prosecutors emphasized the faith’s prohibition on physical contact between the genders from about age 8 or 9. Yet they described in their opening statement how the nanny allegedly groomed and abused Avrohom “Avremi” Zippel, now a Utah rabbi, over roughly a decade.

“He was tormented by what was happening,” said Donna Kelly, a deputy Salt Lake County district attorney. “The family welcomed her with open arms. They loved her. They trusted her. And Ms. Florreich betrayed that trust.”

Florreich’s defense attorneys acknowledge she made some admissions to police but said she denies further allegations. They asked nine jurors to consider whether she had sought sexual gratification at 50 years old or simply tried to appease the boy, who they said had once threatened her in order to maintain her silence about the sexual encounters.

“There was betrayal in this case, but it’s not from the source that the state is trying to tell you,” her attorney Jonathan Nish said. “Alavina is nothing more than a target, an object, something that can be used.” 

Rabbi Zippel came forward as a victim in a February article in the Deseret News, spurring greater recognition of sexual misconduct and a #MeToo movement within Orthodox Jewish communities. The Deseret News typically does not identify victims, but he agreed to be identified, saying he believed his decision to come forward could help others who have been victimized.

He testified Tuesday that as back and foot rubs for his onetime nanny progressed to alleged inappropriate touching and Florreich allowing him to see her in just her underwear, he was “equal parts horrified and intrigued. I knew that something’s really not OK, and it felt kind of cool to have this secret thing going on with an adult who I trusted implicitly, who knew what was right and wrong for me. So I lived in that continuum between those two emotions.”

As the sexual relationship developed, the young Rabbi Zippel would sometimes seek out the encounters, Kelly noted, but she emphasized that in Utah, children under the age of 14 cannot legally consent to sex with an adult.

After he turned 14, prosecutors said Florreich’s role of special trust allowed her to groom and coerce him into further illegal sexual conduct.

The rabbi, now 28 years old, first realized he had been abused at about age 20, while watching an episode of Law and Order that featured a child sexual abuse case, Kelly said.

“For the first time, he realized, ‘Wait a minute. I wasn’t the one responsible for that.’ From there, his journey took him to where we are today,” Kelly said.

Florreich’s defense attorneys painted a different picture. They said the rabbi has wielded the #MeToo movement “to very rapidly rise to celebrity status.”

Their client, in contrast, is a former school teacher from Tonga, immigrated to Utah in 1979 where she has worked as a day care employee, nannied for several families, and has “lived a very simple life,” Nish said.

Florreich, wearing a red jacket and hairband with a purple flower, at times dabbed her eyes with a tissue Monday. She wore headphones, listening to the testimony through a Tongan interpreter.

Her accuser said Monday in court that he was 8 years old when Florreich first moved his hand to touch her inappropriately while they watched movies with his siblings in the playroom of their Salt Lake home.

The sexual encounters continued regularly, mostly in a guest bathroom, where Florreich appeared naked, encouraging the boy to take off his clothes and touching him or having him touch her, authorities say. Prosecutors say she later said she was teaching him to be a good husband.

His mother Sharonne Zippel testified Tuesday that from 1999 until her kids were old enough to forgo a nanny in 2009, Florreich watched them in the afternoons after a morning of home school lessons, largely in a basement playroom while their mother was upstairs or meeting with others in the Jewish community.

“We were very close. We loved her. She was part of the family. We had a very good relationship,” she said.

In 2016, when Rabbi Zippel sat down with her and his father, Rabbi Benny Zippel, and told them he had begun to realize Florreich had abused him for years, she said she was overcome with shock as her husband rushed to make phone calls and find a therapist.

“I just couldn’t imagine that she would have done something like that to any of my kids,” she said.

Florreich has pleaded not guilty to five criminal counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony, and two counts of forcible sex abuse, a second-degree felony. The trial continues Wednesday, when Rabbi Zippel is expected to take the stand to finish his own testimony.