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Defense picks apart police tactics in trial for nanny accused of abusing rabbi during his childhood

Nanny’s former employer calls her ‘one of the kindest, good-hearted people I know’

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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, leaves the courtroom with Jonathan Nish, one of her attorneys, 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 — Attorneys for a longtime nanny on trial for allegations of sexual abuse focused Thursday on steps not taken in the police investigation and painted a portrait of Rabbi Avrohom “Avremi” Zippel, the alleged childhood victim, as an aggressor.

Defense lawyer Chad Steur told a jury in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court that his client was “in the home five days a week, 365 days a year, for a 10-year period” and took care of six children, including three boys. Yet there is no evidence that  Alavina Fungaihea Florreich, 70, touched any of Rabbi Zippel’s siblings inappropriately.

As part of Florreich’s defense, her attorneys called to the stand a nurse who had hired Florreich to watch her own three children. The nurse testified Thursday that Florreich was “one of the kindest, good-hearted people I know” and said she never developed concerns that Florreich may have had inappropriate contact with her kids.

The former employer described Florreich as a good nanny who sometimes appeared to struggle with understanding English and required written instructions for tasks outside of her typical duties, like feeding pets. In occasional confrontations, Florreich would “shut down” and “she would mostly just become very quiet,” her former employer said.

Earlier Thursday, in at times heated cross-examination, Steur grilled Salt Lake police detective Kevin Blue on his decision not to seek out interviews with the rabbi’s younger siblings. Steur said such conversations could potentially have worked in Florreich’s favor.

Blue, a sex crimes investigator, explained that he allows those who may potentially be victims to seek out police when they are ready.

In a recording of her meeting with two detectives at the Salt Lake City Police Department last year, Florreich is seen denying any sexual contact with the boy but later agreeing to a handful of encounters, saying she was trying to prepare him for marriage.

Steur emphasized that the rabbi and his former nanny told police separately that a sex act occurred between them when Zippel was 18, although the incident is not the basis for any of Florreich’s criminal charges.

In a recording of her police interview, Florreich says she was made to perform the act and is shown moving her hands as though pushing someone toward the ground. She later says he had “begged her.”

“That doesn’t sound like he forced you,” Blue responds. “It sounds like he was asking you.”

Steur emphasized that police never investigated Florreich’s apparent claim of sexual assault and called her a “liar” several times in the interview, but Blue said he had taken the report in context with what he perceived to be other falsehoods she had told him.

“We asked her. She didn’t elaborate one bit. She gave brief little statements between her lies,” Blue said. “I just feel like you’re misleading the jury.” 

“And I feel like you were misleading Alavina,” Steur replied.

Prosecutors have argued the alleged 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.

She 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.

Attorneys are set to make their closing arguments Friday before the jury begins deliberations.