Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lehigh Acres man accused of raping, killing stepdaughter has last hearing


Alberto Hernandez, accused of raping and killing his 13-year-old stepdaughter, was in court today for what attorneys say should be the last hearing before his case goes to trial March 31.

Hernandez, 41, is facing the death penalty, charged with first-degree murder, sexual battery on a family member and aggravated child abuse in the 2006 death of Michelle Fontanez.

At the hearing, defense attorney Neil McLoughlin asked for the second time that the trial be moved out of Lee County — this time, he said, because The News-Press posted online a social worker’s interview with Michelle, in which the girl said Hernandez had been abusing her for years.

“The public availability of this sensitive and confidential recording further compromises the chances of the defendant receiving a fair and impartial trial from the potential jury pool within the 20th Judicial Circuit,” McLoughlin argued.

Judge Edward J. Volz denied the request, but left open the possibility that he might reconsider during jury selection.

Michelle died Feb. 23, 2006, days after Department of Children and Families officials sent her home, although she’d told them Hernandez had been sexually abusing her for years.

The News-Press later obtained a videotaped interview — the one McLoughlin cited at the hearing — of Michelle speaking about being abused.

In it, she told a social worker from the Child Protection Team, which DCF consults with on severe abuse cases, that Hernandez had been abusing her since she was five.

Although that social worker told DCF investigator Erica Cesare that Michelle was afraid to go home and might hurt herself, Cesare responded: “Not my problem.”

DCF sent Michelle home. The only provision it made for her safety was asking Hernandez to leave. He moved across the street, then returned to rape and smother Michelle while her mother was doing an errand, arrest reports said.

Four months after Michelle’s death, DCF fired Cesare and two supervisors.

Michelle’s aunt, Renea Fontanez, who lives in Massachusetts, said she’s ready for the ordeal to end.

“So many people failed Michelle,” she said. “The state of Florida could have prevented all this from happening, if people did their jobs. Yes, they may have lost their jobs but in the long run, we lost a lot more.

“They can get other jobs. We can’t have Michelle back.”

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