N.J. QUESTIONS PROBE OF BOY'S '75 DEATH
Author: James Asher, Inquirer Staff Writer
New Jersey officials have quietly opened a criminal inquiry into a possible ''cover-up" at the Camden County Prosecutor's Office in the 1975 investigation of the death of the adopted son of Haddon Township Mayor William G. Rohrer.
The inquiry began Dec. 3, the same day a state grand jury indicted the child's mother, Mimi Rohrer, on charges of murder in what was called a case of child abuse in the May 28, 1975, death of the boy. Mrs. Rohrer, 41, is scheduled to stand trial in September.
The state's cover-up investigation, which has been suspended until after Mrs. Rohrer's trial, is outlined in the Dec. 3 memorandum prepared by the state Division of Criminal Justice. The document, obtained by The Inquirer, describes the "opening of a corruption investigation" into the handling of the homicide investigation by county prosecutors. An earlier memorandum calls that county homicide investigation a "cover-up."
A spokesman for the division would not discuss the inquiry. One source close to the investigation said the cover-up investigation had been halted temporarily because the state would be constitutionally required to turn over to Mrs. Rohrer's defense attorneys any exculpatory evidence that they might find.
In her only sworn statement to county prosecutors in 1975, Mrs. Rohrer admitted biting her 2 1/2-year-old son twice on the face and head but said his fatal bruises were the result of the child's own actions, "temper fits (and) tantrums." After a four-month investigation, the county prosecutor ruled the death accidental. The case was closed.
Investigative reports and internal memoranda prepared by the state in 1982 and by the county in 1975 raise questions about the following circumstances surrounding the initial investigation of the death of Billy Rohrer:
* A Long Island, N.Y., forensic dentist, Lowell J. Levine, who is an expert in child abuse cases, told state officials that he and the New York City Medical Examiner reviewed the Rohrer case in 1975, concluding that the wounds on the boy's body were not accidental. State investigators have since found that the dentist's assessment was not contained in the county's files on the case.
* State investigators have found medical information in the county's files that doctors now say is false. For example, one report cited medical conclusions helpful to Mrs. Rohrer, although the two physicians who had been interviewed by county investigators deny having reached those conclusions. Another report stated that Billy Rohrer had been previously hospitalized for self-inflicted injuries, when, in fact, he had not.
* Mr. Rohrer's sworn accounts in 1982 before the state grand jury differed in several substantial ways from what he told investigators in 1975, state investigators say.
* State officials have interviewed six people - two of them related to the Rohrers - who say Mrs. Rohrer had a strained relationship with her son. None of the six witnesses was interviewed by county investigators in 1975.
Thomas J. Shusted, the county prosecutor in 1975, said in a recent interview that his office had done nothing improper in the Rohrer investigation. Shusted, who is a state assemblyman for Camden County, said any accusation of a cover-up was "an absolute falsehood." He added: "I would challenge them to produce any evidence that there was any corruption. . . . I think the matter was handled properly."
He said he could not discuss specific facts of the case because he no longer had the files.
In a recent interview, Mr. Rohrer, 73, a prominent local Republican leader and chairman of First Peoples Bank of New Jersey, said he never used any influence on behalf of his wife. "Because of my status in the community, I didn't interfere at all," Mr. Rohrer said. "I didn't say a word, one way or the other."
Mr. Rohrer said he could not recall giving investigators any inconsistent testimony. He said he could not recall specific questions and answers from his testimony.
On the advice of her lawyer, Mrs. Rohrer refused to be interviewed.
In 1976, the State Commission of Investigation (SCI), an investigatory agency, received a tip that the Rohrer case was one of six fatalities in Camden County that had been closed as accidental deaths but that appeared to be otherwise. In November 1979, the SCI concluded that the death of the Rohrer boy appeared to be murder or manslaughter.
Three years later, last Dec. 3, the grand jury, working on evidence collected by state police and the Division of Criminal Justice, indicted Mrs. Rohrer.
The division decided to conduct an inquiry into the county's 1975 investigation after reviewing the evidence of the murder case. Included in that evidence was a memorandum that state investigators say they found intriguing. The memo, written by SCI agent George E. Sahlin, reported that a reliable source within the Camden County Prosecutor's Office said he believed the county investigation was a "cover-up."
It was 8:40 a.m. on May 28, 1975, when Mrs. Rohrer placed the call for an ambulance.
First to arrive at her home on South Park Drive, according to police records, was Haddon Township patrol officer Henry Voigtsberger. When he arrived at 8:41 a.m., he saw Mrs. Rohrer coming out of her house, holding Billy in her arms.
The officer found the child unconscious with a faint pulse beat and a slight nosebleed. Voigtsberger took mother and child to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden. The boy was dead on arrival.
Later that day, Voigtsberger wrote: "This morning Billy banged his head on the highchair while the mother was in the kitchen trying to feed him."
An autopsy showed widespread brain hemorrhages and bruises of the boy's left arm and leg, face and jaw. The county medical examiner ruled that the boy had died from "self-inflicted and accidental" injuries.
By evening, the police department closed the case and turned over its evidence to the county prosecutor's office.
Three months later, on Aug. 26, county homicide detectives took sworn statements from Mr. and Mrs. Rohrer. Mrs. Rohrer told authorities then about the events leading to Billy's death.
On days just before his death, Mrs. Rohrer said, she noticed bruises on the boy's body that she attributed to "temper fits, tantrums." Mrs. Rohrer said that she was concerned that Billy might be abnormal and that on May 27, she decided to test the boy's tolerance for pain.
"I bit him on the side of the face and made a bruise. . . . I waited awhile and bit him right directly on the top of the head where he couldn't see what I was doing, and then I talked to him and I said, 'Ouch, ouch,' and nothing. So I put my hands in his mouth, and I made him bite down on me, and I said, 'Ouch' and tried to communicate that I had done the same thing to the top of his head. He didn't feel anything."
Mrs. Rohrer also told investigators that Billy had inflicted his own fatal injuries.
According to Mrs. Rohrer, on the day he died, Billy first "threw himself back and hit his head" on the Formica of the bathroom sink. Then, while she said she had not witnessed it, Mrs. Rohrer "thought Billy may have fallen part way down the steps leading to the first floor."
Then, after she put Billy in his highchair, he started "banging around in his chair, hitting his head on the back of the chair." He then "swooned over."
After checking his pulse and heartbeat and finding them weak, she called an ambulance, she said.
Medical officials called in for the 1982 investigation told state investigators that the injuries were "not consistent" with any of these explanations.
When state investigators began a complete investigation in 1982 of the Rohrer case, they found numerous points that the county had not looked into - beginning with the boy's adoption.
State police records show those authorities learned that once Mimi Rohrer heard that a Salvadoran orphanage had a boy and a girl available for adoption, she did not want to waste time. Months of fruitless waiting to qualify to adopt children through a New Jersey state agency had made her impatient.
According to state police records, she told an acquaintance: "Those children are mine; I have as much right to them as anyone. Bill will use his connections to get them."
Within days of that conversation in January 1975, state police documents show, Bill and Mimi Rohrer were at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, trying to get visas needed to bring Pepe, 2 1/2, and Ana Cecelia, 2, back to the Westmont section of Haddon Township. The couple would rename the boy Billy and the girl Lisa.
Once there, difficulties developed, so Mr. Rohrer decided to cut the red tape. The influential Camden County Republican said in an interview that he telephoned then-U.S. Sen. Clifford P. Case asking him to intercede.
By Feb. 4, embassy personnel in El Salvador had received a telegram requesting "all appropriate courtesies" to the Rohrers. The telegram was signed by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Even though records in state police files show that the background checks required by the United States were not complete, embassy consul Richard B. Andrews issued passports the next day for the children.
On Feb. 12, immigration visas were approved.
Key to the county's initial investigation were the statements made by Mayor Rohrer, who denied knowing how the boy died.
Now, after reviewing testimony given by Mr. Rohrer in 1975, 1981 and 1982, state officials said they had identified four areas in which he substantially contradicted himself:
* In his sworn statement in 1975, Mr. Rohrer told county prosecutors that he "never saw the child in the highchair" on the morning the boy died. He repeated the same contention to state officials in 1981. However, when Mr. Rohrer testified before the grand jury that indicted his wife, he said he ''saw the child in the highchair and aided Mrs. Rohrer in removing (him)."
* In 1975 and again in 1981, Mr. Rohrer said his wife did not tell him what had happened to the child on the day he died. Before the grand jury, however, Mr. Rohrer testified that Mrs. Rohrer had told him that "the child fell down the steps."
* In 1975, Rohrer said his wife never told him that she bit Billy. In 1981, however, Mr. Rohrer said that his wife told him two weeks before Billy died that "she tested the child's tolerance for pain by biting him." In 1982, Mr. Rohrer recalled his wife's statements about biting Billy but "could not recall the time frame."
* In 1975, Mr. Rohrer made no mention of any unusual noises on the day Billy died. In 1981 and again in 1982, he said he had heard "scuffling noises outside the kitchen door."
When state investigators began to prepare their criminal case against Mrs. Rohrer, they looked for people who might have had knowledge of a conflict between mother and child.
Six people interviewed by state officials gave such accounts of discord. None of the six had been contacted by county investigators in 1975, although all were either relatives or acquaintances of the Rohrers. They are Jean Dorothy Burak, Rohrer's niece; Pamela Brill, who is related by marriage; Betty Manuel Giles, a friend of Mr. Rohrer; Deborah Micciche and Karen Coskey Lutz, acquaintances of Mrs. Rohrer, and Jean Robinson, a missionary and volunteer worker who knew Billy before he had been adopted by the Rohrers.
State officials also learned that the Long Island forensic dentist, Lowell J. Levine, had information relating to the county's initial investigation.
Levine told state officials last April that in 1975 he and the late John
Devlin, the New York City medical examiner, had "reviewed certain pre-autopsy photographs of William Rohrer III." Levine said they had both concluded that ''the photographs depicted a child with injuries consistent with the battered child syndrome. (Devlin also said) The injuries . . . were not consistent with an accident or self-inflicted injury."
State investigators have found no record in the files of Camden County investigation referring to Levine or Devlin, the source said.
What state officials did discover, however, were travel vouchers that reflect a trip to New York City on Oct. 6, 1975, taken by one of the homicide detectives involved in the Rohrer investigation. The reason for the trip was cryptically listed as "autopsy - N.Y."
State investigators could find no further report on the New York trip. They have not yet determined why county investigators went to Levine in 1975.
On the day Billy died, a Camden County medical investigator prepared a report saying that the child previously "had been in a Philadelphia hospital for self-injury."
State police would find, however, that the county's report was false - there are no records of Billy's being hospitalized for any injuries.
Medical Examiner William T. Read said he relied heavily on the information in that report, unaware at the time that it was false. Read, who conducted Billy's autopsy, told state police in 1980 that in determining the "cause of death" was "self-inflicted injuries," he assumed the boy had a history of injuring himself.
A former Haddon Township detective, Harold Armstrong, later told state officials that he might have been responsible for the error in the report,
because he did not check the information that had been supplied by Mrs. Rohrer. He said the mistake had been unintentional.
Armstrong also wrote in a report that a Cherry Hill pediatrician, Robert Barroway, believed that Billy was "depressed."
But Barroway, in his own handwritten account of his session with the Rohrers, wrote that it was not Billy but Mrs. Rohrer who was depressed. He also wrote, "The mother feels the child hates her."
Barroway later told the grand jury, according to an investigative memorandum, that he "did not state to Armstrong, or anyone else, that the child was in a depressed state."
In a recent interview, Armstrong, now a lieutenant in Haddon Township Police Department, said he accurately reported what Barroway said. "What he told me at the time is what I put in my report," the officer said.
In April 1975, Barroway referred Mrs. Rohrer to a Philadelphia child psychiatrist, Elliot J. Gursky. Gursky met with the family three times.
He later told state investigators that his assessment also was inaccurately reflected in the files gathered by county prosecutors. After an interview in which Gursky was asked by county detective Joseph Alesandrini whether Mrs. Rohrer was capable of abusing Billy, Alesandrini wrote, "He stated, 'Definitely not.' "
Gursky later denied saying that to Alesandrini. In 1979, Gursky told state investigators that he believed Mrs. Rohrer "had a negative attitude toward the child" and that such an attitude made him concerned "about the possibility of (Mrs. Rohrer's) harming him emotionally or physically." After his first session with the Rohrers on May 2, 1975, Gursky concluded that Billy should be placed in a foster home.
Alesandrini could not be reached for comment.
First Assistant Camden County Prosecutor Joseph Audino, when he was interviewed in 1979 by SCI investigators, was told of the inconsistencies in Alesandrini's report. If in 1975 he had known of the facts, he said, he would have sent the Rohrer case to a grand jury.