WAS BOY SELF-DESTRUCTIVE OR MURDERED? ROHRER TRIAL BEGINS
Author: RON AVERY, Daily News Staff Writer
The prosecution said the wife of an influential South Jersey businessman and political leader inflicted "cruel, bizarre" punishment on the couple's newly adopted son, eventually "beating the boy to death."
But the defense attorney for Mimi Rohrer told a jury in Camden yesterday that the 2 1/2-year-old youngster from San Salvador was "self-destructive" and caused his own death.
After nine years and three separate investigations, the question of how William "Billy" Rohrer III actually died finally is being put before a jury.
Charged with the boy's murder is Mimi Rohrer, 43, wife of ex-car dealer, banker and longtime mayor of Haddon Township, N.J., William Rohrer, 74.
In his opening remarks, Deputy Attorney General Anthony Zarrillo called the boy's death from a brain hemorrhage in May 1975 a classic case of "the battered child syndrome."
But defense lawyer Raymond M. Brown Jr. placed the blame on the physicians Mimi Rohrer took her son to see before his death.
"Billy was self-destructive," Brown said. "He threw himself around and appeared to feel no pain . . . She (Mrs. Rohrer) talked to many people and doctors about it. She wanted him to be seen by a neurologist. She cried out for help, and they ignored her."
The case originally was investigated by Camden County authorities and was ruled accidental, but rumors of a cover-up prompted the State Commission of Investigations to look into the matter in 1977.
The panel said the case had been bungled and recommended that it be reopened. A state grand jury indicted Mimi Rohrer in 1982.
The couple had gone to El Salvador in early 1975 to adopt the boy and a 3- year-old girl.
Outlining his case, Zarrillo said an examination by a Cherry Hill doctor showed the boy to be healthy and normal. But within two months, "strange things began to happen . . . the defendant was using cruel and bizarre punishment," the prosecutor said.
He said Mimi Rohrer called a physician to say the boy hated her and the physician referred the family to a child psychiatrist.
Zarrillo said the psychiatrist will testify that Billy was normal but that Mimi Rohrer was "paranoid and delusional" toward the boy.
Zarrillo said a nurse and a relative of Rohrer's will testify that they found many bruises on the boy's body.
The prosecutor also said he will call a dental expert to testify that a bruise found on Billy's face the day he died was the result of a human bite.
The first two witnesses were the former Haddon Township policeman who rushed Billy and Mimi Rohrer to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital and the emergency-room physician who pronounced the child dead.
Defense attorney Brown hammered away at inconsistencies in the testimony given on various occasions by the former policeman, Henry Voigtsberger. For instance, in earlier testimony, Voigtsberger could not recall seeing the bruise on the boy's face but later recalled it.
Brown told the jury that Mimi Rohrer was being "railroaded," and suggested that changes in Voights-bergers's testimony were the result of ''pressure" by the state.
But the ex-policeman said the only pressure he felt was from his former superiors in the police department because of the political nature of the case. "I was afraid to discuss the case because of possible repercussions . . . It wouldn't be in my best interest. It might jeopardize my job," he said.
Emergency-room physician Dr. Albert Jurecic said the boy showed no sign of life when he arrived at the hospital. He said he found dried blood under the boy's nose and many bruises on his side, back, legs, arms and face. He said the color of the bruises indicated they had occurred at various times.
However, he said he could not find any injury severe enough to cause death.
An autopsy later determined that the boy died of head injuires.
The trial is expected to last at least three weeks, and much of the testimony will come from medical experts for both sides.
Mrs. Rohrer, dressed in a conservative suit and wearing no makeup, has busied herself during the testimony and throughout the long jury selection process by constantly taking notes. Her husband has not appeared in the courthouse.