The Rev. Nathaniel Grady, a pious man and a fiery orator, was born to do the Lord's work.
As a boy, he walked to Sunday school hand in hand with his mother and sister. As an adult, he became a Methodist minister, shepherding a devoted flock in the rugged East Bronx while fostering friendships with judges, bishops, police chiefs, an ex-governor.
But prosecutors ignored Nat Grady's past when he was accused in 1984 of sexually abusing a half-dozen 3-year-olds, snatching them at nap time from his church day-care center.
When he was convicted 15 months later of rape, sodomy and sexual abuse, Grady recalls feeling nothing--"just numb." At 47, this clergyman became a convict facing a virtual death sentence: 45 years behind bars.
He would appeal his conviction, yes. But like Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane, the minister felt alone and abandoned. Where would he find someone to believe in his innocence?
The answer, it turned out, was in a special unit for pederasts and problem inmates at Clinton state prison. There he met four other men--fellow victims of what they call a witch hunt more appropriate for 17th-century Salem, Mass., than 20th-century New York.
The five men shared their stories: In a series of high-profile trials instigated by Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola, all were convicted of sexually abusing children in Bronx day-care centers.
They spoke of disappearing documents and uncorroborated testimony, of biased judges and tainted jurors, of kindergarten kids and an overzealous district attorney.
"We weren't formally a group," Grady said. "But there was a sense that whatever it takes, we're going to win this."
They did--but only after more than a dozen years of legal battles.
All five had their convictions overturned, an extraordinary judicial rebuke of Merola's prosecutions. None was ever retried. All blamed Merola's fevered efforts. None received even a simple apology.
Grady, after 13 appeals and more than 10 years in prison, was the last to walk free.
On July 11, 1996, he was met by another group of believers: his wife, Pearl; a pair of Methodist ministers; and the most important believer of all--attorney Joel Rudin, who had made liberating the "Bronx Five" a personal crusade.
In early 1984, the nation seemed overrun by a new and horrifying scourge: child abuse in day-care centers.
There was the McMartin case in Los Angeles. Margaret Kelly Michaels was accused of vile crimes against preschoolers in New Jersey. Similar reports surfaced in Nashville, Tenn., Vineland, N.J., and West Point, N.Y.
In the Bronx, headlines screamed that dozens of children had been abused at day-care centers.
Merola was a politician turned prosecutor, a two-term city councilman who became Bronx district attorney in 1973. Balding and brash, Merola had a reputation for incorruptibility and a taste for publicity: He personally handled the guilty plea of David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz.
"I'm the first to admit that I don't exactly run from media attention," he would write in his autobiography.
In February 1984, his office targeted two accused child molesters--the Rev. Grady, who was married with two children, and 21-year-old Alberto Ramos, an aspiring teacher from a close-knit family.
City officials quickly cleared Ramos of rape allegations. The Grady investigation was dry for months.
But on Aug. 1, a Bronx woman, accompanied by her 4-year-old daughter, Tiffany, told the DA's office her child was sexually abused at the city-funded PRACA Day Care Center. Tiffany said other children were abused, and blamed her teacher, "Albert."
Merola moved quickly. Three workers at that center--Albert Algarin, 21; Jesus Torres, 29 and Franklin Beauchamp, 27--were indicted on charges of rape, sodomy and sex abuse. And Merola's office reopened the case against Alberto Ramos.
"We had one of the biggest cases of the sex abuse of children ever to emerge in this country," Merola wrote proudly in his book, "Big City D.A." The Daily News was soon hyping Merola as a mayoral candidate.
The PRACA cases were troublesome. Tiffany's mother was irate at center management over a bill for six weeks' back tuition. No adults could corroborate the children's ever-changing allegations.
One of Beauchamp's jurors had a son awaiting sentencing on a Bronx crack charge, but the trial judge let her deliberate.
Algarin's jury pool may have been biased when Merola told the New York Times that the suspect was tested for venereal disease because one of the students had gonorrhea. It wasn't true.
Most odious was the Ramos case, where prosecutors either lost or deliberately withheld evidence that could have cleared the college student of raping a 5-year-old girl at the Concourse Day Care Center.
They never revealed that the girl openly masturbated at the center, which could explain her vaginal irritation, or that she frequently watched adult films on cable television, which could explain her detailed statement to prosecutors.
They never divulged that the girl, in a pretrial interview, told investigators that Ramos had done nothing. And they never surrendered a sign-in book that contradicted the girl's grandmother, who claimed she found the child crying at school after the alleged incident.
The book showed the woman was never in the building that day.
"I want to die!" Ramos howled when his jury returned a guilty verdict on May 20, 1985. "Kill me! Kill me!"
Grady, during his 13-week trial, split time as a deacon and a defendant. He bracketed court appearances with hospital visits, church services, funerals.
At one point, one of Grady's "victims" identified the trial judge as his molester. Grady brought in 26 character witnesses--a bishop, a lawyer, a sitting judge, the Yonkers police commissioner.
Nothing helped. The reverend was convicted on Jan. 20, 1986.
"I remember looking up there at the [courtroom] sign: 'In God We Trust,' " he said. "And I'm sitting there--contradictions of testimony, taking witnesses to the park, and giving the children a badge for the 'right' answers. It was a heavy burden."
In all five cases, the children were rewarded by prosecutors for giving the "right" testimony. "I've been accused of giving them candy," Merola acknowledged at the time. "I plead guilty. I give them candy, I stroke them, I kiss them."
It worked. All five defendants were in Clinton by August 1986.
As the years passed, Grady found a new ministry behind bars.
He engaged Algarin, a devout Catholic, in long theological discussions. He was there when Ramos missed his brother's funeral. He provided solace after Torres' wife left with their two children. He comforted Beauchamp, a slight man who was beaten by other inmates.
But there was still malice in Grady's heart. He marked his 50th birthday alone, penning an angry manifesto that he mailed to friends.
He missed his wife and his golf game, and worried about his 70-year-old mother. His fall from grace "just took everything out of her," Grady said. He resented the constant supervision of prison guards, the rigidity of prison life after nearly five decades of freedom.
Grady recalls just a single happy day in prison: Oct. 27, 1987.
"I'll never forget it," Grady said. "Came back to the cell block, and Algarin called down, 'Have you heard? Have you heard, Grady?' And I said, 'Yes, I heard! I heard! I heard!'
"That was the day that Mario Merola died."
The ambitious prosecutor never made it out of the Bronx. At age 65, he died of a heart attack.
By then, forces were at work that would free the five. In the summer of 1986, at the entreaty of Franklin Beauchamp's family, attorney Joel Rudin read the transcript from his trial.
"It was appalling, frightening," Rudin said. "It was the product of a very ambitious prosecutor who saw a good story and jumped on a national bandwagon. The true victims were the defendants."
Rudin's appeal argued that the Beauchamp indictment was so vague it was "virtually impossible for a defendant to answer the charges and to prepare a defense."
On May 9, 1989, the state's highest court agreed. It unanimously overturned Beauchamp's conviction, condemning the original indictment as "duplicitous."
Twenty-two days later, Beauchamp walked out of prison. His legal brief became required reading for his four imprisoned friends. Over the next seven years, they followed Beauchamp back to the Bronx.
The new Bronx district attorney, Robert Johnson, declined to reprosecute any of the Bronx Five. PRACA prosecutor Nancy Borko ignored a recent request to discuss the prosecutions.
"The greatest crime of all in a civilized society is an unjust conviction," read the July 1992 ruling that freed Ramos. "It is truly a scandal."
Franklin Beauchamp, who survived nearly three years behind bars, lasted barely four years outside them. He died of complications from pneumonia in 1994 at age 36.
Albert Algarin, 32, works for the city and lives with his family in the Bronx. He has become reclusive and nurses a bitter grudge against Merola. "A true Middle Ages inquisitor," Algarin calls him.
Jesus Torres, 41, is unemployed and a neighbor of Algarin. Still single, he keeps in contact with his 17-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. He feels he was never publicly vindicated by prosecutors.
Alberto Ramos, 33, is a counselor in a homeless shelter. Ramos, who hopes to return to college, recently left a party for a cousin's child in tears "because I felt all eyes on me." His $35-million lawsuit against the city is pending.
The Rev. Nathaniel Grady, 58, is booked in Methodist pulpits around New York every Sunday through December. "I want my last years to be my best years," he said.
His voice firm and full of conviction, Grady says his past is not prologue.
"If I dwelt on that, it would be self-destructive," Grady said. "I cannot run forward and go backward at the same time."
Months after he was released, Grady encountered Alberto Ramos at Rudin's office. The men shared a hearty bearhug.
"Only the strong survive, Alberto," Grady said. "Only the strong survive."