At Murder Trial, Growing Doubts On A Nanny's Guilt

Posted: June 21, 1992

THORNWOOD, N.Y. — To some she was the Nanny from Hell, the outwardly sweet Swiss au pair accused of using paint thinner to soak a diaper and torch the 3-month-old baby in her care.

When police charged 20-year-old Olivia Riner with murder in December, a fearful chill rushed through this placid, wooded, middle-class hamlet 30 miles north of New York City.

Neighbors swapped stories about bad experiences with nannies. The news media quoted worried mothers saying they would never hire a stranger to come into their home.

Even Hollywood seemed to add its voice to the chorus with a timely movie about a homicidal nanny, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.

"Only two people seemed to be in that house - the child and the nanny," said Christine Cazes, who lives a few doors down from the scene of the crime. ''Everyone thought she must have done it.

"Now, when you see the evidence and the facts come together, who knows?"

Doubt has replaced certainty as the trial of Riner unfolds in a stark, modern courtroom of the Westchester County District Court in White Plains.

In recent weeks, government witnesses repeatedly have given credence to the defense contention that it was not the nanny who ignited three separate fires in the house of William and Denise Fischer on Dec. 2, but that she was merely a convenient target for investigators.

"Prosecution Seems to be Making a Case for the Defense in Nanny Trial," said a headline the other day in the Reporter Dispatch, the local paper.

At first, the case seemed so simple. The prosecution contended that Riner, who had been in the country for only a month, set the fire that killed the Fischers' child, Kristie, as the baby lay in a plastic car seat.

The prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney George L. Bolen, acknowledged

from the start that the testimony would not spell out a motive and that there was no physical evidence linking Riner to the arson - no fingerprints, no fibers, no fuel on her clothing.

"You will hear from no eyewitness. You will hear no confession. You will see no videotape of the crime being committed," said Bolen, who prosecuted Jean Harris in 1981 for the murder of Scarsdale Diet doctor Herman Tarnower.

The government's case is largely built on Riner's statement to the police that nobody else was in the house with her and the baby, and that police could find no evidence of forced entry by an intruder.

Part of the prosecution's difficulty is that Riner looks like a schoolgirl, not a psychopath. Dressed in a conservative navy blazer and skirt with her straight chestnut hair hanging to the middle of her back, she listens attentively to the testimony whispered into her ear by a German translator beside her.

"This defendant committed the crimes," Bolen warned the jury in a resonant broadcaster's voice. "Appearances can be deceptive."

But defense attorney Laura A. Brevetti, a tenacious former federal Mafia prosecutor, has made much of the spontaneous arrival at the fire of the boyfriend of William Fischer's 22-year-old daughter by a previous marriage.

Brevetti has portrayed John Gallagher, 26, the boyfriend of Leah Fischer, as a possible arsonist.

Gallagher, an automobile mechanic, testified that he went to the Fischer house after work on that rainy Monday evening and found the house ablaze.

He said he shouted at Riner, grabbed a fire extinguisher from her and forced his way into the nursery and found the baby engulfed in flames. He said he sprayed the baby with the fire extinguisher.

An arson expert said there was no evidence of the fire extinguisher material around the baby.

Other parts of Gallagher's testimony did not hold up under cross- examination.

Gallagher stated he had graduated from high school, but he was later forced to admit he was expelled for cutting classes. The defense brought out that he had lied on an insurance application by failing to acknowledge several traffic violations.

The defense also implied that Gallagher had, in essence, a home-field advantage. Gallagher testified that he knew the police officers who questioned him, and he knows the town's acting police chief, Anthony Provenzano, as ''Uncle Tony."

He also acknowledged that he knew his way around the Fischer home - he used to sleep several nights a week on a sofa before the nanny arrived, when the Fischers asked him to stop staying over.

Brevetti suggested that Gallagher's frayed relationship with Denise Fischer, his girlfriend's stepmother, could be a motive for setting the fire.

"Is it fair to say you don't have a good relationship with Denise Fischer?" Brevetti asked.

"It's not a great relationship, but I get along with her," said Gallagher, who was granted immunity because he testified previously to the grand jury.

Other testimony has tended to portray Riner sympathetically. She was heard on tapes frantically reporting the fire to an emergency operator.

And in a transcript of the interview she gave to police - without a lawyer present - she said in stilted English that she was busy and did not know how the fires started.

"I go out for feed the cats" when the fires started, she said.

William Fischer, the baby's father, described Riner as "basically shy" and "obedient." Under questioning from Judge Donald N. Silverman, he also testified that the day of the fire, he came home for lunch and was able to enter the house without being seen or heard by the nanny.

"The house was not a fortress, and that family was not without arguments," Brevetti said outside the court.

Even the prosecutor seems to acknowledge that he no longer has control of his case.

During the testimony of Westchester County's arson investigator, Bolen was unable to reign in the long-winded descriptions of his witness. The prosecutor rolled his eyes theatrically and shook his head for the audience to see.

And after Brevetti objected to one of his questions, Bolen withdrew it and said for everyone to hear: "The bumbling prosecutor, at it again."

That got a laugh from the jury.

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