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Olivia RINER





Classification: Justice miscarriage
Characteristics: Swiss au pair - Arson death of a baby in her care
Number of victims: 0
Date of murder: December 2, 1991
Date of arrest: Two days after
Date of birth: 1971
Victim profile: Kristie Rebecca Fischer, 3-month-old
Method of murder: By dousing her with paint thinner and setting her on fire
Location: Mount Pleasant, Westchester County, New York, USA
Status: Acquitted of all charges against her in the arson death of a baby in her care on July 8, 1992

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"I Set No Fire"

By Alex Prud'Homme -

July 20, 1992

WHEN THE LONG, BUNGLED TRIAL OF 20-YEAR-OLD Olivia Riner had finally run its course, there was one last surprise. It wasn't that Riner—the so-called Killer Nanny—was acquitted; it was that it took the jury a full 12 hours to do so. Even the judge, Donald N. Silverman, went on record before the verdict saying that if the jury handed down a conviction, he would seriously consider reversing it. Thai proved unnecessary.

"Not guilty," said the jury foreman to the charges that Riner had murdered 3-month-old Kristie Fischer by dousing her with paint thinner and setting her on fire. The accused closed her eyes but remained immobile. The packed Westchester County courtroom gasped in relief. One spectator pumped his fist in the air. Moments later several jumped to their feel and applauded. When Olivia finally rose, tears streamed down her pale cheeks, and a huge grin spread across her face. It was one of the few times since being charged with the hideous crime that the stoic Swiss au pair had shown visible emotion of any kind. Hardly able to believe it was over, Riner and her attorney, Laura Brevetti, 40, wrapped each other in a cathartic, embrace.

Seven months ago the case seemed open and shut. The police in Mount Pleasant, a leafy suburb of New York City, claimed they had proof that would send Riner to prison for 25 years to life. At the trial's start, Assistant District Attorney George Bolen, 46, promised he would "establish a reason" for the seemingly wanton murder of a defenseless infant.

Last December, when Riner was first accused of killing Kristie, the case turned into an international cause célèbre. Not only did the crime itself seem unspeakably evil, it also became entwined in the public imagination with the Hollywood thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle—a film starring Rebecca De Mornay as an outwardly charming nanny who methodically sets about destroying the family that employs her. In an eerie coincidence, the film was released just days after Riner was indicted on lour counts of second-degree murder and one count of first-degree arson, both the crime and the movie spoke to every parent's worst nightmare about nannies, baby-sitters and child care.

The first call came in to the local police at about 5:10 P.M. last Dec. 2. "Hi, fire," Olivia Riner, clearly agitated, told the police operator. About five minutes later, in a second phone call, she was edging toward hysteria. "The baby's in the room!" she's heard to scream on the police tape. Riner had been home alone with Kristie at the two-story house of William Fischer, 48, owner of an auto-repair shop, and his wife, Denise, 39, an accountant. Riner had left Kristie asleep in her nursery in a plastic car seat, where the baby often napped. The nanny, meanwhile, fed the Fischers' four cats. Suddenly one of the cats became spooked; Riner quickly discovered the house was ablaze (three separate fires had been set).

John P. Gallagher III, a 26-year-old auto mechanic and the boyfriend of Leah Fischer, little Kristie's 22-year-old half sister, was the first to reach the scene. At the trial he testified that he had been on the way to the Fischer house to meet Leah. Gallagher said that he grabbed a fire extinguisher from a panicky Riner and kicked open the nursery door, which had inexplicably been locked. "The baby was on the floor in front of me...the flames were coming right off the child," he said. Gallagher claimed he extinguished the fire and saw that the child, burned over 80 percent of her body, was dead.

Police and fire units arrived within minutes, quickly followed by Kristie's distraught family. The Fischers had hired Riner—from Wettingen, Switzerland—through the E.F. Au Pair agency of Cambridge, Mass., to work for a year. She had previously been a pediatrician's assistant in Switzerland and, over three incident-free years, the baby-sitter for a Swiss family. William Fischer testified that before the fire he felt Riner was an intelligent girl who enjoyed a good rapport with Kristie and, though a reserved bookworm, was comfortable with the family.

Gallagher was briefly questioned by police. Riner, who speaks Swiss-German and only halting English, was questioned for 10 hours straight, first at a neighbor's house and then at police headquarters. Never was an interpreter or lawyer present. Though bewildered, she steadfastly maintained her innocence. "I don't set no fire," she said over and over again to detectives. Meanwhile, Gallagher and the Fischers were automatically given immunity for their grand jury testimony.

When the trial started June 2, the open-and-shut case began to collapse under defense attorney Brevetti's caustic cross-examinations, formerly a federal organized-crime prosecutor for 10 years, she deemed prosecutor Bolen's case "a tale of the Emperor's new clothes." Despite the promise in December of Police Chief Paul J. Oliva (now retired) that "we are prepared to show that she did it," the authorities provided no physical evidence linking the au pair to the murder. The prosecution produced no incriminating fingerprints on paint-thinner containers found in the house, and no traces of any fire accelerant were found on Riner's clothes. Equally important, Bolen failed to come up with a plausible motive.

In fact, Brevetti argued, the police had botched the investigation: Among other things, they took no notes when they spoke to Gallagher at the scene, had discarded a blood sample found on the doorjamb near Kristie's room and didn't examine the baby's incinerated car seat until two days after the murder. Perhaps, Brevetti implied, even favoritism was at work: Gallagher's family had close ties with the police. Indeed. Gallagher calls current Police Chief Anthony Provenzano "Uncle Tony." One of the first officers on the scene was Gallagher's former swimming coach. And, Brevetti suggested, Gallagher had a motive for starting the three separate fires in the Fischer home: After the Fischers hired Olivia Riner, they had demanded that he stop sleeping over at their house, so as not to upset the nanny. Outside the courthouse Brevetti called Gallagher "walking reasonable doubt." On the stand Gallagher denied any involvement in the fires.

Throughout the four weeks of testimony, Riner seemed the very picture of wronged innocence. Dressed in demure whites or navy blues, she looked like an awkward schoolgirl. Deeply concerned about their only child, Riner's mother, Marlies, 38, a part-time secretary, remained with Olivia through the seven-month ordeal, and her father, Kurt, a regional chief of civil defense, flew over regularly to be with her. Earlier, when her parents were unable to raise Olivia's $350,000 bail, Swiss friends and strangers convinced of her innocence quickly pitched in. Says Willy Reinert, a former teacher of Olivia's from Wettingen, as well as the father of two children for whom she baby-sat: "I cannot imagine that she would do anything like this. She liked children. I would have employed her as an au pair anytime."

In the aftermath of the verdict, the Fischers, the Riners and Gallagher were all left in varying states of pain. Olivia Riner, surrounded by cameras and speaking through a translator, told reporters, "I can't be angry. I am relieved at this point. I am sorry this happened, and I am very sad [the Fischers] lost their daughter." An elated Kurt chimed in, "At last we can be a family again."

The Fischers, however, remained inconsolable, convinced of Olivia's guilt and Gallagher's innocence. "She wasn't as sweet as you would think," said Denise, who later added that the verdict was "horrible." John Gallagher, who sat with his mother, Carol, and the Fischers at the end of the trial, reacted to Brevetti's attacks by saying, "I'd like to get up and punch her in the mouth.... She made me look like an idiot." His mother, her voice cracking, added, "It's been rough on him; it's been rough on the whole family. There is tension in the house."

Later, as the triumphant Brevetti whisked the Riner family through a cheering crowd and out to a luxury sedan waiting at the curb, District Attorney Carl Vergari announced that the case would not be reopened. The Fischers made their way down to a deserted basement parking garage to retrieve their car. From their stricken expressions, one could see that their wounds will not soon heal. "It was extremely rude of the people in the courtroom to give a standing ovation and forget about the fact that we lost our baby," said a tearful Denise Fischer. "The real thing here is, we lost our baby. How do we go on?"



Swiss Au Pair Found Not Guilty of Setting Fire That Killed Baby

By William Glaberson - The New York Times

July 08, 1992

After a single day of deliberations, a jury here tonight acquitted a Swiss au pair of all charges against her in the arson death of a baby in her care.

The case drew international attention because it crystallized the concerns and worries parents have about leaving their children in other people's care and the rapid verdict appeared an endorsement of an aggressive defense strategy.

At 11:16 P.M., the jury forewoman, Shanett Yancy, read in a clear voice that the Westchester County Court jury had found the au pair, Olivia Riner, not guilty of all of four counts against her. Jurors had deliberated for 13 hours on three charges of second-degree murder and one count of arson.

Miss Riner, 20 years old, and her lawyer, Laura A. Brevetti, embraced after the verdict was read. Judge Donald N. Silverman dismissed the jury, saying, "I happen to agree with your verdict. I think we've had a good verdict, and I think it's the right result."

He said the prosecution had not proved the case against the native of Wettingen, Switzerland.

In a rear row of the 14th-floor courtroom here, Denise Fischer, the mother of the 3-month-old infant who was killed on Dec. 2, listened to the verdict with downcast eyes.

After he dismissed the jurors, Judge Silverman turned to Miss Riner and said: "You are now free."

Ms. Brevetti asked if marshals could remove the electronic ankle bracelet Miss Riner had been wearing as a condition of her bail, and the half of the courtroom filled with Miss Riner's supporters erupted in applause. Miss Riner, who has shown little emotion in six months of legal proceedings, wept at the defense table.

In an unusually combative defense, Ms. Brevetti had cast other people as suspects in the arson murder case and raised questions about the local police department's handling of the case.

Judge Silverman suggested that many of the questions Ms. Brevetti had raised in the month-long trial remain to be answered. "The case," he said, "has not been solved."

'Walking Reasonable Doubt'

Throughout the trial, Ms. Brevetti repeatedly attacked the boyfriend of the infant's half-sister, 26-year-old John P. Gallagher III, as having taken part in setting the fire. In her closing statement Monday, Ms. Brevetti had referred to Mr. Gallagher as "walking reasonable doubt."

The jury appeared to have been persuaded by Ms. Brevetti. The last testimony the jurors asked to hear reread to them late tonight was the testimony of Mr. Gallagher as he described his actions as the first person to arrive at the fire other than Miss Riner and the infant.

In interviews after they reached the verdict, four jurors on the panel of five women and seven men said the prosecutor had not demonstrated Miss Riner's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt" -- a condition the judge had told them was needed for a guilty verdict. They also said they were troubled by the fact that the prosecutor never suggested any motive that might have driven Miss Riner to commit the crime.

"It was a heinous crime, a horrible crime. But it was not difficult to come to a decision," said Irving Wilmot, a retired hospital administrator from Rye.

The jurors spent much of their only day of deliberations reviewing a series of exhibits and testimony that they had asked be reread to them. Several jurors said they had asked to re-evaluate the evidence because at least one member of the panel began the day of deliberations saying he wanted to refresh his recollections from the month-long trial.

'Doesn't Bother Me'

In a triumphant news conference minutes after the verdict, Miss Riner (pronounced REE-ner) said she was not concerned that some people might continue to have doubts about her innocence. "It doesn't bother me," she said, "because I know I didn't do it."

With her lawyer next to her and her mother and father behind her, Miss Riner said: "I'm sorry that a terrible thing happened and I'm very sad they lost their daughter."

Ms. Brevetti called for a renewed investigation because, she said, an arsonist remains at large in the Mount Pleasant area where the Fischers had lived. She said the police had "put blinders on" and charged Miss Riner rather than try to solve the crime.

But in a separate news conference, the Westchester District Attorney, Carl A. Vergari, said the police investigation was thorough. He said he accepted jury verdict but that, "The case is closed."

"There is no other person in this world besides this defendant," Mr. Vergari said, "who had the means and the opportunity to start this fire."

George L. Bolen, the courtroom prosecutor, repeated previous statements that Mr. Gallagher "had nothing to do with this and the way he had been treated has been totally unfair."

Asked if he still believed that Miss Riner committed the crime, Mr. Bolen asnwered: "In my heart of hearts, despite the fact that the jury has spoken, I believe Olivia Riner has done this particular crime."

The fire at the home of Denise and William Fischer in the Mount Pleasant hamlet of Thornwood was set, investigators said, with flammable liquids, some of which had been poured on the diaper of the 3-month-old baby, Kristie. Much of the prosecution's case hinged on Miss Riner's insistence to the police that she was alone in the house and would have heard anyone else enter.

Focus on Caretakers

Almost from the first news reports in the days after the fire, the story of the au pair charged with what her lawyer would later call "this unthinkable crime" drew international attention. With what the prosecutor, George L. Bolen, called her "apparent angelic face," Miss Riner, for a time, became the incarnation of parents' fears about the people they hire to care for their children.

According to scores of articles written after the fire, the caretakers, whether they are called au pairs, nannies, or baby sitters, are frequently hired based on little more than a few telephone calls of research and a parent's gut feeling.

Like many two-career couples in the New York area, the Fischers went to an international agency, because, Mr. Fischer testified, they believed a person from abroad and screened by the agency would likely be "more conscientious." The Fischers were linked up with Miss Rinerby an agency based in Cambridge, Mass., E. F. Au Pair. Miss Riner had worked for the Fischers for about a month before the fire.

The police indicated at first that they had direct evidence linking Miss Riner to the fire. In court, while Miss Riner remained in jail because she was unable to meet bail of $500,000, Mr. Bolen said that at trial he would be able to "establish a reason" for "these seemingly inexplicable acts."

Defense Strategy

But Ms. Brevetti tried to change the focus of the case: the defense lawyer portrayed the local police as inept and eager to blame a foreigner while closing their eyes to evidence that might have pointed in another direction.

In court, a string of prosecution witnesses appeared to bolster the defense case with contradictory or unverifiable statements about observations at the fire scene and about Miss Riner's appearance that night.

A detective and a police matron testified, for example, that Miss Riner's eyelashes were singed when she was arrested after the fire. But a police photograph taken that night appeared inconculsive.

Mr. Bolen did not establish any motive for the crime in court and there was never any direct evidence such as fingerprints linking Miss Riner to the crime. Miss Riner's own statements to the police and Mr. Fischer at the scene of the fire included some inconsistencies but in hours of questioning the au pair stuck by a denial she repeated time and again.

"I don't start no fire," Miss Riner was reported to have said again and again.


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

By Andrew Maykuth -

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.


With Promise Not to Flee, Swiss Nanny Is Released

By Lisa W. Foderaro - The New York Times

December 31, 1991

The Swiss nanny charged with arson and murder in the death of a 3-month-old girl in her care was released today from the county jail here into the arms of her parents after they posted her $350,000 bail.

The nanny, 20-year-old Olivia Riner, smiled excitedly as she embraced first her father and then her mother, kissing them each twice.

She then climbed into a white sedan with them and, evading reporters, left for an undisclosed residence where she will stay with her mother.

To insure that she will not flee, Miss Riner (pronounced REEN-er) has agreed to wear an electronic ankle bracelet, or monitoring device.

Miss Riner has been in custody since her arrest on Dec. 3. The police say that about 5 P.M. the day before, Miss Riner set three separate fires in the split-level house of William and Denise Fischer in Thornwood, killing their only child, Kristie.

The Fischers found Miss Riner through a cultural exchange organization in Cambridge, Mass., E. F. Au Pair, which provides working couples with young European women who care for their children for a year in exchange for room and board. The parents have told the police that they were pleased with Miss Riner's performance since she arrived Nov. 1.

Money from Strangers

Judge John Carey of Westchester County Court agreed to the bail package presented by the defense, which included a number of provisions aimed at preventing Miss Riner from fleeing to Switzerland. Because there is no extradition treaty between the United States and Switzerland, the court had expressed concern that Miss Riner would seek asylum in her homeland.

The case has generated a storm of media attention in Switzerland, prompting strangers to contribute most of the $350,000 bail.

Miss Riner's parents, Kurt and Marlies Riner, were able to raise only $75,000 from family and friends.

Mrs. Riner is a secretary in an auto-repair garage and Mr. Riner is a civil defense administrator.

The bail was originally set at $500,000 by another judge, but he lowered it, making Miss Riner's release possible.

The case will be presented to a grand jury in late January. Laura A. Brevetti, Miss Riner's lawyer, said today that the defense's strategy would be to try to poke holes in the prosecution's circumstantial case.

A Promise to Stay

Miss Riner has surrendered her passport, and today, her mother, who is to stay with her for the duration of the legal proceedings, did the same.

In addition, Miss Riner affixed two thumb prints in court to a sworn statement that she will not "seek repatriation" nor sanctuary in the Swiss consulate or embassy. It also said that she waived the right to contest extradition were she to make her way to Switzerland.

That statement was presented to Judge Carey along with one by the Swiss Government, saying, in effect, that Swiss authorities would not issue Miss Riner a new passport and would make no effort to help her return to Switzerland.

For a moment, it appeared that Miss Riner's release would be delayed as Judge Carey objected to an omission in the Swiss declaration regarding possible sanctuary for Miss Riner in a Swiss consulate or embassy.

But Ms. Brevetti, as well as the prosecutor from the Westchester County District Attorney's office, George L. Bolen, assured the judge that Swiss authorities had said Miss Riner would be escorted off the premises immediately if she sought sanctuary.


Nanny, 20, Held In Death Of 3-month-old N.y. Girl

December 5, 1991

MOUNT PLEASANT, N.Y. — A young Swiss nanny killed a baby in her care by setting fire to her employers' home while they were at work, police said. Olivia Riner, 20, of Wettingen, Switzerland, was arraigned Tuesday on murder and arson charges in the death of 3-month-old Kristi Fischer and was jailed without bail. Riner had worked for William and Denise Fischer since Nov. 1.

Police Chief Paul Oliva said it appeared Riner set fire to the three bedrooms in the Fischers' home. He said burns were found on the child's body, indicating Riner may have doused her with accelerant and ignited it.



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