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Woman Gets 1-Year Term For Abducting Md. Grandson

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page B01

A Delaware woman who admitted abducting her 3 1/2-year-old grandson from her daughter-in-law in Gaithersburg because she feared for the child's safety was sentenced yesterday to a year in jail.

Cynthia Sargent's defense attorney portrayed her as a heroine who risked family, financial security and, ultimately, her freedom to rescue a boy from a mother who had sometimes fantasized about taking her own life and his. The boy's mother, Jennifer A. Burns, did take her own life by jumping from a cliff in Cascade, Md., some four months after the child's disappearance.

Cynthia Sargent of Delaware said she feared for the safety of her grandson, Matthew Burns.

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But Montgomery County Assistant State's Attorney Sherri Koch said Sargent, 46, took the law in her own hands by snatching a child whom she always wanted to raise as her own. The abduction received some national publicity, and Sargent was arrested in Pinellas County, Fla., after a tipster alerted authorities that she was living with the boy there.

The boy, Matthew Burns, was in good condition. He will be 5 in June and is in the custody of his mother's family.

After hearing bitter words from both sides of the boy's family, Circuit Court Judge Paul H. Weinstein sentenced Sargent, of Laurel, Del., to three years in prison but suspended two years. He also said he would recommend that she enter a work-release program while serving her sentence at the Montgomery County jail.

"I want you to know that I don't think you're a bad person," Weinstein said during the sentencing. Sargent, who pleaded guilty to kidnapping on Feb. 7, had faced seven to 13 years in prison under sentencing guidelines for a crime that carries a maximum 30-year prison term. Under the plea agreement, prosecutors asked for an 18-month sentence. Her attorney, Howard A. Miliman, asked the court for no more than probation.

"The system failed," Miliman said. "She did what had to be done to save a child's life. . . . She's been punished enough. She's been tortured enough."

Sargent took the child from the Resurrection Children's Center in Kensington on Jan. 30, 2004, while the boy was supposed to be having visitation with his father, Cory Wharton, 29.

Wharton, who claimed he did not know his mother's intentions, was charged with detaining a child out of state for more than 48 hours and assaulting the boy's mother that day; those charges were dismissed yesterday.

Miliman described the boy's mother, Jennifer A. Burns, as a deeply troubled young woman. He said she had been institutionalized for depression when she was 14. Miliman said she tried to put the baby up for adoption, triggering a custody dispute with the father.

Reiterating testimony from court proceedings in Howard County, Miliman also said that a month after the child's birth she told a therapist that "she had placed her baby facedown on a pillow and 'said a prayer that the child would die and go to heaven.' " About the same time, she also told a therapist that she imagined committing suicide by stepping in front of a car or train while holding her son in her arms.

But the boy's maternal stepfather, Robert R. Middeldorf, said Sargent and her family schemed to take custody of the boy. "It's just been a cruel, vicious trip," he said.

Cynthia Sargent wept, her head turned away from family and friends, for much of the hearing. She cried again while addressing the court and describing why she did what she had done.

"I felt he just deserved much better than that, and I feared for his life," she said.

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