After 10 years of searching for his abducted daughter, Dale A. LaMendola may finally get to reestablish a relationship with the child he last knew as a 3-year-old.
Yesterday, an arbitrator of the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Court recommended that LaMendola, 35, his former wife, Patricia L. Nunnink, 34, and their daughter, Melissa, attend intensive counseling sessions together over the next two weeks. Melissa was not in court.
LaMendola's odyssey, which involved pleas for help on national television, the FBI, several child-search organizations and many false leads, began during divorce proceedings almost four years after the couple's marriage.
While visiting her daughter in August 1980, Nunnink abducted Melissa and hid her from LaMendola until this February when he found the pair in Burlington, Vt. At the time of the abduction, LaMendola's parents had been granted temporary custody of Melissa.
Friday, Nunnink surrendered to authorities in Montgomery County. Later that day, as part of a plea arrangement, she pleaded guilty to one count of child abduction. Prosecutors dropped a second count.
An oncology nurse who recently married a physician, Nunnink faces a maximum jail term of 30 days and a $250 fine at her scheduled sentencing next month. She refused to comment on the case yesterday.
LaMendola, who lives in Ijamsville in Frederick County, said he hopes to see his daughter, whom he calls "Missy," today. Although he has looked forward to this day for a long time, LaMendola said he is nervous about the reunion and the prospect of trying to establish a "loving and caring relationship" with a daughter he knows mostly from family photo albums.
"It's going to be really hard," he said yesterday. "This is going to take a lot of time -- years, maybe -- to reestablish a bond."
Shortly after finding his daughter, LaMendola said, he had a brief "terrifying" moment in which Melissa told him she hated him. "It really hurt because I knew the words coming out were not her own," he said.
Yesterday, Domestic Relations Master Rita A. Rosenkrantz attempted to begin the mending process. After a one-hour hearing, ostensibly on a custody motion, she urged Nunnink to "reintroduce" Melissa to her father in joint counseling sessions here with a pyschiatrist and pyschologist.
When Nunnink complained that the two-week stay here could interfere with Melissa's algebra lessons in Vermont, Rosenkrantz responded, "Which is more important: an algebra course or her relationship with her father?"
Rosenkrantz said she would issue recommendations later on visitation rights and permanent custody for Melissa. LaMendola is now the legal custodian of his daughter. He said yesterday a final decision in the case must be made by a circuit court judge.
LaMendola, who owns a commercial cleaning business, said he spent "well over $200,000" locating his daughter, an eighth-grader who turned 13 this month. But LaMendola, who has remarried and has a 2-year-old son, said he never gave up the search because "she's my flesh and blood."
A former private investigator, LaMendola said, "I don't think courts know enough about child-snatchings. You are dealing with people's emotions.
"Abducting a child . . . is an act of selfishness that hurts the child more than the other person."