A Feb. 26 Metro article incorrectly said that Taylar Nuevelle will be the first person sentenced under a new law governing parental abductions in the District. Although she was the first person charged in a warrant under the law, Nuevelle ultimately pleaded guilty to counts of passport fraud and contempt. Terms of her plea agreement also were misstated. The agreement bars Nuevelle from attempting to contact her ex-husband except through the courts but is silent on the issue of whether she can contact her son. (Published 3/5/03)
Shafer Smith and Carl Dodd, the men who helped rewrite the District's law on parental abduction, hoped that persuading lawmakers to make the offense a felony would, in time, help reunite them with their missing children.
For Smith, it did, bringing a bizarre end to a bizarre tale. For Dodd, the law has brought only a sense of increased desolation, if not hopelessness. Once bonded by a common purpose, the two men have seen their lives take drastically different turns.
Smith's 8-year-old son, Kalil, was recovered by a SWAT team in Oakland, Calif., last year after being taken hostage at gunpoint by his mother's enraged lover. During nearly three years on the run, Smith's ex-wife lived under five aliases, changed the boy's name, switched jobs often and kept moving, fleeing from the District to Seattle to Philadelphia to London and, finally, Oakland.
Next month, in U.S. District Court in Washington, Taylar Nuevelle is scheduled to become the first person sentenced under the law her ex-husband helped put on the books.
"It was the change in the D.C. law that let Oakland police know she was involved in parental kidnapping," said Smith, an applied mathematics professor who has moved from the District and spoke on the condition that his whereabouts not be revealed. "Before, when it was a misdemeanor, it would not have been listed on the national crime database. I'd still be looking for him."
Dodd has not seen his daughter, Marilyn, since she walked up the steps to her mother's porch June 16, 1993. She was wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans and carrying a little girl's pocketbook. She turned and smiled, and then she was gone.
She was 4 years old.
"She'll be 14 this year, wherever she is," said Dodd, a truck driver and a Metro worker living in suburban Maryland. "I see little girls, 12 or 13 or 14, and I always give them a second look. But the fact is, I probably wouldn't recognize my little girl if she walked right by me."
More than 205,000 children were abducted by family members last year, according to the U.S. Justice Department, a problem that has grown over the past decade to become the second-leading cause of children's disappearances in the United States, trailing only runaways. The result of unpleasant divorces, mean-spirited custody battles or allegations of abuse, most cases are short-lived family affairs, statistics show, with 79 percent of children returned within a month, and 94 percent returned within six months.
The damage done to children in the briefest of episodes can be traumatic, mental health specialists say. All state legislatures and the federal government have moved during the past two decades to designate parental abductions as a felony -- making fleeing parents subject to national and international warrants, just like other wanted felons. The federal law covers international cases.
One of the last jurisdictions to toughen its law was the District, which did so in 2001, after extensive lobbying by Smith and Dodd.
"These are high-conflict cases with the potential for violence," said Nancy Hammer, director of the international division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "The taking parent tells the child that the other parent doesn't love them, or is abusive, or makes up any story that justifies their behavior. The child loses touch with friends and family. They don't know who to trust."
In the most extreme circumstances, cases can go on for months and years, as some parents seek to gain permanent custody by way of a vanishing act.
Carl Dodd showed up at police headquarters one day in 1993 with a picture of his little girl. She stood about 3 foot 5 inches, he said, and weighed perhaps 50 pounds.
Brown hair, brown eyes, bright smile.
She and her mother disappeared during a custody dispute. Dodd and Mary Jane Byrd, the child's mother, had never married. Once they stopped dating, she tried to cut off his visitation rights, even charging him with sexually abusing Marilyn, then 3.
The courts not only found the charge to be without merit, but a social worker reported to D.C. Superior Court Judge Michael L. Rankin that Marilyn was much happier with Dodd and his new wife than with her mother.
Before Rankin could grant Dodd full custody, Byrd and Marilyn were gone.
Dodd and his wife, Paula, went to police and were jolted to learn that D.C. law classified parental abductions as a misdemeanor. Such a slight infraction of the law wasn't an extraditable offense, meaning that police and federal agents had no authority to go beyond Washington to look for children and parents in such cases.
The Dodds didn't have a lot of money, but they scrambled to hire private detectives.
They posted Marilyn's picture with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, hoping someone would recognize her. They went to Pennsylvania, where Byrd had relatives, and frequently drove by her mother's house in the District looking for clues.
"We'd hear something every now and then, but nothing ever panned out," Dodd said.
By 1995, Detective Rick Adams of the D.C. police was so bothered by Marilyn's disappearance, and the Dodds' lonely search for her, that he tried to change the law.
By making parental abduction a felony, he reasoned, the charge would go into the computerized National Crime Information Center database, a standard reference for all police departments and federal law enforcement agencies. If the fleeing parent had any contact with police -- even an identity check during a traffic stop -- his or her name would pop up as a wanted felon.
Adams thought it was a great idea. But he was a busy police officer, not a lobbyist, and he could not generate much legislative interest. The issue was not seen as a widespread problem.
Four years passed.
Somewhere, Marilyn turned 7, 8, 9 and 10.
Then, when Dodd's search had fallen into despair, another custody dispute in D.C. Superior Court revived the issue.
It was the summer of 1999, Shafer Smith and Taylar Nuevelle were divorcing, and both wanted custody of 5-year-old Kalil. It had been a brief, turbulent and unhappy marriage. The couple met at college in Indiana, then lived in California before moving to the District. Nuevelle, who wrote grants for local community groups, alleged that Smith was violently abusive.
But Superior Court Judge Zoe Bush ruled that just wasn't so. Smith posed no threat and had never physically harmed Nuevelle, she ruled. Further, the judge was incensed to discover that Nuevelle had instructed Kalil to say that Smith had beaten him -- when the boy readily acknowledged that his father never had.
During the hearing, as Bush was about to give Smith custody, Nuevelle acted nauseated. She staggered from the courtroom into the crowded hallway. She took Kalil from a court official, pretending that she still had custody, and made a desperate run for the door.
She made it out of the courthouse and into downtown traffic before anyone realized what had happened.
Back inside, Bush filed a bench warrant for her arrest. Smith left the room and quickly hired a private detective.
"I naively assumed the bench warrant would mean the marshals would go out and get her," he said. "I expected a dragnet scene. My lawyer and I went to the FBI's missing children branch. They said I didn't have an 'unlawful flight to avoid prosecution' warrant. They couldn't help. That's when I discovered the D.C. law was so weak."
Smith and his attorney, Alan Sochin, took the case to Adams, the police detective, who saw it as a chance to make another attack on the misdemeanor code.
They got D.C. Council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large), then chair of the judiciary committee, and Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey to exchange letters or calls about the law, but nothing happened.
Another year passed. Dodd and Smith, both in their early thirties, kept writing letters or making calls, seeing the enhanced law as their only chance. They met just once, at a ceremony in L'Enfant Plaza about missing children.
"It was very emotional, because we were both going through the same thing," Dodd remembers. "I saw him, the look on his face, and you could see what was happening to him. I thought, 'That must be what I look like.' "
Finally, the men got the attention of council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), the new chair of the judiciary committee.
She scheduled hearings, the parents of other missing children testified, and in June 2001, the council unanimously passed the Parental Kidnapping Extradition Amendment Act.
The law made parental kidnapping a felony punishable by up to three years in jail and a $250,000 fine. Police had what they needed: access to national and international crime databases, with powers of extradition.
Adams got an immediate lead on Nuevelle. She had submitted false papers for a passport in Seattle, but that was back in January 2000.
"I frantically started getting the State Department people in Seattle to look for her," Smith said, "but she was long gone by then."
Months passed in silence.
Then, the morning of March 28, 2002, the phone in Smith's house rang. It was Sgt. Dave Cronin of the Oakland Police Department.
"We've got your son," Cronin said.
Smith was on a cross-country flight by noon.
As Oakland police later put it together, Olga Texidor, a popular disc jockey in local nightclubs, had been dating Nuevelle in a relationship that spiraled out of control. She burst into Nuevelle's apartment with a pistol, taking Nuevelle and Kalil hostage.
The city's SWAT team rushed into place. Snipers took up positions on the roof. As a hostage negotiator tried to reason with Texidor, Nuevelle did something that shocked police -- she ran out of the apartment, leaving Kalil behind.
"A mother leaving her child with an enraged person armed with a knife and a gun is not something that a normal parent would do," Cronin said.
The standoff lasted 90 more minutes. Texidor released Kalil, gave police the gun, which turned out to be fake, and apologized.
Nuevelle, though, was hostile to police. She initially refused to give them her name, to let counselors talk to Kalil, or to let anyone in the apartment. When she did give their names, Aja Faria for her and Carlos Koda Faria for the boy, Cronin was suspicious.
He went to the precinct station and ran Kalil's picture through the Web site of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Bingo. There was the boy's picture, Nuevelle's picture and their real names. Cronin then ran Nuevelle's name through a criminal records check and got another hit. There was the passport fraud in Seattle, related aliases -- and the felony kidnapping warrant in the District.
Kalil was taken to a juvenile services office, where he was reunited with his father. Nuevelle was jailed and extradited to the District.
"Kalil was very traumatized by the transition . . . He had a lot of anger," Smith said. "He wanted to go by his pseudonym even after he was back with me. I really just want this all behind us."
Nuevelle is scheduled to be sentenced March 6 on charges of passport fraud, criminal contempt and other offenses in exchange for the dropping of the kidnapping charge, according to a signed plea agreement in court files. The agreement calls for her to be jailed for 15 months with another three-year term suspended. If she violates the terms of her supervised release -- by attempting to contact her son or ex-husband except through the courts -- she could be sent back to jail for those three years.
Sean Grimsley, her federal public defender, declined to comment.
When the D.C. abduction law was first changed, D.C. police issued seven warrants for parental abduction. Five of those missing children have been found. Police found one mother who had taken her child to Nigeria for five years, and another who fled to Honduras to avoid a custody order. Federal agents caught up with her in Mexico City at Thanksgiving dinner.
"No matter where parents go now, we can reach out and bring them back," Adams said.
Carl Dodd is glad that is so. He is happy for parents who have been reunited with their children.
But Marilyn has been missing far longer than any child in the District. It has been nearly 10 years now. When Dodd opens his front door in the morning, he no longer has any idea of where he might go to look for his only child.
The only images he has of what she might look like are a pair of computer-generated age progression sketches, put together by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. One is Marilyn at age 8. The other is at age 12.
"Missing," says the caption. "Endangered."
The father keeps a copy with him all the time, just in case, like the school pictures he has never seen.
A decade-old photo shows Carl Dodd, his daughter, Marilyn, and the child's mother, Mary Jane Byrd. Extensive lobbying by Dodd and another father helped get D.C. law changed to make parental abduction a felony. Dodd's daughter, Marilyn, at age 4. Dodd says, "The fact is, I probably wouldn't recognize my little girl if she walked right by me."