James Clinton Parker was getting up from the dinner table in his Florida home last month when the life he fled 16 years ago caught up with him.

A deputy sheriff arrived at his house near Tampa and announced: "A woman and three children are waiting for you back at the courthouse."

Instantly Parker knew the woman and three daughters he abandoned in Northern Virginia had found him despite a name change, innumerable moves, and being declared legally dead by a state judge.

"It's been devastating," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Lutz, Fla., where he lives with his third wife and a child. "I'm rather angry they would still be pursuing me after all these years. It would seem that after a mistake I made 20 years ago -- well, what good is it going to do now, other than to persecute me? All they came for was vengeance."

If the discovery has been devastating for Parker, it has been a triumph for Patricia Bennett, the feisty, outgoing woman he left in the Washington suburbs with two infant daughters, a third on the way and an unpaid $50-a-week child support order.

"I think this is the most worthwhile thing I've ever done for my kids," she said. Her ex-husband, she said, owes her $42,000 for 832 weeks of child support.

"I did it for the money, sure," she said in an interview at her home in Springfield, where she lives with three teen-age daughters by her marriage to Parker. "I did it for my children, to recover the child support, to vindicate my children. And I believe there is a difference between revenge and justice. . . . Why did he leave a pregnant wife in the first place?"

Finding her ex-husband, a man she knew as Oscar David Gibson, ended as well her six-year struggle to convince the Social Security Administration that Gibson was dead so she and her children could collect death benefits.

Despite a July 1982 order by a Charlottesville judge declaring Gibson dead and an 18-month investigation during which Social Security officials failed to turn up any trace of him, the bureaucracy stubbornly refused to agree that he was dead. The bureaucracy, which conducts about 100 similar investigations a year, turned out to be right.

Bennett won't say precisely what led her to her to the small town 12 miles north of Tampa where she found her ex-husband living as James Clinton Parker, an insurance adjuster. All she will say is that she found the first clue that he was alive in the Social Security investigative file and that it only took her four days to track him down.

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It was August 28, 1968, when Gibson, a 23-year-old former marine who was working as a debt collector, walked out on his pregnant 22-year-old wife in Annandale.

"He had stayed out a number of nights all night," Patricia Bennett said. "And I found a motel receipt in his jacket and I confronted him with it. He never said a word, he just took all his clothes and left."

Bennett, who had met Gibson in Springfield when she was 17, was left with two daughters under the age of 2, four months pregnant with a third daughter and no income. "I was in love with him when he left," she said. "I was just devastated."

Bennett got an order from Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court on Jan. 15, 1969, directing Gibson to pay her $50 a week. According to court records, he made two payments before he disappeared in April 1969.

"We had a separation, and before I could ever do anything as far as her child support, she ran me out of town," he said. "Every time I got a job, she would call up screaming at my employer. I couldn't keep a job, I couldn't support myself, let alone them."

So, he said, he went to Texas; legally changed his name to James Parker; married another woman before he was divorced by Bennett; for a time adopted the educational credentials and background of another James Parker who lives in Philomath, Ore. He said he had his second marriage annulled and in 1979 married a third time and settled in Florida.

He said he never made any effort to contact his family or his foster parents or his friends. "After such a long time hiding from that woman, trying to get my life together, I really didn't feel that I had the right to intrude upon their lives," he said.

Patricia Gibson, the wife he left behind, spent two years on welfare, went back to school, earned a BS and an MBA and became an accountant for the federal government.

She divorced Gibson in June 1972, to marry Eugene Bennett, she said, but memories of her first husband haunted her at first.

"I used to have this recurring dream," Bennett said. "He would knock on the door, he'd come in and sit down at the kitchen table and I'd always ask him, 'Where have you been? What have you been doing?' And he'd always say: 'I can't tell you.' "

About 18 months after he vanished, Bennett said she got a phone call from a woman in Dallas.

Her husband, a man the Texas woman knew as James Clinton Parker, had just left her. "She was very shook up," Bennett recalls.

The woman wasn't certain, but she believed the man who had just left her and the man who had walked out on Bennett were the same person.

The women exchanged photographs in the mail, according to Bennett, and there was no question to either of them that Oscar David Gibson had become James Clinton Parker.

A few months after the initial contact, the woman called Bennett again, to say that she had reconciled with Parker.

For eight years Bennett said she thought of Parker only occasionally. Remarried with a career and a family, Bennett said she made no attempt to find her ex-husband.

In 1978, a friend suggested to Bennett that because Parker had been gone so long and had disappeared so thoroughly, perhaps he was dead. If he had died, Bennett and her children would be entitled to Social Security death benefits, the friend said.

Social Security rejected her request. The agency said it failed to find any trace of Parker, dead or alive, but refused to assume that he was dead. The agency said Parker probably had fled to avoid his child support payments.

On July 23, 1982, Robert and Irene Gibson of Charlottesville had their foster son declared dead by an Albemarle County Circuit Court judge. They collected $11,221.51 in life insurance proceeds. According to their attorney, Orbin F. Carter, the couple had not heard from their son for so long -- since 1969 -- that they, too, assumed he was dead.

The process of having him declared dead involved placing a legal notice in the Charlottesville newspaper and the judge questioning the parents, but little else.

Bennett said that she later learned of the court order and, armed with it, appealed the denial of Social Security death benefits. The agency said the court order changed nothing.

She was appealing that ruling last summer when she said she ran across something in the agency's file that investigators apparently overlooked.

She won't say what it was -- "just a piece of the puzzle" -- but with it she said she quickly located her first husband.

Once she had found him, she said, she knew what she wanted from him -- the court-ordered $50-a-week child support payments he owed, for every one of the 832 weeks he had been missing.

And, she said, "I wanted my children to see who their father was. And I wanted him to see his daughters."

Three weeks ago, Bennett, divorced from her second husband, took her daughters and Valerie Szabo, her Washington attorney, to Florida to confront her first husband. "It was like a cross between 'Charlie's Angels' and 'The Dukes of Hazzard,' " Bennett said, without hiding her glee at being able to catch, completely unaware, the man who had eluded her for so long.

Bennett and Szabo got a judge to issue a writ for Parker's detention based on the outstanding child support claim. A deputy sheriff took him into custody Jan. 16.

Bennett and her three daughters -- Christine, 18, Andrea, 17, and Marcia Ann, 16 -- went that night to the Pasco County Jail, hoping to see him.

He refused to see the girls or their mother in person. "I wouldn't give them the satisfaction of seeing me with leg irons and handcuffs," he said. "I think that is a vindictive thing their mother did, to try to parade me in front of them like that."

Bennett sent color portraits of the three girls to the cell. "When he wouldn't give them back," she said with a grin, "I knew I had the right man."

Two days later, when Parker was released from jail, the three girls talked to him. It was a telephone conversation that lasted four hours and, all three girls said, it was enough.

"I'm glad he's not my father," said Marcia Ann Bennett, who was not born when he left. "When we were growing up, my mother never said anything bad about him. Don't ask me why. . . . He just kept trying to blame his departure on my mom."

"He sounded kind of . . . relieved," said Christine Bennett, who works for Disney World in Orlando on a college program. "Then he sounded kind of quiet and didn't have a lot to say. . . . Afterward, I really didn't want to know him."

Patricia Bennett and her attorney have filed papers in Hillsborough County Circuit Court to recover the back child support they say Parker owes and to set a new level of child support.

"If it's strictly monetary," said Parker, "I think we can come to some sort of solution." He now lives with his third wife, Debbie Rae, and they have a child who is almost 2.

"I don't think money is the primary thing," he said. "From all appearances, all they are trying to do is discredit me."

Christine suggested that perhaps there was something in her mother's successful quest even for her father: "I guess, in a way, he doesn't have to run anymore."

Parker doesn't see it that way.

"It's affecting my family, my business, it's affecting me now. It's just been mud and dirt and hurt and vengeanc , that's all. And that's all it's been between me and that woman for 20 years. That's why I've gone to such extremes to try to hide from her."

Bennett said she's satisfied.

"I'm so glad I did this," she said. "There is satisfaction for the kids, this has resolved conflicts they've felt for years. Marcia [the youngest daughter] blamed herself for his leaving, and now she doesn't any more. I owed them this. If the [support] case is resolved, that's the end of it."