On August 1, 1996, Wanda Moats and her three-year-old daughter, Jane (not the girl's real name), busied themselves packing up clothes and other personal belongings at the North Seattle apartment they shared with David Mattson--Wanda's partner and Jane's father. David had gone to Michigan at the beginning of July to take care of his elderly father. David called home on August 1 to talk to his family, and to make plans for his arrival at the airport two days later. Wanda told him she was planning a surprise.
David got a huge surprise when he arrived in Seattle--Wanda had promised to pick him up at the airport, but no one was waiting for him at the gate. He went down to the baggage claim, but still didn't see his family. He called a neighbor, who came and picked him up.
Back at the apartment, there was a multi-page letter on the kitchen table.
"[A] person can't live like this...," Wanda wrote. "I even found myself thinking maybe I can just be quiet for another 15 years for the sake of [our daughter] being around her dad. The problem is this environment is a danger to [her].... Your behavior toward me really does constitute abuse. I have done my work in counseling for the past year and a half, and it is unconscionable that I have to be so driven underground out of fear of your eruptions or threats. You refuse to work and then bear down on me saying we can't afford counseling when in reality you just don't want to face yourself," the letter continued. "We must get away from this destructive environment. Nobody, but nobody knows where we are."
Wanda met David in Berkeley, California in the mid-1970s. Wanda had two small children at the time, whose fathers were not around, and David helped raise the children while Wanda finished her schooling and started work as a genetic researcher. Today Wanda works in an office at the University of Washington, where she analyzes fruit flies.
Wanda's supporters contacted me, looking for a reporter who would help this victimized woman tell her story. I interviewed Wanda in her office before her trial. Flies fill jars all over her office, and Wanda, now in her early 50s, sat beside her microscope when we spoke, her frizzy reddish hair pushed back. Wanda told me about her relationship with David--a short, portly man with tinted glasses and a mustache who was her partner for more than 20 years.
According to Wanda, David violently lashed out at her early in their relationship, when they were still living in California.
"I tried to wake him up in the middle of the night in an affectionate way," Wanda recalls. "He certainly felt free to wake me up when he wanted to wake me up. And because I had awakened him out of a sleep, he rolled over and he put both of his hands around my throat--and I don't remember the exact words because it was so long ago, [but] it was certainly something like, 'Don't you ever wake me up in the middle of the night like that again!' And I was trying to not move," she says dramatically. "He had both hands around my throat and I couldn't breathe, until I ran into the bathroom. I didn't know what to do. I had children sleeping in the next room. I stayed in the bathroom for 45 minutes. I'm pretty sure that I asked him to leave, but he wouldn't leave. He promised it wouldn't happen again."
The family moved around the country--after 15 years in Berkeley, Wanda and her two children lived in Texas during the late '80s. Then Wanda and the kids moved to Seattle without David in 1990. He joined them two years later, and Wanda was soon pregnant with their first child.
"One of the things that he did was, for the entire nine months--again, this fits the pattern of an abuser--for the entire nine months he would ask me whether the child was his. For the entire nine months," she emphasizes. During our conversation, Wanda constantly referred to David as her "abuser," as if simple repetition of the charge was all the proof she needed.
She claims things got worse once the baby was born. David refused to get a job--Wanda says he wasn't working before Jane was born, and once the baby came along prematurely in the fall of 1992, David seized on watching Jane as a perfect excuse to remain unemployed. Then, as now, Wanda worked at UW.
She recalls another choking incident, this time in 1992: Wanda owned a dog that needed to go on frequent walks, and David said it wasn't practical to keep the dog while taking care of a new baby. He suggested they get rid of it, but Wanda disagreed--she was attached to the pet. David threatened to hurt the dog, Wanda says.
"He [would] say things like, 'What do I have to do, kill the dog?'" Wanda told me. "If that's not about abuse and battering, please tell me what is." Eventually David made good on his threats, according to Wanda, and choked her dog. Wanda didn't actually see David choke her dog, but claims that David told her he choked her dog.
It was around the time that David allegedly choked Wanda's dog that Wanda started seeing a counselor. Wanda has copies of her counselor's notes.
"My therapist got it," Moats told me, pulling what she says are her counselor's notes from a stack of papers that she carts between the court, her office, and her home. "On the first visit, she says, 'Wanda Moats is in an abusive relationship and feels that it is escalating to the point where she needs to make plans to leave.'" Wanda was reading her counselor's notes to me, and tells me that the entry she just read was dated February of 1995. Wanda refuses to let me see the notes or have a copy--she insists on reading selected excerpts.
Shortly after she began seeing a counselor, Wanda started to wonder if she should get Jane away from David. Just before David went to Michigan to take care of his ill father, she discovered something that made up her mind. Wanda says she learned that David had choked her son Russell years ago, when Russell was a teenager.
"David told me that he had Russell on the ground, his hands around Russell's throat," Wanda says. "Russell looked up at him and said, 'So what are going to do, kill me?'"
Finding out David had choked Russell--which, like the dog-choking incident, Wanda says she found out about from David--was the last straw. She felt she had to leave, she said, to protect her toddler.
"This was a long-term, battering, abusive relationship," Wanda says, returning to her theme. "David's behavior was getting out of hand, in his physical behavior and his threats, in 1995 and 1996. And it [also] was the knowledge that he had choked me [20 years ago]. I had witnessed him deliberately slamming the door into Russell as retribution, and he had choked Russell. It was the knowledge in 1995 that--he told me--he choked the dog, it was the knowledge that in 1995 and 1996 that he was kicking me and engaging in intimidating behavior. And all his behavior in 1995 and 1996 was worse than back 20 years ago when he choked me. So why wouldn't I believe he would carry out his threat when he said, 'When you get like this, I just feel like killing you!' Why wouldn't I believe that?"
Wanda claims now that David made death threats, but she didn't go to the police. Instead Wanda spoke with an attorney to see if she could leave Washington legally with her daughter.
"I fled from my batterer. I tried to protect my daughter from a batterer--to whom I wasn't married--and an attorney said, 'Have a nice trip. You are free to go,'" Wanda says. She doesn't have a record of the conversation with the attorney--an attorney who supposedly advised her to commit a felony--nor will Wanda give me the attorney's name. She says she called a women's shelter (she doesn't remember which one), and the shelter referred her to the Northwest Women's Law Center, which in turn referred her to the attorney she won't name.
Wanda and her daughter settled in Atlanta, Georgia, where she changed her name to Linnea Charleston, found work as a massage therapist, and eventually enrolled Jane in a private school. Wanda and Jane lived quietly in Atlanta until January 3, 2001. When Wanda dropped Jane off at school that day, FBI agents met her at the door and arrested her. A parent at the girl's school had seen Wanda and Jane's photos on a missing children postcard, and called the police.
People working in the field of domestic violence, women who met Wanda after she was caught and returned to Seattle, believe her. Wanda's domestic violence advocate, Michelle Lifton, her civil attorney, Sara Ainsworth, and a social worker, Karil Klingbeil, all believe Wanda's stories of abuse and her claims that David is dangerous, and they think her flight to Atlanta was justified.
"I initially got in contact with her through her rabbi in Atlanta, who said she was in jail," says Lifton, an advocate from Jewish Family Services in Seattle. "I started to meet with Wanda in jail on a weekly basis."
Lifton has no doubts that Wanda did the right thing by leaving and hiding. "She clearly was scared. If you think about what it would take to move across the country and change your name.... I go by what Wanda reports, but what Wanda reports is very similar to what other women [in domestic violence situations] report."
Ainsworth, Wanda's attorney for the impending family law proceeding for custody of the daughter, looked into Wanda's background before agreeing to take the case pro bono.
"I spent three or four weeks researching, confirming that the things Wanda was saying were true," Ainsworth says. "I wouldn't be representing her if I didn't believe she was a victim of domestic violence."
Klingbeil--a noted Seattle social worker with 38 years of experience at Harborview Medical Center and the University of Washington--met with Wanda and diagnosed her with Battered Women's Syndrome, a condition that can exist after a woman is exposed to abuse. She testified on Wanda's behalf in court.
"In Wanda's case, she was so frightened by the thought of David returning to their lives, and being subject to the same type of behavior, that she didn't see herself as having any other options," Klingbeil told me after the trial. "She was very relieved, she had the house to herself, she could have fun, she could smile, she was enjoying that kind of freedom. Then he was due back, and the same fear began to develop. She could think of no alternative but to bundle up her daughter and run away so she could live with that sense of freedom for the rest of her life."
A jury in King County Superior Court, however, didn't believe her story. On January 9, 2002, they found Wanda Moats guilty of custodial interference.
The same day that the FBI arrested Wanda Moats in Atlanta, David Mattson got the phone call he had been waiting patiently to get for four years.
In 1996, after he found the note Wanda left, David got on the phone and started calling all of their friends, trying to find his family. No one would help him--Wanda had told everyone they knew that David was abusive.
"I began to think Wanda had gone crazy," David told the court during Wanda's trial. "All of this time I wondered how I could support and love this woman for 20 years who would steal our daughter." (David declined to speak to The Stranger.)
Determined to find Jane, David called the police. He was told that legally, he needed to establish paternity before detectives could search for Wanda and Jane--David and Wanda were never married. David spent all of his savings on legal fees to file paternity papers. No longer being supported by Wanda, David found a job with the U.S. Postal Service.
Once paternity was established, King County Detective David Barnard was assigned to the case. While Barnard and other authorities worked on David's behalf, he occupied his free time looking for his daughter, building a website with information on parental abduction, and contacting as many agencies as he could for help--including direct mail marketing company ADVO, Inc., which sent out the postcard with Jane's photo. By the time his phone rang on January 3, 2001, he had been through an emotional roller coaster.
"Detective Barnard called," David testified in Wanda's trial. "I asked if he was sure [it was Jane].... He said he was positive, and I flew to Atlanta."
Until he met the girl at her school that night, David was worried that the tip was false--he couldn't believe he was about to be reunited with his now eight-year-old daughter. "But I heard her laugh, and I knew I had found my daughter again," he says. David and his daughter flew back to Seattle to rebuild their relationship--the two still live in North Seattle, in the apartment Wanda left in 1996.
Like many parents left behind when the other parent abducts their child, David had a lot of catching up to do.
According to the FBI, between 163,200 and 354,100 family abductions happen every year in the United States, compared to less than 4,600 abductions committed by non-family members. The gender split is even--mothers and fathers kidnap their children at roughly equal rates.
It's hard to say how many of those cases are like Wanda's: Many cases turn out to be misunderstandings about when a parent was supposed to return a child after a visitation. A delay of an hour or two can result in an abduction report, even if the child is returned safely. A smaller percentage of parental abductions are more dramatic--some involve overseas abduction, while other parents move to a different state, as Wanda did.
There are "underground" networks around the country that assist parents in hiding out with their children, usually if the network leader believes the child or parent is in danger. One such group, Children of the Underground, is led by a controversial woman named Faye Yager--she claims to have helped hundreds of parents hide their children from the other parent, with the assistance of volunteers.
On the other side of the battle is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a recognized organization that has helped recover thousands of abducted children. Much of their work is done through posters, mailers, and bulletin boards, using photos of missing children. NCMEC says about one in six missing kids featured is recovered.
One of the mailing services NCMEC uses, ADVO, sends photos to nearly 80 million homes each week. Jane was one of the children featured on an ADVO mailer, which included an "age-progressed" photo to show what she might look like four years after her abduction. She is the 108th recovered child since the program started in May 1985. Six abducted children, including Jane, were located through ADVO in 2001.
Wanda was held in the King County Jail while awaiting trial. She posted bail after a few months, and started working at UW again. Her trial, on a felony charge of custodial interference, began in late 2001.
Washington state law permits custodial interference--leaving the state with your child without obtaining the other parent's consent--if either the parent or the child is at risk of "imminent physical harm." At Wanda's trial, the jurors had to decide whether she was, or was about to be, a victim of physical abuse.
Judge Charles Mertel presided over the long trial in his courtroom on the ninth floor of the King County Courthouse. Eight women and four men listened to testimony that stretched out over holidays and weekends. But by the end of deliberations, Wanda's fate seemed to hang on one word: "physical."
Despite domestic violence activists' willingness to believe Wanda's story, there was no evidence that David had ever physically harmed Wanda, their daughter, Jane, Wanda's dog, her son Russell, or anyone else. David has lived in Seattle since the early '90s, and has no criminal record in Seattle or King County. There were no police reports of domestic disturbances or violence, and no evidence that David--his daughter's stay-at-home parent--had ever abused or neglected Jane. Nothing in their past made David appear to be a violent man, a man who would have hurt or killed Wanda when he returned from Michigan. The allegations came down to her word against his.
At the trial, David also claimed that not only was he not abusive, but he stuck by Wanda for years, helping her through periods of emotional distress. "I never threatened to kill Wanda or [Jane]," David said in court when he took the stand. He acknowledged that he may have made threats against the dog, or shouted while angry, but he never would have hurt the pet or his family. "I would describe our relationship, or me, as surviving her depression."
Wanda's three choking claims--the only instances of alleged physical violence, which would have bolstered her case--didn't hold much water. She claims David choked her in the '70s, and says David himself told her about the other two choking incidents, one with Russell and one with her dog.
In a sworn statement about the dog incident, Wanda said David told her he put his hands around the dog's neck "as if to" choke it, during a conversation about how mild-mannered the dog was. On the stand, David recalled the incident--he was roughhousing with the dog when he put his hands around its neck, and noted that the dog didn't get agitated.
In court, Russell didn't back up his mother's claim that David choked him. When Russell was asked to testify to any incidents in which David was physical with him, he did not describe being choked. He did testify about incidents where David was angry with him for using drugs.
I wanted to speak with Russell directly--Wanda insists that he "verified" the choking "out of court"--but she was reluctant to put me in touch with Russell. It fit a pattern: In all of my dealings with Wanda, she was reluctant to put me in touch with people who could verify her story--instead, she pointed me toward domestic violence advocates. She wouldn't share her therapist's actual notes with me, or give me the name of the attorney who told her to leave Washington state. She also sidestepped parts of the story--what life was like in Atlanta, and how her grown children feel about David. All Wanda wanted to discuss was her "abuser" and her victimization at the hands of the King County Prosecutor.
In the end, Wanda did give me Russell's phone number, and I was able to ask him about the choking incident. He says David did "throttle" him when he was 10 or 12 (he also used the word "throttle" in court). Russell, now 35 years old and living in a town just north of Lake Washington, vaguely remembers the situation: He got into a heated discussion in his bedroom with David, who jumped on the bed and "throttled" him.
"It's kind of weird because there's some discrepancy as far as how it came about," Russell told me. "The circumstances surrounding it, she may be mixing them. We're talking about 20-some-odd years [ago] now."
Russell moved away from home when he was 18, but spent a lot of years with Wanda and David. "For the most part I'd just call it a difficult relationship," he said, "[but] I never saw violence from Dave to my mom."
Russell does say he was surprised at the conviction. "I'm not sure why they wouldn't believe her," he said.
King County Prosecutor Stacie Summerhill convinced the jury that Wanda's actions--leaving the state, changing her and Jane's identities, and living in hiding for over four years--weren't justified. Wanda was not a victim of domestic violence, according to the jury; she was a criminal who abducted her child, and unlawfully kept Jane away from her father. The jury's decision rested on the word "physical"--they didn't believe that Wanda was in imminent danger of physical harm when she left with her daughter.
"Ms. Moats could not prove that defense to the satisfaction of the jury," Summerhill says. In court, Summerhill told the judge that it would be more accurate to call David the victim: Wanda had hurt him--not only by taking their daughter, but also by accusing him of being abusive. "He suffered more so than many of the victims this court sees on a daily basis," Summerhill said.
After the trial, I managed to speak with one of the jurors who voted to convict Wanda.
"I think that the fact that she literally disappeared and never contacted him or let him know, some way or another, that they were okay, I think that bothered a lot of people," the female juror said. "David didn't want to lose his daughter either for four years. It is just too bad that they didn't end this relationship years ago, because it's just two people who shouldn't be together."
"We see this often, and it's almost always false," says Bob Karls, director of a Seattle father's rights group called Dads Against Discrimination, referring to the "abuse excuse" used against dozens of fathers his organization has helped in their custody battles. He believes that Wanda Moats was attempting to use domestic violence as a weapon in her fight with David Mattson.
An intake counselor with United Fathers of America (UFA), Greg Seim, agrees. Each day in UFA's Seattle office, he meets with father after father--and many of them are facing allegations of abuse.
"All a woman has to do is say they're afraid of [the father]," Seim says. While Seim doesn't deny that domestic violence does happen--and perpetrators should be held accountable--he says too many men are wrongly accused. Judges go along with the accusations, Seim says, because they don't want to be accused of not believing the women. The same goes for domestic violence advocates.
"They're standing behind [Moats], because if one of these advocates speaks out against her it looks bad," Seim says.
"It's a very biased system," he continues. "There aren't any equal rights when it comes to domestic violence accusations. It's guilty until proven innocent [for fathers]."
Nearly everyone involved in this complex case agrees that Jane is the true victim. Though it's apparent that both parents love their daughter--and both have gone to great lengths for her--neither seems willing to ratchet down the rhetoric for their daughter's sake. David claimed on his website that his greatest wish by going to the police in 1996 was to find his daughter, not to prosecute Wanda. Yet he did aid in Wanda's prosecution once he had his daughter back, and continually calls Wanda "the abductor."
For her part, Wanda continues to call David "my abuser." And Wanda's conversations about the case revolve around her domestic violence defense, and why she thinks she's been screwed over by the system--not her concerns for Jane.
Jane had a court advocate, Joan Ward, who spoke on her behalf at Wanda's sentencing. Ward told the judge about the little girl's side of things, and the importance of rebuilding a relationship with her mother. Almost a year after she was returned to Seattle to live with her father, Jane, now nine years old, was able to see Wanda again--during a supervised visit. Ward described the reunion, which happened under her watch last December.
"[Jane] had gone 11 months without seeing her mother," Ward said. "[The meeting] was very striking--she said she was frightened, up until the moment her mother walked in. Then she said 'Mommy,' ran to her, and threw her arms around her."
"[The child] is so caught in the middle," Ward continued. "She says one thing to her dad and [another] thing to her mother. I don't believe she's getting permission from either parent to love the other."
Dr. Douglas Darnall, author of the book Divorce Casualties, calls this "parental alienation": One parent uses the child against the other parent. In this case, the alienation seems to have gone both ways--Wanda alienated David when she took Jane, and David alienated Wanda once Jane was returned. That reversal is not uncommon in custody situations like this one, Darnall says.
"A lot of times, by the time we see the case come to the court, both parents can be involved in alienating behavior. There've been cases where the abducted child goes against the abductor," Darnall says. "They will describe their behavior as, in effect, rescuing the child. That's a very typical argument that they use, not taking into account the damage they can cause to the child."
From the bench, Judge Mertel said he was looking out for the child when he sentenced Wanda. After hearing from both sides and hearing from Jane's advocate, Mertel pronounced sentence. He had harsh words for Wanda, but he didn't want the girl to go without her mother again--as she did when Wanda served 111 days after she was extradited to Seattle--and so Judge Mertel gave Wanda a suspended sentence. Wanda Moats won't go to jail if she avoids breaking the law. However, she can only have supervised visitation with Jane for the next year.
"She was selfish, and abusive of the father and child. She deceived family and coworkers, and well-intentioned people in Atlanta," said Judge Mertel during sentencing. "I am not persuaded that this woman can be trusted unsupervised with this child."