By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The cloyingly heartfelt sound of new-age music swells in the background as the credits brashly announce the topic for the day's show: "Help! My Daughter's Been Kidnapped."
Sally Jessy Raphael's nasal voice rises over the music as images of girls playing with their fathers flood the screen. "Today," says the host, "we are going to hear from three dads who say they are devastated because their little girls are missing. But it is not as simple as all that. The little girls were kidnapped by their mothers and taken underground where they are living as fugitives running from the law."
Sally introduces each of the men, one of whom is Pete Connell, Dallas real-estate developer, husband, and father of 10-year-old Alicia Connell--whereabouts unknown. Pete has dressed corporate for the occasion: dark blue suit, white shirt, and striped tie. His posture is uncomfortably erect, his breathing labored, his blue eyes opened wide like a deer stunned by the headlights of an oncoming car.
Although friends had discouraged Pete from appearing on the tabloid talk show last December, he felt he was running out of options. Every lead he had followed had come up empty; every letter he had written had met with bureaucratic resistance; every interview he had granted had netted nothing new. After two-and-a-half years, Alicia's trail had grown old and cold.
On June 13, 1993, Alicia's mother, Pat Hall, had kidnapped Alicia, taking her into hiding after losing a vicious seven-year custody battle. In making her escape, Pat received the assistance of a notorious advocacy organization known as Children of the Underground. Pat's husband, Carrollton City Councilman Mark Hall, had gone underground with them, vanishing with his own 7-year-old son, Jonathan.
Now, Pete began by telling the audience his story: how in 1984, he became romantically involved with Pat Hall, whom he got pregnant but didn't want to marry; how he still wanted to be father to their baby, but Pat tried to deny him visitation; how, when Alicia was 2 years old and Pete became engaged to his current wife, Kathy, "allegations of sexual abuse came on the scene."
"But these things were thrown out of court?" asks Sally, as if knowing the answer.
"Absolutely," says Pete, sounding more confident. "Every expert...says that Alicia was coached, that there was never any sexual abuse whatsoever, and I was awarded custody." Pete starts to explain how Alicia had been kidnapped from his home, the only stable environment she had ever known. But as he continues, the screen splits in two, revealing an attractive, middle-aged woman in a red dress, shaking her head in disbelief.
The woman is Faye Yager, the founder of Children of the Underground. Her Atlanta group claims to have helped more than 3,000 parents hide out with their children, often in defiance of the law. She provides these parents with new identities, escape routes, a network of safe houses for them to hide across the world.
Pete knew that Yager would be on the show. He can barely contain his anger at the prospect of confronting his nemesis.
But Yager is good. She has a certain country-fried charm which plays well with the audience as she relates her own personal tragedy: Her ex-husband molested her daughter for years while the legal system did nothing. Forced to take matters into her own hands, Yager disappeared with her own daughter. After being caught, Yager went to jail and lost custody. Her husband was later convicted of molesting other children. Now, Yager explains, she has made it her life's mission to help others who claim their children have been abused.
The audience applauds loudly.
After a commercial break, Sally asks Faye pointedly: "Did you hide Pete Connell's daughter and her mother Pat?"
"Yes, I did," beams Faye.
Pete's face flushes red with anger, but he tries to compose himself before speaking. "Faye, you have not spent any time investigating my case. You have not talked to one expert in my case. You have not talked to the Department of Human Services...the social worker...the psychologist." He sounds logical, thoughtful. "Everybody sees it different than you do. Please come to Dallas. Be my guest. Talk to these people. Look them in the eyes."
Quickly turning prickly, Yager cuts Pete off.. "I'm going to look you in the eyes and I am going to tell you flat out. You forgot to tell this audience that there is a founded case of sexual abuse made by the State of Texas against this man when the child was only 2-and-a-half years old."
Many in the audience gasp, as if Pete has suddenly betrayed them.
Seizing the moment, Yager lets more accusations fly, telling how Pete kicked Pat out of his house when she was eight months' pregnant, how he even contested paternity. "Then he sits up here like Daddy Lovely," sneers Yager. "There's a whole notebook here of Daddy Lovely."
She holds up a notebook and waves it around. The audience wildly applauds her attack. This is the stuff of TV talk shows.
"Let's talk about the truth!" counters Pete.
Faye interrupts him again, scowling fiercely as she speaks. "Why, you got enough money to buy Dallas. He told her that."