By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In the midst of this five-month struggle, Carpenter came to the conclusion that it was the police, not he, who had knowingly endangered his daughter. In an affidavit, one of the undercover police officers wrote that they took Cathy White and Autumn out on drug buys on two separate occasions, a week apart. Carpenter argues that the police had an obligation to alert him that his daughter was in danger after the first incident.
Carpenter's fight for the return of his daughter was a battle he believes he never should have had to fight. But it was a battle he was determined not to lose. As he tried to tell caseworker Anderson during their phone conversation, which is duly noted in her affidavit, "Autumn," he says, "is all I have left."
On a Sunday in early March, Ron Carpenter filled the hours during which he once used to take Autumn to the park building her a wooden canopy bed. In anticipation of her someday soon getting to sleep in it, he carefully stitched the blue and pink canopy. On the headboard he painted balloons and hand-lettered Autumn's name inside them--"without stencils," he says proudly.
Carpenter is a small, intense man, a nonstop talker who recites whole passages--literally chapter and verse--from the Texas Family Code in an effort to show how child-welfare workers did him wrong. It was coincidence that White's arrest put Carpenter at odds with the child-protection system because he had clashed with the system before and had, for a time, been an activist for changing it.
He is also a man who is honest about his shortcomings, including being extremely abrasive when dealing with officials.
A psychologist who conducted a CPS-required psychological evaluation of Carpenter found him to be "arrogant, conceited, stubborn, and overly suspicious."
But Tedford was careful to add in his report that none of these irritating attributes would prevent Carpenter "from being a good parent." Tedford says he could understand how the stress of recent months may have exacerbated some of Carpenter's traits, particularly paranoia. "It's like the old saying," he says. "Even paranoids have real enemies."
As far as Carpenter is concerned, he's got only one enemy: the child-protection system. "It is a system that assumes without evidence, that accuses instead of investigates," says Carpenter. "It is a system that has total immunity, that is accountable to no one. Child abuse is a horrible thing. But because of the hysteria surrounding it, we have a system that commits child abuse in the name of protecting children."
In this system, Carpenter says, he has encountered caseworkers and police who treated him as guilty until proven innocent, a judge who refused to hear anything he had to say, a guardian ad litem--a lawyer appointed to represent the interests of his daughter--who didn't do anything in the case except pull down a paycheck.
"I may have had bad judgment in hiring Cathy White," says Carpenter. "But since when is having bad judgment a crime? When the police accused child-care workers in the McMartin Day Care Center in California of child abuse, did they blame the parents for putting their children there?
"All I am guilty of," he says, "is being lied to by my baby sitter."
Ron Carpenter's past is littered with three failed marriages and an ugly custody battle that resulted in a felony conviction.
In the early 1980s, Carpenter was living in Indiana, Pennsylvania, a small town near Pittsburgh, when he met his third wife, Patricia. She was working at a pizza restaurant near the window factory where Carpenter worked.
They married in 1984 and their son, Jimmy, was born a year later. By then their marriage was on shaky ground. "Her parents and I didn't get along well either," he says. "They were the country-club set and I was a mill hand."
The couple separated when Jimmy was a year old. Their divorce was final several months later, and Carpenter's wife, now a student, gave him primary custody.
But soon the situation soured. Without Carpenter's knowledge, his ex-wife asked the court to give her primary custody. She told the judge that Carpenter had genital herpes which could pose a danger to her son. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
The judge ordered temporary joint custody until a full hearing could be heard, according to Carpenter.
Carpenter feared a protracted custody battle would ensue. He was running out of money for lawyers, while his wife's attorney was hired by her family. "I could see that eventually they would prevent me from having any contact with my son," he says.
So he gathered up his son and ran. "At the time, I thought what I was doing was right for my son," he says. "But I know I did my ex-wife a great wrong."
Carpenter and Jimmy settled in Crowell, Texas, a farm and ranching town of 1,230 in West Texas--80 miles from Wichita Falls. For the next four years they lived a quiet country life in a community where everyone knew everyone else--or thought they did. Carpenter got a job as a trash collector and his son was looked after by a woman who offered day care in her home.