By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Their life together ended when the authorities stumbled upon them by accident. A CPS worker was investigating an unrelated case when she happened upon Jimmy's day care. The investigator ran all the children's names through a computer and Jimmy's name came up as having been abducted four years earlier by his father. Pennsylvania authorities had issued a warrant for Carpenter's arrest.
Foard County Sheriff Bobby Bond, who knew Carpenter and Jimmy, reluctantly arrested Carpenter. "It was a hard thing to do," Bond says. "I know he took good care of the kid. He was always with the boy when he wasn't working. He was a good, hardworking guy who never caused any trouble."
In her investigative report, a CPS caseworker, who accompanied Bond to pick up Carpenter and Jimmy, wrote: "Mr. Carpenter started explaining to Jimmy that they have been found out and that he would be going to live with foster parents until his mother came to pick him up. Jimmy started crying and at one point ran and hid under a table in the bedroom."
Initially stunned, the community rallied to Carpenter's defense. They raised money for his legal defense and for his fight to regain custody of Jimmy, according to newspaper accounts in the Foard County News. A Pennsylvania court awarded Carpenter's wife full custody and found Carpenter guilty of custodial interference--a third-degree felony. He got a seven-year probated sentence.
Carpenter has not seen his son since, though they talk frequently and exchange letters and pictures.
With his son gone, Ron Carpenter began reading about child-custody issues and how parents frequently level false charges of child abuse in order to win custody. He was convinced by his experience that custody issues needed to be taken out of an adversarial arena.
With the help of Paul Shaffer, a Crowell resident with a background in computers who had helped him fight for his son, Carpenter set about trying to bring together various organizations that were fighting to change the system--including Fathers United for Equal Rights and Victims of Child Abuse Laws (VOCAL)--to create a national group that he and Shaffer founded and named Justice in Child Custody Inc. They felt they would be more successful if they presented a united front.
Carpenter collected mailing lists from other organizations, put in an 800 number, and began contacting members of assorted groups from around the country. One person he reached was a divorcee who lived in a small town in Indiana. She was listed as being a member of a VOCAL chapter in her town. In truth, she was the entire chapter.
The woman's name was Sue Ellen Everitt. Friends called her Shallin. Shallin was trying to fight her former father-in-law--a retired judge--for custody of her two sons, one of whom he had recently placed in foster care. CPS had removed them from Shallin's care amid allegations of neglect and alcoholism. Shallin denied the allegations.
Carpenter and Everitt talked almost nightly for several months. They were falling in love even before he finally met her. He brought her back to Texas where they married.
For a while, Shallin, a registered medical assistant, worked in the Crowell Nursing Center. But what she yearned for was to be a full-time mother to a houseful of children. Autumn was born in early October 1993 and Shallin quit her job to care for her daughter. Despite her physician's advice that her heart was too weak to withstand another pregnancy, Shallin got pregnant again, this time with twins. In her 20th week, her dream of a life among children ended when she died from a heart attack.
Carpenter was working two shifts for the city when his wife died. He cut back to one so he could spend more time with Autumn to help her through the tragedy.
Last spring, he left Crowell figuring if he moved to a bigger city, he could get retraining and find a job that would make him more money--or at least enough that he could forgo a second job and spend more time with Autumn.
He and Autumn moved to Dallas last April. For the first month they stayed with Carpenter's old friend Paul Shaffer and his wife, who had moved to Dallas in 1993. "I should have been such a father," says Shaffer of Carpenter. "He doted on that little girl."
Carpenter got a job as a maintenance man for the Diamond Ridge apartments at Buckner Boulevard and Loop 12. He was making $7 an hour, almost double his salary in Crowell. He found a two-bedroom apartment in Garland. He scrambled for childcare; all he could afford was with mostly Spanish-speaking women in the complex who watched children in their apartments.
Carpenter and Autumn settled into a nice routine. Autumn loved to climb on his lap after dinner and look at pictures of her mother that he had scanned into his computer. A few times, Carpenter took Autumn to Crowell to place flowers on her mother's grave. Autumn finally was beginning to understand that her mother was not coming back.
In late August, Carpenter received a letter from the Department of Human Services informing him that because his income had increased, his food stamps and Medicaid benefits would stop at the end of October.