Alicia Comes Home (Part I)
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."
Pete turns his head away in frustration. "That is absolute hogwash," he says.
"You told everyone she wanted your money," says Yager. "She didn't want your money. She just wanted her kid to be safe."
Pete points his finger directly at Faye, fumbling for the right words. "What gives you the reason to play God?"
This comment garners slight applause, but Sally cuts in, moving the confrontation away from Pete and onto the next dad. Unable to tell his story in full, Pete feels frustrated and cheated.
The Dallas Observer had detailed his eight-year nightmare in December 1993, in a cover story titled, "In the Interest of Alicia." Sitting in the television studio, Pete realized much of the story bore repeating. He wanted viewers from across the country to understand how the legal system was often incapable of handling the hate of its litigants; how the courts and due process sometimes victimize the very children they purport to protect; how an extraordinarily manipulative woman--having been rejected repeatedly by the courts--had turned to emotional abuse, brainwashing, and finally kidnapping to deprive him of his daughter.
Still, Pete got enough of what he wanted: 15 uninterrupted seconds when Alicia's photograph flashed across the screen, burning her image into the minds of six million viewers. Juxtaposed next to Alicia was a photo of Pat and Mark Hall underscored with the plea, "If you have seen this child or her abductors, please call 1-800-843-5678, the hotline for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children."
Maybe now someone would have the courage to step forward. Maybe now his exhaustive search would bring some solid leads. Maybe now someone--somewhere--would help him find his daughter.
It was easy to cast Pat Hope as a gold-digging opportunist. After all, it was a role she played for Pete Connell with rich aplomb.
Born to poverty as one of seven children, raised in a meager two-bedroom house in Pleasant Grove, young Pat quickly acquired a taste for the finer things in life, says her mother Fannie. Yet when Pete Connell met her in 1984, Pat appeared to have satisfied at least some of her materialistic cravings. She drove a Mercedes, lived in a tony Turtle Creek high rise, seemed a savvy, go-getting real-estate broker who knew exactly what she wanted.
According to Connell, what she wanted was him.
Pete was born and raised in Highland Park. He worked in his dad's business, Connell Development, which was experiencing rapid growth during the 1980s boom years. He was mild-mannered, good-natured, and wounded--going through a divorce that just refused to go away. Pete grew infatuated with Pat--her doe-eyed innocence, her wispy voice, her sexy, self-assured demeanor.
Against his lawyer's advice, Pete and Pat began living together and talking about marriage. Pat was so persistent, so persuasive, says one acquaintance, she could talk a preacher out of his collection plate.
Over time, Pete began to sour on the relationship. Pat acted overly possessive, he says, demanding all his attention. She alienated him from his parents and his friends; his two teen-age daughters found her selfish and crassly materialistic.
Whether indecisive or just downright intimidated, Pete didn't tell Pat he wanted out. Before he could summon the courage, Pat had some news for Pete: She was pregnant--and wanted to get married. Pete says he felt trapped, surprised. He told her he needed time to think.
Never one to risk confrontation, Pete gave Pat his answer by mail. "I want my freedom," he wrote. "As far as my responsibility in the future is concerned, you will have my support, and I will gladly be a father to your child."
If Pete thought things were over, he was sorely mistaken. Pat refused to leave his home, changing the locks to buy time until he changed his mind.
But Pete wanted no more of Pat Hope. He tried to have her evicted, but the process took too long. So he broke into his own house and gained the cooperation of a police officer who threatened to arrest Pat for criminal trespass if she didn't leave. Forced out while seven months' pregnant, Pat was filled with hatred for the man who she felt had done her wrong.
Two months later, on November 28, 1985, Pat gave birth to Alicia Louise Hope, refusing to use the Connell name. She had already sued Pete for paternity, claiming she needed child support of $5,000 a month--a figure which, according to Pete's attorney, included the cost of lunching at the Mansion several times a week with her baby girl.
When Judge Don Koons awarded Pat only $1,500 a month in child support, she accused the judge of being in collusion with the Connell clan.
Pete did deny paternity, but only on the advice of his lawyer and only until blood tests proved he was the father. Then, allowed a few short hours with Alicia every month, Pete began bonding with his daughter. Alicia even looked like a Connell: Her cherubic cheeks, broad forehead, and knowing smile endeared her to Pete.
Then in December 1987, after Alicia had turned 2, Pete was allowed to have her for overnight visitation at his home. But Pat refused to let him have her, repeatedly claiming the little girl was sick.
In retaliation, Pete stopped paying child support, but quickly found out the system doesn't work that way. In January 1988, Judge Koons held Pete in contempt for failing to pay child support and Pat in contempt for denying Pete visitation. Both spent a weekend in jail. Pete resumed paying support.
By April 1988, things seemed to have calmed down a bit. Pat had married her third husband, a man she had met at the Prestonwood Baptist Church. Pete became engaged to Kathy Flatt, a woman he had met through his divorce lawyer.
Just days after Alicia's first week-long visitation with Pete, Pat renewed hostilities--with a decidedly dramatic twist. She filed an affidavit in court, swearing that Pete had performed "sexual acts" in front of Alicia. Pat knew this to be true, she alleged, because Alicia was humping and panting and "pulling at her private parts and saying that she hurts. Someone is teaching her terrible things."
During the 1980s, sexual abuse became the allegation du jour in custody cases. A wife who wanted to vent her rage at her husband could holler "child molester," and all visitation would cease. Child Protective Services would step in. A lengthy investigation would ensue. If the child could relate graphic details of abuse well beyond her age and natural experience, she was most often believed. No one wanted to conclude that a mother would put her daughter through the ordeal of videotapes and vaginal exams simply to get even.
The day after Pat filed the affidavit, she took Alicia to the local Child Protective Services office on Maple Avenue, making the same allegations there about her ex-lover. Pat appeared distraught, interested only in protecting her child. Since Alicia was barely verbal, intake workers believed she was too young to interview. Pat would later accuse them of negligence.
Two months later, Pat returned to CPS, telling caseworkers that Alicia had placed Pat's hand between Alicia's legs and said, "rub it." Although the caseworker noted that the referral had "obvious overtones of a custody dispute," Alicia was nonetheless videotaped. When she told the interviewer that "a little person, a boy," had touched her, the case was closed.
Six months later, Pat returned to CPS, again insisting that caseworkers videotape her daughter. At 3 years old, Alicia was chatty and playful. Using anatomically correct dolls, she pointed to the female doll's genitalia and proudly said, almost as if by rote, that someone named Pete had "hurt me right here." Rather than continuing with these dolls, she switched to her own Ken and Barbie dolls, oddly named Pete and Kathy. After she undressed them, she bounced them up and down, and said, "They go like that." At the end of the interview, Alicia asked the caseworker if she had done OK.
Based on this videotape, the caseworker found there was reason to believe that sexual abuse had occurred, and that Pete Connell had been the perpetrator. Pat Hope had her smoking gun. No judge would allow Pete Connell within miles of her daughter.
What Pat hadn't counted on was the testimony of Dr. Clifford Kary, the court-appointed psychologist in the case. He concluded that Pat was suffering from a "Delusional Paranoid Disorder of the persecutory type"--with the theme of her delusional system being the unshakable belief that Pete had sexually abused Alicia. People with her kind of paranoia, said Kary, find conspiracies lurking behind every corner and never cease in their crusade for justice. Apart from these paranoid delusions, however, Pat could seem perfectly normal. Yet if frustrated by the courts, Kary predicted, Pat might try to kidnap Alicia.
As far as the videotape was concerned, Dr. Kary was convinced that Pat had coached Alicia, rehearsing her by using the Barbie dolls. Why else would the child seek the approval of the caseworker after she was interviewed? How else could the child so expertly demonstrate what only months before she had no words for? The psychologist urged the court to strip Pat of primary custody.
For a time, it seemed as though Pat was actively trying to corroborate Dr. Kary's diagnosis. She filed a grievance against Randall Reed, Pete's lawyer, claiming he too might have sexually molested Alicia. She filed a complaint against the Dallas police officer who had investigated the case and had concluded that no abuse occurred. She filed a complaint against Dr. Kary with the state agency regulating psychologists. All would later be cleared of any wrongdoing.
Worried that she might lose Alicia in court, Pat agreed to settle. She withdrew her allegations of sexual abuse, agreed to let Pete have unsupervised visitation, and said she was satisfied Alicia was no longer in danger.
Yet six weeks later, Pat again presented her daughter to CPS for videotaping, claiming that Alicia had told her, "Pete hurt me down there." Although the caseworker refused to videotape Alicia, she chose to err on the side of protecting the child. While submitting "reason to believe findings" that Pete had sexually abused Alicia, she also cited Pat for emotionally abusing her daughter. CPS reviewer Carol Bowdry eventually overturned all findings against Pete. Wrote Bowdry later, "My major concern is that [the mother] is so obsessed with finding something that can bring attention to herself as martyr and victim, this is having a profoundly negative effect on the child's psychological well-being."
By the summer of 1989, Pat was apparently convinced she could get no justice in Dallas County, so she transferred her case to Collin County, where she and her husband then resided. Desperate for money, she offered to settle all existing claims against Pete and the Connell family for $568,000. All Pete had to do was agree never to see Alicia again. He refused.
In March 1990, Pat brought Alicia in for another videotaping, only this time to CPS offices in Collin County. Alicia again reported the usual touching: He "put his finger right there."
Never mind that her vaginal exam revealed no evidence of abuse; never mind that Alicia admitted several times during the interview that her mother had told her what to say. In the interest of protecting the child, the caseworker felt another investigation was warranted. Pat gained another bit of ammunition in her war of attrition against Pete.
On March 22, 1990, after reviewing the videotape, Collin County Judge Nathan White remained uncertain any abuse had occurred. To help him resolve the issue, he convinced both sides to take polygraph tests. The results revealed that both Pete and Kathy were telling the truth when each said they had not sexually abused Alicia. Pat's test disclosed she was lying when asked if she had instructed or influenced Alicia to make sexual abuse "statements" against Pete Connell.
Flunking the polygraph test seemed to have convinced Pat she would lose Alicia in court. She was out of money, had no job, and her third marriage had ended in divorce. She had been through nearly a dozen lawyers--the last of whom was suing her for his fee. She was living an itinerant life with Alicia, depending for a place to stay on the kindness of strangers taken in by her tale of abuse.
On the morning of June 30, 1990, Pat proved Dr. Kary right. She grabbed her 4-year-old daughter, packed up what was left of her possessions--and ran.
Pete felt heartsick when he learned his daughter was gone. He hired private investigator Paul Hulsey to hunt down Pat.
Hulsey is a big, burly Texan, a former police chief from Amarillo, whose fax cover-sheet reads, "A Word from Hulsey International Investigations, 'DON'T EVER GIVE UP!'"
"You give me a name, a date of birth," says the private investigator, "and I can come up with anyone in the country."
It took Hulsey five months to flush Pat out of hiding. "I found her living with a sugar daddy in New Mexico," says Hulsey. "The police picked her up in Phoenix as she was making a run for California."
In Pat's absence, Judge White had awarded Pete full custody of Alicia. But the war was far from over. When Pat returned to Texas, she began to wage her crusade with a freshly righteous zeal. She filed motions with Judge White to gain unsupervised access to her daughter. Denied. She filed motions to modify custody, again alleging sexual abuse. Denied. On January 4, 1991, Judge White sentenced Pat to 30 days in jail for violating his orders by fleeing the jurisdiction with Alicia. She also faced a criminal charge: interference with child custody. That would be left for another day and another court.
Before Pat served her time, she met someone new at the Prestonwood Baptist Church. His name was Mark Hall.
Mark was an oafish-looking, well-spoken man of 34, divorced and living with his mother and his young son in Carrollton. A former minister, he once taught at a Christian school in Japan and now sold real estate. Mark fell prey to Pat's tale of woe. He says he wanted to help her.
A week after Pat's release from jail, Mark told his mother Kay that he was going to marry Pat Hope. It was the Christian thing to do, he explained; it would give Pat the appearance of stability and make her look better in court. Kay Hall was horrified at her son's gullibility, at the mesmerizing power this woman held over him.
Although Mark had never been a political man, he announced his candidacy for the Carrollton City Council within six weeks of his marriage to Pat. Some acquaintances suspected this was all Pat's doing, her way of advancing her personal agenda. Pat proved a ruthless campaigner, even stooping to play the race card against Mark's black female opponent. Although Mark lost by a narrow margin, he endeared himself to the Christian Right with his stand on family values.
When Hall ran again in 1992, he gained the active endorsement of conservative church groups who touted him as a "true Christian man." This time he narrowly won.
The campaign trail did little to distract Pat from her real mission: getting her daughter back. Crossing liberal lines, she enlisted the help of the National Organization for Women to picket the Collin County Courthouse. She passed out handbills at the Byron Nelson Golf Tournament accusing Judge White of being financially involved with the Connells. Her court allegations grew decidedly more bizarre. She claimed Pete and Kathy had exploited Alicia through pornography; that Kathy had taught Alicia how to masturbate; that Pete had physically abused Alicia; that the Connells were engaging in satanic rituals. As always, the new allegations were investigated and ruled unfounded or thrown out of court.
Although Pat beat the criminal charge for interference with child custody--the jury believed that Pat was operating under the reasonable belief that she needed to protect her child--the civil court was not nearly so merciful. Judge White denied Pat overnight visitation with Alicia, allowing Pat to see her daughter only in the presence of an armed guard.
Except for these supervised visits with her mother, for the next two years, Alicia led the normal life of a little girl. Pete and Kathy rented a house in Denton, where they enrolled Alicia in ballet classes, bought her a horse, and taught her to ride. Pete coached Alicia's soccer team. From all appearances, Alicia seemed happy and trusting--amazingly unscarred by the insidious battle between her parents.
Still, Alicia loved her mother and asked to spend more time with her. Although Pete wanted to give his daughter what she wanted, he worried that Pat would resort to her old ways. Pat's new lawyer, a senior litigator in a major downtown firm, offered a guarantee that he would personally pay the cost of finding Pat if she again ran. All Pete had to do was drop the armed-guard requirement, and seven years of hostilities would cease.
In December 1992, Pete finally acquiesced, but he wanted to see how things progressed before he allowed overnight visitation. For the next six months, visitation went without incident. Pat always returned Alicia at the appointed time. The truce seemed to be holding.
On June 13, 1993, at 8:30 a.m., Mark Hall appeared at Pete's door to collect Alicia for church services and a day with her mother. Alicia, dressed in her Sunday best, hugged Mark and skipped to her mom, sitting in the back seat of the couple's station wagon. As the car pulled away, Pete waved goodbye to Alicia.
He never dreamed that he was saying goodbye to his daughter for years.
Private investigator Paul Hulsey was back on the case, with Pat's embarrassed attorney paying his fee--at least for a while.
Pat and Mark had disappeared, taking not only Alicia--for whom Pat had no overnight visitation rights--but Mark's 7-year-old son Jonathan, in defiance of the visitation schedule awarded to the boy's mother.
The day after Pat and Mark disappeared, Hulsey went to look for clues at the Halls' home in Carrollton. There he met Dan Hall, Mark's brother, who had received a letter from Mark which began, "By the time you get this, God willing, we will be safe in the underground."
Based on information found at the house, Hulsey determined that Faye Yager and the Children of the Underground had aided Pat and Mark in their flight. They were probably being hidden at one of Yager's so-called safe houses: a motel, farm, a back room, anyplace that could offer sanctuary and anonymity while the heat was on.
Hulsey concluded that the Halls had been planning their getaway for nearly two years. Mark had filed for bankruptcy in January 1993; he hadn't made a mortgage payment in more than 17 months. The couple had sold all their furniture to an estate dealer for $3,100--but took all of Alicia's things with them.
Inside the house, Hulsey found two interesting clues: one was a scrap of paper on which was written, "Dominican Republic." Another was a business card which listed the address of a man living in the Central American country of Belize. Dan Hall told Hulsey that his brother and Pat had vacationed in Belize just a few months earlier. Mark had said he had met an American couple there who offered him a job. Says Hulsey, "I knew Mark wanted to be a missionary, and Pat loved to go to church to meet her suckers. With the information that I had, I figured they might turn up doing missionary work in Belize."
In August 1993--after Alicia had been gone for two months--Hulsey flew to Belize City. He spent about two rain-soaked weeks there, making contacts, going to Baptist missions, papering the jungle and beach terrain with bulletins containing the photos, habits, and identifying characteristics of Alicia and her abductors. The bulletin offered a reward; caution was advised. Hulsey also combed missionary areas in Guatemala and tracked a possible sighting of Mark Hall to a remote Honduran island. The lead netted a man who looked like Mark--tall, overweight, scared--but it turned out to be another American fugitive. Hulsey returned to the States empty-handed.
Back in Collin County, Faye Yager made her involvement in Alicia's abduction a matter of public record. She notified the court clerk that the Halls had granted her power of attorney and she wished to be informed of all court dates regarding Alicia. On October 26, 1993, she wrote a letter to attorney Bette Ann Caton, the guardian appointed to represent Alicia's interests. After likening Judge White to Hitler, Yager declared, "It is my pleasure to announce that she [Alicia] is as happy as a pig in the sunshine. On her special list of places that she does not want to go is Hell and Texas." The letter was accompanied by a videotape of Alicia repeating, in a bored manner, the same overly rehearsed litany of abuse allegations that had obsessed her mother since Alicia was 2.
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