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Alicia Comes Home (Part II)

On November 3, 1993, both the letter and the tape were introduced as further evidence for terminating forever Pat Hope-Hall's parental rights. Court-appointed social worker Paula Everett and Carol Bowdry, a retired CPS administrative reviewer, both urged this harsh remedy.

Bowdry described Pat's relationship with Alicia as "toxic." She testified Pat was turning her daughter into a "chronic victim." Moreover, Pete Connell had never fit the profile of a pedophile. He had two grown daughters who had never been sexually abused; there were no multiple victims; and there was not even an accusation of a progression of abuse with Alicia.

Judge White concluded that "Pat Hall had knowingly...endangered the emotional well-being of the child." He terminated her parental rights.

But with Alicia missing, it was an empty victory. Hulsey was still out there searching, speaking with Pete on a daily basis, trying to determine the most efficient allocation of their limited resources. Together they would evaluate whether something that appeared to be a genuine lead was really misinformation put out there by Faye or Pat, some cagey rabbit trail designed to throw them off track. Hulsey spent a lot of time in Atlanta, setting up a surveillance of Faye Yager, gathering intelligence on her organization and its supporters, while trying to infiltrate it anyway he could.

In December 1993, he got a call from a contact in Belize: There had been a sighting of two adults and two children who matched the description of the Halls. Hulsey caught the next flight for Belize, spent a week tracking down a van with Texas plates, but only found a frightened Mennonite couple camping in the jungle with their two children. He had reached another long-distance dead end.

Back in the States, Hulsey set up surveillances at safe houses in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia. Through binoculars, he observed children at play in backyards and trailer parks, but none of them was Alicia. Hulsey thought he had hit upon a strong lead when he was "querying his computer" for social security numbers and Mark Hall's number turned up in Northern Virginia. Further investigation revealed a Mark Hall who was an assistant pastor in a Baptist church in Ashburn, Virginia, with Hall's same date of birth and same middle name.

Hulsey told Pete Connell he believed he had found his man. Together, Pete and Hulsey flew to Virginia, hoping to make a positive identification. Hiding in some nearby bushes, they set up a surveillance on the man's house, but even from a distance, they could tell he was much slighter than Mark. Up close, he didn't resemble Hall in the least.

Pete returned to Dallas frustrated and low, but refused to give up his search. "I never stopped thinking about Alicia," he says. "Most days you carry on OK, but there is always this low-grade sadness. I always wondered, 'What does she look like now? Is she happy? Healthy? Does she remember the love and caring she had in our home?'"

Each day at the office Pete spent hours on the phone, networking with other dads who had lost their children to Faye Yager. He wrote countless letters to members of Congress, the director of the FBI, to prosecutors within the Justice Department. Most wrote back with an institutional "we're doing everything we can" response. "Frankly," Pete complained in a letter to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, "the authorities treat this as a domestic problem rather than a real kidnapping."

It galled Pete that Faye Yager knew exactly where Alicia was being hidden, yet somehow remained above the law. Why hadn't her house been searched, her files seized? Certainly there was probable cause for both.

In April 1994, Yager appeared on the Leeza Gibbons Show and featured Alicia's abduction as one of her success stories.

Law enforcement seemed too meek to take her on. A three-week trial of Yager in 1990 on a kidnapping charge had produced a not-guilty verdict, and prosecutors seemed wary of moving prematurely against Yager again.

Growing desperate, Pete decided to finance a sting operation of his own, hoping to lure Pat out of hiding. He hired Ron Williams (not his real name), a Washington lobbyist living in Dallas, to contact Yager in Atlanta. Attempting to gain her confidence, Ron pretended he was a great admirer of her crusade for children, that he pedaled enough influence in Washington to further her cause in Congress. During their several meetings in Atlanta, he said he had contacts in Hollywood and knew a producer who wanted to make a movie about her life. The problem was, the producer wanted a first-person account from someone actually on the run. Ron said he had seen the Leeza Gibbons Show and felt that Pat Hall's story would be perfect for their project.

 

Williams gave Faye his 800 number which, unknown to Faye, was answered by a machine that could trace incoming calls. He urged Faye to get Pat to call him so they could hook up with his producer.

A master at confounding desperate dads, Faye was too suspicious: She sensed she was being conned. "I just played right along with him and spent his money," says Yager. "That man got only three pieces of meat from me: a hot tongue, a cold shoulder, and a hard time." Pat never phoned.

In March 1995, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit agency partly funded by the Justice Department, mailed postcards bearing Alicia's photograph to 57 million households across the country. The white rectangular cards contained Alicia's vital statistics, abduction facts, and a toll-free contact number. The center estimated that one in seven Americans would see Alicia's photo, if only for a second.

Within weeks, Pete received over 250 fresh leads from individuals who felt they might have seen Alicia. Hulsey and Connell sorted through them all before focusing on 15 possible sightings. Hulsey contacted private investigators in each of these areas. Pete offered each a reward of $2,500 upon "the finding and safe return of Alicia Connell to her biological father."

None of the leads panned out.
Undaunted, Pete tried to turn up the publicity. He had already contacted 20/20, Dateline NBC, Nightline, and Unsolved Mysteries. Although 20/20 expressed some interest, each program ultimately declined, feeling the story either wasn't newsworthy or had already been done.

By networking with another dad whose daughter had been taken underground, Pete did manage to connect with a writer from Men's Health magazine doing a piece on Faye Yager. The writer flew to Dallas and spent several days with Pete, then interviewed Yager in Atlanta. When the story ran in October 1995, it portrayed Pete as the innocent victim of Yager's blind obsession.

The story generated enough national exposure to interest Holly Jacobs, a producer with The Sally Jessy Raphael Show. Jacobs asked Pete to be part of a panel of fathers whose children had been kidnapped. Faye Yager would also be a guest.

Pete realized that tabloid talk shows often build drama by creating hostile confrontations and that fickle audiences take the side of guests who scream the loudest, cry the hardest, and cut the quickest. But he figured he had little to lose. At the least, he would look Faye Yager in the eye and tell her she was dead wrong about him. Millions of viewers would see Alicia's photograph.

Although the show was taped in December, the program didn't air until January 26, 1996.

By 5:07 p.m. that day, a phone counselor at the hotline for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported receiving a tip on Alicia Connell from a person who had seen the broadcast while vacationing in New York:

A woman called. She says she knows the child and her mother but didn't want to leave any information. She wanted to know if the father was abusive. She said she would have to pray about it with her husband before she decided to tell us where the child is. She said she will call us back if she thinks it is necessary. She said the child is OK and in school so the father shouldn't worry about her. I think the caller really does know the child. She didn't sound like a prank. She sounded very serious.

At 12:46 p.m. the next day, the woman contacted the hotline again. This time, she claimed that she worked with Alicia's parents. Based on the information she provided, the hotline categorized the tip as a bona fide lead:

The caller...said they lived in Santiago, Dominican Republic, with the child and the suspects. The caller said the child and the suspects have been in that country for about two-and-a-half years, but they have only been in Santiago for about a year. The suspects run a school named Trinitaria. The school is four-stories high and the suspects and the child live on the top floor. The school is in a neighborhood called the Barrio Villa Olga.

On January 29, FBI Special Agent Dennis McCormick, based in Plano, notified Pete Connell. "We have a pretty good lead," McCormick said. Pete says he tried to remain "guardedly excited," but from the information they were receiving, "it just had to be them!"

Many pieces suddenly fit together: Mark Hall had once been the principal of a Christian school in Japan; the man who called himself Jos Batista was now the principal of a Christian school in the Dominican Republic. Pete also recalled the slip of paper with the words "Dominican Republic" scrawled on it--the one Hulsey had found at Pat's house after the kidnapping. Ironically, this was the lead not followed. More significantly, Pete had not even mentioned Mark's son on The Sally Jessy Raphael Show, and yet the anonymous caller had reported that a young boy named Jonathan Batista was also living with Mark and Pat in Santiago.

 

In the heat of the moment, Pete considered orchestrating Alicia's recapture himself--some kind of commando raid on the Santiago school, à la Ross Perot. When Pete's head cooled, he decided on a more reasonable course of action and began working with the FBI.

Unlike the United States, the Dominican Republic is not a signatory of the Hague Treaty and thus is under no obligation to honor outstanding arrest warrants from other countries. Moreover, Mark and Pat had become Dominican citizens--albeit fraudulently--so diplomatic channels would have to be opened.

On Friday, February 2, the FBI's McCormick phoned Pete to say everything was in place and that Pete "absolutely needed" to be in Puerto Rico on Sunday. Together with his father, George T. Connell, Pete flew to San Juan, checked into the Hotel Pierre--and started waiting.

On Sunday evening, Pete met with Special Agent Jose Figeroa, the FBI liaison to the Dominican Republic. Figeroa laid out his plans: After meeting with Dominican officials on Monday afternoon, he hoped to be in Santiago by Tuesday morning to witness the Dominican police making the arrest. All Pete could do was sit by the phone and wait. When Alicia was securely in U.S. custody, the FBI would notify him.

For most of Monday and Tuesday, Pete stared anxiously at the phone, but the call he wanted didn't come. The Dominicans were dragging their feet, he was told, and the U.S. ambassador would have to intercede to get things moving again. Pete spent all day Wednesday cloistered in his hotel room, making small talk with his dad, looking at old photos of Alicia, and remembering better days.

At 7:30 p.m. that evening, the phone rang. It was the FBI.
They had Alicia.
She was safe and in their custody, on board a flight bound for San Juan. Mark and Pat had been arrested but were still with Alicia, as was Jonathan. They would be separated once the flight had landed. A car was on its way to pick Pete up at the hotel.

Once at the gate, Pete stayed out of view. He didn't want to risk a confrontation. Anxiously, he watched as Alicia got off the plane. He was amazed at how much she had grown--how frightened and tentative she looked.

Mark Hall looked frazzled, his dark eyes hollow and sad. Pat looked "just about the same," said Pete.

The FBI escorted the Halls to U.S. Customs, where they were informed that Pete was there to take Alicia home. Both began to scream at once: "Don't give Alicia to Pete Connell! He is a sex abuser! He is a sex abuser!"

Alicia heard them yelling before a man from San Juan Child Protective Services whisked her away. The caseworker interviewed Alicia, who repeated the preprogrammed allegations of abuse that she had been dutifully voicing for eight years.

Obviously troubled, the caseworker walked over to Pete, who had yet to make his presence known to his daughter. Pete was prepared for this. He had brought along certified copies of Judge White's order, which stated that Pete had never sexually abused Alicia and that Pat had, in fact, "influenced, trained or directed Alicia to make false allegations of sexual abuse." The caseworker made the spot decision that this was a "classic coached situation" and went back to get Alicia.

As Alicia approached her father, she was staring at her feet, appearing shy and afraid. Finally, she looked up at him. Her eyes brightened, her face warmed, and her arms reached up to hug him tightly. Then, softly, for the first time in two-and-a-half years, she said, "Hi, Dad."

Local press coverage of Alicia's return to her natural father focused on the arrest of former Carrollton City Councilman Mark Hall on a charge of interference with child custody. Several Dallas Morning News stories romanticized his secret life on the run with Pat, treating their abduction of Alicia--and the largely ignored Jonathan--as an act bordering on the heroic.

Mark granted several interviews from his San Juan jail cell while awaiting extradition to Denton County. Bible clutched in hand, he praised God's law yet seemed clueless about the legal consequences of breaking man's law. He had no idea that he had already lost custody of his own son, who was being returned to his mother in Tennessee. He said he hoped the whole affair with Alicia could be settled out of court, and wished his wife--who had married him on Valentine's Day--a happy anniversary.

 

Pat Hall refused to be interviewed, spending her time in jail using the one weapon she had at her disposal: the telephone. Frantically, she phoned her mother-in-law, her brother-in-law, anyone who might accept her collect calls. Dan Hall, who has always blamed Pat for his brother's troubles, recalls his shock when he received his "marching orders" from Pat on his answering machine:

This is Patricia Hall. I am trying to get Dr. Clayton Bell [minister at Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas] to negotiate all this out of court, and I am going to give you his telephone number. Please give him all the facts. He is the brother-in-law of Billy Graham. He is a big, big Christian man. Basically what I am offering to settle is joint custody between me and Pete, where I would have equal rights to Alicia and be able to travel throughout the world with her. Alicia lives with us in Santiago, Dominican Republic, during the school year. We would bring Alicia back to Dallas from July 1 to July 31 for Pete Connell and his family to visit with her. The Connells could come and visit Alicia any time in the Dominican Republic and stay at our home and be treated as family.

We want to glorify God in this and just try to work everything out. I am not interested in proving that he sexually abused Alicia or he did not. God knows what happened. Alicia knows what happened. And we just hope that everything can work out and any kind of hostility would just stop for Alicia's sake. We request that all legal actions against Mark Hall individually from the State of Texas be dropped and all legal actions against Pat Hall be dropped. They may say they can't do it, but yes, they can. They have bought off everyone in the State of Texas and the State of Texas will do whatever they say to do.

Perhaps it took a few more phone calls for Pat Hall to realize that she was no longer negotiating from a position of strength.

Her parental rights had been terminated. She had little money. And she no longer had Alicia. The Denton County district attorney intended to seek a high bond to keep her in jail. And federal officials were contemplating filing federal kidnapping charges against her.

By the time she phoned Jean Connell, Pete's mother, Pat was bordering on hysterics: "Mrs. Connell, Mrs. Connell!" She was crying into the phone: "I am so sorry, sorry, very sorry. Please tell Pete to forgive me! Tell Mr. Connell to forgive me! Ask Kathy to forgive me!"

"I finally told her," recalls Alicia's grandmother, "that it was not within my power to forgive her. That would be entirely up to Pete."

Although Pete Connell is not a vindictive man, he believes that justice for Pat Hall, Mark Hall, and even Faye Yager is long overdue. He has suffered the scorn of being branded a child molester, felt ostracized by a community that hasn't taken the time to understand his case, and spent 10 years and a quarter of a million dollars for a single purpose that other men take for granted: to have a normal relationship with his little girl.

Faye Yager, of course, sees matters from her own myopic perspective.
"All these years, he's been out to win a game against Pat Hall," Yager insists. It's Pete who's responsible for depriving Alicia of a loving parent, she declares. "You can bet your bottom dollar that when the girl turns 18, she won't have anything to do with him. She'll never forgive him for taking her away from mom."

Alicia Connell, now 10 years old, sits astride her horse, Tonto, on a windy Sunday afternoon in late February, a bit suspicious of a stranger asking questions. Ten days after her return to Texas, she seems sharp, happy, and alert--ready to ride all day long if her stepmother, Kathy, will let her. Alicia doesn't mention her own mother--other than to say that her mom was wrong to take her away from people who love her.

Pete realizes that Alicia will have to deal with her past in therapy: to separate fact from fiction, mom's reality from dad's, unconditional love from unconditional hate. He can't take his eyes off his daughter, as if constantly needing to make certain she is still there.

He is proud of what he can provide her: 16 acres of rolling farmland in Denton where he plans to build a new home this summer among the tall oak trees, a loving stepmother, two caring older sisters, and doting grandparents who would like nothing better than to spoil their youngest grandchild.

 

A mile from the farm is the elementary school Alicia attends--just a bicycle ride away on a warm spring day.

Pete worries that all this freedom will be lost to Alicia if Pat Hall doesn't stay behind bars. And on February 23, 1996, at 6:30 a.m., his worst fears were realized. A TV reporter woke him from a sound sleep with the news: Pat and Mark Hall had just been released from the Denton jail on bonds of $3,500 each.

Two days earlier, a Denton County judge had set bond on the pair--reasonably viewed as a flight risk--at $100,000 each. Citing a paperwork foul-up, the Denton County sheriff would claim no knowledge of these higher bonds on his infamous prisoners. The embarrassed sheriff reissued arrest warrants for Mark and Pat, and dispatched four officers to find them.

Within minutes of her release, Pat Hall had phoned Pete Connell at his home. "Hi Pete, how are you today?" she asked glibly, as though a decade of bitter conflict didn't exist. "We need to talk."

"There's nothing to talk about," shouted Pete, before slamming down the phone.

With Pat on the loose, Pete kept Alicia home from school. Pat and Mark would be re-arrested later that day at a friend's home in Carrollton.

Once again, Pete had been forced to consider his options. Would he need a protective order? An adult to supervise Alicia at all times? An armed guard?

"It makes me sick to think about," says Pete Connell. "But if Pat doesn't stay in prison, then Alicia may feel like she's in one.


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