The Lost Girl

Experience has made Haifa Bale tough. She can speak about being beaten by her first husband, about being separated from her sick mother, about being denied access to her native country, and about the grim reality of living through an arranged marriage without any self-pity. She won't cry until she speaks about the last time she saw her daughter, more than three years ago, as Haifa was getting dropped off at Dillard's for work.

"I gave her a kiss, and then I thought, 'I'm going to give her another kiss,'" says Haifa, her eyes welling with uncharacteristic tears. "I just thought I may never see her again." The words are choked with a sob.

Seated next to Haifa in their Garland home is her second husband, Scott Bale. His hand slides out to her knee, providing comfort through simple contact. He was in the car that day, driving Haifa to work and returning home to baby-sit her child. June 8, 1997, is a day Scott Bale would be destined to replay in his mind like a child's favorite video, the day 4-year-old Bara'ah Jridi was taken from him by force, whisked to Jordan by her natural father before Dallas police even got around to taking Bale's statement.

The 29-year-old mother also replays the day her daughter was kidnapped, starting with the nightmares that have become in her mind eerie premonitions of the abduction: "I had a dream that he [ex-husband Ahmad Jridi] came to our house. He took a shower and told me he wanted to get something that belonged to him, some shorts or something."

The dream unbalanced Haifa, as did her daughter's reluctance to go to school that day. The children had been making fun of her hair, putting their fingers in the thick black curls and yanking. The little girl was crying, and Scott Bale decided to keep her out of class and with him that day. The day's centerpiece was supposed to be a walk in the park, one of the girl's favorite activities. Bale knew the child's upbringing and saw that she was parched for a father's affection; he overcompensated with doting.

Cheered up, Bara'ah dressed for a day with the man she had started to call "Daddy." The girl was becoming Americanized; her nickname, Sarah, was becoming more permanent.

Bale, a personal trainer, took the girl to play at the nursery in Gold's Gym on Royal Lane as he did his routine workout. The trip to the park would come later, and Bara'ah was looking forward to it. On the way out of the gym, Bale noticed two Middle Eastern men eyeing them in the lobby. He didn't think too much of the attention; the interracial pair often received once-overs from gawkers.

Bale stopped and tied Bara'ah's shoes, and they walked hand in hand out the front door. A white Corvette suddenly pulled up, and there was his girlfriend's soon-to-be ex-husband, Ahmad Jridi, with a can of Mace in his hand. The first words exchanged came with painful bursts from the can, aimed straight at Bale's face.

Bale says he pushed Bara'ah behind his body, but the two men he spotted inside were coming out to grab her. Bale landed a couple of punches and grappled with Jridi, who kept shooting the Mace into his eyes. Blinded and outnumbered, Bale dropped to the curb.

"Sarah was gone. I could hear her screaming," he recalls. "I had hair then. Before he left, Ahmad grabbed me by the hair and sprayed me again in the face."

As violent and wrenching as it was, the manner in which Bara'ah Jridi was seized has little to do with the status of her case today. Dallas police treated the case as a routine custody battle, viewing it as an irate father taking his child back from a new boyfriend. To this date, no one has been arrested or charged for the attack, a misdemeanor.

That the father might flee to Jordan and deny the girl's mother any visitation apparently didn't influence the Dallas police officers who handled the case, even after Haifa and Scott Bale warned them it could happen. When it did happen, both Dallas County and federal charges were filed against Ahmad Jridi. But by that time the child was gone, hidden away in Amman, Jordan.

In a legal system clogged with custody disputes that wander between criminal and civil courts, the case of Bara'ah Jridi stands out as an example of the kind of egregious disappointments of which that system is capable. Civil courts handle the bulk of ugly child-custody confrontations, making authentic criminal acts hard for authorities to spot. Police and criminal court judges can be cavalier in treating child-custody cases, so cavalier that a Dallas detective chastised Bale after he found out he wasn't Bara'ah's father, and so cavalier that Ahmad Jridi was able to waltz out of a Dallas courtroom, out of police custody, and out of the country scant days after being arrested in Houston.

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Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo