Mary didn't have quite the right background to sell newspaper ads. But in October 1988 she applied to become an account executive at the Times Standard, a daily in the northern California city of Eureka, and informed ad manager Judi Pollace that she simply had to have the job, even if she didn't have all the qualifications. Pollace, who hadn't had great credentials when she went back to work after raising her four children, admired Mary's pluck and decided to take a chance on her. "There was just an intensity about Mary that I responded to," she recalls.
Mary, who was then 38, was assigned to rustle up ads in the area around Arcata, a town seven miles outside Eureka that is home to Humboldt State University. She was making $12,000 a year, just enough to support her and her daughter Heather, who was 11.
Mary's coworkers admired her. Pollace mentions her "honesty and dedication." But Mary could also be abrupt and defensive, and people noticed that she held back emotionally in relationships.
On the afternoon of April 7, 1989, Mary was at her desk taking it easy after beating a 3 PM deadline. Suddenly she felt an unearthly quiet settle over the ad department. She was sure something ominous was about to happen, and moments later three men approached her.
"Are you Jean Smith?" one of the men asked*. When she said yes, the men asked her to accompany them outside to discuss "a possible problem." In the lobby FBI special agent Stanley Walker explained that they had confirmed her true identity using fingerprints. She admitted who she was, and was handcuffed and placed under arrest by Walker and Eureka police officers.
The handcuffs were the greatest indignity. "That was the most embarrassing thing," Jean says. "Here I was trying to be a mom, and I was being treated like a common criminal."
But that's what the FBI alleged she was. Just before Christmas 1981 Jean had taken Heather, whose real name was Abby, away for what the girl's father thought was to be the weekend. Jean and Rich had been separated for about a year, and Rich had temporary custody of Abby, as well as their three other children. Jean never returned Abby to the family home in the northwest suburbs. Rich filed a complaint, and in 1982 the local police charged Jean with child abduction. But by then she and Abby were on the lam.
In court in Rolling Meadows last March, Jean would contend that she should be excused for taking Abby because she was a battered woman fleeing an "incidence or pattern of domestic violence," which the Illinois Child Abduction Act finds extenuating.
She went to trial at some disadvantage, since the judge in the case decided to limit the definition of "domestic violence" to physical abuse. He ruled that only in murder cases can the intimidation or psychological harassment of a spouse be raised as mitigating factors. But Jean and her lawyers argued that it was precisely those sorts of nonphysical assaults that had left her in a depressed and dependent state, suffering from what's called "battered-woman syndrome." In that state she had taken Abby and disappeared.
The National Woman Abuse Prevention Project estimates that between three and four million women are beaten by their husbands or partners every year. In a 1989 monograph the National Center on Women and Family Law estimated that in 24 to 30 percent of all marriages the women will at some point be battered. "But it is not necessary for abuse to be only physical," says Leslie Landis, executive director of Life Span, a Des Plaines organization that helps victims of family abuse. "An abuser can use intimidation too, or what I'd call psychological terrorism, to get what he wants. If you perceive that, it's easy to understand why Jean felt she had to leave with her daughter. If this type of material can be raised in a homicide case, it should be raised in a case like Jean's too." But as Jean's case shows, the law is not clear about when or to what degree domestic violence is an extenuating circumstance in a criminal case.
After she was arrested in Eureka, Jean was incarcerated in the Humboldt County jail for a week. People from the sales department at the Times Standard came for a visit. "She was so happy to see us," says Judi Pollace. "Her face was relaxed. It was like, 'God, my odyssey is over.'"
Abby had been informed that she was not Heather in the principal's office at her elementary school in Eureka. "You are a different person," FBI agent Stanley Walker had said, gingerly delivering the news. He says Abby struggled to remember her past life, then grew upset that her mother had lied to her.
The next morning, over breakfast in Eureka, Abby was reunited with Rich, who had flown out to pick her up. Abby was too nervous to eat, but she and Rich started talking about soccer and struck up an immediate rapport.
Before father and daughter returned to Chicago, Abby wrote her mother a letter. It read:
I'm sorry this happened and I left with my dad to Illoinos at 11:00 am. I love you alot and I wish it would of happened a different way. And I'll see you soon at Illoinois and court, and my dad told me Sarah & Louise & Matt want to see you.
your daughter ABBY,
PS: I love you much!!
A week later a detective escorted Jean back to her hometown jail. Her aunt bailed her out and arranged for her to be admitted to the Evanston Shelter for Battered Women and Their Children, which can accommodate 30 women and their children for up to 90 days, and offers counseling, legal advice, and help finding a job. Jean's parents asked attorney Tom Brejcha, a Loop business litigator, to represent her.
Marianne Forrest, Jean's counselor at the shelter, says that even after a decade Jean was still showing signs of "battered-woman syndrome." Denver psychologist Lenore Walker was the first to recognize this syndrome. Drawing on her own clinical experience and a three-year study of 400 women she led for the National Institutes of Health, Walker concluded that battered women experience depression and "learned helplessness."
"Learned helplessness" is not passivity, Walker explains, "but the inability of a woman to predict what she does will get a certain reaction. For example, if a man is coming at her, a woman suffering from battered-woman syndrome may not run out of the house but pick up a gun instead"--because she no longer comprehends the legal consequences of shooting him. Walker says these women have low self-esteem in some areas, confidence in others. They often show fear of their abusers, a sense of isolation, mental confusion, and memory loss, though their memories of times when they were abused are often vivid. Walker says battered-woman syndrome can last "as long as the woman perceives there is danger," sometimes for years.
In the spring of 1989 Jean's self-esteem was rock-bottom, according to Forrest. "She also thought Rich could kick her out of the shelter. She was sure he could keep her from getting a job." The separation from her daughter had exacted its toll on Jean, and she felt increasing remorse for the time lost with her other children, Matt, then 18, and her twins, Sarah and Louise, then 16. All her children were living with Rich, a car mechanic, and his new wife in a northwest suburb.
Jean was first reunited with Matt, Sarah, and Louise at the home of Shirley Bastiani, a friend from high school. "I was scared half to death," Jean remembers. She says at first the children were angry, and she started to cry. She says that when she went to hug the twins, they held back. "Mom, why did you take Abby?" Matt asked. "Why didn't you phone, or send us cards?"
The meeting soon disintegrated into their recriminations and her defenses, which stopped only after Bastiani pulled out some old pictures and got them to reminisce about old Fourth of July gatherings. Jean and Bastiani talked about what life had been like for them back in high school. Some puppies in the garage provided another diversion. In the end everyone placed a celebratory phone call to Jean's parents, who lived in Texas.
In May, Jean took her kids for a picnic by a lake. When the older children wanted to know why she had left, she replied that their father had hit her. "I can't count the black eyes," she said. But she says the kids doubted her story, and that Sarah and Louise told her, "Dad was the one who took care of us." The meeting ended in a spate of accusations.
After meeting with Jean a few times Sarah and Louise refused to see her anymore. She and Matt had an on-again-off-again relationship. She remembers that he took her out to dinner and to see a movie. He also lived with her parents in Texas for a year while he attended junior college. "We enjoyed Matt thoroughly," says Jean's mother. "He was a charming boy. He'd come and hug me like nothing had happened." Yet Jean says she and Matt also had vicious fights. Abby continued to see Jean, though tensions eventually crept into their relationship and weeks would go by when they wouldn't see each other.
Normally when a woman raises violence as the reason she abducted her own child, either the police or prosecutors will settle her case quietly. "Usually such charges never go beyond the preliminary-hearing stage," says Jan Russell, a family-issues specialist for the Cook County state's attorney's office. She explains that it's generally thought that a criminal proceeding only compounds a deeply tragic situation, but she won't comment further because of her office's stance against Jean. Presumably the long period of time Jean was gone and the fact that the FBI got involved spurred prosecutors to take her to trial.
Jean was arraigned on May 19, 1989, before Judge Brendan J. McCooey in the third-district branch of the Cook County Circuit Court, then in Des Plaines. Joe Kazmierski, third-district supervisor for the state's attorney, resisted efforts by Jean's lawyer, Tom Brejcha, and, reportedly, members of his own staff to drop the matter.
Brejcha was representing Jean in both criminal and domestic-relations court, where things weren't going so well. One day an associate substituted for him, and a judge ordered Jean to hand over 7 percent of her income to Rich, though she was earning only a meager salary as a secretary. Brejcha realized he had little business defending anyone in a criminal case, and in the fall of 1989 he told the cash-strapped Jean that she should get a Cook County public defender to represent her on the child-abduction rap. She ended up with two assistant public defenders, Beryl Zerwer and Jim Paese, a 14-year veteran of the office.
Paese and Zerwer began crafting a defense, but they were still open to a deal. Eventually prosecutors offered her probation in exchange for a guilty plea, but Jean turned the offer down flat. "She wanted her day in court," says Zerwer. "She wanted to be found not guilty." Jean had grown obsessed with vindicating herself--indeed, she was so riveted on the facts of her situation that she sometimes taxed the sympathy of her friends and lawyers. "Oh God," sighs one intimate, "to talk to her was murder." In Jean's mind, however, she was just fighting back.
Jean was the second of six children. Her father was a wholesale perfume salesman until a heart attack forced him to retire when he was 50. Her mother stayed home with her children. "I was totally dedicated to my children through their formative years," her mother says. "With six children and a large home, that is a career in itself. We were very devout Roman Catholics, and Jean and all my children were reared very carefully."
The family moved from McHenry to Glenview when Jean was a junior in high school. There she began associating with what her family thought was a rough crowd. Jean says her parents, who were quite conservative, had little tolerance for her rebellion.
After high school Jean became a secretary at Scott Foresman. In July 1969, when she was 19, she met Rich, who was 21, at a party in Des Plaines. Rich, the oldest son of a pipe fitter, was a muscular young man, with curly hair and, Jean says, "eyelashes any girl would envy." She was smitten, but Rich was married.
His first wife says she had married Rich the previous November because she was 17 and pregnant. The marriage "went downhill immediately. He lost interest right away." Shortly after Rich and his wife separated, in the summer of '69, he and Jean started living together in a Glenview apartment. According to Gladys Dickelman, a longtime friend of Jean's family, the relationship disturbed Jean's parents because Rich "wasn't culturally of the same ilk. He had a motorcycle image and a low-class way of living." Jean split up with Rich briefly, but they reunited when Jean discovered that she was pregnant.
In June 1970 Rich and Jean moved to Colorado to help manage a gas station owned by Rich's employer. According to Jean, Rich put off marrying her because his boss thought the two of them were already married. She claims Rich told her, "Why don't we wait until after the kid is born?" They never did get married, though she says that over the years she would periodically raise the issue. She says Rich would say, "We'll get married if it's important to you," but then she would say forget it.
Matt was born in August 1970, and soon after the family returned to Chicago, where Rich became part owner of a gas station in Evanston and then one in Highland Park. They lived in a series of apartments in the north and northwest suburbs. In June 1972 Jean gave birth to twins, Sarah and Louise, and in 1977 to Abby. By the time Abby was born they had settled into a rented three-bedroom ranch house in a quiet family neighborhood.
"It was truly a coffee-klatch neighborhood," says MaryAnn Whitcomb, who was then living across the street. "Everyone had children, and when the kids were outside, the women were outside." Jean, who didn't work, was one of those outside, a stay-at-home mom. She says she fixed her family three meals a day, favoring peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches because her kids loved them. She coached the twins' soccer team and made sure her kids went to Baptist Sunday school, even when she and Rich didn't go to church.
Rich logged long hours at work, so he was seldom home when Jean fed the kids. She says she kept dinner warm for him, but when he came home he would eat quickly and then descend into the basement, where he loved to play with his ham radio. "We didn't sit down and have husband-and-wife talks over a cup of coffee." She says she and Rich rarely went out together or got away on vacation, and that his idea of a birthday present was a battery for her car.
While Jean would contend during the criminal trial that Rich had affairs, she says the two of them maintained the semblance of a sex life. "We did it every Sunday morning, before the kids woke up. I got screwed 52 times a year."
According to Jean's trial testimony, Rich started being violent with her shortly before the twins were born. She testified that in 1971 he shoved her into a dresser, bruising her, and that in the heat of an argument in 1974 he punched her in the small of her back. "I fell to the floor," she told the court. "I remember crawling to my bed. I was in extreme pain." Rich took her to the hospital.
In 1975 Rich moved out for some months; he and Jean would agree at the trial that he was having an affair. One night she went downtown with some friends to an auto show, and later they went dancing. She returned home to find Rich sitting in the dark, a beer in one hand. "He seemed intoxicated," she would testify. "He came up to me and asked who I was out with and where I had gone. I told him, 'Rich, I had gone out with some friends. It is none of your business. You do not live here anymore. Leave me alone and just leave.' He grabbed me and threw me to the floor."
She remembered backing into the laundry room. "He unzipped my pants and felt me," she testified during the trial. "He accused me of fucking somebody." She then told the court that he slapped and hit her, threw her to the floor, and pulled her up so hard by the hair "that my scalp was bleeding."
Shortly after, she and Rich were reconciled, but then Jean took 18 painkillers in a suicide attempt. "I was trying to get attention, that's all." A neighbor took her to the hospital.
One night the next year Jean again accused Rich of straying, and they argued heatedly. She would tell the court that Rich ended up straddling her, smashing her face into the floor. "He split my nose wide open," she testified at the trial, then described the pool of blood that collected on the floor. She showed up at Northwest Community Hospital with a broken nose and two black eyes, but she blamed her own clumsiness, saying she had fallen. "Patient states she fell at home this morning and injured nose," read the hospital report.
The neighbors began to notice. "Jean always had bruises on her arms," says MaryAnn Whitcomb. "I remember a couple black eyes. There were always excuses--that she tripped while she was vacuuming or ran into a cabinet door." Whitcomb says she could sometimes hear Rich and Jean arguing fiercely; once when she heard them arguing during the summer of 1977 she called their house with some made-up question. "It did seem to calm things down," she says.
Whitcomb describes Rich as "a typical little man. He thrived on macho masculinity. His friends were always visiting on their motorcycles." She says Rich wasn't home much, but that when he was he seemed a fond and playful father.
She also says Jean clearly loved Rich. "You know, Jean is a very good person, but very simplistic--her thought processes don't run deep--and she idolized Rich. Every word out of his mouth was accepted as if God had spoken. Whatever Rich wanted or said, Jean complied." Rich's ex-wife also says that Jean backed Rich wholeheartedly in his unsuccessful campaign to gain custody of his son from her.
Jean says she didn't fall out of love with Rich until Christmas 1979, when, she would testify during the criminal trial, he beat her while the kids were around. She told the court that he slapped her in the face and punched her in the shoulder and stomach. Finally, she stated, "I picked up Abby and cowered down in front of the TV." That did not deter Rich. "He came at me and slammed my head into the TV." She stated that she then fled upstairs: "I remember I got hysterical with him. I remember he was calling me a whore and a cunt. I remember I called him an asshole. I told him I didn't want him anymore. I told him I was fed up with it; I had put up with too much."
But by then, she says, "I was financially and emotionally dependent. I hadn't worked for years, and my self-esteem had been whittled away."
Her parents, who by then lived in Texas and had become born-again Christians, sensed their daughter was in trouble, but they couldn't get a handle on it. They visited Jean and Rich during the Christmas holidays, and while they were out to dinner Jean's mother confronted the couple. "Something is wrong," she said. "What is it?" Rich, his eyes shifting toward Jean, said nothing was awry.
Rich's version of events is contained in "background information" he prepared for his custody suit around 1980, which became part of the court record of the criminal trial. In this background document he stated that Jean had tricked him into having Abby by secretly going off the pill. "Jean and I had many talks about why she got pregnant," he stated. "Her only reason was that she was afraid if the other children got to [sic] big I would find it easier to leave her." He stated that she had ruined his chances of winning custody of his son by acting poorly when two social workers came for a home visit. He stated that she had called ham radio, which Rich had a passion for, a "dumb and stupid" hobby. "I used to tell her it was better than building cars or being the kind of guy that sat in bars and got drunk, but Jean said it was really stupid." He also stated that she spent too much money and was a lousy cook ("She used to feed [the kids] peanut butter and jelly seven days a week and normal dinner was hot dogs, no potatoes or vegetables").
He stated that he had never wanted to live in the northwest suburbs, which were far from the gas station where he worked. And that when they bought their first house in 1978, it was over his objections. He rated the house "a pig sty. We really argued about this. But like always, Jean won out. She had to live there. It was such a big house and she said she would do all the work to fix it up."
He also said that in 1978 "Jean's disposition made a bad change." He said she began cuffing and scratching the kids and leaving them with baby-sitters; she also stopped preparing meals. He took a mechanic's position closer to home, but Jean began selling Mary Kay cosmetics, which only meant she was gone more. To make matters worse, Rich said, "She was using my money, gas and car to go out and make money and then keeping the money from the sales for herself. Our house needed plenty of money spent on it but [Jean] just pocketed her money, bought herself flowers and clothes and complained that she needed more time away from us all to get herself together."
He said that Jean's injuries were the results of her temper. Once in 1972, he recalled, they were disagreeing about whether to go out on the weekend. "I was at the top of the stairs and Jean took a swing at me, I moved and Jean fell down the stairs and hurt her back and ribs." He gave his account of how she broke her nose. "Jean was arguing with me one morning about something. Really yelling her head off so I just finished dressing and went out the front door. Jean came running down the hall after me screaming and turned the corner on the throw rug in the hall. The throw rug went flying up, Jean went flying up and landed face first on the living room floor. Landing right on her nose."
He also mentioned an incident that took place in 1977, when they were arguing about food shopping and he turned and walked away. "Jean ran after me and ran into our bookshelves at the end of the hall again slipping on the throw rug. She hit her side and legs. She said she was alright so I went to work. I do not know if this is one of the times I 'beat her up' or not."
He also contended that in 1979 one of Jean's brothers had convinced her that he had been "running around and having a good time" while she was vacationing with her parents in Texas. "That was it," Rich stated. "Jean was totally unliveable with after that. She took to throwing things all the time." Once, he said, she tossed a glass casserole top at him but missed. The top smashed against a wall, and a shard of glass cut Matt just above his eye. That same summer, Rich stated, Jean went to the hospital after she slashed her face and bit the top off an aspirin bottle.
"After the early summer of 1979," he stated, "Jean and I never managed to speak about problems again."
During the spring of 1980 Rich and Jean stopped sleeping in the same bedroom. She would testify during the criminal trial that he took away her keys to the car and took her name off their checking account. "I had no money," she told the court. "I had asked particularly one day for some sanitary items. I had my period. He refused to give me any money."
On Mother's Day Rich was in the basement operating his ham radio when Jean entered to confront him about his affair with the woman who would later become his second wife. Jean would testify at the trial that she'd seen Rich's van parked behind the woman's house. Jean and Rich argued, and then she went off to take a shower. She says she was drying her hair in the bedroom when he entered and yanked out the plug to the drier. "He grabbed me, threw me back and choked me," she testified. "He threw me to the floor. . . . I will never forget the anger in his face. I will never forget what happened next. When he was choking me, I heard the most piercing scream behind me. It was my daughter Abby."
Jean says the next day she could hardly swallow. A friend took her to the hospital. Two weeks later, on May 19, she filed a complaint with the local police charging Rich with battery. According to the court disposition report, he was found guilty of battery, given a year's supervision, and fined $80. On June 10 Rich filed for custody of their children. "He said I never kept the house clean, didn't feed the kids properly, and was crazy," says Jean, adding that all of a sudden he started staying home a lot and doing things with the kids.
Rich and Jean, who was then working part-time at a restaurant, continued to live together until early August, when their lawyers worked out an unusual arrangement: one would live in the house for a week, then rotate out to make way for the other. But it didn't work. Later that month Jean fled with the kids to MaryAnn Whitcomb's new house in De Kalb. Whitcomb spirited them to her parents' house and reserved rooms for them at a nearby shelter for battered women.
The rooms were never used. Jean didn't get any support for her decision to leave Rich when she called her parents in Texas. "They refused to send plane tickets," Whitcomb remembers. "They said they would pray for Jean, but she should stay and fight for her interests in the house." After the weekend Jean went back home.
That August Rich's mother claimed that Jean had assaulted her; Jean was charged with doing bodily injury to the older woman, but the case was eventually dismissed. Later that month Jean hit Sarah with her open hand. Rich reported the abuse to the local police, and Jean was subsequently found guilty.
On November 14, 1980, Circuit Court judge Rene Goier heard Rich's motion for emergency temporary custody of his kids. Rich stated that Jean had slapped Sarah in September and had attacked Louise in early November, digging her nails into the girl's arm and shoving her down on a bathroom countertop.
The judge, worried about "the ugly head of possible child abuse here," took the three older youngsters into his chambers. Jean claims that Matt bad-mouthed her and torpedoed her case. Sheldon Rachman, Rich's lawyer, will not comment on the hearing, but Candace Wayne, who represented Jean, was startled by what the children said. "I have never seen a case where the children so radically turned against their primary care giver. It appeared that they had been brainwashed. It was the Stockholm syndrome, where he would treat her like a piece of shit, and the kids--like captives--bonded with him and believed his side."
When Goier gave his verdict, he said he didn't care if Rich and Jean bloodied each other up--"he could almost shoot her, stab her, kill her"--so long as that conduct didn't harm the children. Then he awarded Rich temporary custody. A report submitted later by the Department of Supportive Services, an arm of the court, indicates that he received custody because the judge was concerned about the abuse charges leveled by Rich and his mother.
The custody award crushed Jean. She says it was like the wind was sucked out of her.
Five psychological studies prepared for the court around this time, which became part of the court record of the criminal trial, differ in their findings, but together they paint the portrait of a troubled family. The reports agree that given the situation, Sarah and Louise, then 8, seemed fairly stable emotionally, though both appeared hurt by their turbulent home life. "Louise is unable to project into the future," wrote psychiatrist Rita Weinberg. "It is too uncertain, too bleak." She described Abby, then three and in day care, as "cooperative, but distractible. She seems impulsive and a little immature for her age."
Matt, then 11, was another story. "Matt was the most taciturn and stressed," wrote psychiatrist Norman Bernstein. "He seemed to show some depression, and Matt appeared to be a boy who is inhibited in his aims and goals." Weinberg observed, "Although Matt is basically psychologically sound and optimistic, he is now finding life stressful, painful and pessimistic. He feels his present situation at home is insecure and uncertain, and that it is not a comfortable place to be." She also detailed how Matt would run angrily from his mother's presence, though she added, "He views his mother as nurturant, but he does not see her as part of the family now."
Matt told everyone who interviewed him that he preferred to live with his father, as did the girls. But there was a tenor to what they said about their mother--the vagueness of their allegations about yelling, hitting, and improper feeding--that led Bernstein and Audrey Leitner, a caseworker for the Department of Supportive Services, to conclude the children had been put up to it. "There is much to indicate that the stories being told and retold by the children concerning their mother seem to be rehearsed," wrote Leitner.
The reports fault Rich as a father, though he had tried to present himself to the psychologists as a good one. Rich "does not discuss the details of child care as much as he makes speeches about what he is going to do," wrote Bernstein. "I believe that Rich is an immature man whose personality problems are submerged in the battles over his children. His lack of friends and his frequent job changes show that he is unable to get along with people and is further evidence of his immaturity." Social worker Ruth Rosenthal called Rich "a manipulative controlling person, who has locked his children into negative reactions toward their mother."
Jean emerged in a more favorable light. Bernstein called her "a satisfactory mother," adding that she had shown "solicitude and care" in tending her children. Psychiatrist Allan Nelson wrote that she was "not a monster nor a particularly bad mother, which they Rich and the kids make her out to be. She appears to be an intelligent, reasonably stable individual, who has and is going through a lot of emotional turmoil related to the whole situation." Rita Weinberg concluded, "This woman impresses one with her devotion to her children and to her role as mother. She appears to be in good contact with reality. Her consuming preoccupation now is to resume that role."
Only Weinberg noted that Jean showed many symptoms of "battered women--i.e., self-depreciation and the feeling of having no resources."
The professionals reached a split verdict on whether Jean should get custody. Bernstein recommended that she be made the primary parent, and Rosenthal agreed with him. But Nelson and Leitner advised that Rich remain the primary care giver, at least in the short term. (Weinberg did not make a recommendation.) The key factors they cited were the kids' stronger attachment to their father and the antagonism they voiced toward Jean.
After Judge Goier's ruling, Jean moved into Gladys Dickelman's home in Barrington Hills. Jean had visitation rights that entitled her to see the children from 5:30 to 7:30 PM on Tuesday and Thursday, plus every other weekend. The visits were painful for her. She would testify at the trial that Rich slammed a sliding glass door on her hand in May 1981, and that the next month he slammed a door in her face. A few days later, she testified, he grabbed her arm and nearly broke it by wrenching it behind her back. But most of her pain was emotional.
When she went to see the kids, they would run from her or call her names. "I drove up the street once, and my girls saw me and ran for the bushes." Dickelman confirms that the older children would often flee Jean's presence, and if they were convinced to sit still "they'd be like ice or they'd be nasty, disrespectful, and ugly."
The only child Jean could reach was Abby. The three-year-old would go on outings with her mother, but the older children wouldn't, so Jean often just stayed at the house.
During this period, on the advice of her attorney, Jean kept a diary, which later became part of the criminal-court record. It details not only the disaffection of the older children but the increasingly hostile relations between her and Rich, especially in 1981.
According to the diary, Rich put a lock on the refrigerator during her visits to ensure that she wouldn't eat his food. If Jean came to the door a minute before her visitation was to start, he would keep her waiting outside in the cold. She was chubby, and he called her "sweat hog," "tubby," and "the worst mother in the world." He wouldn't tell Jean the names of the children's teachers or where Matt's soccer practice was.
On February 5, 1981, Jean wrote, "Rich said I could not eat or drink anything in the house. I cooked some fish sticks of mine. . . . Went to pour some milk. Rich told me to bring my own. Rich then spit in my face 3 times and went and told the girls, who were in the bathtub, that I spit in his face."
If the older girls exhibited any affection toward Jean, it was on the sly. "I told Louise how much I missed her and to give me a hug and a kiss," reads the diary entry for June 18. "Louise said she would if I do not tell anyone--not even the Lord."
Then, according to the diary, Rich began toying with the only relationship she had left, the one with Abby. "Rich then told me I couldn't see Abby anymore," says the entry for August 22. She wrote that Rich had told her to leave before her visitation time was up and that he shouted at her as she left, "You take Abby--you're dead." Jean drove to the local police department, but she says the cops advised her to forget about filing a criminal complaint, telling her it was a civil matter.
By the fall of 1981 Jean had a new job, as a receptionist for a graphics firm, and was renting an apartment on her own. But she was increasingly desperate about her visitations, which she contends amounted to "total harassment."
In early December Jean told Rich she wanted to take Abby down to Texas to visit her parents at a vacation condo they were renting near Corpus Christi. She says Rich threatened her, and they argued viciously. "I'm thinking, this man is going to put me away. At that point I feared him. The reality of what he was hit me. I couldn't take it anymore. I was going to pack my bags and leave."
But not without Abby. "I felt I had lost three of my limbs--three of my kids--but I had one left, and that was Abby," she says.
"She was under so much pressure--it's something you and I can't understand," says one of Jean's brothers, a Texas school superintendent. "Rich had turned the older children against her with the things he'd been saying behind the scenes. Jean saw no alternative. It was either leave with Abby or expire as a person."
Solidifying Jean's resolve was the looming hearing on permanent custody, in April 1982. Her parents, who were shouldering the legal fees, had changed lawyers, hiring a well-known specialist named Thomas Stern. But Jean thought it was unlikely that he could get her custody, even though there was a new judge on the case. When Jean revealed her intentions to her friends and family, most counseled against doing anything rash.
But after work on December 18 she picked up Abby for what was supposed to be the weekend. The girl had a suitcase packed. Jean left a box of Christmas presents for the older kids, put her daughter in a red snowsuit, and drove off. Instead of heading back to her apartment, she began the long drive to Texas. Rich would not see Abby again for seven and a half years.
Jean and Abby spent a week with Jean's parents at their beach house near Corpus Christi. "I'm not going back," she told her parents. They were not surprised. Rich had been hostile toward them too, and though they loved Matt, Sarah, and Louise, the children had grown distant. "Jean asked for our help, and she got it," says her mother, who seems to have understood she and her husband might be drifting into the realm of the illegal by shielding Jean. "But we had no choice. We loved our daughter."
Jean and Abby then spent a month with Jean's sister in New Mexico, then moved into an apartment her parents rented for her in San Antonio, Texas, where she found a job as a secretary under a false name.
Jean called Sarah and Louise, reaching them at a friend's birthday party, and the girls told her to return Abby. Jean told Rich that she was going to be away for a while and asked if she could keep Abby. She says he told her, "I'm going to see to it you never, ever see her again." She made more calls to him through the summer and into the fall. She insisted that she should keep Abby; Rich, who received permanent custody of the kids on April 28, countered that all the children should be together.
The official investigation failed to locate the runaways. "We ran a normal type of investigation for someone who's missing," says Sergeant Kenneth Oomens, who supervised the search for Jean. In July Jean was charged with child abduction. Information on Abby was disseminated through I-Search, a program of the Illinois State Police that tries to locate missing juveniles through photos, fingerprints, and other personal information. In general, Oomens says, his efforts were hamstrung because he had to work through the police department in Austin, where Jean's parents lived. An Austin police officer called them, but they denied knowing where their daughter was. The cop never called back.
Oomens also says the calls Jean made to Rich were tricky to trace. At first Rich tried to hold Jean on the line while a ham-radio buddy notified the local police, who triggered a tap on his phone. That didn't work. Later the police placed a 24-hour tap on Rich's line and located Jean in December.
Rich flew off to San Antonio, but he was too late. Just before Thanksgiving a private detective, presumably in Rich's employ, had appeared at Jean's workplace. The minute Jean learned someone was making inquiries about her she was gone.
She moved to the Dallas area and changed her name again, this time to Mary. She found a job as a sales assistant for a company that represented advertisers to various newspapers, where she earned enough money to pay for rent, groceries, and day care for Abby, who was now Heather.
Jean's relationship with Abby touched her acquaintances. Darla Wateska, who lived in the same apartment complex for a time, became a dear friend because both women were single parents trying to make ends meet. Their social life consisted of Diet Coke-and-popcorn parties. Wateska says Jean "wore the same panty hose for months so that Heather could play soccer and have everything she wanted. Heather was her priority. Those two were like two bonded hearts."
Jean told Wateska she had been abused by Rich and had been forced to leave with Abby. She said nothing about other children or breaking the law.
In April 1984 Jean met a pipe fitter named Jerry at a bar and invited him back to her place. Wateska says that Jerry, who was ten years younger than Jean, "looked like a mountain man, in blue jeans, flannel shirt, and long hair." Jean's mother is more blunt: "He was dirty looking--not the kind of person I would choose for my daughter." But Jean says, "A lot of my friends said he was ugly, but I saw the handsomeness in Jerry." They had long talks and fell in love. Jerry lived with her and Abby off and on for two years.
"For the first year we had a real good relationship," Jerry would testify at the criminal trial. "Everything was hunky-dory. After the first year it started to go downhill. I always felt intimidated and guilty about something. I don't know what it was. She made me feel a lot of pressure there."
To Jean's mind, Jerry was a good substitute father for Abby, who later said he was like a "father figure." Jerry was also sympathetic to Jean's story of abuse and flight, and he told her he'd never hit a woman. (He turned down a request for an interview.) But Jean claims he was occasionally violent. "Once he threw me across the room and split my arm open. He also punched me in the face, and I ended up with a gorgeous black eye." She says she had to go to the hospital, though once back home a repentant Jerry nursed her.
For her own protection, Jean kept her distance from her parents, though she let them know where she was and sometimes they would all rendezvous at an agreed-on spot. They loaned her money and bought her a car.
Jean carried pictures of her older children in her wallet and thought of them often, but says that to protect her relationship with Abby she didn't contact them. On the older kids' birthdays she cried, and she winced whenever she saw someone else's twins. She told Abby that she had a brother and sisters, that she didn't know where her daddy was, that someday she would see him.
Back in the northwest suburbs Jean's trail was going cold. Sergeant Oomens says Rich "was very eager through this whole thing, but we didn't know where she was. We thought there would be some attempt at contact. It was unusual she lasted so long, because she had the little girl." Abby's picture went on the side of milk cartons nationwide and people reported seeing her, but nothing panned out. Oomens says months would go by without a word about Jean and Abby.
Jean's self-confidence was rebounding. "I was becoming stronger and more willful," she recollects. Her job would eventually earn her $17,000 a year, and she was proud of that.
In August 1986 Jerry moved to Eureka, California, where he went into business with his brother. A year and a half later Jean and Abby followed him. They all lived in a house out among the redwoods, but, Jean says, "we didn't get along after a while." Jerry would testify during the trial, "It was good for approximately two months, and then the relationship started to go south again. I felt I wasn't gaining anything. I tried."
Jerry found another girlfriend, and bitter fights ensued between him and Jean. He would testify that Jean once blocked his van in a Wendy's parking lot, then hit him two to three times in the chest. Jean alleges that he knocked her out cold in his shop, and says that on April 4, 1989, a judge issued a joint restraining order against them both.
Jean is convinced the FBI found her three days later because either Jerry or his girlfriend tipped them off. Stanley Walker, one of the agents who arrested her, won't comment, except to say his source didn't furnish him all the needed information. He says he was informed only about a child from northern Illinois who'd been missing "six or seven years." Walker couldn't pinpoint the name of the child through FBI channels and finally turned to Child Find, a national hot line based in New York. Workers there narrowed the field to Abby. Within days the girl was in custody and Jean was under arrest.
Jean was charged under the Child Abduction Act of the Illinois criminal code, which makes it a class-three felony to intentionally violate a custody order or remove a child from the jurisdiction of the court. In 1985 the statute was amended to reflect the Illinois Domestic Violence Act, then on the books for three years, and a section was added stating that if a defendant is "fleeing an incidence or pattern of domestic violence," that constitutes an "affirmative defense" against the accusation of child abduction.
Jan Russell, who helped draft the amendment while executive director of the Illinois Council Against Parental Child Abduction, said the framers made the "reasonable assumption" that interpreters of the amendment would define "domestic violence" the same way the state's Domestic Violence Act does.
That act, passed in 1978 and updated periodically to reflect the latest thinking on the subject, defines domestic violence not only as physical battering but also as harassment and intimidation. In general, harassment is conduct that "would cause a reasonable person emotional distress"; specific examples in the act include repeated telephone calls, following a victim in public, keeping a vigil at work or home, and threats of force or of taking away a child.
As Jean's trial approached, her lawyers, Jim Paese and Beryl Zerwer, figured they would craft a defense around recent law: Jean should be excused for taking Abby because she was fleeing "an incidence or pattern of domestic violence," which should be interpreted in the broadest terms. They would also introduce the notion that Jean suffered from "battered woman syndrome"--Rich had left her in a state of mind that forced her to do what she did.
Among the 30 witnesses the defense was prepared to call were social workers and therapists who had seen the family in 1980 and '81, notably Rita Weinberg, the psychologist who had described Jean as a battered woman. Also on the list were two experts on battered-woman syndrome. The public defenders were also intent on introducing Jean's diary as evidence.
However, Judge Nicholas Pomaro, who was hearing the case, decided that the words "domestic violence" in the child-abduction statute referred only to physical violence; he wasn't buying any larger definition. "The statute allowed only the introduction of acts of physical violence," Pomaro, a judge since 1976, says, "and I was following the statute." He still believes it is inappropriate to introduce battered-woman syndrome in anything but a murder case--and only in a situation where the woman "is at home and cannot flee." Early in Jean's trial, Pomaro would underscore his thinking: "To fall within the parameters of the case law creating this battered-wife syndrome, or battered-woman syndrome, to me one of the elements--unless I am reading it wrong--is the inability to escape. . . . It is my position that there has to be a showing . . . that she is either within the home or within the physical control of the person who is alleged to have caused her to be a battered woman."
Battered-woman syndrome can be a powerful tool in defending murderers. It has no specific entry in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard reference work published by the American Psychiatric Association, though expert witnesses frequently refer to it as a type of "posttraumatic stress disorder." Andrea Lyon, a former head of the public defender's office's murder task force, says she used battered-woman syndrome as part of her defense of 13 accused killers. Ten of the women were acquitted; two received a reduced sentence. The 13th killed herself.
Unfortunately for Paese and Zerwer, battered-woman syndrome has almost never been raised as a defense outside murder cases, though psychologist Lenore Walker says it has been used to defend women against charges of armed robbery, burglary, and passing bad checks. They did find one grisly precedent, a 1983 Illinois appellate-court decision reversing the conviction of Jeannette Minnis, who killed her husband after a "sexually depraved session" in which she was tied up. She dismembered his body, put the parts in refuse bags, and deposited them around Decatur. (His head, neck, upper torso, and hands ended up in the Sangamon River.) The appellate court said the trial judge was right to allow battered-woman syndrome to be used as a defense of the killing, and wrong not to allow it as a reason for the mutilation.
However, this and other cases failed to sway Pomaro. "In my view, the defense couldn't cite me any cases that were applicable," he says.
Jean's trial began on March 1, 1991, in a courtroom in Rolling Meadows.
"This is a case about every parent's nightmare," said assistant state's attorney Bruce Lester. "It is a case about a parent waiting at home for a child to return and that child not coming back. It is a case about a parent not knowing about that child's well-being or even if that child is alive."
Paese countered in his opening, "We believe that after you have all the evidence, you will conclude that this defendant, this accused, had to flee, that she was fleeing a pattern of domestic violence."
Sarah, Louise, and Matt led off for the prosecution, giving sketches of their childhood. Matt told the jury that his mother "was always yelling and screaming. I didn't like her attitude. I didn't like the way she always had to pick apart everything." Abby detailed her life with her mother. Finally Lester asked her how she liked living with her new family. "I like it," she replied.
The defense presented a long series of friends, neighbors, and family members, among them MaryAnn Whitcomb, Gladys Dickelman, Jean's mother, and Jean's brother Don. They described a bandaged and bruised Jean.
Louise and Sarah's best childhood friend testified about something she'd seen in the summer of 1980: "I looked up and there in the window I could see Jean. . . . Rich was right behind her, and I couldn't see neither of their hands, but she was struggling back and forth, like she was trying to get away." Don, who had lived with Jean and Rich for two summers while working at Rich's gas station, said he'd seen Rich slug his sister seven times.
Jean began her testimony by describing her life with Rich. She said he had battered her for years and had belittled her shamelessly after 1980, when they were struggling for custody of the kids. She stated she bought them food, but Rich locked the refrigerator; he made insulting remarks about her and her family in front of the kids; he wouldn't allow her mother to visit the children; if she arrived one minute early for a visitation, he forced her to wait outside. She said her older children stopped speaking to her. All she had left was Abby, whom she called "my little angel."
Then she described why she took Abby. "Because I was afraid he would kill me," she said. "And he was taking my kids away from me. He wouldn't even let me see my three older ones." She also said she wanted to protect Abby "from him turning her against me."
"You didn't have Rich's authority to take her to Texas, did you?" asked Cathy Nauheimer, the second prosecutor, when she cross-examined Jean.
"No, I did not," answered Jean. "I had discussed it with him, and he had refused. He told me I could not take her."
Her former lover Jerry then took the stand as a witness for the prosecution and described how she had once hit him in the chest.
Then it was Rich's turn. He was 20 pounds heavier than he'd been ten years before, but he still conveyed a certain virile charm. He candidly admitted that he'd had an affair in 1975 or '76, but denied taking up with his current wife until after he and Jean had separated.
He admitted that his relationship with Jean was "pretty rough" and resulted in "intense yelling matches." But he said he was the quiet partner and Jean the confrontational. He said he'd never called her bad names. He said he'd never hit her, though he did acknowledge that he'd "probably" pushed her; later he estimated the number of times he'd pushed her at 10 or 15. He reiterated the claims he'd made in the document that was part of his custody suit--that Jean had suffered her various injuries because she was a klutz. He also testified that Jean sometimes got violent with him, and said that once in the mid-70s "I got bitten on the arm, in the biceps pretty severely."
According to him, Jean was none too gentle with the kids. He described the incident in which Jean pitched the lid of a casserole dish at him and a piece of it gashed Matt's forehead. He told of another incident during the summer of 1980, when the family was returning home and Jean insisted on stopping for cigarettes. Rich contended that when he said he couldn't think of a place to stop, Jean held Abby out the window of the speeding car and said, "I'm going to hold her here until you get me cigarettes." He said he quickly drove to a 24-hour convenience store.
He testified that the older children had recoiled against going out with Jean when she came for visitations. They resisted entirely "unless they were bundled up and forced out the door by me." He said Matt and Sarah would run away rather than go with Jean.
Closing arguments came on March 21. Cathy Nauheimer, leading off for the state, asked that Jean be convicted. Rich had had custody of Abby on December 18, 1981, she stated, and Jean didn't have permission to take their daughter away. Moreover, Nauheimer said, Jean wasn't fleeing "an incidence or pattern of domestic violence." She reminded the jury that when Jean left she hadn't lived in the family house for more than a year. Nauheimer declared that Jean seemed to be acting less out of fear than to save her tie to Abby, "the only one at the time who appeared to love her."
Nauheimer also raised questions about Jean. "Is she without blame in developing that situation that occurred, that she has maintained she needed to flee from? Was the situation so bad for Abby or for those children that she had to remove them?"
Zerwer then spoke for the defense. She dismissed "the rehearsed, manipulated testimony of the children." She labeled Matt "a bogeyman in training." She told the jury that Rich might have denied beating Jean, but numerous witnesses had seen her bruises and wounds.
Zerwer forged on: "Set aside all the physical acts he committed upon her, set aside the broken bones and the black eyes and the bruises, the hair pulling until her scalp bled. Let's just set that aside. Don't you think that the worst violence he inflicted upon her was when he alienated her children from her? Isn't that a worse kind of violence?
"That lady over there"--Zerwer motioned toward Jean--"is not a monster. She's a nice lady. She may have been weak and passive when it came to dealing with Rich and perhaps even Jerry, but she was a good mother to those children.
"I think now it's time for this nightmare to be over. I think you agree with me. It's time for nicer dreams for all these people. You heard about the twins. They are in college. Isn't that wonderful? We are happy for them. Bright, promising futures. Matt is still searching for himself. Sarah, a delightful young lady, said to you she had new friends at school. We are happy for her.
"But let's turn now to Jean. Let's end her nightmare. Let her have her dreams--dreams for peace of mind, dreams for her future, dreams possibly for reestablishing those broken maternal bonds with her children. We ask you to find her not guilty. We ask you to tell her she's not a criminal."
After Bruce Lester presented the final part of the prosecution's summation, the jury retired to deliberate. The 12 members--a mix of people from middle-class professionals to a welfare recipient--soon came to an impasse over definitions. What constituted "an incidence or pattern of domestic violence"? Was domestic violence merely physical, or did it include verbal and psychological abuse? "We didn't know," says jury foreman George L. Hunt III, a mechanical engineer.
At around 8 PM the jurors sent out a note to Judge Pomaro, asking for clarification of the word "pattern." Pomaro said they had to define the word for themselves. At 10:30 the jurors again asked for a definition of "pattern" and of "domestic violence." Pomaro again said they would have to decide for themselves.
According to Hunt, the jurors finally agreed that domestic violence was "intentional physical acts within the household." He says the jurors believed Jean had in fact been physically abused by Rich. "He was an intense man," says Hunt. "There's no chance in the world he didn't do something to her." But he also says Jean had a part in the animosities. "She was not a lady in white. This was a tough lady. She was not one, I'm confident, who stood by and let things happen. There was domestic violence on both sides."
But whether there was a pattern or not, the jurors concluded that the violence had ended when Jean moved out of the family house more than a year before she took Abby and left. Hunt says he was at first on the fence, but after the jurors went to the hotel where they were sequestered, his views shifted. He stayed up until 3 AM crafting a sequence of events from notes he'd made. "What I saw was a pattern of violence--and I also saw it die." That settled his mind, and by morning he was firm in his opinion to convict. So were the other jurors.
Hunt recollects that when the jurors filed into the courtroom, Jean stared right at them, a pouty expression on her face. When the clerk read the verdict of guilty, Jean was standing, flanked by Paese and Zerwer. She says, "I wanted to scream, kick, and holler, but my whole body went numb."
On June 25, 1991, Pomaro sentenced Jean to one year's probation. She was lucky--she'd been facing one to three years behind bars.
During the courtroom drama tensions had run high between Pomaro and Paese and Zerwer, as well as between the prosecutors and the public defenders. In a lengthy posttrial hearing asking for a new trial, Paese argued that Pomaro had erred on numerous matters, including admission of evidence and interpretation of legal precedent, and had engaged "in conduct to lead one to believe that the Court was a functionary of the State or a third prosecutor." The judge took offense. On June 4, when he ruled on the motion for a new trial, he complained, "I have never been accused of being such a misfit on the bench. I probably shouldn't admit it, but I'm hurt by it." Among other things, the judge felt he was being accused of not having read all the relevant case law. "I'm particularly sensitive to that because of my physical handicap. I'm blind. I'm not able to read myself, and I have to have matters read to me. But I would hope that people know that I would never jeopardize an individual's liberty because of my ego, because of my physical limitations." After Pomaro denied the new trial motion he cited both Paese and Zerwer for contempt and fined them $300 apiece, a decision that shocked the attorneys and that they have since appealed.
In January the appellate division of the public defender's office filed an appeal of Jean's verdict, arguing that an indictment was brought against her after a three-year statute of limitations had lapsed, and that Judge Pomaro erred in failing to allow the defense to introduce a broader interpretation of abuse. But Mark Pasterski, the assistant public defender who prepared the appeal, only broadened that interpretation to include the "1981 acts of simple harassment unaccompanied by physical abuse" that led Jean to take Abby. He did not include battered-woman syndrome. A lawyer for Life Span, the advocacy group for battered women, observed the posttrial stages of Jean's case, and the organization has promised to file an amicus brief on her behalf.
Life Span executive director Leslie Landis, who believes Jean did suffer from battered-woman syndrome, says that if Jean's conviction is allowed to stand it would undercut the validity of battered-woman syndrome as a defense. Landis says it's a mistake to believe a battered woman should lose credibility if she is less than pure herself. "Not every battered woman is Farrah Fawcett," she says, referring to the TV movie The Burning Bed, about a woman who kills her abusive husband. "Battered women come in different varieties. Some are submissive--they'd never fight--and we criticize them for not fighting back. Others are very aggressive, and we say, "Well, they engaged in it, so it must have been mutual.' Maybe that was Jean. In any event, what we're doing is a form of victim blaming--switching the question from the perpetrator to the victim."
Jean's family remains convinced that she was a woman pushed over the brink. "The amount of mental and physical abuse she was subjected to is something you and I can't understand," says one of her brothers. "Rich threw her out on her ear. She was headed for welfare. He turned those three older kids against her. God, the things that he said to them behind the scenes."
Psychologist Lenore Walker thinks it's wrong to refuse to allow a jury to consider such evidence. "Courts are supposed to consider not only what you do," she insists, "but what's in your mind when you do it. It's called state of mind. You just can't understand someone's state of mind unless you consider the context."
While Jean's friends voice sympathy for her plight, they draw a line. MaryAnn Whitcomb says, "If she'd have taken the other three kids too, I'd have understood her up one end and down the other. But that she left the others appalled me." Shirley Bastiani has a similar reaction. "Well, I guess that's what she needed to do, but I know that I couldn't do that. I have good days and bad days with my own kids. But leave 'em? Nope."
Rich speaks only bitterly of Jean. "This stuff has gotten old for us," he says, speaking for himself and his children. "I'm tired of hearing that my kids were brainwashed. They lived this. Jean didn't." He says it's absurd for her to say she was a battered woman and absurd for her to have gone to a shelter for abused women. "There she is, taking a bed from someone who really needs it."
It doesn't surprise Jean's partisans that Rich maintains he's innocent. "I don't know of any abuser who ever admitted it," says Marianne Forrest, Jean's counselor at the Evanston shelter. "I've seen it on TV, but it hasn't been my experience. There'd be no reason for him to fess up--what'd be in it for him?"
Jean now lives in a downstairs bedroom at a friend's house. Until November 1990 she worked as a secretary; now her only employment consists of cleaning houses and some baby-sitting. She remains obsessed with proving that Rich harassed and abused her, and with smoothing ties with her children. But both goals elude her. She says Sarah and Louise "don't want anything to do with me." Her relationship with Matt is virtually nonexistent.
Jean still wants joint custody of Abby, now 14, and attorney Tom Brejcha is still in court pressing her case. Jean tries to attend her daughter's volleyball and basketball games, but she says Abby mouths off to her and sometimes refuses to spend the weekend with her. Whether the girl would agree to a joint arrangement remains a question.
"Everyone has been damaged by this," says MaryAnn Whitcomb. "I keep hoping for the day when this family will mend its fences, but for now it's a nightmare. Nobody sits down and works things out. It's who can do what to whom when. The kids are lost to Jean."
*This name has been changed, as have those of all people identified by first name only.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Chuck Nitti.