Everyone has done it. You type your name into Google, sit back and see where the popular online search engine takes you. When Orey Torres, 17 and the only child of a single mother in California, tried it at school one day last year, the results were nothing short of traumatic: He found a childhood photograph of himself on a Web site for missing and abducted kids. “Orey apparently told friends that his father had abandoned him,” says Rhonda Morgan, the executive director of the Missing Children Society of Canada (MCSC), which had been investigating Orey’s disappearance from a small town in Canada for more than a decade. “He was quite shocked to learn he was a missing child.”
There were more surprises to come. On Feb. 11 federal marshals arrested Orey’s mother, Gisele Goudreault, 45, on kidnapping charges issued in Canada; she has been accused of abducting her then-3-year-old son after a judge awarded sole custody to the boy’s father in the spring of 1989. Goudreault, an administrative assistant for the Los Angeles school district, had lived under assumed names in Mexico and California, according to friends, before settling in Grenada Hills, not far from Orey’s small private high school. She is being held without bail at the San Bernardino county jail and is fighting extradition to Canada, where she faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Meanwhile, in the tiny Canadian town of Ponoka, Alta., Orey’s father, Rodney Steinmann, is anxiously awaiting a reunion with the son he hasn’t seen in nearly 15 years. “He was very excited, almost to the point of being angry,” says Darrell Wilson, an MCSC investigator who called Steinmann with the news that Orey had been found. “He was also relieved that his son was alive and well. One of his first questions was, ‘How’s Orey doing in school?'”
Orey first stumbled onto his picture on the Find the Children Web site back on Feb. 12, 2003. His teacher promptly called administrators at Find the Children, who reported Orey’s whereabouts to MCSC investigators in Canada; they in turn informed the local police. But because of the lengthy extradition process, it would take U.S. and Canadian authorities nearly a year to arrange for Goudreault’s arrest. With Goudreault in jail, Orey is currently living with a California foster family; he has yet to reunite with his father. Steinmann, 42, an electrician, has decided not to push the issue and is allowing Orey to choose when and where they meet again, according to investigator Darrell Wilson: “Rodney says, ‘It’s going to be on Orey’s terms. I’m going to give him time to absorb what happened.'”
Goudreault first met Steinmann in Red Deer, Alta., in the summer of 1985. After dating a few months, Goudreault got pregnant. She and Steinmann discussed the possibility of an abortion and split up soon thereafter, according to court papers filed during the subsequent custody dispute. Goudreault, one of 17 siblings of French-Canadian Catholic parents, gave birth to the child and introduced Orey to his father a year and a half later. According to his family, Steinmann quickly fell in love with the boy. “Rodney was so ecstatic,” says his brother Darin. “It was heaven for him.”
Steinmann and Goudreault briefly dated again before the relationship collapsed for good—and the custody battle began. In court papers, both parties accused the other of being an unfit parent: Goudreault said Steinmann was unstable, frequently unemployed and didn’t pull his weight financially. He countered that she too was unstable, took medication for anxiety and was on welfare. On May 17, 1989, the judge sided with Steinmann, awarding him custody of the couple’s son.
Days later, after Steinmann dropped Orey at Goudreault’s house following a weekend visit, Goudreault slipped out of the country with her son. Aurel Goudreault now admits that he knew his sister fled Canada after the family received a letter from her saying, “Clean my apartment, sell my stuff, I’m gone. We won’t tell you where so there’s no way you can get in trouble.” An anonymous caller informed Steinmann’s brother Darin that Goudreault and Orey had gone abroad.
Steinmann reported the disappearance to police and cooperated with the producers of a Canadian TV show called Missing, which broadcast his story. But a break in the case wouldn’t come for years, until Orey typed his name into Google last February. (Coincidentally, American and Canadian authorities were also investigating Goudreault after she applied for U.S. residency using her real name.)
Now Orey, who turns 18 in June, faces a wrenching choice. In Canada, relatives on both sides eagerly welcome his return. “The whole family is waiting with bated breath to see him again,” says Orey’s uncle Darin Steinmann. In California, meanwhile, Orey has sought the comfort of his pastor. “I told him I was going to see his mother in jail,” says the Reverend Michael Beckwith of L.A.’s Agape International Church of Religious Science. “Orey wanted to make it very clear to her that he loved her and wanted to see her.”
Bob Meadows. Ken Lee in Ponoka and Sandra Marquez in Los Angeles