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A Weary Mother and Child Reach the End of the Line on the Underground Railroad

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The motel door rattled in its frame, and a man shouted, “FBI! Open up!” Vicki Korolko had warned her 5-year-old daughter, Sarah, that this day might come. Yet nothing could have prepared the little girl for the terrifying sight of police and federal agents swarming into the room. “A policeman took Sarah from me, and she started crying,” recalls Korolko, 35. “Then she saw the FBI agent start to handcuff me, and she screamed, ‘No, no, please don’t put chains on my mommy!'”

For little Sarah Korolko, it was simply one more trauma in a brief anguished life. In 1985 her mother, Vicki, a caterer from Fort Smith, Ark., first accused her estranged husband, Joe, of sexually molesting their daughter during parental visits. Joe, now 45, a plant manager, vigorously denied the charge, insisting that Vicki had “brainwashed” the little girl. Although three doctors testified that they believed Sarah’s graphic descriptions of the alleged molestations, they failed to convince Judge Warren Kimbrough. Instead the judge awarded full custody to Joe on the grounds that Vicki was an “overprotective mother.” Three months later, on July 4,1988, Vicki loaded Sarah and a few possessions into an old Ford pickup and fled. Desperate and destitute, she sought help from the Underground Railroad, a clandestine nationwide network (PEOPLE, Jan. 23,1989) that has sprung up to protect fugitive victims of alleged sexual abuse.

Thus began a 19-month odyssey through 20 different cities. The Underground provided them with safe houses, false papers and disguises, but the pair lived in constant fear of detection. At first Sarah kept forgetting her new aliases, until Vicki hit on the name “Jackson,” after Michael Jackson, Sarah’s favorite star; that helped the little girl remember. Last January, weary of life on the run, mother and daughter settled in a cramped $300-a-month apartment in San Antonio, where Vicki went to work cleaning houses.

One of the people Vicki stayed in touch with was an old Fort Smith friend, Larry Kanady. Eventually Kanady, a cattle farmer and divorced father of three grown children, arrived for a visit and floated an unexpected proposal: marriage. “At first I thought I misunderstood him, and I asked him to repeat it” says Vicki. She said yes, and on May 7 they were married at a local minister’s home. “I realized what I was getting into,” says Kanady. “But we loved each other so much.”

Larry headed back to Fort Smith, sold his cattle and equipment and rejoined his new family. But the law started to close in early in February after the couple contacted a San Antonio private investigator who, they had been told, could supply Larry, 46, with a fake driver’s license and social security number so that he could disappear as well. Through a telephone tip, Vicki discovered that the FBI had learned of the meeting with the investigator. Frightened, the family left their apartment and drove to a Motel 6 in Corpus Christi, Texas, 140 miles away. A few hours later, authorities, apparently acting on a tip of their own, showed up at the motel, lured Larry out of the room with a phone call, and made the arrest.

After a week in jail, Vicki was extradited to Fort Smith, where she was arraigned last week on criminal charges of interference with custody, a felony in Arkansas. Vicki also faces contempt of court charges imposed by Judge Kimbrough, who may preside over the future custody battle. The odds of recovering Sarah, who has been returned to Joe Korolko, don’t discourage Vicki. “I’m so tired now, but I can’t close my eyes because I’m worried about Sarah,” she says. “I’m going to fight to get my baby back, you better believe it.”