By Giovanna Breu
June 06, 1983 12:00 PM

Last month Willow Lynne Cramlet of Denver won a $5.9 million lawsuit against Phil Donahue’s TV production company, but she soon had a stroke of even better fortune. She had sued the company after her ex-husband, who had disappeared with their son during a bitter custody battle, appeared with Donahue on his Today show segment in 1980. The same day that headlines blared the news of her victory, neighbors of ex-husband Wayne Anderson, 39, revealed that he was living in Tulsa. Anderson was jailed in lieu of $50,000 bail, and 6-year-old Eland Anderson (whom his father had renamed Jeffrey) was reunited with the mother he had not seen since Dec. 29, 1979. The return of Eland was balm for his mother, bitter for his father, and left unhealed the hurts of an American family tragedy common to thousands.

Confused by the changes and saddened by the loss of his father, Eland was having trouble adapting to his mother’s home and didn’t recognize his 12-year-old dog, Onyx. “Obviously things are not as close and comfortable as before,” says Willow, 37, a process server. “I’m afraid he feels, ‘Here is that person whom I hardly know who is being overwhelming.’ ” Eland also had to get to know a half sister, Genet, 2, who was born during his absence. The twice-divorced Cramlet has refused to marry the girl’s father. “I chose not to get married because I could not overcome the fear of having another child kidnapped,” says Willow. “You don’t know what it’s like until you’ve gone through it.”

Meanwhile Anderson, an engineer who also had been studying law at the University of Tulsa, mourned the loss of his son and worried that a conviction for violating Colorado’s child custody laws would end his chances of becoming a lawyer. He has filed a motion asking that temporary custody of Eland be given to his own mother, Hope, on grounds that his ex-wife is unfit to care for the boy. Anderson points out that before he took Eland he was working in Houston and still visited Denver weekly for his court-allotted visit. “I certainly wouldn’t have done that if my son hadn’t greeted me with a smile every time,” he says. “When they would take him away from me a lot of times he would be crying.” In Tulsa, he adds, “I spent every second of my time with that child.”

Even the neighbors who turned in Anderson (they reached the mother through Child Find, a nonprofit group devoted to looking for missing children) praised him as a parent. “The relationship between the two was unreal,” says an informant who requested anonymity. “Sometimes Jeff [Eland] would be playing outside. He’d go to the doorway and shout, ‘I love you, Daddy.’ Wayne would shout back, ‘I love you too!’ He was just a super father. But I couldn’t have lived with myself if I hadn’t reported it,” the neighbor continues. “A son has a right to know his mother. But to see a son torn away from his father—I think it’s cruel.”

Coincidentally, Phil Donahue was going to Denver to attend his son Michael’s graduation from the University of Colorado when he heard Eland had been found. He has appealed the $5.9 million judgment against his production company and still defends his decision to allow a company secretary to baby-sit for Eland when Anderson appeared, in disguise, on the Today show April 10 and 11, 1980. “Our job as journalists is not to choose sides,” he says. “We are not extensions of law enforcement.” Donahue adds, “Eland had become a tennis ball in a blood match between warring ex-spouses. It is a nightmare. I really am glad the child was found. It makes it possible for him to grow up knowing both his mother and father, and I think that is the ultimate victory in this case.”

Such a happy conclusion still seemed distant as Eland fed the pet rabbits at his new home and played in the yard with his new sister. He had tearfully cried out “I love you, Daddy!” as police handcuffed and led away his dad in Tulsa. He hasn’t talked to his dad since that time, but he obviously has not forgotten. “I gave him some pocket money the other day and told him I didn’t want him to feel he was running around broke,” mother Willow reports. “He said, ‘I can always go to Oklahoma to get $100.’ ”