By Jane Sims Podesta Paula Chin
October 16, 1989 12:00 PM

Elizabeth Morgan is sitting on the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Washington, slowly and deliberately eating a lunch of fruit, cheese and crackers, when she pauses to contemplate a simple pleasure. “The feel of rain,” she says, gesturing at the autumn drizzle falling over the capital. “I missed that so much in jail. To sit on grass, to have coffee when I want—and to just hold on to Paul’s arm,” she adds, flushing and casting a glance across the table at her fiancé Paul Michel. “I have so much to be thankful for. All along I’ve had a single prayer—that Hilary stays safe. As long as she does, everything else is a gift.”

Her 5’5″, 121-lb. frame seems fragile, her skin pale against the bright fuchsia of her summer dress. This is one of the first days of freedom for Morgan, 42, who has just emerged from a chilling ordeal: 759 days in a tiny cell amid the slamming doors and screaming voices deep inside the District of Columbia Jail. Convinced that her former husband, Eric Foretich, was raping their young daughter, Hilary—a charge he vehemently denies—Morgan had sent the child into hiding. She was jailed on contempt charges in August 1987, after defying a judge’s order that she allow her daughter, then 5, overnight visits with Foretich. She swore to stay in prison indefinitely rather than reveal Hilary’s whereabouts. She has kept that pledge.

After 25 months in jail—the longest period on record for civil contempt in a custody case—Morgan is now free, but still a prisoner of the blood feud that remains the most celebrated custody case in the nation. Swept into a whirlwind of interviews and TV appearances, Morgan issued stern reminders that the battle was far from resolved and lashed out at a legal system that, she said, “had sent a raped child back to her rapist” Foretich, 46, countered with his own media campaign, questioning Morgan’s sanity and demanding that federal authorities begin searching for Hilary. “I want my child back,” he said. “I want her liberties restored. I’m not going to abandon her.”

Remarkably, despite the uncertainties that hang over her future, Morgan remains optimistic. Last week she was eagerly making plans for her marriage to Michel, 48, a federal appeals court judge, and taking the first, tentative steps toward resuming her once-thriving career as a plastic surgeon. But she must still shoulder the burden of her decision to send Hilary, now 7, into a life as a fugitive, deprived of direct contact with her parents. “It’s very, very difficult to be free and not with her,” Morgan says. “I know it sounds extreme, but no one can tell me it is better for us to be together if that means she might be sent back to Eric.” Still, concedes Morgan, “I miss Hilary terribly. Doing the right thing is hard.”

Darling Hilary,

The President today signed the bill to free me. Darling, it doesn’t protect you, but it gives real dignity to the suffering of you and every incest child in the country. People are listening, my child. A rainbow arched across Washington today. My love, I like to think it was sent especially for you and all the other children from God to say, ‘I love you and there is hope!’ ”

Love, Mommy

In her looping handwriting, Elizabeth Morgan wrote that diary entry to her daughter on Saturday, Sept. 23, just after Michel informed her over the telephone that a sympathetic President Bush had hastily signed a congressional bill limiting to 12 months the time a person can be jailed for civil contempt in the District of Columbia. In effect, the bill had been written especially for her, after a public outcry over her long imprisonment without trial. But Morgan held out scant hope that the courts would really set her free. After all, she reckoned, they had failed her since 1985, when, Morgan charges, Hilary, then 2 l/2, first described having oral, anal and vaginal sex with her father, a prosperous dental surgeon. Morgan—who divorced Foretich in 1982, after just 10 months of marriage—tried to persuade the courts to end Foretich’s unsupervised visits. Superior Court Judge Herbert Dixon weighed the girl’s abuse charges, plus supporting testimony by therapists and doctors, and allegations by one of Foretich’s previous wives that he had also raped Hilary’s older half-sister, Heather, now 9. But after hearing conflicting testimony from Foretich’s witnesses, Dixon declared the evidence of abuse inconclusive and ordered that unsupervised visits continue. And after Morgan’s defiance led to her jailing in 1987, both Dixon and the higher courts rejected 49 motions, 15 appeals and four oral arguments for her release, despite the fact that she had never been convicted of any crime. “I know I’m going to stay in jail after all this time,” she recalls telling Michel that Saturday. “Everything that could go wrong has for the last two years.”

But on Sept. 25, after spending most of the day deliberating her case, the D.C. Court of Appeals ordered an end to her imprisonment. As the news flashed across television sets inside the jail, an astonished Morgan heard her fellow inmates-prostitutes, drug dealers, junkies—start cheering, “You’re going home! Dr. Morgan, you’re going home!” Only then did she begin packing her belongings and giving away prized jailhouse possessions—including packets of instant coffee and jars of peanut butter and honey.

At 7:06 P.M., in the absence of Judge Dixon, who was on leave in California, another Superior Court judge signed the papers to spring the jail’s most famous inmate. Morgan was in a virtual state of shock. She couldn’t eat her last institutional dinner; the greasy fried beef liver, dry white rice, peas and carrots remained on her plate. Almost in a daze, she strode through the prison corridors to the discharge gate at 8:44 P.M.—and straight into the arms of Michel, her brother, Rob Morgan, and attorney Stephen Sachs, while a phalanx of journalists recorded the joyous moment. “I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t real,’ ” says Morgan later. “It was like walking through the looking glass. Once I stepped out, I felt like a Martian who had landed on another planet.”

After a pell-mell drive with Michel to a hotel in downtown Washington, Morgan changed out of her detested orange prison jumpsuit, indulged in the luxury of a private bath and girded for her appointed rounds with the press. Within hours of her release, she was besieged at Sachs’s law offices by some 200 phone calls from congressmen, supporters and journalists. For the next two days she granted scores of interviews, some of which left a distinctly bitter aftertaste. Though accustomed to skeptical questioning, Morgan says she was “overwhelmingly discouraged” by her close encounters with many reporters and their ignorance of the complicated facts of her case. Most disappointing, she says, was her dueling appearance with Foretich on ABC-TV’s Nightline, where, Morgan insists, she had to spend much of her time correcting factual errors made by Ted Koppel. “I wanted to walk out or take the lemon pie approach—right in [Koppel’s] face,” she says, only half in jest. “I’ll never do that program again.”

Morgan also endured assaults on her character in the wake of her broadcast appearances. Critics say she is cold and remote, strangely unable to express the grief and outrage one would expect from a mother whose child has supposedly been so horribly violated. In person Morgan is intense, but also warm, soft-spoken and humorous—and if those qualities fail to come across on camera, she professes not to care. “I’ve reached the point where I’m not trying to persuade people. Before I went to prison, when I was distraught and upset and accusatory, people said, ‘Oh, she’s just crazy.’ Now that Hilary is protected and I’m at peace, they ask, ‘How can she be so calm?’ ”

That is not to say Morgan’s first week doesn’t include moments of heartache. After calling a halt to the deluge of press interviews on Wednesday, Morgan recalls, she returns to her downtown Washington hotel—coincidentally the same hotel where she had stayed with Hilary shortly before sending her into hiding. It was a time, says Morgan, when Hilary was so consumed with torment that the child had become suicidal—and all the painful memories come flooding back. “I remember the intensity of her suffering, asking myself why it was happening—and having absolutely no answer,” says Morgan. “And I just ached to be with her. I felt that terrible longing, and it just made me cry.”

There were more wrenching reminders to come. Later that day, Morgan attends an informal gathering of her supporters at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in northwest Washington, where she and Hilary had sought spiritual refuge during the summer of 1987, just before they parted. As she walks into the children’s chapel, where they had prayed together, Morgan’s brown eyes fill with tears and her body trembles. “Hilary was trying desperately to hang on to hope,” Morgan recalls. “I could feel her spirit with me.”

After Morgan addresses the gathering—which includes incest victims, National Organization of Women activists, and members of the Friends for Elizabeth Morgan, an international support group that is now 15,000 strong—many of the listeners also weep. Lana Lawrence, 29, whose father was convicted of incest when she was 16, flings her arms around Morgan and cries. “Elizabeth’s done what a lot of mothers should have done for their children,” she says. “I’ve talked to her on the phone, and she has been so supportive of me. There she was in jail, giving me strength to go on. She is an incredible woman. I wish my mother had had her strength.”

While Morgan is pleased that her case has helped raise concern over children’s and women’s rights, she downplays the role of martyr and heroine. “I was put in a terrible situation and had to choose,” she says. “It’s not as if I was shot at, tortured or starved. If there is a lesson, it’s that an extraordinary situation can make a hero out of an ordinary person like me. Going to jail was no big deal.”

The following evening, Morgan takes center stage at a gathering of former inmates, in the lavish suburban Washington offices of the Prison Fellowship Ministries, hosted by born-again minister and convicted Watergate conspirator Charles Colson. Gathered to “celebrate and rejoice” Morgan’s freedom, the group includes Lt. Col. Oliver North, who was fired from the National Security Council staff for his role in the Iran-contra scandal and is now doing 1,200 hours of community service. North murmurs his best wishes. Colson understands what she has endured: “I was only in prison for seven months. I’d have lost my mind in the D.C. jail for 25 months,” he tells the crowd. He offers Morgan a few words of jailbird wisdom. “After you get out, it is extremely difficult adjusting. I couldn’t drive a car without worrying I would do something wrong—I had spent so much time being told what to think.”

Morgan took Colson’s advice seriously. “He knows thousands of prisoners and says it’s a uniform experience that there is a prolonged period of upheaval,” she says after the gathering, visibly exhausted from the hectic pace of the past few days. While Morgan jokes about the short-term adjustments she has already made, like learning not to hoard bits of leftover food or packets of restaurant sugar, she knows it will be a struggle to get back to a normal life. “I’ve been living in a totally foreign culture. It was another dimension in jail,” she says. “I’ve forgotten how to open a door—I haven’t done that in two years, because inmates aren’t allowed to touch the doors. And I haven’t had a job. I’ve got to take time to recover.”

There is, however, one pressing task that can no longer be delayed. For the four nights since her release, Morgan and Michel have taken extraordinary precautions to conceal their whereabouts, hopscotching from one hotel to another. Now, finally, they move into their permanent hideout—a sparsely furnished, two-bedroom apartment in northwest Washington. “It’s absolutely beautiful,” says Morgan, taking a first look at her new home, which seems as much fortress as love nest. Their names are absent from the directory at the entry-way, their phone number is unlisted. Michel has even installed doors in some rooms that lock only from the inside, where, if need be, Morgan can hide from an intruder and trigger the burglar alarm. “We’ll get no mail here—it will be sent to a post office downtown,” he says, his voice echoing in the near-empty room. “And I’m installing emergency phone lines and upgrading the alarm system.”

The precautions have been taken partly because of problems the two claim they have encountered in the past. Michel says his last apartment was burgled twice in two years, and someone broke into his judicial chambers as well; he also claims to have been followed several times by “a young man with aviator glasses in a black Jeep” since Morgan was incarcerated. Morgan is more direct about her fears. “I have to prepare for Eric,” she says, referring to Foretich’s recent misdemeanor conviction for possession of a deadly weapon. He was arrested at Dulles International Airport last June while carrying a concealed .38-caliber revolver. (Foretich, who claimed he did not know the weapon was in his briefcase, passed a lie detector test and paid a $500 fine.) “I was safer inside jail,” Morgan adds. “Eric hasn’t threatened me, but several doctors’ examinations show that he is capable of hurting someone.” Foretich says those fears are groundless. “I don’t know where [Michel] lived. I’ve never followed him or had him followed. And I don’t want to harm her. They’re starting those stories to demean me.”

On a glorious, sunny afternoon in Washington, Morgan plops down on the green grass of Lafayette Park, waiting like a smitten teenager for her lunchtime rendezvous with Michel. Tardy as always, he walks up behind her and sits down by her side. “I spent so many days here dreaming of the time when I’d be eating a sandwich with you next to me,” he says, sending Morgan into a fit of laughter. “I’m in wuv,” Morgan burbles at one point. “I’ve been in love a long time.” A divorced father of two girls, now 22 and 20, Michel first met Morgan in 1981 when she performed surgery on his younger daughter, Meg, then 12. He did not see Morgan again until a party in September 1986. “I went over to reintroduce myself and zap! Absolute wham!” recalls Michel, who had separated from his wife and was working as an administrative assistant to Pennsylvania Sen. Aden Specter by that time. “It was love at second sight.” They had their first dinner date within a week; by Thanksgiving they were seeing each other daily.

At the time, Morgan was deeply embroiled in her legal battle with Foretich. “It was clear I was walking into a mess,” says Michel. “In the beginning it was love and had nothing to do with saving Hilary.” But that soon changed as, in his view, Morgan was savaged by a legal system to which he has devoted his life. Appointed to his judge’s post in 1988, Michel could not become directly involved in Morgan’s case, but before her imprisonment in August 1987 he did recommend that she hire Stephen Sachs, a former Maryland attorney general. Sachs took on Morgan, even though she had already accumulated $1 million in unpaid legal fees. She now owes Sachs $700,000, although since January 1988 he has handled her case pro bono.

While Sachs fought Morgan’s battles in the courts, it was Michel who was her bedrock of support; he was there to take her daily collect phone calls from jail, and he visited her every week. Now the two are virtually inseparable, almost always arm in arm. “I remember the stories of King Arthur and the ideal of the perfect, gentle knight,” says Morgan. “Paul is a lover and protector and warrior.” He turns to her and smiles. “Can I have that in writing?”

These days, Morgan is happily mapping out her future with Michel. It may be a year before she tries to resume her surgeon’s career, but she plans to begin writing a book about life behind bars soon. Their marriage, which will be the second for them both, was originally scheduled for early fall but may have to wait. “I used to have the idea that we would get married immediately,” says Michel. “Now, I don’t want to set the date. I want to make sure Elizabeth is able to recover from this very prolonged, very punishing confinement. Maybe it will be a month or several months away.” Morgan agrees in principle, but is making plans nonetheless for a private ceremony at St. Alban’s—and has already chosen two of Hilary’s favorite dolls to be present in her stead.

Meantime, she must contend with the pending litigation filed against her by Foretich. He is pressing ahead with a $220 million libel suit against Morgan, his second wife, Sharon, and others for a People Magazine on TV segment in August on their custody battle; last month he filed a $175 million suit against Morgan and nine others he accuses of “inflicting emotional distress” by allegedly hiding Hilary.

“I have suffered every bit as much as [Morgan] has for the last two years,” says Foretich. (Last week, police in Yonkers, N.Y., arrested a man for attempting to extort $6,500 from Foretich in exchange for information on Hilary’s whereabouts.) “Even if my daughter were returned and even if I had unsupervised visitation, I would not accept it. I would make sure there was someone there every single solitary moment. If anyone can tell me what else I can do that will be in the interest of all parties, I will consider it.”

Morgan, however, is not interested in compromises. In fact she seems to relish the chance for a jury trial; she believes it will make public some of the testimony regarding her case that only came out in closed court. Eventually, she believes, such evidence will persuade the courts to determine Foretich’s visitation rights solely according to the wishes of Hilary and her therapist, Dr. Mary Froning. “I’m not just sitting here thinking nothing can be done and that I’ll just wait until she turns 18,” says Morgan. And if the courts don’t grant Hilary the protection Morgan is seeking? “I’m hoping for another resolution—that Eric may just give up,” she says. “Everybody says I’m nuts, but I keep hoping he will say, ‘I did it. I’m sorry. I want help.’ I would like him to find the strength to do that—and then ask, ‘Where do we go from there?’ ”

During Sunday services at St. Alban’s, Morgan kneels and says a silent prayer for her daughter. Afterward, she is clearly feeling blissful. Morgan won’t disclose whether, since her release, she has spoken with Hilary, who is believed to be living with Morgan’s parents. “I’ve been told that even pay-phone calls can be traced,” she says. “I might be able to get away with calling Hilary, but what a terrific risk. Everything would be lost if I fail. Hilary knows this, and the people with her know this. Hilary knows they would find her and take her away. I’m going to stay here and fight for her return.”

To help her endure the separation, Morgan says she envisions how mother and daughter are living parallel lives of happiness. “I see myself at St. Alban’s and Hilary at church somewhere else. I’m teaching Sunday school and thinking of her in a Sunday school. I think of us both putting the star atop a Christmas tree.” Morgan, however, cannot help but dream that sooner rather than later she will hold Hilary in her arms again. “When good things happen,” she says, “it makes you feel that more blessings will follow.”

—Additional reporting by Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.