May 11, 1998 12:00 PM

For years Stephen Fagan had lied to his two daughters, telling them their mother, who was very much alive, had died in a car crash. His reasons were obvious. More than 18 years ago he had taken the girls, then legally in their mother’s custody, and fled from Massachusetts to Florida, hiding them from her for all of their childhood. Now, at last, the truth had come out, and the two sisters, Rachael Fagan, 23, and Lisa, 21, were appearing at a Boston press conference to render their first public judgments on their father’s lie, the explanation he had offered to justify their abduction and, implicitly, on the mother they hadn’t seen since 1979.

“My father,” said Lisa, “is a man I love and respect.”

“I can only hope if I am ever in the situation my father was in,” said Rachael, “I will have the strength to follow in his footsteps.”

Neither chose to mention their mother, Barbara Kurth, 48, whom Fagan, 56, had recently described to them—following his arrest on kidnapping charges—as a neglectful, alcoholic parent in whose care they might well have perished. For the moment at least, Kurth was left only with the hope that someday the two young women might choose to meet with her and draw their own conclusions. “My own desire has been to know how my daughters were doing and whether or not, when the time was right, a private reunion might take place between us,” she said, reading a prepared statement in Boston. “My only true wish is that they come someday to realize that I have always loved them and I always will.”

Kurth, raised in Burlington, Vt., and Fagan, from Newton, Mass., had first met in the late ’60s at the Kenmore Club in Boston, where he was a bouncer and she a coat checker. (Married at the time, Fagan told her his wife was in “an insane asylum,” according to The Boston Globe.) When they were wed in 1973, Fagan had a law degree from Suffolk University in Boston, while Kurth had dropped out of school and was working odd jobs. Kurth’s family found their new in-law intelligent and well-read, but aloof. “He wasn’t unfriendly,” says Kurth’s younger brother Peter, “just perfunctory.” The couple’s first child, Rachael, was born in 1974; their second, then called Wendy, in 1977. Meanwhile, Fagan worked as a supervisor at a legal-aid clinic run by the Harvard Law School.

By 1977, the Fagans’ marriage was failing. The following year the couple were granted a divorce, with Barbara given custody of the children. She took the girls from the home she shared with Stephen in suburban Framingham and ended up in an apartment in North Adams, Mass., 90 miles away. But Fagan was determined to get the girls back. In the fall of 1979 he obtained affidavits from three of Barbara’s neighbors in North Adams, who raised serious questions about her fitness as a mother. They described her as frequently drunk and the girls as often inappropriately clothed, underfed and unsupervised. “I do not allow my daughter to play in Barbara’s apartment,” said neighbor Helenmary Wilk in her sworn statement. “[She] is not a responsible mother.”

But other former neighbors scoff at the notion that Kurth was an unfit parent. “You never saw her that she didn’t have Wendy on her hip and little Rachael’s hand in hers,” says Patsy Maselek, who lived near the Fagans in Framingham and who runs a day-care center. “I’m trained to look for abuse and neglect, and I just never saw anything but happy children.” Barbara’s brother Peter says his sister does suffer from narcolepsy, which causes victims to lose consciousness suddenly, and that her frequent drowsiness could have been mistaken for intoxication. In any case, child-welfare authorities investigated the allegations against Barbara and allowed her to retain custody.

On Thursday, Oct. 25, 1979, Fagan picked up his daughters, then 5 and 2, for a weekend trip to Cape Cod. That was the last time Kurth saw her two girls. For years after the abduction, Peter says, his sister hired lawyers and private investigators to try and find her kids, to no avail. (At the time, she got no help from police because parental abduction cases were largely treated as family disputes.) Though devastated, Barbara and her family prayed that the girls might someday reappear on their own. Barbara’s mother, Constance Kurth, now 72, deliberately never moved from her home in Burlington and never changed her phone number on the chance that her granddaughters might contact her. But over the years the odds that Fagan would be found seemed to grow longer and longer. “People were just turning up nothing,” says Peter. “He had just completely evaporated.”

In fact, Fagan had arrived with the girls in Key West, Fla., within weeks of picking them up. He assumed the name William S. Martin and the social security number of a 6-year-old boy who had died in Massachusetts. (He also changed Wendy’s name to Lisa, presumably to avoid detection.) He and the girls lived comfortably but modestly, first in Key West, then in Palm Beach County. Though it is still not clear where Fagan was getting his money initially—his attorney now says he was receiving financial support from his family—in 1986 he married Linda Vine, a wealthy Palm Beach widow. Sometime in the mid-1990s, Fagan and Vine divorced, and in 1996 he married Harriet Golding, 47, a Florida real-estate executive with whom he bought a $1.6 million waterfront Mediterranean-style mansion on chic South Ocean Boulevard.

Under the name Martin, Fagan led the life of the idle rich on the fringes of Palm Beach society. He drove luxury cars, including a Bentley and a candy-apple-red Ferrari. He joined the board of directors of the Palm Beach Opera and became a member of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, which boasts an initiation fee of $75,000. When people asked about his background, Fagan spun grandiose tales. In addition to mentioning a CIA connection, he claimed to have worked as a presidential adviser and founder of a think tank. In Palm Beach, no one seems to have questioned his credentials, however improbable. “He was very warm, a great conversationalist,” says Robert Montgomery, a prominent trial attorney, who regularly saw Fagan at social gatherings. “Everybody who met him liked him very much.”

What especially charmed many friends and acquaintances was Fagan’s obvious devotion to his daughters. “His I world revolved around his girls,” says Debbie Breen, a next-door neighbor of Fagan’s in Palm Beach. Both Rachael and Lisa were accomplished swimmers, and Fagan drove them to practice six days a week, sometimes twice a day, with morning sessions often starting as early as 5 o’clock. At school it was the same. “He never missed any of their activities,” says John Thompson, headmaster of the tony Palm Beach Day School, which both girls attended. “He was here every day, dropping them off and picking them up. He was totally devoted to them.” His dedication was apparently rewarded. Rachael graduated from Columbia University and now works for a philanthropy on Long Island. Lisa, who was considered an Olympic swimming prospect until she injured her shoulders, is a senior at the University of Southern California. Both talk to their father by phone every day.

Fagan’s life of deceit started to unravel last September, when a source—reportedly a friend of Fagan’s sister Sheryl Klein—tipped a lawyer, who in turn told authorities in Florida of William Martin’s identity. On April 16 police took Fagan into custody at his Palm Beach estate. Now free on bail, reportedly in Florida, he is facing charges of kidnapping and if convicted could be sent to prison for as long as 30 years. Authorities in Florida are also looking into whether he broke any other laws during his years as a fugitive.

According to her brother, Kurth has been agonizing about how to reach out to her daughters once their father was in custody. “She has never wanted to make things difficult for them,” says Peter. “She realized they are their own people and that any influence she had on them was many, many years ago.” Thus Kurth, who remarried and now works as a biology researcher at the University of Virginia, decided not to push for an immediate reunion but to put her faith in her daughters’ eventual desire to see her again. Given the girls’ current frame of mind—Fagan’s lawyer Richard Egbert said no meeting is likely while charges against his client are pending—that may be a long time coming. As Lisa proudly declared, in words that were surely a dagger to Kurth’s heart, “He was and is the best mother, father and friend anyone could ask for. On behalf of Rachael and I, I would like to say ‘Daddy, we love you.’ ”

Bill Hewitt

Tom Duffy in Boston and Grace Lim, Fannie Weinstein and Don Sider in Florida

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