December 18, 1995 12:00 PM

WHEN MARK ERIC ROW AND HIS four girls showed up in Camden, S.C., in early November, Paul Anderson sympathized with Row’s hard-luck tale about the death of his wife. “The man was trying to take care of his kids. I thought it was great,” says Anderson, who works at a horse training center and has three children of his own. He rented Row a tidy three-bedroom house on the outskirts of town. Then, Anderson and his wife, Beverly, started wondering. Row’s daughters, all under 15, weren’t enrolled in school, and the girls didn’t always respond to their names. “Something’s not right,” Paul recalls Beverly saying.

Across the country, in Grass Valley, Calif., Marsha Cox’s suspicions about her ex-husband, Jack Cox, 45, had grown into fear for her four daughters. Cox had picked up the girls on Fri., Sept. 22, for a court-approved weekend visit. “As they drove away, I had this feeling that they might not be coming home,” says Marsha, 42, a country club waitress. It wasn’t the first time: Not long after the couple’s 1991 separation, after nearly 12 years of marriage, Jack had abducted the girls—Jamie, now 14, Jennifer and Anna, both 13, and Sarah, 10—hiding them in a remote Idaho town until police tracked him down 4½ months later.

What provoked both abductions, Jack Cox says, was the family court’s interference with his rightful role. “God gave the man, the head of the home, the responsibility [for his family],” he says, “I have not nor will I step down from the responsibility.” While similar resentments spur many of the 354,000 parents the government says take their children each year, few are as persistent as Cox. But the kids are always caught in the middle. “They become pawns between the parents,” says Julie Cartwright of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “They are taken more out of spite than love.”

Looking back, Marsha Cox believes she first glimpsed a malicious streak behind Jack’s easygoing manner on their wedding day, March 29, 1980. In a warped twist on an old custom, he violently shoved a piece of wedding cake in her face. “I was never more embarrassed,” she recalls. “I went in the bathroom with my mother, and I said, ‘Oh Mom, I’ve made a mistake.’ ” Marsha had known Cox just three months, since he traveled from Canada to visit his brother, a Bible school classmate of Marsha’s in Sacramento. Raised in a conservative, religious family, Jack was a rugged outdoors-man. Skilled with his hands, he could shoe horses, fix cars and build houses. “I was looking for someone that could take care of me,” she says. “He was a real take-charge kind of person.”

The couple lived in rural British Columbia, then in Pennsylvania, Florida and Colorado before settling in Grass Valley. They had three girls and adopted a fourth, Jennifer, the daughter of Marsha’s emotionally troubled brother. Marsha was a full-time mother, home-schooling the girls, and Jack doted on them, taking them hiking and fishing. The family attended church three times a week. But the marriage was troubled. Jack occasionally physically abused his wife, one time grabbing her by the throat and choking her until she passed out. “It scared me real bad,” Marsha says. “The strength he has when he’s upset is unbelievable.” (Jack says he was simply so angry he lost control. “When I realized what I had done,” he says, “I felt terrible and I promised myself I would never do that again.”)

The couple separated for three months in 1988, but Marsha’s Christian faith made her reluctant to seek a divorce. “This was the man God had picked out for me,” she says. But in 1991, against Jack’s wishes, Marsha asked the landlord to make some repairs on their house and Jack flew into a rage, barring her from the bedroom. “I slept on that couch for two months,” Marsha says. That December she filed for a separation (the divorce became final in 1994). Police evicted Jack, who was seething. “I’m old school,” he says. “I believe in the man being the head of the household.”

He was angrier still when Marsha received primary custody, limiting his time with his daughters. In May 1992, after picking them up for a short boating trip, Jack abducted the girls for the first time. He was finally apprehended in Clark Fork, Idaho, when a cop who had pulled him over for driving without license plates later recognized his face on a missing children’s poster. In a plea bargain, Jack was sentenced to six months in jail and community service and forced to make child-support payments (he immediately fell behind). But after he underwent mandatory counseling, he gradually regained his visitation rights.

Meanwhile, the girls, suffering nightmares, felt guilty and torn. “I love both parents,” says Jamie, the oldest, “and I could live with either one.” Explains Marsha: “They were raised in a Christian home. They were raised to obey their mother and their father.” The girls received counseling and were trained in what to do if their father tried to abduct them again.

In September, Jack did just that, claiming that therapy was turning his daughters against him. “They were becoming four little bitches,” he says. Anna was especially angry. “When he told us he was taking us,” she says, “I couldn’t stop crying.” By the time sheriff’s deputies arrested Cox in Camden on Nov. 13—living with his daughters under assumed names—he had taken them on a seven-week odyssey. In a 10-year-old Toyota van, the five traversed at least 14 states, hauling a boat, a Ping-Pong table, camping gear and a Chesapeake Bay retriever named Crossbow. The journey ended when a scrap of paper slipped out of Jamie’s purse one day while she was visiting the Andersons. A friend of Beverly Anderson’s who picked up the page—Jennifer’s handwritten account of the children’s first abduction—tipped off the local sheriff.

Marsha flew to South Carolina for a noisy reunion, where she immediately asked the girls the question that had troubled her for weeks: Why hadn’t they called? “I didn’t want Dad to get caught and go to jail,” Anna explained. “It’s easier to obey Dad, because he’s my dad and he’s always been in charge,” says Jamie. After the arrest, the Coxes flew together to California—Jack in manacles and escorted by Bill Beard, a California D.A.’s investigator who helped track him down. With his capture, his effort to get what he calls more quality time with his daughters appears to have backfired. He faces a maximum of five years in jail on child abduction and parole violation charges. “Now the song is over,” he says. “By the time I’m done with this, they will be raised.”

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER

MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Grass Valley and Camden

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