The voice that summoned Vicki Korolko into the Underground came whispering over the phone from six states away.
She had come a long way to hear it. She had been running for six days, putting desperate miles between herself and her home in Fort Smith, Ark.; between her precious daughter, Sarah, 5, who sat beside her in the battered Ford pickup, and her ex-husband, Joseph, who Vicki was convinced was a monster.
She had fled in near panic, grabbing only the bare essentials—some clothes, Sarah’s favorite doll, $400 in cash and a 20-pound stack of legal documents from the case that was provoking their flight. She hadn’t done much long-range planning—how do you chart a journey to an unknown destination? The only thing that mattered to her was getting Sarah away from Joseph, who Vicki alleged had been sexually abusing the child, and out of reach of the local chancery court, which had declared Vicki an overprotective mother and ordered that Joseph be given full custody.
Vicki saw her flight as a rescue, but knew that in the eyes of the law she was a fugitive. Although she did not for an instant regret abducting Sarah, she had no idea what her next move should be. She was staying with an older woman in central Arizona, but that couldn’t last. There was only so long she could be passed off as a houseguest, and her friend was afraid of the FBI. So the friend arranged to put her in touch with some people who could offer real safety. The first phone conversation was very short. A reedy voice on the other end demanded, “Do you have custody? Have you got medical records of the abuse? Send them to us by Federal Express. After we’ve read them, we’ll talk.”
“I’ve fought for two years in the courts to save my daughter,” Vicki Korolko told the stranger. “I’m scared to death. You’re my only hope. Please help me. I don’t know where to go.” She hung up the phone, still petrified, yet feeling she might have a chance.
The next day, the stranger called back, from a pay phone. That was how they liked to work, Vicki had learned—it left no traces. “Get on a Greyhound bus headed for [a city in] Texas,” she was told. “Put on a wig, wear heavy makeup, stuff a pillow under your clothes. “Don’t look anything like yourself. We’ll meet you at the station. Leave everything behind that might remind you of your past life, including pictures and credit cards and your driver’s license. Forget who you were. Now you’re part of the Underground.”
They call it the Underground Railroad. And like the 19th-century original, which spirited escaping slaves to freedom, this new movement is a daring attempt by Americans of conscience to aid men and women fleeing what they regard as social injustice. In great cities and small towns, reaching out through homes and churches across the nation, this secret coalition of otherwise law-abiding citizens is defying the law to shelter fugitive parents like Vicki Korolko—parents who believe their children have been sexually abused, and who are ready to do anything to keep it from happening again. According to Underground leaders, at least 300 such families—many being sought by the FBI—are now being hidden in a nationwide web of 1,000 or more safe-house sanctuaries, and the numbers of fleeing parents and would-be rescuers are growing fast.
The Railroad emerged in the fall of 1987 following two inflammatory custody decisions in southern Mississippi (see box, page 77) that seemed to illustrate a disturbing phenomenon: That although the number of women willing to lodge a legal complaint of incest and molestation in their families has grown almost eightfold in the 1980s, the women almost never win in court. Because judges are generally reluctant to accept the testimony of very young victims, offending parents often escape conviction and retain custody or visitation rights. Too often, say angry child advocates, inconclusive criminal and civil court proceedings leave the victim at the mercy of his or her molester.
The Underground is a spontaneous response to the anguish of parents unable to protect their children. Loosely organized and beset at times by internal disputes over tactics, it has four independent yet interlocking networks: one in the Northeast, another in the Northwest, and two in the South. Using clandestine techniques freely adapted from the government’s Federal Witness Protection Program, including aliases, disguises, doctored identification and falsely registered vehicles, the Underground wages a constant battle of wits with the FBI, local police and private investigators out to hunt down the missing families. Anonymous, yet deeply committed, many volunteers are drawn from feminist, children’s rights and religious organizations. Also involved are hundreds of men and women who were themselves abused as children.
As the Underground grows stronger, the controversy over its activities deepens: Critics attack it as meddlesome and misguided and accuse it of reckless interference with due process. There is also the ever-present risk that some fleeing parents have concocted tales of abuse, or worse, may themselves be molesters. In the best of worlds, no child should be forced to abandon home, family and friends, to suffer the fear and hardship of life on the run. Nonetheless, some authorities on child abuse consider the sanctuary movement a laudable grassroots reaction to a tragic flaw in the legal system.
VICKI KOROLKO, JULY 11
Hurtling down Interstate 10 in the Greyhound, with a pillow stuffed down her oversize white pants to make her look pregnant, and with Sarah asleep in her lap, Vicki Korolko, 34, finds herself cast in a role she could never have imagined, that of fugitive. Growing up in Mountain Home, Ark., she dreamed one day of having children who could fish in a pond near her home and race through the surrounding cornfields. “I dreamed that someday I’d have a family sharing meals at the table after their father came home,” she says.
As Korolko entered adulthood, she realized that not every adolescent dream comes true. But the events that introduced her to the possibility of living a nightmare began in mid-1985, shortly after she was separated from her second husband, Joseph Korolko, now 44, a plant manager for a Fort Smith company that makes irrigation equipment. Vicki was granted custody, and Joseph was allowed unsupervised visits. Sarah was 15 months old at the time, and Vicki dressed her in girls’ frilly clothes with wide lace bonnets. One night when Sarah came back from visiting her father, Vicki later testified, she was changing Sarah’s diaper, when “I found pubic hairs and pulled them out of her rectum and vagina.”
Vicki was stunned. This would explain why Sarah screamed and cried whenever she was sent off to Joseph’s house. She went back to court, pleading for an end to the unsupervised visits. Two years later, Vicki felt she was close to victory when Virginia Krauft, a prominent Arkansas psychologist, stated in court, “There is no doubt in my mind that what she [Sarah] reported to me [about abuse] was true.”
Krauft’s testimony at a 1987 chancery court hearing included Sarah’s detailed description of an anal sex act that she had been directed to perform on her father. Using an anatomically correct male doll, the little girl spoke in graphic terms that seemed far beyond a child’s imagination.
Joseph Korolko says his ex-wife’s charges are “untrue, false and malicious.” He maintains that Vicki “brainwashed” Sarah into making the allegation, and that the real threat to the child’s mental health involved her mother’s “taking her over and over and over again to doctors trying to get someone to say what she wanted….There have been interviews by psychologists and psychotherapists who thought nothing happened to her.”
The custody battle cost Sarah’s feuding parents $50,000 each in medical and legal fees, and at one point Sarah was placed in foster care. Sometimes, Vicki remembers, “I would just scream and scream. Go off somewhere where nobody could hear me, and then I’d cry.” Then on March 30, 1988, the court handed down its decision: Vicki Korolko was an excessively worried mother. Custody was turned over to Joseph. Vicki would be permitted to make unsupervised weekend visits, and a 10-day visit beginning on the Fourth of July.
So it was on Independence Day that Vicki stole away with Sarah. “We had no choice,” she says. “We had to run.” The night before, she had hauled her last belongings to a stranger’s house to be sold. Just after midnight—”Somebody reminded me that Mary and Jesus left in the middle of the night too”—mother and daughter headed west, taking the back roads. Vicki knew that FBI agents would soon be looking for her trail.
…And now, having abandoned the truck, she is headed east again, following the telephoned instructions of a stranger she has never seen. It doesn’t matter so much where she is going, she thinks, as long as it isn’t home. She clutches her daughter’s hand tightly in her own. “I couldn’t take hearing the screams and cries from Sarah anymore,” she says. “I’d look in her eyes and see this big blank—no life at all. I couldn’t send her back.”
A LAWYER TURNS LAWBREAKER
“We’re going to the magic forest,” Hugh Williams, 34, told his daughter the night they left Morganton, N.C., last Oct. 28. “You’ll never be hurt again.”
The words may have soothed Jessica, now 5, but if Hugh Williams himself ever took that rosy view, he does so no longer. In three months, much of his optimism has been replaced by a mixture of fatigue, fear and regret. Fatigue because he has been driving 12 hours in a secondhand car en route to an east coast beachfront safe house. Fear (“It helps. If you’re not scared, you slip up and make mistakes. And get caught”) because he has heard that the FBI has been questioning his family and friends. Regret because Williams cannot forget what he has just given up.
Until two years ago, Williams, a criminal lawyer, seemed the very definition of stability. Living in the area where his family has resided for more than 200 years, he had settled into a promising law practice. He was well married, to Julie Henderson, now 29, herself the scion of a powerful Carolina clan. He could boast a three-bedroom house, a Mercedes and a Porsche, a $100,000 interest in a local golf course and a beautiful ash-blond daughter, Jessica.
But that was before the couple separated in September 1985. Hugh testified seven months later that Jessica began complaining to him of abuse by her mother’s then boyfriend, Rod Realon, 33, a psychologist. (Julie and Realon, who both work on the staff of the Western Carolina School for the Mentally Retarded, were married in January 1987.) Williams later stated in court that Jessica told him, “He hurts my bottom,” and that she then went into disturbing and precise detail. The two parents’ bitter and expensive custody battle heated up still further, with each side summoning medical experts. The mother’s witnesses maintained that Williams suffered from “separation anxiety,” and described his accusations of molestation against a mental-health professional as “radically absurd.” Doctors supporting Williams submitted sworn statements that Jessica had no hymenal ring left, and pediatrician Dr. Andrea Gravatt found “to a medical certainty she is a victim of sexual abuse.” Another doctor, says Williams, took him aside. “She said if I didn’t get custody, they would put [Jessica] in the hospital, because Jessica couldn’t stand much more of this.” By then, Williams had spent $100,000 on the case, not an unusual figure in custody-and-abuse battles. He had sold his cars and his shares in the golf course.
Late last year Williams became convinced his fight was hopeless. A trial in which he was to defend a client accused of murder was scheduled for Oct. 17, the same day as his custody hearing. Neither judge would allow a continuance. In effect, he could risk disbarment for neglecting the murder case or cede custody of his daughter to her mother and Rod Realon. “Justice is blind,” Williams remembers telling his father.
Four days later, Williams phoned one of the southern branches of the Underground. His screening by the informal panels of lawyers and mental-health professionals who advise the Underground was demanding: In addition to the usual request for court and medical documents, he was asked to forward an hour-long cassette detailing his allegations. An Underground adviser reviewed the evidence the day the packet arrived. “This case is good as gold,” she said. “He’s gone.”
Williams took one last misty-eyed look at his law offices and helped Jessica fill his car trunk with memories—her toy pony, her favorite pink dress, his blue courtroom suit. Then Hugh Williams, lawyer, gunned the engine, crossed the Burke County line with his only daughter and became Hugh Williams, fugitive, wanted by the FBI.
Today, though weary, Williams is still thinking like a lawyer. He talks about coming out of hiding to file a class action suit for parents on the run. “All our civil rights have been violated,” he says. And, maybe because he has been on the road so long, Williams is thinking about Morganton; about the fate of his 300 clients, whose cases he hopes will be handled by other lawyers; about his mother, whose emphysema, doctors say, will kill her within a few months. (Neither he nor Jessica were to see her again; Mrs. Jane Williams died just before Christmas.) “This feels like hell,” he says quietly. “I left my whole life behind. My parents, my friends, my law practice. My heart, probably.”
“Your heart?” asks Jessica, sitting in the front seat, holding a butterfly he caught in a jar. “How is your heart, Daddy?”
“It’s been broken.”
“I wish your heart wasn’t broken, Daddy,” says Jessica. Her dusty blue eyes stare off and away.
A few minutes later, apropos of nothing, she volunteers to a sympathetic stranger, “I don’t want to go back to my mom. Rod sticks Legos and fingers in my bottom. Do you think that’s nice? It’s sick!”
“It’s sad for all of us, especially Jessica,” says Rod Realon, adding with grim humor, “I would love to have just five minutes in a room with [Hugh]. I’ve been working out with rackets, and I’m ready.”
“We feel like victims,” says Julie Realon, 29, of herself and her second husband. She believes Williams coached Jessica to make sexual abuse charges against Rod, adding that “four different doctors [including one appointed by the court] have said there was no abuse.”
A CRUSHING VERDICT
Jesse Murabito had been ill-advised because friends believed too much in the system. They admit that now. “I remember walking into court and saying, ‘Jesse, I promise you, it will be a guilty verdict,’ ” says Deanna Crawford, victim services director at the Nashua, N.H., Rape and Assault Support Services, Inc. “I’ve worked with rape and assault cases for 12 years. No case ever got to me the way this one did. I’ve never seen a stronger case. I said from the beginning, ‘Jesse, don’t run, make the system run.’ Well, the system failed horribly. The system should be ashamed.”
This is what happened. Soon after the February 1986 breakup of her marriage, Jesse Murabito, now 40, noticed that her two children were behaving strangely. During therapy sessions with Bethany, now 5, and Anthony, 4, Massachusetts General Hospital child psychiatrist Muriel Sugarman noted disturbing symptoms of regressive behavior, nightmares, weight loss and increased aggressiveness, such as biting their mother. There was, Sugarman reported in documents later filed in court, “clearly abusive and destructive behavior of the father toward the children.” Despite Sugarman’s findings, Mark Murabito, now 34, was allowed to continue unsupervised visits with his children. The alleged abuse continued.
In February 1987 Jesse Murabito sent the children into hiding rather than allow Mark further access to them. When she was found guilty of contempt by Superior Court Judge Douglas Gray, the Boston Herald headline told the story: DEFIANT MOM SENT TO JAIL/REFUSES TO BETRAY KIDS. Five days later the children surfaced, and Jesse was released from jail. During the divorce hearing a month later, Judge Gray ordered Jesse to send the children to Mark on weekends, unsupervised.
Subsequently, a county prosecutor filed criminal charges against Mark, and last March a grand jury indicted him on one count of felonious sexual assault against Bethany. During the trial that followed, Bethany testified for 40 minutes, and a 45-minute videotape of the little girl talking to Sugarman was screened for the jury. Mark spoke in his own defense and said he “never, ever, ever sexually touched” his daughter. After deliberating three hours, the jurors found Mark not guilty. He immediately declared his intent to seek full custody of the children.
“In retrospect,” says Deanna Crawford, “I feel that I was expecting too much. The system responds well if the children are molested outside the home, but when it happens inside the home, we don’t know what to do.”
At that point, Jesse Murabito was sure she did know what to do. She went directly from the Exeter, N.H., courtroom, called an Underground hot line and bought bus tickets. Twenty-eight hours later, she arrived in Atlanta. Her children were still in winter coats, clinging to their mother, confused and exhausted. Murabito’s face was wet with tears, but she felt she had done what she had to. “My God, these children are innocent,” she sobbed. “I never wanted to leave, but what choice did I have? We ran. We knew they’d be after us if we didn’t take off.” That night, across the bus depot, she saw a woman in a wide-brimmed hat and waist-length jacket. After they had talked for a few minutes, she asked the woman, “Can I ever go home again?”
“No,” said Underground leader Faye Yager. “Those tears are going to have to dry up. You’re not here to cry, darling. This is for real.”
Today, two months later, Murabito and her children are adjusting to a new way of life in the Underground. “We’ve found comfort and safety with a wonderful Christian family,” she says. “I pray someday we’ll find justice and be able to go home. But I’m prepared to live this way to protect the children.”
LEADING A RESCUE NETWORK
She is the front woman, the public personality who runs an Atlanta-based spur of the Underground Railroad. Whereas leaders of the other three “lines” cloak their work in secrecy, Yager, 40, courts publicity, believing it will ultimately force reforms in the criminal-justice system. She has taken so many calls from tormented parents around the country that long-distance operators will sometimes refer desperate callers to her number. Her dining-room table is piled two feet high with the detailed accounts of the bitter custody cases she requires from would-be fugitives seeking her help. Once she and her lieutenants have checked on these stories, she often receives the fleeing families herself, dashing from airport to bus depot to train station in her blue Dodge Minivan. She gives the disoriented travelers their first briefing and passes them on to their first safe house. “Join the Underground and see the world,” she says cheerfully.
She is a passionate defender of the fugitives, perhaps because she has already suffered their fate. Fifteen years ago, the courts took away Yager’s daughter and handed her over to the man who was allegedly abusing her, her father.
That was in 1973, when incest was a family secret, not an issue for courts to resolve. As Yager tells it, she was 22 when she walked into the kitchen of her Marietta, Ga., home and saw her husband, Roger Lee Jones, now 43, with their daughter, Michelle, sitting in her high chair; he was using the little girl’s hand to fondle his genitals.
“I was bouncing off the walls, crazy,” says Yager. Roger, however, was calm. He waited a few days. Then he looked her in the eye and told her that what she had seen hadn’t happened. She had imagined it. Wouldn’t she like to talk to a doctor about it? A psychiatrist prescribed strong tranquilizers, and after Roger had her hospitalized, saying she had attempted suicide, she was given a series of electro-shock treatments.
Months later, Yager managed to extricate herself from the hospital, separate from Jones and obtain temporary custody of Michelle. As she prepared for her divorce trial, at a time when Jones was allowed unsupervised contact with the child, Faye recalls that the little girl began complaining of a yellow discharge in her panties. Yager sent a sample to a hospital for analysis.
The next day was the day of the trial. “I went to court looking like a frightened coal miner’s daughter—which I was—and he was standing there in a nice suit, an accountant from a wealthy family. Who would you believe?” asks Yager. Roger was awarded full custody of his daughter. Faye says her lawyer advised that there were no grounds on which to appeal.
Several days later, the hospital returned a report on Michelle’s discharge: The 2-year-old had gonorrhea. Surely, Faye thought, the judge would reverse himself now. But he did not, and eventually Faye Yager had to give up. Years later, Michelle wrote to Faye, saying that her father continued to rape her until she was 12, when she threatened to report him unless he stopped. Jones went free until 1986, when police came into possession of videotapes showing Roger engaged in sex with two girls, one 10, the other 14. He was arrested; he posted bond and then disappeared. He has evaded FBI agents for two years and is now on the bureau’s 10 Most Wanted list. Belatedly, Faye Yager was vindicated.
By 1987 Faye had been remarried, widowed, then married again, this time to Atlanta pediatrician Howard Yager, 47. Together they live in a wealthy suburb with a Rolls in the driveway and a house so grand that she gave Christmas tours. Faye did what she could to help Michelle, by now a teenager with a drug habit and a pregnancy by “father unknown.” Yet she regarded her daughter’s experience as a personal tragedy—a terrible but unique event.
Then one day she picked up the morning paper and screamed. She had come across the puzzling Hattiesburg, Miss., case of a mother who was trying to protect her children from alleged sexual assault by her ex-husband. “I understood I wasn’t the only one,” says Faye. “I saw this as my chance to change things, to make some sense out of what I had lived through.”
She chose to work outside the legal system through a loose alliance of psychologists, lawyers, feminists and children’s rights activists. Given her experience with the judiciary, Yager saw her course of action clearly. “Faye turned to me,” recalls another Underground volunteer, “and said, ‘I’m not going to spend another dime on the legal system. I’ll spend it on hotels [for fugitives] instead.’ ”
Part of her reward has been a torrent of hatred. A few weeks ago, Yager was driving alone down a winding road in her neighborhood when a white pickup truck sideswiped her car, forcing her off the road. Then, she reports, the driver, a white man in his 30s, stopped nearby, walked back to Yager and told her, “Your days are numbered.” Coming as it did after she and her husband had discovered several dead cats on their lawn and learned that their phone line is tapped, the threat persuaded the Yagers to contact the FBI.
The Yagers didn’t need to introduce themselves. Federal agents are often at their house, conducting cordially suspicious chats about people she is suspected of having helped disappear. But this was the first time she had invited them. “I feel a little like a fool,” Yager told an agent. “Here I am breaking the law on one hand, and on the other hand I’m calling for help.” Still, the FBI agreed to keep a close watch. At that moment, as mutual suspicion was melting, a Federal Express package arrived at the door. It contained the usual sheaf of court documents from a frantic parent requesting passage into the Underground. As Yager took out a child’s explicit drawing of a stepfather molesting a little girl, one of the agents asked if he could see the rest of the package. Instantly détente was forgotten. “No,” snapped Faye Yager decisively.
ARMED AND DANGEROUS
She has a new haircut, a new name and a new gun. The haircut came with a dye job; before she left her home in the South with her 3-year-old son, she was a long-haired redhead; now she’s a punk-cut brunet. The name Beth and her son’s alias, Justin, she borrowed from a couple of headstones after walking through a graveyard in one of the little towns where the Underground sent her. The gun is a .357 Magnum. “If my ex-husband finds me,” she drawls, “he better make funeral arrangements. There is no way I’d let my child go back and suffer more abuse.”
A MAN WHO GOES TO EXTREMES
Get Jim talking about his labors on behalf of the Underground and he is soon reminded of the good old days when he worked as a debt collector for a casino. It was the kind of job that would occasionally necessitate the application of needle-nose pliers to a deadbeat’s nostrils.
That, of course, was for money. Now Jim, who has moved west, claims to be inspired by commitment. He has let it be known that in addition to putting up fugitives passing through, he is “available,” he says, “to rescue children who are victimized by judicial abuse.” In Jim’s case, a “rescue” means going out with his .38 Special in one tan cowboy boot and his Taser stun gun in the other and bringing the kids back alive. Some months ago he was contacted by a runaway mother in hysterics; police had caught up with her and had taken away her two sons. The boys were returned to their father and stepmother, who had allegedly been severely abusing them. Jim spent several days watching and waiting, he says; then he saw the stepmother getting out of her car and “detained” her with the stun gun. He grabbed the little boys and returned them to their fugitive mom.
Jim is on the radical outer fringe of the movement. “I see things in black and white,” he explains. “There’s no gray.” His own daughter was molested by a stepbrother, he says.
TURNING AWAY AN IMPOSTOR
Faye Yager claims that she never came close to assisting the woman who came to her last summer looking for help in stealing her son back. “Something smelled fishy,” she says. The woman came with credentials—an aide to a state senator vouched for her, saying she had been falsely accused of molesting her young son, now living with a foster father in Minnesota. But when the woman showed up in Atlanta, she balked at turning over an “intake report” containing the state’s explanation for assigning the boy to foster care. Yager insisted, and the woman relented. “I started to read it,” says Yager, “and thought I was gonna die. I realized that I had a child molester on my hands.” Confronted with the report, the woman screamed that it was all lies. At that point Yager made two phone calls—one to the police, the other to alert the foster father to a possible kidnap attempt.
Although people who work for the Underground believe that most fleeing parents are sincere, they are also aware that some hostile custody struggles have included false accusations of child abuse. A bad parent might make the first contact with the Railroad, says Yager grimly, “but they won’t get past that. We know how to test them, believe me.”
A FINE HAND FOR FORGERY
The 60-year-old midwestern grandmother sits at her kitchen table, looking like a figure from a Norman Rockwell print as she copies official wording onto a piece of document paper. She works patiently, meticulously, in a fine italic hand. She is making a forgery. Years ago, when she went to school, they really taught penmanship, and now those hours of concentration and discipline are coining in handy. “Grandma Sally,” as she is known in the Underground, estimates that in the last three months she has fabricated scores of birth certificates. “We aren’t revolutionaries, just hardworking people,” she says with some asperity. “But we’ve been forced to live like criminals.”
Two years ago she fled, along with her own daughter and two grandchildren, following a two-year custody case that saw her son-in-law accused of sexually abusing his sons. For months she had tried to calm her distraught daughter. “I kept telling her that the system was going to help us,” she says. Then the court’s verdict came down—in the father’s favor. “We came out absolutely shattered,” the grandmother says. “The only alternative they gave us was to get the children up in the morning, comb their hair, feed them breakfast, tell them to have a good day, and know they were going to be sexually molested during an unsupervised visit.
For 19 months they got by on their own. The strain was tremendous. “It’s amazing how small the country is when you don’t want anybody to see you,” says Sally. “You wake up in the night when you hear the slightest sound. You are constantly scanning the crowd, worried that you’ll see a familiar face. When you reach for a carton of milk, you say, ‘Oh, God, please don’t let my grandchildren’s faces be on this.’ ”
But in time they adapted quite nicely, creating a new life together in a suburban home with a backyard swing set. By the time they discovered that there was an underworld of runaway families, they hardly had need for one anymore. But that hasn’t stopped Sally from lending her special talent to a cause in which she believes.
VICKI KOROLKO, OCTOBER 1988
When she sees the lights of two state police cruisers, Vicki Korolko ducks below the window of the parked Ford sedan she has borrowed. She is now in her third month on the run; she should know that ducking is silly, maybe even risky, but it’s a habit she just can’t shake. One squad car roars by, chasing some speeder, but Korolko’s sudden movement has startled her daughter, Sarah. “Mommy, I’m tired,” says the 5-year old groggily. “Can’t we stop?”
They cannot. Vicki has been unable to find a way to sink into the Deep Underground, the Railroad’s pragmatic vision of paradise—a permanent hiding place where one can settle into a remade life under a new name. Now she and Sarah are in flight again, trying to locate a temporary safe house in a mid-western city. Tonight’s plan is to join two contacts in a white Chevy who will identify themselves by circling a suburban hotel.
The Chevy arrives, but just then a police cruiser pulls up across the street. Immediately paranoia becomes a party to this rendezvous of amateurs. Korolko is too frightened to move. The contacts seem equally rattled. Missing-child posters carrying a photograph of Sarah Korolko have been distributed nationwide, and helping Vicki hide her could land an accomplice in prison.
The contacts jump back into their car and speed off. “Let’s go!” says Vicki, chasing down the highway after them in her car. To no avail. Fearing a trap, the contacts tear away, finally losing the frenzied Korolko in a dingy warehouse district.
Dispirited, Korolko stops at a phone and calls the people who arranged the rendezvous. They yell at her: Why didn’t she get out of her car? With difficulty, the pickup is rearranged, and this time it is successful; the exhausted mother and child are finally delivered to another safe house. She and Sarah sleep together on a living room couch: Every bed in the place is occupied by a member of three other runaway families.
LEAVING THE UNDERGROUND
Somehow April Curtis seems to sound comfortable treading water. Curtis, 27, left her home in San Bernardino, Calif., almost a year ago, when she was just three months shy of getting her elementary school teaching credentials. She fled only after spending two unsuccessful years and $100,000 trying to convince the California courts that her first husband, Brian Otter, 31, was abusing their 4-year-old, Amanda, now 5, during his custody visits. April’s scenario differs from most in that she and Amanda were accompanied into hiding by Curtis’s second husband, former prison guard Ken Brewster, 40. But their itinerary has been typical.
To avoid Otter’s $35-an-hour private detective as well as the FBI, the runaway family has traveled 7,000 miles since last February, moving about every three weeks. They live off Brewster’s income from odd jobs. Not only has April cut all her ties with the life she left behind, she has also stopped communicating with the Underground. “We’re hot, and I didn’t want anyone getting in trouble,” she says.
Yet despite the disruptions inherent in life as a fugitive, Curtis seems unfazed, if not exactly content. “You can watch your child be destroyed or you can run,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s not the healthiest thing for a [5-year-old] to be moving, moving, moving, but it is the safest.” In the morning she and Amanda study reading and arithmetic; the afternoon is for walks and art projects. “There is such a tremendous peace within us knowing we did everything we could so Amanda wouldn’t be hurt,” she says. “The fear isn’t in her eyes any more. Every once in a while she asks me, ‘Why don’t other mommies run?’ ”
Brian Otter denies that he committed the abuse alleged by his ex-wife. “My friends and family have stood by me,” he says. “They know it would be impossible for me to do the things April says I did. I put a challenge to the Underground. If they would reevaluate and look at the evidence in this case, I think they’d see that I didn’t hurt my daughter. I want her back.”
ARE THE CHILDREN IN PERIL?
“Who is screening these people?” asks David Lloyd. “Who is providing the safe houses? I’m worried.” Lloyd is in the middle. As general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a clearinghouse funded in part by the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, he probably knows more about the conditions that drive people underground than anyone else in officialdom. “I have no doubt that the vast majority of children [in the Underground] were sexually molested,” he admits. “Our legal system, even from the days of common law, was not set up to deal with children. But sending a child underground is a dangerous thing to do. We don’t know whether people are extorting money from these mothers and children. We have no information about whether they are getting medical care in flight.”
Those concerns are shared by Chris Hatcher, a psychology professor at the University of California at San Francisco, who is studying the broad issue of missing children. “The stress of being on the run starts to get to the parents,” he says. “That emotional drain is picked up by the child.”
A MOTHER’S AGONIZING DILEMMA
The woman and her child are legendary in the Underground as a sort of worst-case scenario, a living testament to how appallingly things can go wrong. The mother sits in a hotel room 2,000 miles from home and rocks back and forth as she tells her story. Only occasionally does she break down in long, agonized sobs.
She claimed in court one year ago that her husband had exposed their preschool daughter to an “abusive ritualistic cult.” As evidence, she cited burn marks on the 4-year-old’s legs. “I thought after we told the police about this,” she says, “everything would be all right.” The court did not believe her allegations, yet when she fled into the Underground, she met other women who told similarly chilling stories.
She and her daughter were not successful fugitives. They could not find a place to settle down, and within a few months the child developed multiple personalities. There are three so far: A baby, a 4-year-old who “died but couldn’t go to heaven because God wouldn’t take her,” and a loud child who shouts out horrible stories about children who are kept in cages and fed hay or urine.
Usually the loud child appears only at night, talking to her mother for as many as six hours at a time. But occasionally she emerges by day. Last month, when they were shopping at Sears and the mother refused to buy her daughter some dresses she wanted, the youngster suddenly began screaming, “Don’t cut me! Don’t cut me! Don’t burn me!”
“She sat down near a mannequin and just started weeping,” says her mother. “It was a deep, deep sob. Have you ever heard a child really weep?” All who know about the little girl agree that she needs intensive therapy, but life as a fugitive makes that impossible. A return above-ground, they believe, would mean the girl would be given back to her father, a resolution her mother considers unthinkable. “If I knew I’d have to turn over my daughter,” she says, “I’d kill her with my own hands and then kill myself.”
They wander from city to city. Even when people ask them to stay longer, the mother does not feel at ease. She talks of waiting until the girl is 18; then, she says, “We’ll sue the whole system.”
They have nobody, really, but one another.
BUSTING AN UNDERGROUND MOM
Two days after Christmas, the other shoe dropped. The FBI, which for a year and a half had seemed more a bogeyman than a real threat to the Underground, proved it was no paper tiger. For Barbara Wesler, that meant standing by, her hands manacled, as federal agents and police dragged away her screaming children, preparatory to returning them “home.”
Wesler’s arrest by federal agents occurred on the afternoon of Dec. 27 in the apartment in Roswell, Ga., where she and her children had been living for three months under the assumed name of Mota. Within 24 hours, Raquel, 9, and Curtis, 7, were already back with their father, Richard, in Toms River, N.J., while Barbara, 39, sat in a Douglas County, Ga., jail. “The girl in the cell with me is in here because she’s accused of beating her kid,” Wesler says bitterly. “I’m here because I wanted to save my kids. This is worse than crazy.”
Wesler and her children could not be called a typical Underground family. The child abuse of which she accuses Richard, 39, the principal of the Coastal Learning Center, a school for the emotionally disturbed in Morganville, N.J., is exclusively physical, not sexual. But to those who knew and assisted her, Barbara Wesler’s arrest represents the first successful blow in the war the federal government is required to wage against a nationwide organization that constantly flouts the decisions of the courts.
For Wesler, this was “the most wonderful Christmas we’d ever had. We were in heaven. Nobody hitting anybody anymore.” She and her children had abandoned their $210,000 New Jersey home in May 1988 to escape what she describes as vicious abuse by her husband. Barbara said in court papers that he repeatedly beat her, raped her, and hit their children on the head. Richard Wesler denies these accusations.
For several months Barbara and the kids found refuge in Canada. Then, hours ahead of Richard’s private detectives, she fled south to Georgia, where the Underground found her a hideout. A former high school teacher, Wesler had enrolled the children in school and found a waitressing job. Better still, she had made good friends, especially among the local Catholic hierarchy. Another church had offered to subsidize Wesler so that she and her family could move to a nicer apartment in Roswell. They had adopted two kittens and named them Garfield and Odie. It was last November that Wesler got the eerie feeling someone was watching her. “I thought I was being followed,” she says. “On the Tuesday after Christmas, I thought I was being followed again. That was the day they came in. They surrounded the house, and two FBI guys came in the front door. My kids were screaming, ‘We don’t want to go back to our father.’ They tore my babies out of my arms.”
One of the FBI agents on the bust was Jeff Holmes, who had previously visited Faye Yager to question her. As soon as Wesler was arrested, Yager sprang into action, trying to head off further arrests in the event Wesler were to tell all she knew. “I was up until three that night,” she says. “We dismembered eight safe houses in one evening. We moved four families in the middle of the night.”
During the next few days, she tried to restore confidence in the troops. “Some of my safe-house people are backing down real bad,” she admits. “A lot of these are church people, law-abiding people. This has been a bloody nightmare.”
Some in the Underground blamed Yager herself for the Wesler arrest, suggesting that her noisy, confrontational style had goaded the FBI into action. Several Underground members claim to have known government agents who purposefully ignored or even aided the movement’s actions in their areas. From her jail cell, Wesler offered a mild reproach: “I think if Faye had been quiet, this would have worked. The word ‘Underground’ means underground, not waving flags around.”
FINDING REFUGE IN EUROPE
“It’s a miracle that we found a place where someone believes us,” says a mother who fled to Europe in 1986 and wishes to remain anonymous. “I said, ‘My child can’t get protection in the United States,’ and the government here interceded in our behalf because human rights had been violated. I showed them how the court had forced unsupervised visitation, after my husband had beaten and abused my 5-year-old daughter at knifepoint.
“I didn’t even know there was an [Underground] network back home until two months ago, but I called them because I thought I might be able to help. I can only hope that somebody in the U.S. will open their eyes and see these children are being abused. It’s not a hoax. Why can’t we find protection in our own country? Somebody has to do something.”
VICKI KOROLKO, MID-DECEMBER
The face in the mirror returns her melancholy stare. Her hands move across her pale cheeks, and she pulls back the skin. “Sometimes I look and I don’t even recognize myself,” she says. “Who am I? I’ve put on 30 pounds, I’m constantly tired and I look like somebody else.”
Korolko says she has been thinking about applying for passage to the Soviet Union, to make a public statement. “I can’t go back,” she says, “But there has to be some place where we can live without fear.” She hasn’t found it yet in the Underground. She and Sarah are now in their fifth city and their fifth safe house since leaving Fort Smith. “Right now we’re living minute to minute,” she says. “I’ve become a hunted criminal. But it’s much harder on Sarah. The other day she woke me up and said she dreamed that we were found. I told her everything was all right. I know there’s no paradise. I just keep thinking this will end soon. We’ll find a home, won’t we?”
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
Looking through a one-way mirror in DeKalb County, Ala., J. Tom Morgan can see the forces that created the Underground every day. The mirror itself, he believes, may be part of a program that will eventually make it unnecessary. On the other side of the mirror is a small girl undergoing therapy for sexual abuse.
“You’re going for a visit with your father,” says the therapist.
“I wish my father would turn into a fish,” says the girl. “That way he won’t stick his wee-wee into my mouth anymore.”
“I prosecuted her father six months ago,” says Morgan. But the father was acquitted. The defense claimed that the 4-year-old had been coached by her mother to provide graphic details of oral sodomy, and the jury accepted the argument. The father will continue to have unsupervised visiting privileges. “And that’s how you get an Underground,” says Morgan.
As an assistant district attorney, Morgan cannot condone the Underground Railroad, yet he has come to believe that, under present circumstances, its existence is all but inevitable. The U.S. legal system, he says, does not know how to deal with the dramatic increase in the number of reported cases of sexual abuse among children.
Five years ago Morgan joined the small but growing number of prosecutors who specialize in these emotionally charged crimes. “Before I got into this,” he says, “my office was dropping these cases even if they were reported to us—like many D.A.s across the country now. But since I started specializing, we have gone from prosecuting 35 cases to 150 this year. And 87 percent of those defendants were convicted or pleaded guilty.”
Crucial to that success, Morgan believes, is the one-way mirror, together with other sensitive techniques for dealing with the child victims. Originally pioneered at the National Children’s Advocacy Center in Huntsville, Ala., the concept is to provide diagnosis and therapy for the children, while bringing their attackers to justice. Young witnesses, who would normally be put through the trauma of describing their abuse repeatedly, are questioned in detail while social workers, police officers, mental health therapists, doctors and prosecutors watch the sessions from behind the mirror.
Since it opened in May 1985, the center has helped prepare testimony in more than 300 abuse cases. Fifteen communities have used Huntsville as a model for similar facilities of their own, and another 44 are planning to do so.
While a comprehensive legal onslaught against child abuse is essential, says Morgan, it must be preceded by public education concerning the crime. Judges and jurors must be made to understand the nature of the crime and give weight to children’s testimony. “If we can get these cases brought and get those judges and the public educated,” says Morgan, “there won’t be a need for the Railroad, and we’ll stop making outlaws of women who are just trying to protect their kids.”