January 25, 1988 12:00 PM

For three years father and son had lived a strange, isolated existence, hiding out in the depths of a Vermont forest, 15 miles from the nearest town. The 9-year-old boy, Mosie, didn’t know his last name and had never gone to school. His sole companion was a father who had used so many aliases he sometimes forgot who he was supposed to be.

Then one morning last July, Mo’s father woke him by calling him to come out of the rustic, wood-frame structure the two called home. “Okey-dokey,” Mo replied cheerfully. As he dressed he began to sing, giving hardly a thought to his grimy, uncombed appearance or the dirt on the floor of the ramshackle house he and his dad had been building for three years. Still singing, Mo opened the door, then froze in horror. Outside, a half-dozen uniformed men, rifles at the ready, stood around his father, now handcuffed and silent. As the shaggy-haired, bearded figure was led away, Mo—later taken off in a separate car—was frightened for his father and himself, afraid their life in the forest would never be the same.

In some respects it won’t be. The men—FBI agents and local sheriff’s deputies—had come, heavily armed, after learning about a mysterious man in hiding who might be a terrorist or a dangerous criminal. Instead, they had stumbled across John S. McCarty, 39, an eccentric, self-employed handyman whose principal crime had consisted of loving his son well but not wisely. Comparing Mo with a snapshot of a toddler in a missing children’s registry, authorities discovered that seven years before, McCarty had abducted then 2-year-old Mo from his mother in California. Mo had since shared his dad’s life as a fugitive, moving aimlessly around the country for four years before holing up in 1984 in their hideaway outside Hubbardton, Vt., a mile from their nearest neighbor.

It was there, police reported, that the dirty kid who’d never gone to school had been living in a filthy shack without plumbing, electricity or a phone, sometimes using a bathtub as a bed. The image of a primitive child nabbed with his crazed, diabolical father quickly took hold in the area, and Mo was immediately placed in a foster home. His father was freed on bail after being charged with custodial interference and motor vehicle offenses.

The truth of the McCartys’ story, however, proved quite different from the version the public and the press had imagined. An obsessed but caring father, John McCarty had been on the run for years, always afraid his son would be taken away from him. Even the boy’s mother, Pat Gilmartin, 33, now a waitress in Sussex, N.J., and the mother of a 2-year-old daughter by another man, agreed that McCarty was a good father, and she eventually yielded to Mo’s wish to stay with his dad. Today, father and son are happily reunited in the woods, and Mo is attending school for the first time. “I was made out to look like Charles Manson and Mo like some kind of wolf boy,” says McCarty. “But Mo knows the truth, he knows the story.”

Six months after Mo was born in Sussex, N.J., his mother ended her common-law marriage to McCarty and took her son to California. For more than a year that seemed to settle the matter of who would care for the boy, although neither parent had legal custody. Then McCarty began to feel an overpowering urge to raise his son. “Ever since Mo was gone, my life had gone down the tubes,” McCarty recalls. “I tried to forget, but nothing worked. Then one day I saw a map of California in a store window, and boom, I knew I had to get him back, whatever it took.” That determination, coupled with some badly skewed logic, was about to lead him to commit an act that would inflict years of anguish on Mo’s mother and condemn him to a life on the run.

In tribute to his own loving father, McCarty, the second of six children of a New Jersey schoolteacher couple, wanted to repeat the pattern with Mo. McCarty adds that many years earlier he had given up three sons from a previous marriage, and having lost track of them, he was determined not to let that happen again. So he drove to California to get Mo. “I was really desperate,” he says. “Pat was nervous but let me in. I crashed on the sofa, and when I woke up in the morning, Mo was asleep on the floor by my feet and Pat was sleeping in the bedroom. So I cut the phone cords, took Mo out to the car and headed for Oregon. It sounds like a mean trick, but I felt I had to do it.”

When Gilmartin awoke, she found a note from McCarty saying he needed time with their son and wanted her permission to raise him himself. “I was stunned, really down,” she says. “At first I thought he’d bring Mo back; then I realized he was serious.” Several months later she left for New Jersey, thinking that McCarty had taken her son there. She was granted temporary legal custody of Mo by a New Jersey court and hired a detective to search for him.

By then McCarty had vanished. “I never expected to spend seven years on the run,” he says. “I called [Pat] a few times, thinking she’d let me have him. But she was hurt and mad, and I’m sorry about that. If I had had $15,000 for legal fees, I would have fought for custody. But I didn’t, so I had to run. The grapevine told me she was after us, and I was scared that somebody would recognize Mo on a milk carton or some poster and turn me in.”

He and the boy began their odyssey in the summer of 1980, hiding in cheap rooms, campgrounds, parks and the homes of trusted friends throughout the country. From the beginning McCarty knew he would have to educate Mo himself. He would read children’s books to the boy or they would discuss a subject, then McCarty would quiz his son by slipping in questions later in the day. “I never talked down to him,” McCarty says. “Just like I never lied to him…. I told him about his mother, and he knew about my taking him. He doesn’t remember her, so it didn’t affect him.”

As winter approached in 1980, McCarty exchanged his car for a big Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and he and Mo headed to Florida. As they rode along, Mo, now almost 3, wore a helmet and clung to the seat siderails his father had fashioned. Two sleeping bags, a tent, cooking gear and bundles of Luvs diapers were strapped on the bike, and whenever Mo wanted to stop for food or a diaper change, he would bang his head on his father’s back since his voice couldn’t be heard over the engine noise.

In Florida the two stayed with friends, roamed the beaches and from a nearby jetty watched rockets lift off from the Kennedy Space Center. Over the next two years, they moved on toward Texas, through the Southwest and California, up to Washington state, then back across the mountain and central states. McCarty says he supported them both with income from his partnership in a small motel in New York state and by occasional carpentry and plumbing jobs. “I liked my life on the road,” Mo says now. “I miss riding the bike, movin’ around and watching the lights of the cities fade into the darkness at night. It wasn’t too bad. We had a lot of fun in some places.”

In the spring of 1982, though, disaster threatened when they rode into a blizzard west of Butte, Mont. Mo, traveling in a sidecar attached to the black Harley, was numb and shivering under layers of wet blankets. “I was so cold I thought I was going to die,” he remembers. “We couldn’t see anything, but finally we got into a rest stop and stayed in the men’s room. My dad put me under the hand-drier to get warm, and all night he had to punch the button to keep it going.”

In other respects, too, keeping going was becoming more difficult. “The running, the paranoia, always looking over my shoulder, changing my names—all of it drained me,” McCarty says. “Mo was already 5, school age, and I felt we should really settle down and hide, at least until he was 16. Then he could chose what he wanted to do.”

In the summer of 1984, McCarty paid $1,500 for a broken-down trailer and a weeded-over lot in the rugged Hubbardton woods, 25 miles northwest of Rutland. Before long, father and son were busy repairing and expanding the trailer, Mo mixing concrete for the floor slabs and helping his dad with the chores. At night the two would sit by a gas lantern, playing chess or tackling a loose program of academic subjects, from astronomy and electronics to history and politics. Though McCarty is only a high-school graduate, he fancied himself a self-taught intellectual and equipped the place with a Colliers encyclopedia set and textbooks that he picked up at thrift stores. Before long he also bought a generator to power a small TV, brought cats home for Mo to play with and even drove his son into Rutland in an old pickup for karate lessons.

“I worked out a system for shopping, washing clothes or eating out, rotating the places and never going back for months,” McCarty explains. “Mo would duck down under the dashboard whenever we drove around. He never complained, and I really never had to discipline him. He knew the rules and he was happy.”

Small wonder, then, that when authorities arrested McCarty last year and gave Mo a battery or intelligence and psychological tests, they found him self-confident, pleasant and verbally bright—especially when discussing history, geography and scientific subjects. Although his reading and math scores were several grade levels below average for kids his age, McCarty says Mo had only begun to read seriously three months before the arrest. Most of his education had come about through discussion. “His father obviously taught him a lot,” says Pat Roberts, Mo’s homeroom teacher at the Castleton (Vt.) Elementary School, where he attends fourth grade pending a decision on his father’s request to be allowed to educate him at home. “He’s got a great memory, the other kids all like him, and he’s pretty well caught up in his math and reading. I’ve taught for 27 years, and knowing Mo in a way makes me wonder if we’re always doing the right thing by putting our kids in school. I’m just happy to have known him. He’s quite a little gentleman.”

For Pat Gilmartin the decision to give up her son was, she says, “a difficult, disturbing experience.” She thought she could win custody of Mo, but when she visited him in Vermont she found him “like a stranger. I cried and hugged him, but all he wanted was to go back to his father, so I thought that was best. He’s a good kid, and he turned out better than I dreamed he would. He doesn’t remember me from when he was little, but I have some good memories of that time. I just hope his life gets back to normal, and he can be like other kids.”

Meanwhile, Gilmartin has been granted visitation rights with Mo and $3,600 from McCarty to compensate her for expenses in trying to locate her son. As for McCarty, who was given a suspended, two-to-seven-year prison sentence for registering vehicles under false names, he is looking forward to the unfamiliar security of not having to hide anymore. And while he was hitchhiking last September, a local college administrator gave him a ride. The two became friends, and now McCarty and Elizabeth Grant, 40, plan to be married the first day of spring. “It’s Mo’s birthday,” says Grant. “So it’s something super special for the three of us.”

“Yes,” says Mo with a grin, “I could use some maternal influence.”

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