Text size

Feb 24 2009

Dart Award Winner

Children of the Underground

Two Families Endlessly Await Child's Return

Part 7 of a Dart Award-winning account of the hidden network that shelters youngsters escaping from sexual or physical abuse at home — real or alleged — and a judicial system perceived as unwilling or unable to help them. Originally published in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette in December, 1997.

When Peg Sawyer drives past the home of John and Marian Sinkey at night, she sees a forlorn-looking house with its blinds down, lights out or barely visible.

"And I think, what poor, lonesome people. What kind of a life must they have without their granddaughter?"

Sawyer knows what kind of life it is.

Because the Sinkey's grandchild is her grandchild too.

Ten years ago, Emily Michelle Sawyer vanished into the underground, just five days before her fifth birthday, with her mother Carol Sinkey Sawyer - the Sinkeys' daughter.

And today, the impact of Emily's disappearance on the people she left behind is still making itself felt, in ways big and small.

Carol Sawyer's flight, on April 1, 1988, from her south Toledo apartment, came after a seven-month investigation failed to convince Lucas County social services workers that ex-husband Daniel Sawyer had molested his daughter, as Carol Sawyer contended.

She fled one day before a Lucas County judge was expected to remove custody of Emily from her and give it to Daniel.

"The jig was up, and everybody knew it," says Julia Bates, Toledo's top prosecutor, who was working as an assistant prosecutor at that time. "And everybody knew it was going to happen the next day."

And, it seems people in Carol Sawyer's family also knew that she might flee with her daughter.

"Carol had told my husband months before that she would run," Sherry Sinkey, who is married to Carol's brother, Richard, says. Mel Pomeranz, Emily's court-appointed advocate, also was told, she says, "but I don't think he believed it would happen."

After she did run, Daniel Sawyer sued Carol's parents, claiming they had helped her go into hiding and had supported her financially. The Sinkeys claimed to know nothing about it, and a jury found in their favor.

Sawyer and his second wife, Kathie, now live in Virginia. He is no longer actively hunting for his daughter and declined to be interviewed for this story.

But Daniel's mother, Peg Sawyer, 74 and a retired nurse, finds solace in continuing to search for Emily, who is now 14, but in Sawyer's mind is still the 4-going-on-5-year-old who once helped her bake cookies.

"I used to look at little girls on the street and see her in my mind's eye. Now I have to remind myself to think of her as a teen-ager," says Peg Sawyer.

And she has to remind herself of something else.

"She could probably contact us now on her own if she wanted to."

But she hasn't. A troubled marriage

Faye Yager readily admits helping Carol Sawyer flee.

But within a year, Sawyer and she had a disagreement, and parted company. Sawyer is now hiding with the help of another underground network.

Sawyer was one of Yager's early cases. Because of that, Yager doesn't have much in the way of documents to back up her claims that Emily Sawyer was abused.

"That happened a long time ago, and my record-keeping wasn't as good as it is now," says Yager.

Carol Sawyer's flight into the underground was preceded, as most of Yager's cases are, by a nasty court battle. And, like many of those cases, it wasn't even about custody. The Sawyers already were divorced, and Carol Sawyer had custody of her daughter.

In Sherry Sinkey's mind, the legal wranglings were about one thing, and one thing only:

"Jealousy. Carol never got over the fact that Dan remarried."

When Emily was born in 1983, the Sawyers were living in Washington, D.C., where Daniel was pursuing a career in sales and marketing for a medical manufacturing firm.

In 1985, they divorced, and Carol Sawyer moved back to Toledo, where she became a physical therapist for the Toledo public schools.

Daniel Sawyer remarried in 1987. And soon afterwards, he asked Emily to come visit him, his new bride Kathleen and Kathleen's 10-year-old son, Scott.

A few days after the visit, Virginia's Department of Social Services notified the Sawyers that an anonymous caller had reported that Kathie Sawyer's son, Scott, had been sexually abused.

That meant state officials had to investigate, but they later dropped the matter when they could find no evidence of abuse.

But that information had not reached a Toledo court by the time Carol Sawyer asked it to suspend her ex-husband's visitation rights, and her request was granted. Then, Carol Sawyer, citing allegations Emily made to a therapist, accused her ex-husband of sexually abusing Emily.

While officials investigated those claims, Daniel Sawyer wasn't allowed to see Emily for seven months, although the court permitted Emily to visit his parents.

Finally, child abuse investigators cleared Sawyer of the charges. The judge said Daniel could have his daughter for a visit on Easter weekend.

But before that could happen, Carol Sawyer and the child disappeared. Did the grandparents help?

Shortly after that, John and Marion Sinkey went to court to seek custody of Emily in their daughter's absence. Their request was denied by Judge Robert Dorrell, who awarded custody to Daniel Sawyer.

The Sinkeys' appearance in court made the Sawyers suspicious that they had helped their daughter get away.

During the custody hearing, the Sinkeys had been questioned about the disappearance of Carol Sinkey Sawyer's van. Marion Sinkey told the court she didn't know what had happened to it.

But the Sawyers' lawyer later claimed that the van had been traded in to a Buick dealership in Toledo "in connection with the purchase of a 1988 Buick station wagon by John Sinkey."

The Buick was the car Carol Sawyer fled in, contended Richard Malone, the Sawyers' lawyer. But the Sinkeys never reported it missing.

There also were discrepancies in the Sinkeys' testimony about where they were when their daughter fled. They said they were at home. Pomeranz stopped there that day and couldn't see any signs of life.

The Sawyers urged county prosecutors to pursue perjury charges against the Sinkeys. The district attorney's office declined.

Robert Sawyer says the reason is obvious: Anthony Pizza, Toledo's top prosecutor at the time, had a close relationship with John Sinkey, who is a prominent physician. Sinkey had treated Pizza's daughter for cancer, and "we think the Sinkeys got to Pizza."

Pizza, who could not be reached for comment, has denied the Sawyers' claims.

And Julia Bates, who now serves as Lucas County prosector, says Pizza's hands were tied for technical reasons.

Carol Sawyer, Bates says, "was the lawful custodian, and how do you prove that she knew custody was going to be transferred? No court order had been signed when she left."

Because she wasn't served with papers notifying her of the transfer of custody to her ex-husband, she was not officially in violation of any law.

The custody transfer to Daniel Sawyer also wasn't enough for the FBI to get involved.

That's because in Ohio, violating a custody order is not automatically a felony.

Law enforcement officials in Ohio can go to a grand jury to seek indictments on "child stealing" charges, which would clear the way for a federal arrest warrant, but they declined to do so in Carol Sawyer's case. Evidence was sketchy, and "if we did it for her, it would open the floodgates for everyone who comes to us," Bates said.

Still, the Saywers didn't give up. They hired a detective to go through the Sinkeys' garbage to look for leads, and a few years later, Daniel Sawyer filed a civil lawsuit against the Sinkeys, alleging that they had helped their daughter go into hiding.

After one of the longest jury deliberations in Toledo history, the jury found for the Sinkeys.

The Sawyers believe today that the Sinkeys are still in contact with their daughter and granddaughter.

"Carol Sinkey was a girl who couldn't pass a day without talking to her mother. What's to stop her now?" asks Peg Sawyer. A divided family

The Sinkey family has been far from unanimous in its support of Carol's actions, says Sherry Sinkey.

"It really divided loyalties," she says, pitting the parents and Carol's sister Jean against Carol's two brothers, Ken and Richard, and their wives, who were horrified to learn that Emily had been taken into hiding.

Today, it is a taboo subject at family gatherings and holidays, says Sherry Sinkey.

"There is no discussion of it. Ever. It's a closed subject, and that's the most startling thing."

"Whether the abuse happened or not, no one is willing to say. These things are so hard to know," says Sherry Sinkey, a counselor in the Rossford Public Schools. "But we couldn't imagine that running was in Emily's interest at all."

It's not clear what Sawyer's life underground with her daughter has been like. Yager and other underground organizers declined requests for contact with Sawyer, although they insist all is well.

Dorrell, the judge, voiced concerns that Carol Sawyer and her child might both be in danger because of Sawyer's emotional problems.

That characterization is rejected by the underground organizers who helped her flee.

"She is the most stable person I know," one underground contact claims, saying that at one point she helped Sawyer resettle into a job as a physical therapist.

"She had to take the state test, and after it was over, she came back and said she deliberately missed some questions, in case they were looking for her because of her membership in MENSA," the source says.

"Then, we got notified by the state that Carol had the highest scores in the test's history. And they wanted to present her with an award!"

But that upbeat anecdote is countered by Pomeranz, who doesn't view life underground as a funny matter.

"She sure hasn't helped that child's life any. She made a whole bunch of choices the child couldn't consent to. In my mind it was a travesty. Emily's whole world was turned upside down."

In 1993, ADVO, a national direct mail distributor of missing children postcards, sent out cards featuring Emily Sawyer's face, computer-enhanced to make her look 10.

But because there is no federal arrest warrant for her, Carol Sawyer's face wasn't on the card. Waiting birthday gifts

If Emily Sawyer ever returns to Toledo, she will find a stack of white envelopes waiting for her at her aunt's house, each of them containing $15 - one for every birthday and Christmas that she has missed.

"We recognize every one of Emily's birthdays," says Sherry Sinkey, "just as we do our own children's, and their cousins'. There's no reason why she shouldn't be entitled to $15 just as they are."

"I don't ever want her to think we forgot about her on her birthdays or on holidays. And when we meet again - and we will meet, one day - I'll want her to know that."

Peg Sawyer is also convinced she will see Emily again. A recent bout with colon cancer hasn't slowed her down, or dimmed her hopes that she will find her granddaughter before she dies.

On the top shelf of a guest room closet, Peg Sawyer still keeps birthday presents that she and her husband had planned to give Emily when she turned 5.

Recently, the gaily wrapped gifts were spotted by the Sawyer's twin grandchildren, who are now 5.

"I explained who they were for, and why we couldn't give them to her," Peg Sawyer says.

"And they just looked me in the face and said, `Well, Grandma, why don't you just find her and give her her presents?' "

"And I explained to them, I'm trying. I'm still trying."

Dart Center Events

All calendar dates »

Mackenzie Carpenter

  • Mackenzie Carpenter is a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she has worked since 1990. She has written numerous prize-winning series on such diverse issues as liver transplant allocation; child care in the United States; the education of gifted children; domestic violence, and divorce and custody issues. Her 1997 series, "Children of the Underground," dealt with mothers who hide their children in violation of custody orders. It won a number of national, state and local awards and was republished in international newspapers and magazines, including Corriere Della Serra and Elle. Ms. Carpenter began her career as an assistant to Washington D.C. political correspondents Martin Agronsky and Paul Duke, moving on to become a field producer for public television in Washington, D.C. and, later, as host and producer of a program on politics for the Pennsylvania Public Television Network. She also worked as a reporter for the Journal-Inquirer in Manchester, CT, and United Press International's state capitol bureau in Harrisburg. She was raised in Princeton, N.J. and Tokyo and received a bachelor's degree in English from Trinity College in Hartford, CT in 1976 and a master's degree in studies in law from Yale Law School in 1987.

Allen Detrich

  • Allen Detrich is a photographer at the Pittsburg Post-Gazette.

Also by these authors

Request Publications