Children of the Underground

Part 1 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.

Families on the Run in Constant Fear of Discovery

This is what April Meyer remembers about life in the underground.

She remembers sleeping in her car, and eating at McDonald's. She remembers whispered telephone conversations with contacts who would give her hopelessly complicated instructions -"look for the house with the upstairs left hand window light on," and so forth.

She remembers being helped by families that were mostly poor, with children, although an older lady with money once put them up in a hotel.

"You'd drive to an address and the people would run out the door and hand you money and groceries and then run back into their house," she recalls. "It seemed so - well, everyone seemed so scared. We were terrified. We didn't know if the police were following us, although you have to act like they're right behind you."

After a frantic trip across the country in 1988, Meyer and her boyfriend, Ken Brewster, who had fled with her, found a place to stay in Watkins Glen, N.Y., with a church minister. They remained there for three months.

And they took on new identities - Karen Ann and Dennis DeRosa, taken from birth certificates they found after researching names of deceased people who had been born in other states. Usually, that information isn't cross-referenced. And it is relatively easy to obtain a copy of a birth certificate by mail.

"We used to say that when Robyn Jo (April Meyer's and Ken Brewster's daughter) was probably the only little girl born to two dead people," Meyer recalled.

Meyer's toddler daughter, Amanda Otter - rechristened "Mandy May" - attended kindergarten and first grade in Watkins Glen. She adored her teacher, Mrs. Stout, who nurtured her voracious appetite for reading.

Despite all the precautions, it didn't take long for word to spread in Watkins Glen that the DeRosas were fugitives.

But no one went to authorities.

"They'd seen me on television, they knew I had left just four weeks before getting my teaching credentials, and I guess they decided that they believed me," Meyer said.

The couple lived partly on money sent by her family, and they went on welfare until "Dennis" could find a job as an electrician.

Perhaps the scariest moment came when April Meyer went to a government office to get a social security card, using her false papers. Her heart was pounding. "I kept trying to remember what it said on the birth certificate. Finally, it was my turn, and the guy asked me, why don't you have a copy of your card?"

And before she could think twice, she said, "Well, I've been out walking the streets and it's time to turn my life around."'

Good for you, he said. He gave her a copy of her social security card, and then, he did something else. He forgot to ask her for copies of her birth certificate.

"He'd asked everyone else in line, but for some reason he didn't ask me. An angel must have been sitting on my shoulder," she said. It meant that copies of her fraudulent birth certificate and other documentation weren't entered into the Social Security office's files, where a nosy detective might track them down.

Still the stress of living underground had taken its toll on the "DeRosas," and they split up - amicably.

Meyer and her daughters moved to Hilton, a small town near Rochester. There, April married Chris Meyer, who knew, of course, that she wasn't really Karen Ann DeRosa. She went on to have two other children with Chris Meyer, Matthew and Molly.

They were in Hilton only eight months.

Their house - which Chris Meyer had owned - had been listed for sale, and one day, there was a knock on the door.

"This guy is standing there, and he says he wants to look at the house. And of course, we had cleaned it all up and he came in and walked around, asking all sorts of questions, what kind of wood is this, how's the insulation. He seemed really interested in buying the house."

Amanda wasn't there, but there were pictures of her up on the wall.

And then, two days later, April Meyer was sitting in the kitchen, talking on the telephone to a girlfriend, after taking Amanda to school. The doorbell ran, and looking out the window, she saw the interested buyer again, walking around to the back yard.

"I opened up the window and leaned out and kind of joking, I said, `So you had to come back when the house was a mess,' and the man said, `Yeah.' "

Still on the telephone to her girlfriend, she made her way to the front door and opened it, and saw him and another man and a woman standing there, "and he comes in and says, `FBI. Put down the phone.' "

To this day, April Meyer does not know who turned her in. But she doesn't believe it was the people of Watkins Glen.

After Meyer was caught, a former neighbor of hers in Watkins Glen went down to the sheriff's office.

"He asked him, `Are you going to arrest all of us?' And the sheriff told him no. Turns out (the sheriff) had known too." A daughter's memories

Amanda Otter's earliest memory of the underground is a moment in the middle of the night, when she was 4, and she was awakened by her mother.

"She told me we were going to leave, and we had to be really quiet. I remember feeling like we were escaping something. We would drive around different places, live with people for two or three weeks, then move on."

Amanda remembers more clearly how her first journey through the underground ended, in February 1992.

"My teacher told me someone was waiting for me and started walking me down the hall, and she said, `Just remember this, your mom and dad both love you.' "

And then, she saw her mother, in handcuffs, weeping. "They've caught us," April Meyer told her daughter before being led away.

Robyn Jo was sent back to her father, Ken Brewster, and Amanda was sent to a foster home in California, while the courts hammered out custody and criminal issues.

Memories of the underground faded away.

But after she was finally sent to live with her father, Brian Otter, when she was 12, Amanda says, she decided to contact the woman who had helped her mother - Faye Yager.

After Yager agreed to assist her, they began to call each other frequently to plan strategy. Her mother knew nothing about her plans, she says.

The weekend before she left, Amanda visited her mother, stepfather and siblings, and their goodbyes were like any others - tearful, with long hugs, and holding hands in the car.

On Tuesday, January 28, Otter dropped his daughter off at the school bus stop in front of the Yucaipa Christian Church. A welcome sign in front of the church said "Come as you are, but do not leave as you came."

Had it rained, Amanda's father would have taken her to school directly - and aborted her flight.

Amanda waited until Otter drove out of sight. Then she told her friends she had forgotten something and walked back down the street towards her father's home.

But instead, she turned left and went down a dead-end street.

Walking faster, she remembers wondering whether she would be able to do this. "All I could think about was freedom."

She saw a beat up old car with a red ribbon tied on the antenna. She got inside.

The driver was "Sally," one of Yager's frequently used designations for her volunteers. They drove out of the city west on Interstate 10. Amanda sat in the back seat crying. She would weep intermittently throughout much of the trip.

As darkness fell, she lay in the back seat, staring, as orange beams from streetlights swept across her face.

They drove for what seemed like days, stopping only very briefly for food, Amanda recalls, and then, suddenly, they were at the "safe house." She was greeted by members of her new "family" and given a swift kiss goodbye from her escort, who then disappeared.

The next day, she stayed in the house by herself while the family went to school and work, watching "The Sound of Music" and periodically looking through the drawn shades in the house, waiting for her new family to come home, as she would every day for the next few months.

It's like being a foreign exchange student, she would tell herself - a chance to meet new people and visit new places.

But for awhile, Amanda could not leave the house until late in the day, when school was over, so her presence on the streets wouldn't attract attention. Then, in April, she was measured for a uniform at a Christian school, where the pastor and principal had agreed to let her attend under her new name, "Beth."

Amanda had always excelled in school, and had always made friends easily, and soon, she was talking on the phone with her schoolmates and going on sleepovers.

In May, Amanda's photograph appeared on the Internet as part of the search for her, and was sent to her school. A mid-level administrator intercepted it and threw it away.

In California, posters went up all over the state.

One was stapled to a telephone pole 100 yards from Meyer's home, by Brian Otter.

And then, one day, Faye Yager decided it was time to move Amanda again. She hugged her "family," walked out of the house and disappeared.