Children of the Underground

Sally is in anguish. She is sitting in a Ruby Tuesday's restaurant watching her two little girls devour an enormous ice cream sundae while a thunderstorm shudders and howls outside.    

Sally is trying hard to control her face, trying hard not to communicate any panic as she asks 5-year-old Katie and 7-year-old Tina this question, ever so slowly and gently:

"How would you feel about going back to live with your Daddy?"   

In an instant, the ice cream is forgotten and two pairs of hazel brown eyes are fixed on hers like twin laser beams.

It's that question again.    

It's the same question their mother has been asking on and off over the past few weeks, the same question that makes Tina go quiet and Katie fold into a fetal position before Sally retracts it, and says "never mind."   

But this time, Sally persists.    

"Would you rather keep running, or go back?"   

``Keep runnin','' Katie whispers, doubling over, her head down on the seat.    

"We might not have any choice, though. We might have to go back, and I might not see you for awhile."   

"I don't like him,'' says Tina.    


"Because you don't. He makes you cry."   

"But that doesn't mean you shouldn't like him, just `cause he and I don't get along. Maybe we need to go back and you should try to get to know him again."   

There is no answer.    

A waitress comes to the table, all sunshine and cheerfulness. She sees the children lying on their sides in the booth, Katie's head in her mother's lap.    

"Oooh, I bet all that ice cream has made some little girls get a tummy ache," she chirps.

It wasn't that.       

Two years of hiding    

For the past two years, Sally has been living "underground" with her two daughters, except that her real name isn't Sally, it's Rita Mazzie. Katie's real name is Ashley. Tina's real name is Sarah. Their new names they invented as part of their disguise while on the run.    

Mazzie is a petite woman, with a sharp chin and wide green eyes that look perpetually startled. Her hair is cut short, and she recently changed it from light brown to jet black on the instructions of Faye Yager, an Atlanta woman who runs an organized underground network dedicated to hiding mothers and children when courts don't believe their claims that the fathers have been abusive.    

Mazzie's journey into hiding began long before she met Yager, who runs the most public of these organized "undergrounds," with the help of volunteers around the world who provide safe houses, false identities and decoy leads to throw police off the trail.    

Mazzie first fled with her children from her home in Elizabeth, south of Pittsburgh, on Nov. 28, 1995, and entered the Women' Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. She told officials at the center that her husband, John Mazzie, threw a wooden board that hit her head.    

It happened just days after Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence Kaplan had dismissed her petition to suspend John Mazzie's visitation rights with the children.   

Kaplan's order followed an investigation by the county's Department of Children and Youth Services of allegations by Rita Mazzie that her husband had sexually abused their younger daughter. CYS concluded that her allegations were "unfounded."   

John Mazzie, through his attorney, George Miller, declined to comment for this article, but in official documents, he has denied any wrongdoing.    

The Mazzies, who had been living apart for a year, were told to enter mediation to resolve their conflict, but before they could do so, Rita Mazzie says, her husband threw the board. That's when she ran.    

The women's shelter in Oakland is located in an anonymous building, with no markings or signs. That's the way it's supposed to be - to protect the women who go there.    

But someone, somehow, found out where Rita Mazzie was, and telephoned the shelter asking for her. That alarmed shelter officials, who told her they believed she might be in danger and it would be best if she left the area. That night, they put Mazzie and her daughters on a midnight bus to a shelter in Alabama.    

The girls, sleepy and confused, asked their mother where they were going.    `

"To a safe place," she said.    

"I was underground, I guess, before I knew I was underground."   

When they arrived in Alabama on a cold November morning, they were met by a shelter official, who provided them with a room to live in, and arranged for therapy for all three of them.    

It was a difficult but ultimately fruitful experience for Mazzie, who had never sought any kind of professional or legal help for her troubles. Suddenly, she was in a place "where it was OK to talk about what we had been through."   

In May, Mazzie decided to leave Alabama and move in with her sister, who lived in Florida.    

It would be one of the happiest times during her two years on the run. Her children were enrolled in school, and she got a job as a waitress.    

"I felt safe, because the apartment's landlord was the local sheriff," Mazzie says, smiling slightly at the memory. He lived right across the street, "and he never asked me for any identification."   

Two weeks after school started, a teacher told her that Ashley needed further counseling, and recommended therapy at a local non-profit children's foundation. Ashley went and began to make progress. The child, who had been withdrawn and depressed, began to come out of her shell.    

Ensconced in her new life, Mazzie was happy. She liked working in the restaurant. Her children were happy, too, Mazzie says.    

Sometimes, however, she would realize with a start that her husband might be trying to find her and the children. Then she would put it out of her mind.    

Mazzie knew that she was probably in violation of some law, although she wasn't sure what law she was breaking.   

One warm spring night last May, the telephone in the kitchen rang.    

It was a friend from Tampa.    

The FBI had visited Rita Mazzie's mother, the friend told her. They were looking for her. They had a warrant for her arrest on federal charges of flight to avoid prosecution.

Mazzie remembers that moment as clearly as anything in her life. Everything after that was a blur.    

Standing in the middle of her sister's kitchen, she felt paralyzed, unable to think, except for one thing: She was a fugitive, and the FBI was after her. She could be caught, and her children taken from her, and she could be put in jail.    

She started walking around in circles, frantic.    

Then, she called another friend elsewhere in Florida.    

"This woman had been through the same thing. She had hidden her child when she feared her spouse was molesting the boy. She had used Faye Yager."   

It was the first time Mazzie had ever heard the name of the woman who runs the best-known underground network in America.        

A disastrous encounter    

Faye Yager likes to say that the mothers and occasional fathers who go into her network are "runnin' material."  

That usually means a strong-minded person who believes that what she is doing is the only alternative; who is well-organized; someone with the resources to survive a new life underground and stay put. Anyone who is weak-willed or dependent may not last more than a week, and if she is caught, she not only will worsen her own position in court, but may put the people who helped her at risk.    

So perhaps it was inevitable that Mazzie and Yager wouldn't hit it off.    

"She sat there and was going through all my papers, and I didn't have everything there, and then, she leaned into the table and said to me, `If you do this, and you get caught, you will never see your children again.' "    

"She was very hard," Mazzie remembers.    

It was Yager's stock speech, the one she tells all the women she meets. It's like boot camp; designed to weed out the the weak from the strong.    

Mazzie's reaction was to burst into tears.    

Yager then "scooted her chair back and said to me, `I'm NOT goin' to be your babysitter if you're goin' to be like that. If you're not goin' to behave like a grownup then I'm going to walk right out of here. And I will have nothin' more to say to you.' "    

It was Yager at her harshest.    `

"I have to be tough with these people. I have to tell them the truth about what they're doin'. This ain't Disney World," Yager would say later.    

Yager told Mazzie's friend to take her back home, and said she would call in a week with further instructions.    

Two weeks went by with no word from Yager.    

And then, a family friend called again, and told her that John Mazzie had been given temporary custody of the children. Rita Mazzie, in a panic, tried again to reach Yager.

They spoke one more time, and Yager "told me to hang in there, she was workin' on it."

Without waiting to hear any further from Yager, Mazzie and the children traveled to Huntsville, Ala., where another friend had offered her a place to stay while she figured out what to do.    

But the heat was on.    

The FBI agent assigned to Mazzie's case had visited her sister in Florida almost daily, she was told. Mazzie's therapist also got a visit, and was told her telephone had been tapped.

And in addition to federal charges, there were state charges for interfering with custody arrangements, filed against her in Pennsylvania.        

Marooned in Huntsville    

Huntsville , in north Alabama, is a booming community, where yuppies co-exist somewhat uneasily with poorer families. "Cappuccino and Christ" says the sign outside one local church, near a plush neighborhood full of renovated Victorian houses. Down the highway is a seamier part of town, where "Larry's Pistol and Pawn" competes for business with "Earl's Mowers & Chain Saws."   

That's the neighborhood where Mazzie and her children are holed up, living in an apartment her friend provided them, a single room above a garage. Mazzie has no money, and relies on her friend's hospitality for food. Her surroundings are clean but plain, and there is no air conditioning. Garbage bags cover the windows, as makeshift curtains.

Despite the 90 degree-plus temperatures, despite the lack of toys or Nickelodeon, Ashley and Sarah - now being called Katie and Tina - are playing quietly and contentedly, using boxes and blankets as a "school."   

They know something is wrong; their mother spends her days making anxious telephone calls, or waiting for the phone to ring. She has cut and dyed their hair; and they are far from the place in Florida they had grown to love.    

Despite her efforts to conceal her worry, "they keep asking me if I'm all right," Mazzie says.    

And as it becomes clearer that the FBI agent is moving closer, Mazzie is thinking seriously about giving up.    

"I just can't bear much more of this," she says, "knowing that they're out there, calling up my family and visiting them every day and tapping their phones."   

So, very reluctantly, she has begun to give up on the idea of going into Yager's underground.    

Slowly, she has been trying to move a little bit away from Ashley and Sarah, trying to get herself and them used to the idea that soon, they will be apart. She does this by talking about it, by talking about them going back to live with their father.    

It is not working.    

"The more I distance myself from them, the closer they try to get to me," she says.    

One night, after a frantic phone call from a sister, she had a friend drive her to one of Huntsville's shopping malls. It was just before closing.    

"What are you doing, momma?" asked Ashley.    

"I'm calling your father," Mazzie told her daughter. She would ask him to call off the FBI, tell him that she was coming back.    

Immediately, Ashley began to crouch on the sidewalk, her head down. Mazzie dialed the number, and got John Mazzie's answering machine.    

She didn't leave a message. She hung up.    

Then she called a lawyer in Pittsburgh.        


On Aug. 26, Rita Mazzie voluntarily appeared at a court in Pittsburgh with her two children.    

The FBI dropped its charges. State charges are still pending, but a judge agreed to permit the children to remain with Rita Mazzie.    

The father will be allowed to visit them. The family has entered counseling to help the children establish a relationship with him.    

Their journey into the underground is over but another, perhaps more difficult, journey is just beginning.