Children of the Underground

Why isn't Faye Yager in jail?

Her underground is illegal. Mothers who hide with their children - even if it's from a sexually abusive father - are usually in violation of custody orders. Sometimes they are wanted for kidnapping. Their documents are false. There's often credit card fraud, bank fraud, insurance fraud.

But Yager remains free. She says she is careful not to do anything illegal herself. She personally only gives women money and advice.

Yager may or may not be telling the truth. But if law enforcement officials are currently investigating her, they aren't saying. The FBI declined to comment on Yager, or to grant an interview with the special agent who has tracked Yager's movements for years.

There is even evidence that some in the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have sympathy for Yager's network and others like it.

Gus Zamora, a private investigator from Florida who specializes in tracking down children who have been abducted and taken to other countries, says he knows that the FBI has occasionally backed off from investigating Yager.

"Faye has stepped in to shield people, and the FBI was in total agreement they were very bad cases and didn't go after them. I had one agent telling me that in one case, his opinion was the guy was a pervert," says Zamora.

Leaders of other underground movements say they, too, have been given some slack by FBI agents.

One described a lengthy interrogation session that ended when the agent told her she could continue with her work.

"I showed him information about the cases, and he told me I was probably right, morally, to hide these families. He said I could keep on doing it, as long as no federal warrants were out for that family's arrest."

She also noted that the police chief in her town would give her two hours' notice before showing up at her house with an arrest warrant, so she could move her runaway families beforehand.

In the past, police considered parental abductions to be private matters. Even the tough federal law that led to the death penalty for Bruno Hauptmann in the 1932 kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby omitted parental abductions from its purview.

But the 1980 Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act changed that - at least officially. There is now greater cooperation between national and local law enforcement agencies in tracking cases of parental abduction, although in reality, they still are not a top priority.

Often, when local police learn Faye Yager is involved, the case moves down the priority list even further, say some.

"Prosecutors, for the most part, understand what it is she is doing," says DeKalb County District Attorney Tom Morgan in Georgia.

"If it happened in my county, I'd look at the facts, but even if the (abducting) parent was guilty of a crime, I'd have to look at the likelihood of conviction, and in many cases Faye can convince a jury to acquit."

Of course, not all district attorneys feel the same way. Joseph O'Connor, prosecutor in Lewiston, Me., did not hesitate to throw the book at one woman who had hidden in Yager's underground and other organized networks for six years. After she was caught, Esther Ahonen was jailed for six months until she finally pleaded guilty to kidnapping charges, which she says she did to spare her children from having to testify at her trial.

"The statute is pretty clear," says O'Connor. "She was in violation of a court order giving him custody. She took the children and disappeared. There's not much subtlety there. To what extent do you let people take the law into their own hands?"

Yager herself was not prosecuted in that case, however. And in the one instance where she was taken to trial, she won.

Some even think it was planned that way.

In 1990, local police in Cobb County, a suburb of Atlanta, arrested her on charges of kidnapping and cruelty to children.

Myrna Watts had met Yager in a motel with her two children, seeking help in fleeing an abusive spouse. But prosecutors claimed that Yager had coerced these children and others into making false statements about sexual abuse. The children's mother said she was appalled by their treatment when Yager interviewed them on videotape.

Yager and her supporters claimed it was a set-up engineered by an FBI agent who assisted local police in the case. During the trial, the agent testified briefly, but provided little information about the bureau's efforts to stop Yager.

While prosecutors presented videos of Yager questioning children in an aggressive, occasionally harsh manner - sometimes reducing a child to tears - they didn't count on the real impact of those tapes: child after child recounting gruesome acts of sexual abuse, and the children's statements then being confirmed by witnesses called by her defense attorneys in court.

After a four-week trial, which was broadcast live on Court TV, and three hours of deliberation, a jury acquitted Yager.

Many longtime Faye Yager observers, both supporters and detractors, suspect it was planned that way.

"Either it was the most incompetent prosecution ever, or a total laydown. I think they threw the case," says Kim Hart, a Yager opponent and director of the National Child Abuse Defense Resource Center, an Ohio-based organization that specializes in defending people accused of child sexual abuse.

"The 1992 case against her was an incredibly weak case," adds Alan Rosenfeld, a Boulder, Colo., lawyer who specializes in defending women who have taken their children into hiding.

"I've seen files in other cases in which it was clear the FBI had much more information on her, but they didn't go after her," he says.

That information may even have come from informants within Yager's network, Rosenfeld believes. He once defended a woman who sent her child into Yager's underground. The woman who hid the child was an informer for the FBI, and turned the child in, Rosenfeld says.

"The FBI could shut her down tomorrow if they wanted to," says Rosenfeld. But they don't, he adds, because "they recognize she serves a legitimate social purpose. She's a pressure valve for these bad cases. Something has to be done to protect these children, and Faye is doing it."