The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
By Mackenzie Carpenter and Allen Detrich
Bending the Law to Defend the Children
It’s 10 a.m. on a hot August morning in an elegant neighborhood of Sandy Springs. Already the cicadas are deafening, the humidity so thick that the mansion’s leaded-glass front door sticks momentarily before lurching open to reveal a slight woman in a pale blue sailor dress.
“Mornin’,” Faye Yager mumbles shyly, and then, eyes averted, she leads her visitors out of the heat and into the cool dark front hall.
“Sorry I couldn’t see ya’ll yesterday, but my daddy was in town, and I needed to spend time with him and get away from all this, y’know?” says Yager, making small talk as she walks past the elaborately carved staircase and the grand rooms stuffed with antiques and oil paintings, cut-crystal chandeliers and heavy silk curtains, and enters the huge kitchen where Lily, the maid, has been preparing lunch.
If life were a movie, this would be the house Scarlett and Rhett built, gorgeous, gloomy, just over-the-top in its display of new money and old furniture. And she could be Scarlett, with flawless Magnolia white skin, aquamarine eyes, dark hair piled loosely on her head, still youthfully pretty at 48, except for her mouth – a hard, ruby red slash.
When asked how she’s doing, Yager sighs, and then, the small talk gets big, real quick.
“I got a woman comin’ in from Indiana, and I got another comin’ in tomorrow night,” she says. “And then, there’s Tessy Kittle, who couldn’t go underground with her little girl because of her diabetes. They’re gonna arrest her for not tellin’ where the child is! She doesn’t know where she is, and they’re gonna throw her in jail anyway.
“Y’all want a cup of coffee?”
So this is the woman who hides the children. This is the nemesis of the FBI and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the darling of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Mothers Against Sexual Abuse, star of features in Life, People, U.S. News & World Report, Redbook, and all the talk shows, although it’s been a lot quieter since her big trial in 1992, which was covered live on Court TV and in which she was acquitted of kidnapping and cruelty-to-children charges.
To some, what Yager does is patently illegal and outrageous. To others, it is an act of profound mercy. She helps mothers – and sometimes, fathers – abduct their own children, after they have failed to convince a judge that the other parent is abusing those children, usually by sexually molesting them.
It starts with a phone call, sometimes from a frantic parent, sometimes a referral from social workers, pediatricians, domestic violence counselors and even an occasional police chief. She requires documentation of abuse – custody orders, medical records, before she will act – and, if satisfied, she will begin calling contacts in this country and abroad, scouting places to hide her fugitive families. She charges no money, relying on donations from her volunteers. But runaway families must, she makes clear, have the means to make it on their own, once she has helped them enter the underground.
To some, she is a heroine, doing hard, dangerous work, like the Abolitionists who hid slaves on the underground railroad. To others, she is a vigilante who destroys lives and families and children, subjecting them to a life without roots, identity or two parents.
“What she does is unconscionable,” says Kim Hart, director of the National Child Abuse Defense Resource Center and an Ohio-based lawyer who specializes in defending people accused of child abuse.
Hart once appeared on a television talk show opposite Yager. Lined up with a bunch of Yager-bashers, she got only one chance to speak her mind. “Who died and made you God?” she shouted, as the audience hooted gleefully.
“I hate Faye Yager,” Hart said fiercely in a later interview with this newspaper. “I hate what she is doing to this country. She is helping poison women against men. She is turning the Constitution into toilet paper” by depriving those accused of child abuse due process in court. And, she adds, Yager is no savior of women and children, sending them to safe houses that are little more than “drug-infested hellholes” and pocketing their money.
But Hart’s last claim is dismissed by Charles Pickett, who, as an investigator with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, is no fan of Yager’s either.
“I don’t think she’s in it for the money,” says Pickett. But he also doesn’t believe that she picks cases very well.
“Anytime you’re a zealot, and you set yourself up to work outside the system, you run the danger of playing God and then tragedies can happen,” adds John Rabun, another official of the exploited children center.
“She believes in what she’s doing, that’s for sure. I’ve got great respect for her integrity. I just disagree with her methods.”
For Yager, it doesn’t matter who has legal custody, or what the courts have said, because she is the court of last resort here, the self-appointed finder of fact.
Whether on the road or at home, she is always on the phone, constantly assessing who should go underground and who shouldn’t. She researches each candidate, to be sure, but also says she can make a decision almost instantly, just by looking into someone’s eyes.
She is not always right, she admits, but she claims a better track record than many judges in America, who, she believes, either don’t know enough about child sexual abuse, or don’t want to know, or believe that the accuser – almost always the mother – is doing it because she’s vindictive or crazy.
They called her crazy once, too.
That was 25 years ago, when she told a judge she had walked in on her husband, Roger Jones, while he was molesting their 2-year-old daughter. Jones tried to have her committed to a mental institution, and even though her little girl had contracted gonorrhea, the judge threw Yager in jail for hiding her daughter, and gave Jones custody.
Years later, his daughter came forward and said she was sexually abused by her father, but by then, nearly 60 other children had become Jones’ victims, the FBI would later estimate. He became the first child molester on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, and is serving a 30-year jail term in Florida for sexually abusing two other young girls and a 10-year-old boy. Michelle, Yager’s daughter, lives in Tennessee and works as a dog trainer, and visits her mother frequently.
The story could have ended there. Yager remarried, had four more children, and lives a comfortable life with her doctor husband.
But in 1987, after more than a decade of full-time mothering, interior decorating, charity balls and country club lunches, Yager decided to, as she put it, “get a real job. Somethin’ worthwhile.”
She started her underground.
She gave notice first, calling the ladies of the Speech School Guild, the Ansley Country Club, the Rose Society, the Botanical Gardens, the Atlanta Ballet.
“We were having lunch, and I told them that I was going to be hidin’ these kids. I told them not to send me any invitations to any of their parties, because if I came to their parties the FBI agents might be following me. And I didn’t want them to be mad at me for not coming.”
“They were pretty shocked,” she says, with a cackle.
Since then, she says, she has helped thousands of people, juggling a dozen cases a month. Others – law enforcement officials and rival underground groups – say Yager is prone to exaggeration, that the numbers overall are probably in the hundreds. Her “safe houses” – where ordinary families hide the children – are in all 50 states, but her operations have expanded overseas, too. In those cases, her contacts provide fleeing mothers and children with false passports. It’s an illegal activity that Yager claims she leaves to others.
Every day, the phone in her kitchen rings, giving Yager one more chance to relive her past and to correct it, to rewrite the script so that this time, she has the power to protect the children. The calls are from Alabama and Arkansas and the West Coast, and the distraught voices always ask the same question:
Will you help me? Testing the volunteers
On this day, the first phone call came shortly before lunch.
It was one of her volunteers. They call her up at all times of the day or night, even when there’s nothing going on, looking for errands to run, people to hide.
“They ask me, ‘Faye, what can I do for you? Just tell me what I can do.'”
At first, when they are new, she gives them little errands -drop off groceries, research court files – until she is comfortable they can be trusted with bigger jobs: hiding mothers on the run, placing the children in schools with no questions asked, finding employment for mothers. She readily admits her underground may be riddled with informers, but adds that only a handful of her mothers and children have been caught by the authorities.
But she is, by her own admission, “paranoid just the same.” It is paranoia born from experience and from Yager’s own craving for cloak-and-dagger drama. It surfaces frequently throughout this day: a mother who doesn’t show up at a nearby supermarket for an agreed-upon meeting is immediately suspect, maybe a front for the FBI; a white pickup truck pulling up outside her house sends her into a state of red alert: she peers through the windows, clutching at her throat – until the driver lazily pulls a lawnmower out of the truckbed.
But even paranoids can have real enemies. In 1990, a mother Yager had agreed to meet turned her over to police.
The woman, who had asked Yager to help hide her children from an abusive spouse, claimed Yager had kidnapped and verbally abused the children during her interviews with them. That led to a trial two years later that was carried live on Court TV. She was acquitted, and Yager still believes the case was a setup.
Today, Yager picks her cases more carefully than she did in the past, agreeing to meet with only a few who come with good references, people she dubs “runnin’ material” – those with resources and backbone, who are unlikely to crack under the pressure of hiding, give themselves up or allow themselves to be caught, which could place the rest of the underground at risk.
Occasionally, she turns the tables and reports people to the police – like the woman Yager arranged to meet once in a motel.
“I was alone with her little boy, and he did not look so good, he was all dirty. He was lookin’ out the window, and I asked him, `Do I need to help you?’ and he said `Yes,’ and I asked, `What can I do to help you?’ and he looks out window and says `I could just dig a hole in those woods and get in it and nobody could find me.’ And I asked him `Does your momma need to be in the hole with you?’ And he said, `Oh no!’ And then I asked him, `Would you like your daddy in there with you?’ and he said, `Yes, but he isn’t here.’
“It just ’bout broke my heart to see that little fellow talkin’ like that. That’s when I knew something was funny ’bout the mother and I had police pick her up at McDonald’s.” The woman was charged with abusing the boy. The strange tale
The phone rings again.
It’s a 53-year-old woman calling from a battered women’s shelter in Arkansas. Her estranged husband has been threatening to kill her, and the woman believes he is responsible for the murder of her boyfriend, although police say they don’t have enough evidence to prove it.
“You say he SLIT HIS THROAT?” Yager says, momentarily startled.
“He’s been arrested for abuse? It’s all in the divorce petition?” Yager rocks back in her chair, smiling.
“You come to Atlanta and see me,” she says soothingly. “Yeah, I’m Southern and you’re Southern and we’re gonna get along jes’ fine.”
A pause. The woman frets about leaving her cat behind if she goes underground.
“Well, if you’re worried about your life, the cat’ll have to go. And don’t forget the death certificates, any information about the murder.”
“Oh … my … God … ” Yager is incredulous, sputtering. “Your husband is a … professor . .. of … psychology?” And then, suddenly, she shrieks with laughter.
“Then he must be a pretty sick man, huh? And you really think he murdered this boy? Well, come along,” she says, hanging up, a Cheshire Cat smile on her lips.
To a visitor, it all seems highly improbable. If the woman has all this evidence, why doesn’t she give it to the district attorney?
“Honey, the man is from Alabama. The district attorney is from Alabama. The further south you go, the worse it gets.”
She’s dead serious. A 1987 case in Hattiesburg, Miss., in fact, was the direct impetus for her underground. After reading about a judge who had jailed a woman for hiding her children from the father, whom she had accused of sexually abusing them, Yager decided to leave for Mississippi.
“My husband told me, `Faye, don’t go down there, they’re gonna murder you and dump your body in the river,’ and I said, `Honey, I’ve got to go.’ And he said, `What’re you gonna do?’ and I said, `I don’t know, I’ll wait and see when I get there.’ “
When she got there, she called the judge.
“He didn’t know me from Adam’s housecat, and I said, `Judge, why you givin’ that child over to that child molester?’ “
“And he said, ‘Ma’am, there are some things you don’t know about this case that couldn’t be printed in the papers. Did you know that her lawyer is a lesbian?’ “
Later, in the trial, the mother herself was asked by a court-appointed lawyer for the children if she was a lesbian; he didn’t ask the father any questions about his sexual orientation.
She snorts contemptuously at the memory. “There are three things a child molester hunts with in a courtroom. She’s a whore, a lesbian, or she’s crazy. A lesbian! Heck! She can pray to the daffy-dills, I don’t care what she does,” as long as the children are safe.
Yager’s argument failed with that judge and, after six weeks in jail, the mother relented and gave her child up to the father.
And Yager was on her way to a new life. She started hiding people in similar circumstances in her house, and then, solicited volunteers to lend their homes, or pay for motels or food or transportation.
She got support from Christian fundamentalists – some of whom believe that there is a connection between Satanism and child sexual abuse. And she was backed by feminist groups who believe the courts are biased against women.
But Yager doesn’t fit easily into either category. She’s no feminist – “mothers should stay home with their children,” she believes. And she’s no fundamentalist, rarely attending church, although she shares some of that group’s aversions. She has frequently voiced her distaste for “queers” in print and on television.
Still, she insists she is no homophobe and acknowledges that pedophilia – adult sexual attraction to children – is as common in heterosexuals as in homosexuals.
She thinks she knows a child molester when she sees one, and has not hesitated to stand up in the visitors’ gallery of a courtroom and accuse defendants or witnesses of pedophilia or Satanism or other perversions, prompting numerous lawsuits for defamation.
She never contests the defamation cases, and the plaintiffs always win by default. But Yager doesn’t pay up: she declared herself legally bankrupt in 1992 and rode to the court proceeding in her husband’s Rolls-Royce (which has since been sold to pay for the legal costs of her criminal trial).
Before she even started the underground, she had placed all her assets in her husband’s name. So lawsuits don’t faze her.
“I’m bein’ sued by child molesters in nine states,” she brags. Suddenly, she’s in hot water
Several weeks later, Yager is on the telephone again – this time with a reporter.
“You’d better get down here. It’s getting hot,” she says tersely. “It seems that some judge is fixin’ to put ol’ Faye in jail.”
A few hours later, a visitor arrives at the big Atlanta house and happens upon Yager, resplendent in a brown chiffon caftan, holding court for the television cameras on her back porch. It is a leafy, shadowy place, with lots of dark green wicker furniture and hanging baskets of ferns, and she is reclining on one of the sofas with the flowered chintz pillows, staring into a white hot television light while a reporter from the local NBC affiliate interviews her.
The story’s been all over Atlanta TV and newspapers by now: A young woman in nearby Carroll County is in jail for hiding her 7-year-old daughter during a custody battle, claiming the father molested the little girl. Yager hid the child at the woman’s urging, and now a judge is threatening to put Yager in jail if she doesn’t produce the child.
The child’s name is Jayde, and her father, Kenneth Ellis, was tried and acquitted in 1996 on charges that he had sexually abused her several years earlier. A judge ordered that the father be allowed to visit the child, first under the supervision of family members, to be followed eventually by unsupervised weekend visits.
No way, said Jayde’s mother, Tessy Lynn Kittle, who contacted Yager. Since Kittle, a severe diabetic, could not handle life underground, Yager agreed to send Jayde to a “safe house” alone in October 1996.
Now, nearly a year later, the judge had issued his final contempt order: produce the girl or else. And on Sept. 23, Kittle turned herself in to the county jail, mobbed by camera crews and reporters, and accompanied by her aunt, Angie Jeffers, and Yager, to whom she had turned over Jayde’s legal guardianship papers.
Ellis was nowhere to be seen. He was not talking to the local media, who he believed had portrayed him unfairly.
Indeed, Yager had showered the judge and the news media with papers documenting Ellis’ past history of drug and alcohol abuse, in the hope that the court would either forbid all visits between father and daughter, or issue a stricter visitation order.
Just before she disappeared into her jail cell, Kittle told the media that Ellis “was acquitted and he does have rights, but I do know the abuse did happen. I’m trying to get the message out there that you have to speak up . . . the media is the only ear I have because the justice system is not going to help this little girl.”
But jail had not been easy for Kittle.
On her first night, a missed shot of insulin sent her into a semi-coma, with her blood sugar zooming to three times its normal level.
Yager wants the media to broadcast this story to the rafters.
But instead, the TV reporter on the porch has other ideas.
“Is it fair to say,” the reporter booms, in his best news conference voice, “Faye is back?”
She looks momentarily peeved at the question, which has absolutely nothing to do with the case at hand, but she recovers.
“Faye Yager’s never gone anywhere,” she says regally, leaning against her flowered pillows. “I’m not going to fold up. Tessy might be going to fold up in that jail with the sugar and all that, but I’m not. I’d really rather not call attention to myself, though. I wish you’d stay focused on the issue. That woman’s flat dyin’ in that jail.” More bad news
A few hours after her TV interviews, Yager gets more disturbing news.
Kittle has apparently signed an affidavit claiming she was brainwashed by her family and Yager into hiding her daughter. She now wants Yager to produce the little girl so she can be released from jail.
“That’s not her talkin’, it’s the blood sugar talkin’.” says Yager indignantly the next morning, as her car wheeled onto the interstate toward rural Georgia.
If Yager and Kittle’s aunt don’t produce Jayde, they could face jail. At Yager’s 1992 trial, she faced 60 years in prison, but this poses a new and possibly more dangerous threat.
“I tell you, my biggest fear isn’t the FBI, it’s these county judges,” she says. “At least the feds, they follow all the right procedures and everythin’, but these local judges don’t care. They can do anythin’ they want, they can put a poor girl in jail without bond and withhold her insulin till she gives in and it don’t matter.”
Actually, this is a classic Faye Yager crisis. It has happened before, and it will happen again. A child is in hiding; a judge is threatening jail. But there’s a twist this time. The child’s mother is not underground. She is telling the court she wants Yager to produce the child, and now, Yager is between a rock and a hard place.
Yager pulls off the road into a local family eatery to meet up with Kittle’s family, which she calls “the wolfpack.”
Actually, it’s what they call themselves, too: Angie Jeffers, Tessy Kittle’s aunt; Norma Baldwin, Tessy’s grandmother; and Norma’s husband, Clay Baldwin, have traveled in a pack, as fierce as wolves protecting their young: filing affidavits, pestering lawyers, calling the media.
After hugs and exclamations, Yager and the “wolfpack” head south, towards the town of LaGrange, 40 miles away, looking for Judge Quilliam Baldwin, who is no relation to Kittle’s grandparents.
“I run this thing like a football game,” Yager muses as the car rockets past serene golden fields and red barns. “What I always have to do is play offense. I have got to get that judge to understand that they have been withholding Tessie’s insulin, she’s sicker than a dog, she’s not in her right mind.
“I’ll find out where that judge has lunch and then I’ll have lunch with the judge.” Maybe her visit won’t change his mind, she said, “but he won’t forget it.” A tense showdown
But Judge Baldwin is not in his LaGrange office. He has taken the afternoon off, says his secretary.
“Is he goin’ to put me in jail?” Yager asks the secretary, who stares back, wary and stunned at the sight of the woman in the crisp black linen jacket and flowing skirt and dark glasses who looks more like a suburban real estate broker than a lawbreaker.
Across the street at the courthouse, Yager finally encounters Peter Skandalakis, the district attorney, and gets to ask the same question, the one that’s been gnawing at her all day and the night before.
This is the man who would put Yager in jail, if called to do so. Skandalakis is also the same man who prosecuted Kenneth Ellis for child sexual abuse, and lost.
In his office, Yager grips her armchair handles. Her neck turns bright red. For once, she seems rattled.
“You can tell me if – well, Tessy Kittles’ blood sugar is up to 400 in that jail, Mr. Skandalakis, they’re abusin’ her in that jail and . . . “
Skandalakis, polite, but terse, interrupts her.
“It is my understanding that Ms. Kittles says that she does not know the whereabouts of the child, and that she is being held in contempt of the court until the child is produced.”
“But Peter,” says Jeffers, “You’re asking us to produce the child so we can turn her over to the man you indicted on child molestation charges.”
“I am an officer of the court, Ms. Jeffers, and – “
“Now, honey – ” Yager says.
“Don’t call me honey,” Skandalakis says evenly, then turns to Jeffers to explain, again, why the case he brought against Ellis failed. It was always a weak case, he tells her firmly. He believed the child had been abused, but there was plenty of room for reasonable doubt.
And now, it’s up to Yager to do the judge’s bidding: Produce the child.
And if she doesn’t?
There is a long, long pause, as if everyone in the room is holding their breath.
“I can’t say that jail is in my plans at this time. But if the child is not produced, I will have to call the FBI into the case.”
Then he adds, somberly, but gently: “Ladies, the ball is in your court.” Professor Faye
It is five days later, in Bloomington, Ind.
Hal Pipinsky, a professor of criminal justice at Indiana University, teaches a course called “Alternative Social Control Systems.”
Today’s guest lecturer: Faye Yager.
The crisis in Carroll County is never far from her mind, but while jail continues to be a possibility, today, Yager is playing professor, not outlaw.
It is the fifth year Yager has come to IU, at her own expense, just as she does at Kentucky State and other schools in the United States and Canada. She says she welcomes the chance to speak at colleges and universities so that she can expose future lawyers, judges and social workers to the reasons why the underground exists.
But it must also be a kind of therapy, too, to be treated with the courtesy and undivided attention that Yager receives here.
It is something that has eluded her in places like the Carroll County Courthouse. There, and in other courtrooms, or on television, she has always been portrayed as the outsider, the agitator, talking fast and loud to make her point: sometimes shouting, sometimes picketing, buttonholing impatient judges or clerks or lawyers who would rather be somewhere else.
Here, she is Professor Faye, dignified, resplendent in dark forest green silk and pearls. Here, she speaks, and people respectfully take notes.
She has perched all her memorabilia on a table for the students to examine after the lecture. There are the mug shots of her ex-husband, Roger Jones, taken when he was arrested for child molestation; her white notebooks, each containing the documents for a particular case; the dogeared copies of Life and Redbook and U.S. News & World Report containing the stories about her; the leaflets she would pass out in front of the courthouses she picketed, saying, “LOCK YOUR KIDS UP IF YOU SPOT THIS MAN!”
Yager then asks that the lights be dimmed so she can show a videotape. It is of a social worker literally trying to drag three cowering children into a room to visit with their father. The eldest child has been raped by him, Yager says, but the court has ordered supervised visits nonetheless.
The class watches in stunned silence at the sight of the three children on the floor, weeping, while the social worker yanks helplessly at their arms. The three-year-old puts her arms protectively around the 12-year-old girl and says, “leave my sister alone.”
The lights go on, and Yager looks expectantly at the class, mostly white, middle-class students in athletic jerseys.
“That social worker would have lost her job if she didn’t do that. She had to do that. This stuff happens all the time, every day, in every state” she says, watching the students’ faces.
“Those kids are safe now. That videotape was taken before the mother ran. Don’t get upset,” she says lightly.
There is complete silence. A young man shakes his head.
“I want you to remember these faces. If you ever decide to be a social worker, don’t get caught up in that system where you’re afraid to lose your job, even if what they ask you to do is not right.
“You remember those children. You get out there, and you can change this. And then, there won’t be no more Faye Yagers, once you change this.” Postscript
Six weeks later, on Nov. 15, Yager went into her own underground and did something she had never done before.
She picked up Jayde Ellis, 8-year-old daughter of Tessy Kittle and Kenneth Ellis, and brought her back to Georgia. Then, on Nov. 18, she delivered the child to Judge Baldwin.
Yager did it, she says, because Jayde’s mother wanted it that way and because she had finally persuaded the judge to guarantee that each visit between Jayde and her father would be supervised until mid-1998.
Even when Faye Yager loses, she wins.
The next day, content that this girl was safe for the time being, Yager is back in her kitchen. The phone rings. And it starts again.