This particular case starts on, what I thought was, a usual day in the spring of 1998. I’m sitting at my desk, and I receive a phone call from Oklahoma from a Sergeant in the US Army, who is also represented by a law firm I’ve done work for in the past.
This Sergeant has not seen his five year old daughter for four years even though he has paid child support each and every month for those four years. He pays the child support payments to the Dept. of Social Services/or some welfare agency in Oklahoma and this agency passes the money on to the mother-on-the-lam. Even though he has been paying child support, the agency WILL NOT tell him where his daughter is even though he has a court order for visitation. The mother took the daughter from Oklahoma four years ago and has been on the lam ever since. The mother receives welfare, social security, disability and child support payments wherever she moves in the US after she registers with the local agencies, but they will not tell the father where his child is.
The Sergeant and his attorney need to serve the mother with two court orders from the State of Oklahoma and Texas. He spent thousands of dollars retaining attorneys from both states. The contempt order from Oklahoma states the mother is in violation of inter-state transfer, since this was the primary residence of the child, and the contempt order from Texas also states the mother is in violation of inter-state transfer since this was the state where the child was last seen.
For the last four years, this father has hired private investigators to track down (unsuccessfully) the mother and daughter in four different states, so far that would be: Oklahoma, Texas, Hawaii, and Washington. Guess where now? California.
Can you imagine this father, month after month, year after year, state after state, hiring one PI after another, paying one PI after another, going to court for new hearing dates in two states year after year, writing those child support payments each month, getting nothing in return? Not one ounce of assistance from any state or county agency. To make it worse, the Sergeant would be thrown in jail if he stopped paying his child support.
The father tells me he has a new address in Sacramento for his ex-wife and daughter (I never ask where people get their information, best not to know) in a suburb near Sacramento. All I had to do was serve the contempt orders on this mother/ex-wife. Seems simple, I’ll just stake out the place and serve her when she comes out of her apartment. After receiving the thick stack of legal papers and orders from the father by overnight mail, I venture out to this apartment complex to easily serve these papers, and then go play golf. After I serve these papers, its then up to the father along with law enforcement to step in. But when I did arrived at the residence I found the apartment empty, all the curtains were open, there was no furniture, and place was cleaned out. Uh oh… she’s on the lam again.
Now you would think the immediate solution to this is to get assistance or any information from the apartment manager but this is usually not workable. You cannot approach them directly asking if they know where their tenant went.
HINT: What you do is walk into the rental office, find the Manager and say, “Hi, my name is Christi, from LEGWORK, we’re getting ready to go to trial and we lost a material witness. We think she died, can you verify this for me?” With this approach they instantly have sympathy for you and will help you. If the manager wants specifics about the legal case, just make up a story. Here is the one I always use and it works: “Back in 1997, at the corner of Fair Oaks and Sierra, two young children were hit by a car (interject quickly that the children are ok) and this mother was a witness to this accident, that she lived in the area and has now moved, that this case isn’t settling, we are going to trial and we need to find her.” Blah… blah...
This manager informs me the mother and daughter moved just two days earlier with another woman, her partner. She also told me they moved in a hurry, just packed up and left in a few hours. The manager had no forwarding address but if she did, she would have given it to me. Enlisting any kind of authoritarian attitude with apartment managers does not work.
I have a real problem now as there is no information to track her with. This woman has been on the lam for so long, she could have gone anywhere. But luckily for me, knowing from experience people like her actually plan their next move well in advance. She knows where she is going before she splits, this is figured out carefully. The main reason I know this is because if she wants to keep getting all the free government assistance money and child support, she has to let these people know in advance so her welfare checks are not stopped or lost. You can bet she wants to make sure she gets her money. Chances are pretty good that she is going to let the local post office know her new forwarding address.
Did you know Process Servers, after filling out a US Postal address form can get a forwarding address on anyone? You have to have a valid process serving license and show the Postmaster the legal papers. This information is held very confidential by the Postal Service and cannot be misused. If the US Post Office ever decided to stop allowing us to obtain forwarding addresses on people, this would really cripple our profession.
The next day I filled out the Postal form for this mother and submitted this request to the Postmaster. It turns out she didn’t put in a forwarding address - as yet. Well, this is a real bummer, now I have to tell the father we have no where to go. I thanked the Postmaster and started to leave and he yelled after me, “She does have a PO BOX here though, for the last 9 months.” I stood frozen, said “Thank God”.
Whenever you rent a Post Office Box at a post office, you fill out a rental form. You cannot rent a box unless you put down the physical address where you live.
The Postmaster showed me the form this woman filled out. It listed the old apartment address that is now empty, so the mother has not turned in a new address as yet. What I can do is sit on the Post Office box, and when she comes to pick up her mail or government assistance checks, I can serve her. I find out the mail is delivered to the mailboxes by 2 PM each day so for the next four days I watch. I have a decent description of her, so by waiting outside the post office or even watching for her to go to her actual PO Box, and take out her mail, chances are excellent I can catch her. In these situations rearrange your life so you can sit and watch all day. Maybe she only picks up her mail in the morning so you vary the hours and hope for the best.
HINT: A good tip is to eat pancakes when you know you have to sit for a long time by yourself. Did you know pancakes are the best stakeout food? They are full of carbohydrates, you won’t get hungry for a long time, and if you drink nothing or very little, there is no concern about going to the bathroom. If you have a two man team, just sitting and staking out someone, then the food and drink rules don’t need to apply, most of the time anyway.
After two days there was no sign of her.
HINT: Ask the postmaster to put a new rental box application form in her box, that asks her to fill it out with her new physical address. There is no way the mother is going to know the “jig” is up as it is natural for the post office to ask for this information.
On the fourth day, I luck out. The postmaster shows me the new rental box application form that the mother filled out. We have no idea how this mother got past us when she came to the post office, we believe now she did not come in herself, but has been sending someone else or only gets her mail once a week. I now have a new physical residence address for her in Sacramento.
Now that I have located this mother-on-the-lam, I told the client he could drive or catch a plane from Oklahoma, so he can be here to see his daughter. I do not give him any guarantees of course, as I never know what the police or law enforcement agencies are going to do or who is going to have jurisdiction.
Now this can get real nasty, and as it turns out, it does. You must have certainty on what you are doing so I recommend many years of experience and/or have a private investigator with you. Only experience can give you the gift of behavioral insight to how people will react in certain situations.
So to re-cap, we have a mother who is on-the-lam again, hiding a young daughter from her father, still collecting government money, she also knows we are after her, (she can’t be that dumb) plus she gets the continual luxury of being protected by several government agencies. This is kind of insane.
My instinct tells me the mother, at her new address, is not going to answer the door for anyone – she is going to hide in the house forever before she will give up her daughter. People on the lam set up their lives in such a way that one would have to sit on her home day and night until she comes out of the house. My past experience and current instinct tell me this woman informed all her neighbors that her “ex-husband is trying to steal her daughter” making up other lies and stories. It is certain she told all her neighbors to be on the lookout.
For this scenario, I did not sit and watch this residence. I have sat for hours and hours staking people out, and over the years I became wiser. I’d rather cause excitement for this type of situation, it will get the job done faster.
Here’s an important fact: Because of the severity of these papers, even if I did sit on her house and serve her, she could and probably would just ignore the papers, throw them away saying, “I never got served”, which just adds more time and legal hassle for our client, and he doesn’t get to see his daughter any sooner. As most legal contempt papers involve time constraints, and if we did not serve her in time or she did not comply by a certain date, our client has to start all over again. She gets in no trouble at this point with the courts, and it’s another $1000 or so for our client to get these contempt papers re-issued. It was best to have law enforcement get involved from the start so they can order her to comply immediately.
I decided I am going to make her come to me and prepare for the possibility she is going to kick, scream and yell, so you must be prepared for psychotic behavior.
So I decide to create havoc in her neighborhood and flush her out. I predict she is going to call 911, telling the police I am trying to kidnap her child. (instead of telling them that she is the one who did the kidnapping in the first place). Believe me, police just come when they hear the words CHILD and KIDNAP. Children are top priority with 911 operators. Their response is many loud sirens with many police/law enforcement vehicles.
Also, when the mother calls 911, she also gets the deaf relay 911 system. At this time she can request a lawyer, social worker and interpreter, paid for by our tax dollars. I wouldn’t mind if she wasn’t breaking the law.
I went to the new address and watched her house for a few minutes noticing a van in the driveway with a bumper sticker symbolizing the deaf symbol meaning peace/love in sign-language. I knew I had the right place. I then drove around the neighborhood seeing what entrances and exits there were, so I knew where the police might come in and where I could sit and wait for them. I also took a few minutes to straighten up a little bit, clean up my truck, take out my professional licenses in case I have to throw it at them when they are ready to shoot me, brush my hair, put on lipstick.
Hint: You always want to look cute for mug shots.
First step of my plan was to get the mother out of the house. I went directly to her neighbor across the street and made up a story. A woman answers the door, and I am acting nervous on purpose. I want to make it obvious to her that I am lying. I don’t want her to believe me, that’s the point. I want her to take action, get all upset, make calls, call the ex-wife/mother; spread the word around there is someone looking for a little girl to “kidnap”.
I tell the neighbor “Hi, how you all doing today?” I give her my real business card, being upfront since the police are coming anyway. I tell her my phony story: I am working on a legal case (her eyes start bulging instantly), telling her we lost track of a witness years earlier who witnessed a vehicle accident around the corner. This witness is a mother who is deaf, and has a little girl. “That’s all we know." SLAM BAM goes the door. Step One completed.
I then walk slowly back to my truck while this woman watches me. I purposely back into her driveway so she can see my license plate and write it down. Not too difficult since the plate says LEGWORK. I stay there for a couple of seconds then slowly drive down the street and park. I get out of my truck and walk to the corner. As I look down the street, the neighbor leaves her house and runs across the street to the mother’s house. A few minutes later, neighbors start coming out, standing on the lawn and sidewalk, looking around and watching. I am sure someone is calling 911. Pretty soon I have several neighbors outside. Step Two completed.
I leave the neighbors and drove my vehicle to park it behind some bushes on a frontage road, I clocked it at six minutes and here they come, five patrol cars, sirens blaring. They all went straight down the main road, then divided up. I could see them driving around street to street looking for me.
I decided to put the police out of their misery. I drove right up to the mother’s house and parked in front. I had three police cars pull up behind me and two in front.
HINT: Never get out of your vehicle in this kind of situation. I just waited while the two police officers in front of me ran my plate as a security measure, while the officers in back of me turn off their sirens but kept their flashing lights on.
All of a sudden all the flashing lights went out. While two of the officers left in their patrol cars, three police officers in back of me got out of their vehicles, with their hands on their holsters and this actually frazzled me for a second. They walked up on both sides of my vehicle and without having them ask, I gave them my two licenses, vehicle registration and my insurance card. Then all the officers start making one phone call after another. Were they calling Department Motor Vehicles? Or calling my insurance company or government licensing bureaus or the City Hall parking ticket bureau or the USGA for my golf handicap? This took several minutes and the suspense drove me crazy. Finally, one of the officers told me to get out of my vehicle. As I did, I grabbed the thick stack of legal papers and followed him to the rear of my vehicle where the other two police officers were waiting. They handed my licenses back to me while they put their guns back in their holsters. Is this called dodging a bullet? Think so.
The main officer, LT. Roberts, asked me what this was about. I had made several copies of these papers previously so the police could all have their own copy keeping us all on the same page (another good hint to remember). I handed the officers their copies and let them read. I kept my mouth shut while they read and watched all the neighbors talking to each other. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a police officer walking up and entering the neighbors’ house where I had previously been.
The officers took even more time reading the legal papers, then making more phone calls and I caught some bits and pieces of their dialogue: they were talking to their superiors. When the officers were done with their phone calls, they appeared to be waiting for something while watching me. I did not ask them what was happening, not one question. They were waiting for something and I decided to just wait it out. Besides, not like I had choices here.
Around one hour later, while standing and waiting with the police officers, I finally realized what we were waiting for. Out of the neighbors house walking toward us is the police officer who went there earlier, the mother flanked by a Social Worker, an Attorney, an Interpreter and, believe it or not (and this got me fuming), a bodyguard! I could not stand my silence anymore so made a comment to the police officers that this scene is ridiculous. I could tell by their body language they agreed but are not allowed to voice any opinion, god forbid, who wants a lawsuit slapped on them from a deaf woman? I mean look at the backup she has!
After two hours of this, the mother has now gathered her “equal rights” entourage, comes up to me, just staring at me with scorn and hatred. I gave her back a smile to piss her off.
Hint: Smile - it confuses people.
I immediately explain the papers to her, reading them slowly and reading more than I needed to. The interpreter is signing so fast for the mother I was getting dizzy. The mother then starts signing back to the interpreter, and all of a sudden she screams and lunges for me. The two officers intervene ordering the bodyguard to control their client. I explain to the mother what laws she has violated, the date and time of the hearing in Oklahoma and what court she has to report to. I told her she could no longer run from this situation; she is in contempt and must report to the Oklahoma court with her daughter. The interpreter relayed all this to her. Just for the hell of it, I kept reading the entire first page of the contempt order, going on and on when I didn’t really have to. I just wanted to drive home the main point that the running and hiding stops here.
Finally, mother resigned to the fact that she had to succumb, she had no choice. She calmed down and step aside from us to have a discussion with her attorney. After a few minutes the attorney stated they will co-operate. It was up to the courts now except to pray she did not flee once again before the hearing in Oklahoma.
Just one more kicker - while the police and I are walking back to our vehicles, the woman’s attorney yells, “Who is paying for my client’s bodyguard and interpreter?” The three of us freeze and sigh - REALLY??? We slowly turn around, and I was going to rip her head off, but one of the officers puts his arm up to block me, then states to the attorney, “send us a bill”.
As it turns out, because of complex jurisdiction issues with California, Texas and Oklahoma, my client could not take custody of his daughter right away. My client stayed in Sacramento attending a hearing a few days later in Sacramento Superior Court where this ex-wife/mother lost her visitation rights permanently. The daughter now lives with the father in Oklahoma.