Two young sisters, whose father abducted them seven years ago from their Valencia home, were found Tuesday in a small town in Oregon after a bus driver recognized their photographs on a television program about missing children, officials said.
The father, 38-year-old Ronald Whitelaw, was arrested on charges of felony child stealing and is being held in lieu of $200,000 bail at Salem County Jail in Oregon, Los Angeles County district attorney spokesman Al Albergate said.
Efforts were under way Tuesday evening to locate the mother, Faith Canutt, 36, who has been a leader in the nationwide campaign to locate missing children and who now lives in Hawaii, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Detective Jerald Johnson said.
In October, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge awarded Faith Canutt $1.5 million in damages from Whitelaw, his second wife and his mother for the emotional distress caused by losing her children. It was called the country's first civil damage case involving parental child stealing.
Canutt's mother, Bernice Canutt of Valencia, and the family attorney chartered a private jet Tuesday to fly to Salem and gain custody of the girls, Alisa, 14, and Kristen, 11, Johnson said. The children were taken to a foster home after their father was arrested at 6 a.m. Tuesday, he said.
The two girls disappeared in April, 1978, when Whitelaw did not return with them after a weekend visit, Deputy Dist. Atty. Elliot Fisher said. Whitelaw and Faith Canutt were divorced in January, 1978, and custody was granted to the mother, who took back her maiden name.
Whitelaw, who was a wealthy real estate developer in Santa Barbara and has extensive real estate holdings in Oregon, then changed his name and apparently moved to Lebanon, Ore., with his daughters and his second wife, Johnson said.
Effort to Find Daughters
Since then, Canutt has been "relentlessly" trying to locate her former husband and regain custody of her daughters, Johnson said. She has appeared on several television programs and has worked with Child Find, an organization that searches for children abducted by non-custodial parents.
"She has hired numerous private investigators and even calls us about every other week from Hawaii to see if there are any new leads," Johnson said.
Whitelaw was arrested by FBI agents after a school bus driver told them that he saw pictures of the sisters on a television show Monday night, Fisher said. Whitelaw's second wife was not arrested.
On hearing of Whitelaw's arrest, Newhall Municipal Judge Keith Byram raised his bail from $2,000 to $200,000 Tuesday on an interstate flight warrant, Fisher said. It is not known when Whitelaw will be returned to Los Angeles County, he said.
3 Named in Judgment
The unusual court judgment last year was issued against Whitelaw and his second wife, Sandra Melhorn Whitelaw, both of whom could not be located by the court, and Whitelaw's mother. His mother, Edith Louise Whitelaw of Escondido, was ordered to pay part of the damages for "joining in the conspiracy to deprive" Canutt of her children and for shielding her son from detection and arrest, Judge Paul G. Breckenridge said.
Officials said Tuesday that they do not know if Canutt has received any money from the court action.
Canutt apparently is on vacation, Johnson said.