BAKERSFIELD — Just before daybreak on Aug. 3, 1984, Jim and Cindy Meek took care of one last bit of business before becoming fugitives from the law. With a piece of lettuce, Jim lured Crip, the pet tortoise he'd had since childhood, out from under the house and loaded him into the Ford Courier pickup-camper hidden in the Meeks' garage.
Then, before the neighbors were up and about, the Meeks slipped out of town and headed north.
Their cargo included two dogs, $13,000 in cash (most of it from a second mortgage on their home), their TV and VCR, a few treasured mementos--and their foster child, 3-year-old Joseph Turner, for whom they had been waging what they believed to be a losing battle for custody.
On Aug. 20, when the Meeks did not show up for a scheduled court hearing, Kern County Superior Court Judge Henry E. Bianchi issued a warrant for their arrest. The charge: felony child stealing. The Meeks, if caught, faced a maximum of four years in prison and $10,000 in fines.
Today, back in Bakersfield after hopscotching across the Western United States and Canada and living under assumed names during 14 months on the run, the Meeks are now Joey's legal guardians. If all goes according to their plans, they will also be his adoptive parents before the boy turns 6 in June.
But the Meeks' decision to take the law into their own hands angered authorities, shocked family and friends, and posed a dilemma even for the attorney who handled their case. "Was this a bold move to protect a child, or was it a criminal act? It's a real fine line," says Christian Van Deusen, the lawyer who represented the Meeks through much of their contest with the law.
When the couple left notes telling friends and relatives they were about to become fugitives because they "couldn't bear to give up the baby," Jim and Cindy Meek were solid citizens, hometown kids who for the eight years of their marriage had scrimped and saved toward a secure financial future.
They left behind five properties in which they had a total equity of $133,000; four would be foreclosed on. They also left behind the comfortable life style afforded them by Jim's $43,000-a-year superintendent's job with a company that services oil wells.
"It cost us everything we had," Cindy said, adding, "I didn't think about what we were giving up, or what we would become. I had just one goal in mind."
Making the Decision
There had been hours of soul-searching, Jim said. "Were we leaving for the right purpose? Were we being selfish, or was Joey better off with us? In our minds, we knew. I had always wanted security, but I didn't think twice about giving it all up."
In June of 1985, the Meeks, homesick and broke, contacted Van Deusen, a Santa Ana adoption attorney. Eventually, he and co-counsel Lee Felice of Bakersfield negotiated a plea bargain under which the Meeks pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child stealing and received three years' probation. On Oct. 11, 1985 they came home to Bakersfield to renew their fight for Joey in the courts.
That fight took a year but, by last December, the Meeks had convinced the court that they were the child's "psychological parents," that the months as a family in hiding had cemented the bond. They were made Joey's legal guardians, and they hope the adoption will become final next month.
But others, including a lawyer for Joey's birth mother and some of the social workers for the Kern County Department of Human Services who early on opposed the Meeks in their fight, have questioned both their suitability as parents and the morality of rewarding them for breaking the law.
Jay Christopher Smith, the court-appointed attorney for Jerry Lynn Turner Hernandez, Joey's mother, asks, "What are we saying to people--kidnap the child if you have to? Delay, delay, delay and then we'll let you have the child because now he's bonded to you? That stinks. There are a lot of people out there who want children and will do all sorts of crazy things."
When Jim Meek, now 32, and Cynthia Meek, 29, childless after six years of marriage, were told by doctors that they could not have children, they thought of adoption and, as a first step, decided to take a foster child--"to see if we could love someone else's child like our own," Cindy said. Joey, then 13 months old, was placed in their home in July of 1982.
The blond, brown-eyed child, diagnosed as "developmentally delayed," had been removed from another foster home. A dependent of the Juvenile Court, he had been placed in protective custody at his mother's request in November, 1981, when he was 5 months old, after she had run away with him from the Bakersfield foster home where she was living.
She was only 17. At the time she contacted authorities, she and the baby were sharing a motel room in nearby Wasco with Turner's girlfriend and she had one jar of baby food and no money, according to court documents.