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Mom Says Fear Forced Her to Flee With Girl

September 25, 1993|LESLIE BERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Catherine Thomas said Friday that she illegally fled the state with her 5-year-old daughter only because her lawyer told her that the man a judge had declared the girl's legal father, although they are unrelated, was trying to revoke her visitation rights.

"I remember breaking down and crying," Thomas said Friday in her first interview since her arrest for child stealing.

"I mean, it was hard enough having only this monitored visit with her . . . and then to have that taken away was just overwhelming to me. And I just panicked, and I was just a basket case that whole day."

Speaking at the Sybil Brand jail for women, where she is being held in lieu of $120,000 bail, Thomas was tense but calm, even somewhat detached. She told of her first experience in jail, the tangled, unconventional relationship that led her there, and of how she fears her daughter Courtney's legal father because, she said, he uses his bill collector skills to get what he wants.

Thomas, 46, of Thousand Oaks, a single mother of three, will remain in jail at least until Wednesday, when she and her attorney, David S. Kestenbaum, will return to Los Angeles Municipal Court and try to persuade Commissioner Abraham Khan to release her. She has pleaded not guilty to felony child abduction, and the county Probation Department is preparing a report on whether to reduce her bail.

As she sat in a stark visiting room in a faded orange prison dress, Thomas said the start of her seven-week odyssey with Courtney was uneventful. She rented an apartment in Las Vegas and they lived quietly, spending most of their time playing in the pool. She used the alias Ruth Angovine and said she spoke to no one back home, including her two teen-age sons.

"I'm not a very good liar, so it was hard," she said.

But within days of starting a cross-country trip to join friends in New Hampshire, she was arrested in a Pittsburgh train station after another traveler recognized them from a national television report. She quickly became a local cause celebre , gaining the sympathy of police who tried to reopen her bitter and unusual legal case, in which a former family friend was granted primary custody of Courtney.

Thomas acknowledged that the man who won custody of Courtney, Kevin Thomas of Van Nuys, had been a close friend who cooked her "beautiful dinners," baby-sat for Courtney and her brothers on weekends, even took the girl to school every day.

But she also described Thomas--a 43-year-old, openly gay manager of a bill collection agency--as a clever man who uses the skills of his trade to gain advantage over people who stand in his way. She said she was terrified of retaliation when she tried to pull back from their relationship.

She also admitted that her fear was largely based on how--with her permission--he had harassed a former boyfriend who fathered her middle child to pay child support.

"I just know Kevin. I know his personality. I know his temperament and I just knew what I was in store for," Catherine Thomas said.

Kevin Thomas could not be reached Friday. His attorney, Glen H. Schwartz of Encino, did not return repeated phone calls.

Asked for her view of why Kevin Thomas won custody of Courtney, Catherine Thomas said she was forced to go to court alone several times because she lacked the money for consistent legal representation. She also said she believed she had been punished for fleeing with Courtney to her native Canada last year, shortly after Kevin Thomas sued for paternity rights in September.

"I think that was held against me a lot," she said.

She said Kevin Thomas filed suit after she had moved from North Hills to Thousand Oaks to put distance between him and her family, especially the girl. She said she moved because she finally realized that Kevin Thomas--who had changed his surname to match Courtney's--was obsessed with the girl and had gained too much power in their family's life.

After she returned in February from her flight to Vancouver, she was convicted of misdemeanor child stealing and placed on three years probation. Meanwhile, she said, Kevin Thomas had won temporary custody of Courtney in their absence. She was allowed monitored visits on weekends and evenings.

The arrangement was affirmed in June after a five-day, closed hearing before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Martha Goldin.

Although the court records are sealed and the facts behind the decision cannot be confirmed, Thomas and her lawyers have maintained she was never adjudged an unfit parent.

At the time of the decision, Schwartz attributed the victory to the legal theory of "estoppel"--the idea that if someone has been held out as a child's father and the child believes him to be its father, then the man is entitled to parental rights regardless of biological ties. The principle is often used in child-support cases, but its application to paternity rights is comparatively new.

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