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Man Who Took Daughters From Ex-Wife Still Measures Up to Palm Beach Standards

Identity: Stephen Fagan lived an elaborate lie among old money in Florida. But those who were duped say it was done with class, character.

May 06, 1998|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALM BEACH, Fla. — High-society hopefuls here are never judged by the size of their bank accounts. Everyone here has money.

Rather, "you observe," explains prominent attorney Robert Montgomery. "Does he have the social graces? Is he a conversationalist? Is he charitable? Belong to other organizations? From there, you slowly and surely take their measure."

By those criteria, William S. Martin measured up perfectly. He and his wife, Harriet Golding Martin, had recently bought a $2-million oceanfront villa with a bad paint job and restored it beautifully. His candy-apple red Ferrari Testarossa was often parked out front, next to the Bentley, behind the stone lions at the gate.

Martin joined Donald Trump's Mar-A-Lago Country Club, was named to the board of the Palm Beach Opera and discreetly dropped clues to an illustrious background that included a law degree from Harvard, a Supreme Court clerkship, hush-hush work for the CIA, founding a Washington think tank and a career in psychiatry. Or maybe it was psychology.

No matter.

It was all a lie.

Not only was Martin none of the above, but he wasn't even William S. Martin.

By now, much of the nation knows that the man Palm Beach knew as Martin was arraigned in a Boston suburb April 21 on kidnapping charges. There he admitted to being Stephen Fagan, 56, who more than 18 years ago went to the home of his former wife, picked up his two daughters, then ages 5 and 2, for a weekend outing, and never brought them back.

His daughters, like his friends in Palm Beach, were shocked. But the story of Stephen Fagan, a.k.a. William Martin, is hardly ending with cries of betrayal.

Today, the girls are poised young women who profess only love for the father who raised them, even though one of the many lies he told was that their mother had died in a car crash. As yet they have expressed little interest in a reunion with their mother, Barbara Kurth, a research scientist in Virginia.

"I firmly believe what happened with my sister and I some 19 years ago happened for a good reason. My dad wanted us to be safe and to grow up happy, healthy and strong," said Lisa Martin, now 21, who is to graduate this month from USC, which she entered four years ago on a swimming scholarship.

Her older sister, Rachael, 23, works in New York for a philanthropic group connected to the family of Fagan's wealthy wife.

And as Fagan waits at his two-story beachfront home for a May 22 court date in Framingham, those who knew him here remember him as both a tuxedoed charmer and a devoted father. Society matron Lois Pope, the widow of National Enquirer founder Generoso Pope, said she was surprised and saddended by the news. "His life was a lie, perhaps," she said. "But he's a wonderful guy. He is."

Fagan was arrested here last month after Massachusetts police received a tip from a local lawyer that the man known as Bill Martin was wanted for kidnapping.

Fagan told reporters that he took his daughters because they were endangered in the custody of Kurth, a woman he described as a neglectful alcoholic.

Kurth, 48, who has a doctorate in biology and works at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said that although she suffered from narcolepsy and grew dependent on amphetamines to stay awake, she was not a bad mother. "I have been living with the loss of my daughters for nearly 20 years," Kurth said at a news conference. "And not a day has gone by in which I have not thought of whether or not they're safe or happy."

Now, although she knows where her daughters are, Kurth said "the incredible charade [Fagan] has been living has created a media spectacle that I fear has endangered any hopes of being reunited with my daughters."

That media spectacle has not exactly convulsed Palm Beach, a stately seaside city of 10,000 that is so old-money that some still think of the Kennedys as arrivistes.

Scandal, after all, is not unheard of here. William Kennedy Smith was tried and acquitted of rape charges in 1991 after a sexual encounter on the lawn of the family estate with a woman he met while bar hopping with his uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Financier Ivan Boesky had a place here before he was busted in an insider-trading scam. And just last week, Atlanta police issued an arrest warrant for millionaire Palm Beach socialite James Sullivan, suspected of ordering a hit man to gun down his wife, Lita, on the doorstep of their villa in 1987. Sullivan, well remembered here for cruising around town in a bright red Rolls-Royce, is a fugitive.

To many here, it is what William Martin became, not what Stephen Fagan did, that fixes an impression.

While not a Harvard man, Stephen Fagan is a lawyer, a graduate of Suffolk University who needed six tries to pass the Massachusetts bar exam. In 1978, he worked as a part-time legal aide at Harvard, earning $6,500. According to Massachusetts authorities, that may be the last job he ever held.

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