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Charges Dropped in Girl's Abduction by Grandparents

The couple, saying she was abused by her parents, eluded police with her for 13 years. They have withdrawn some accusations.

January 25, 2003|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

During most of the 13 years that he lived as a fugitive, charged with taking his granddaughter from her lawful parents, Raul Lopez hid behind a bushy gray beard that reminded him, unhappily, of Fidel Castro.

It was the Cuban leader who had sent Lopez packing the first time, in the early 1960s, when he immigrated to Miami. Now Lopez was sitting in a Redondo Beach restaurant recalling his reaction when he learned that his second flight, this time from the FBI, was at an end.

"The first thing I did," he said, stroking his chin, "was shave."

State authorities in Florida recently informed Lopez and his wife, Irene, that they were dropping charges filed in 1989 that accused the grandparents of illegally taking their granddaughter from her mother and stepfather. Kaylee Nicole Lopez was 5 at the time, and the grandparents have said they believed the girl's father and stepfather were sexually abusing her, with the complicity of her mother.

No one was ever charged with abusing the girl, and Florida child welfare officials determined that the accusations were false.

The Lopezes, rejecting that conclusion, fled with Kaylee into an underground network established in the late 1980s to help parents, in effect, kidnap their own children from custodial spouses whom they suspected of being child abusers.

After yearlong travels around the country, they wound up in Southern California, where they have spent more than 12 years eluding police and federal agents. They still will not say just where they have been living.

Viewed as heroes by some, including their granddaughter, the Lopezes, now 63, were portrayed in less flattering terms by her parents, who believe the grandparents fabricated the charges of sexual abuse and ultimately took the law into their own hands to satisfy a selfish desire to raise the girl.

Kaylee's father, Raul Lopez Jr.; her stepfather, Allen Cribbs; and her mother, Lora Coleman -- all of whom live in Miami -- have denied any wrongdoing.

Now 18, Kaylee successfully petitioned last year to be removed from listings of missing children. She also asked prosecutors to drop charges against her grandparents. Her saga was recounted Nov. 17 in a Times article.

Although state charges have been dropped, federal authorities have not yet quashed a warrant on charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. However, an FBI spokeswoman in Miami said the agency had petitioned the U.S. attorney to drop the charges, and it considered the federal case concluded.

With the threat of prosecution gone, most of those involved appear to have softened their positions.

Both parents consented to having the charges dropped, prosecutor Barbra Pineiro said Friday.

"Both expressed to me that their primary, really sole, interest at this point is that they be able to reestablish a relationship with their daughter," said Pineiro, an assistant state prosecutor in Dade County, which includes Miami.

For their part, Irene and Raul Lopez said Thursday that they supported a reunification between their son and his daughter. "She needs her father," Irene Lopez said. Reminded that she had accused her son of sexually abusing Kaylee, the grandmother said, "I'd rather not get into that.... I just want us to be a normal family again."

The Lopezes' attorney, Carl A. Capozzola, said he now believes that Kaylee's mother and father had no role in any sexual abuse, although he still suspects the stepfather.

He recently agreed to arrange a telephone conversation between Kaylee and Raul Jr., who spent much of the past 13 years on a crusade to find his daughter, roaming through Latin America and helping to keep the case alive in this country.

"You know," he said, "I was so very nervous, and I was wondering, what can I say to my daughter after so many years except to tell her I love her?"

He did that, he said. Kaylee responded by crying. Raul Jr. said he had "promised myself I wouldn't break," but he couldn't hold back his own tears. "I let it go, man," he said.

Kaylee, who now goes by her middle name, Nicole, wore a simple gold heart around her neck -- a Christmas gift from her father -- as she recalled that conversation: "I couldn't really understand anything, because he was crying and I was crying -- everybody was crying," she said. "I guess I could describe it as an out-of-body experience. You're going through it, but you don't believe it."

She now hopes to arrange a meeting with her father and, eventually, with her mother, with whom she has not yet spoken.

Her grandparents, meanwhile, say life seems oddly flat now that they no longer live with the constant fear of arrest. "Now we are bored," Irene Lopez said.

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