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Turbulent Times for a Family

COLUMN ONE

The Hendersons liked their isolated life in the woods, but a dramatic river rescue cast a cloud on their unconventional approach to parenting.

May 06, 2005|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

The scene played live on television sets across Southern California.

Erica Henderson, 31, clung to her 8-week-old son, William, as she stood on a bank of a swollen river. It had been raining for days, and the rising waters had cut off the only road out of their remote cluster of cabins in San Dimas Canyon. She and her husband Jeffrey, 36, had called 911 for help.

Henderson, with William strapped to her chest in a carrier, clambered aboard a raft brought by the Los Angeles County Fire Department. As the craft, tethered to a lifeline, began to cross the churning water, it tipped over. The mother, baby and firefighter tumbled into the froth. For more than a minute, TV shots showed no sign of them. Then, the firefighter surfaced by a tree while Erica and William washed up on a sandbar farther downstream, gulping for breath.

They were all pulled from the water, and it seemed like a happy ending. Erica appeared on "Good Morning America" the next morning to recount the near-tragedy from her hospital bed. She held up William to the camera so Diane Sawyer could see the baby was OK.

But within hours of the interview, a social worker from the county's Department of Children and Family Services informed her that they were going to take William into protective custody. Authorities questioned whether the Hendersons' isolated lifestyle was healthy for their children.

Then, a TV station aired an interview with a captain in the Fire Department criticizing the Hendersons for the way they dealt with rescuers. "We had uncooperative parents," Capt. Larry Collins told a reporter from KNBC-TV Channel 4, one of the stations that had broadcast the rescue footage.

Suddenly, the helping hands of Los Angeles County began to look like something very different to the Hendersons. What happened next , Erica Henderson said, made her wish she had never called 911.

Isolated Environment

A friend introduced the Hendersons to San Dimas Canyon about seven years ago by inviting them up from Huntington Beach for a picnic.

The canyon is a narrow cleft in the mountains of the Angeles National Forest, about six miles north of San Dimas. The federal government started renting some of the land along the shady banks of San Dimas Creek in 1915, allowing cabins to be built below groves of alder and oak. The Hendersons said they loved the isolated environment, and decided the price of one the cabins on federal land -- $45,000 -- was too good to pass up.

They eventually moved to the cabin full time and earned money through a Web design business from home. "Down the hill, relationships are brief," Jeffrey Henderson said. "They're more insincere. They're more, 'I don't need you. You don't need me.' " Up in the forest, he said, people looked to one another.

Some residents of the canyon enjoyed hanging out with the Hendersons; others decidedly didn't. Marty Dumpis, the district ranger who oversees the area for the U.S. Forest Service, said one man came into his office missing teeth and seeking medical attention. The man said Jeffrey had knocked him out in a dispute over a fight between their dogs. Jeffrey later got into another physical confrontation with another neighbor, Dumpis said.

"They're a very interesting couple. Let's put it that way," he said. Erica gave birth to Abigail Rose Henderson on May 6, 2003, at home. William Pierce Henderson was also born at home on Nov. 10, 2004. A little more than a week later, Jeffrey did something that caused more concern from the neighbors and Ranger Dumpis: he circumcised the boy at the cabin. Jeffrey said it had been his family's practice for generations that the father circumcise his newborn son.

Dumpis said he called the county Department of Children and Family Services because he thought the cabin did not seem sterile. "The cabin itself didn't have running water," Dumpis said. "People will live in just about anything."

The department investigated but did not take action against the parents.

Heavy Rains

Beginning in October, a record rain began pounding. By early January, a Forest Service monitor near San Dimas Canyon recorded more than 50 inches of rainfall, double the amount in downtown Los Angeles.

As a new storm barreled into the canyon Jan. 10 and water and mud crept into the cabin, Erica Henderson had had enough. She called 911 and asked the dispatcher to send a crew to rescue her family.

The Hendersons found some high ground and waited. Within an hour the Fire Department's urban search and rescue unit and the Sheriff's Department arrived.

The firefighters sized up the situation and wanted to take the family upstream, where the Hendersons could cross the west fork of the creek before traversing the main fork.

The Hendersons balked. They thought it would be easier to cross exactly where they were standing, at the confluence of the two forks, where the water spread out 75 feet from bank to bank and slowed down.

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