Case of kids found on Facebook revives disputes

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As she hovered nervously, three teenagers with her daughter’s name popped up on the Facebook site. Sagala didn’t know which teenager to try first until she realized that one girl looked like her younger daughter, Joana. The girl also had a Facebook friend with the same name as Sagala’s missing son.

Sagala sent a message and received a heartbreaking reply. The 17-year-old wrote that she had a happy life, had been told bad things about her mother and had no interest in a relationship. Right before she took down her Facebook page, the teen signed off with a mysterious line of poetry: “A flower that was born in a forest can’t live in the desert.”

Sagala went to police, who were able to track the daughter to Florida based on the profiles of some of her Facebook friends. Utrera was arrested May 26.

Since then, Sagala’s world has been turned upside down.

Her estranged husband’s criminal attorney in California, Stephen Levine, said he plans to fight vigorously the charges against Utrera and has attacked Sagala’s credibility with counter-allegations.

Levine said he has provided the district attorney in California with letters Sagala wrote to her husband in Mexico and has found witnesses from the small Oaxacan village where he was living for 12 years who claim Sagala called and spoke to Utrera several times on the community’s public telephone. Levine alleges Sagala also sent money to Utrera for her children and received videos of them that she showed in her church _ undermining her claims that she didn’t know where they were.

Levine said Utrera decided to flee with the children because Sagala was having an affair with his brother and became mentally unstable when she was discovered.

Sagala’s attorney, Keith Peterson, called those allegations “the desperate claims of a child abductor, the claims of a kidnapper. She was searching for her kids for 15 years.”

Rowley, the district attorney prosecuting Utrera in California, said his office was aware of some of the allegations, had investigated and was confident the criminal case against Utrera would hold up in court.

“In her interviews with us, we feel that she has been very candid,” Rowley said. “In child abduction cases, you’ll get two very different stories. But having taken all that into account, there isn’t any question in our mind that the acts that were done qualify as the crimes that were charged.”

Should the DA’s case prevail against Utrera, Sagala may still be denied what she wants most.

Ann Berner, a regional administrator for the Florida Department of Children & Families, said the teens were in foster care in Florida. She said because of their age, their wishes would be given substantial weight by the judge when deciding any custody arrangements.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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