Case of kids found on Facebook revives disputes

MONTCLAIR, CALIF. (AP) - Prince Sagala has pined for her son and daughter since her estranged husband took them and fled to Mexico 15 years ago _ but she never gave up hope that she would see them again.

The Indonesian-born nursing assistant was rewarded for her faith earlier this year, when she stumbled on her daughter’s Facebook page in a story that made national headlines.

But in the four months since that discovery, Sagala’s unbridled joy has slowly turned to anguish. The case has led to the public airing of years-old domestic allegations against Sagala _ information that will likely be used in court _ and her now-teenaged children want nothing to do with her.

At Sagala’s sole supervised visit at a Florida library recently, her son kept his nose in a book about witches and her daughter gave terse, one-word answers to her questions, Sagala said.

“She doesn’t know me, her father’s in jail. I guess she does blame me for this,” Sagala said of her 17-year-old daughter. “She doesn’t know the truth. I told her, you can see me right now, I’m not that person like what you thought for 15 years, like what your father told you.”

The children’s father, Faustino Fernandez Utrera, 42, was initially held in an Osceola County, Fla., jail after being arrested in May on kidnapping and child custody charges. During a hearing Monday, he was served with a governor’s warrant from California and his bond was revoked. His Florida attorney said Utrera could be extradited to California anytime.

In an interview, Sagala recounted how Utrera took the children and fled to Mexico in 1995, when her son and daughter were just toddlers.

Sagala said Utrera, whom she married in 1993, had become abusive _ a charge now denied by Utrera’s attorney _ and that she was about to seek a restraining order. Then Utrera called her at work one day to say he would take the children to the park and then to a movie. She told him they were sick and should be home early. When she returned home, they weren’t there.

Several hours later, one of her husband’s friends called to tell her Utrera had taken the children to his native Mexico and wasn’t coming back. Sagala said she immediately called the police and also told her story to a Spanish-language TV network.

Montclair police pursued the case, but when they learned the children were in Mexico, they turned the file over to the San Bernardino County district attorney. It’s unclear now why the case wasn’t pursued by prosecutors in 1995, but Deputy District Attorney Kurt Rowley said it’s unlikely Mexico would have extradited Utrera at the time.

Over the next 15 years, police checked in with Sagala each year and sent her a questionnaire, but she had no new information. She said she periodically tried to contact her estranged husband’s friends and family in Mexico with no luck.

Eventually, Sagala said she tried to move on with her life. She started a long-term relationship with another man, gave birth to two more children _ a girl and a boy _ and threw herself into worship at her Jehovah’s Witness church.

Sagala tried to recreate the life she lost with her first two when her new babies arrived: She gave birth at the same hospital, incorporated parts of their names in her new children’s names and dressed them in the same tiny outfits she had saved.

“I went to church, I prayed, because as a mother, I’m not strong enough for the burden I have now. My two kids right now, they help me to be strong,” Sagala said of her younger children. “Before, I missed everything as a mother, I missed their birthdays. It really hurts.”

In March, friends told Sagala about Facebook. She had her younger daughter, now 12, tap her older daughter’s name into a computer at the local library.

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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