On the hunt for a stolen life

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Therese Vanderheiden-Walsh when she was about 6.

The abduction of Therese Vanderheiden-Walsh, who was almost 6 when her mother ignored a custody order and took her from Hawaii, is a story that I often think about. Therese would be a grown woman now and I have to wonder what she knows about her past and why it was her mother surrounded her with a life of secrecy and lies. I am posting it here, in part, as an experiment with social media. Maybe Therese will see it on Twitter or Facebook and learn something about herself.

This story was originally published May 27, 1996 in The Honolulu Advertiser. In the years since, I sometimes checked the various identities used by Therese’s mother against records in a national database to see if she had surfaced, or made a mistake that allowed her location to be revealed.

But she’s a smart one. The life she created for her daughter remains a secret.

 

By Mike Gordon, Advertiser Staff Writer

Merle Marie Vanderheiden is a clever woman. She was trained in U.S. Army counter-intelligence techniques, something that gave an edge to her steely confidence.

Francis Walsh, her ex-husband, is also a veteran of U.S. Army counter-intelligence.

Divorce didn’t ease the hatred between them, but the kidnapping turned their broken marriage into war. The courts had given Walsh custody of the couple’s only child. Some inner voice had given his ex-wife the nerve to ignore that.

On a warm June day almost six years ago, Vanderheiden disguised herself with dark glasses, a floppy hat and a wig and abducted her daughter. Therese Vanderheiden-Walsh, who would turn 6 in a matter of days, was on her way to swim class at the Kokokahi YWCA in Kaneohe.

And then she was gone. Her mother, too. Witnesses saw them drive away.

Ever since, Vanderheiden has eluded everyone pursuing her.

She’s become a cross-country chameleon with 10 aliases.

A fugitive whose face was different on every driver’s license.

A 45-year-old mother so desperate to keep her only child, that the FBI considers her armed and dangerous.

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The FBI says Merle Vanderheiden kidnapped her daughter from the Kokokahi YWCA on June 22, 1990.

She and Therese could be anywhere — a reality that gnaws at Walsh.

“There are so many towns you could hide in, places where no one asks any questions,” Walsh says. “Whenever I fly to the Mainland, I look out the window and see a house in the middle of nowhere and say `She could be there.'”

Therese will turn 12 “there” — wherever “there” is — on the Fourth of July. Her childhood is almost over. Her father has missed it.

Every time Walsh, a 50-year-old bank manager, walks by her room, he wrestles with memories. For that very reason, he kept that room locked for five years.

Therese had green eyes, a cherub’s smile and blond pigtails. She had a little purple bicycle with training wheels.

“Every lead that has happened, was either followed up too late, or was so far after the fact the trail is cold, or it was bungled,” Walsh says. “The police have done a lot of work, but it is not a high priority case for them.

“It is not a drug lord or someone who’s a danger to people on the street,” he says. “It is just custodial interference.

“But it’s my daughter.”

It began in the Army

 They were in love, once. Francis Walsh fishes for the memory, trying to find the place where it all began.

He and Merle Vanderheiden met in the Army, when they were stationed at Fort Meade, Md. She was a first lieutenant and he was a major. They were assigned to military intelligence units.

Vanderheiden performed administrative tasks, but she was trained in counter-intelligence — documentation, analysis. And she was smart. Really smart.

It was November 1979. Walsh was recently divorced after a 10-year marriage.

“The old rebound,” he says. “I asked her out. I was probably feeling lonely.”

They were married in September 1980 at the base chapel.

Vanderheiden left the Army in May 1982, a few months before Walsh was transferred to Huntsville, Ala.

Therese was born July 4, 1984. The couple had argued about a lot of things, but the baby heightened the strain between them, Walsh says.

Walsh was transferred to Hawaii in July 1985. He thought this would change things.

But they fought. So badly, in fact, that Walsh lived in his car for four months.

`Brainwashing’ charged

They separated in May 1987. By December, Vanderheiden was accusing Walsh of sexually abusing their child. Later that month, mother and child took a brief, unscheduled trip to the Mainland.

“Christmas Day I went over to her place at Kuapa Isle with presents for Therese,” Walsh says, “and they weren’t there.”

He filed for divorce in January 1988. It was settled by January 1989.

In the bitter world where couples carve apart their lives, Walsh endured humiliating tests to clear himself of the abuse charges.

But the shocker was testimony from the psychologist Vanderheiden hired. Instead of abuse, she concluded Therese suffered from “parental alienation syndrome” — a form of brainwashing where a child comes to believe one parent is evil and the other good.

Walsh got custody of his daughter. Family Court Judge Frances Wong noted Vanderheiden’s unpredictability and “a flagrant disregard for the child’s needs.”

Wong wouldn’t allow unsupervised visitation and ordered Vanderheiden to undergo psychiatric evaluation.

Within a day of the divorce decree, Vanderheiden left for the Mainland. She gave Therese a Barbie doll with her telephone number and the words “call collect” written on the doll’s butt.

Suddenly gone

By now, Walsh had soothed his heartache with a new relationship — with a woman he would move in with and later marry.

Janice Walsh remembers the day Therese arrived. She looked like a refugee.

“Her mother had taken her hair and chopped it down to the scalp in places,” Janice Walsh says. “Chunks of it.”

They put Therese in therapy and tried to give her a normal life. Elementary school. Pets. Birthday parties. A summer fun program.

They almost never let Therese out of their sight.

The morning of the day Therese disappeared — June 22, 1990 — she bounded out of the house with her father. She wore shorts, tennis shoes, her hair in pigtails. At noon, the call came that Therese was gone.

Family and friends threw their energy at the airport, staking out each security checkpoint and Mainland departure. They were there until 1:30 the next morning, staring at the faces of strangers.

Face after face after face.

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This page from the Missing Child Center-Hawaii website includes an age-progressed photo of what Therese Vanderheiden-Walsh might look like at 17.

Searching for clues

The search for Merle Vanderheiden is not unlike driving through a strange town without a map.

Police and missing-children agencies in three states have tried to find her. The Secret Service has checked its bank of handwriting samples against letters Vanderheiden wrote. The FBI has thousands of pages of reports. Margaret Faulkner, a special agent at the bureau’s Honolulu office, spent hours trying to close the case.

“We did everything we could, but I know we could have done something different,” she says. “I don’t know what it is yet, but I know I must have had to have missed something. You know it has to be there, staring you in the face. It could be something . . . so . . . insignificant.”

Like many people, Faulkner believes family members — many of whom live in Texas and Colorado — have helped Vanderheiden.

During the first summer she was gone, Francis Walsh hired a private investigator in Texas.

The investigator tracked Vanderheiden’s Social Security number by running it through a national computer database. Although he finds leads in Colorado Springs that summer — and October 1991 — they sour. The leads are thought to be associated with a welfare scam.

In Nederland, Texas, a police detective and a bank employee linked Vanderheiden’s family to the purchase of a Ford van.

Innocent, perhaps, but the owner registration and vehicle identification number led detectives to Daytona Beach, Fla. When Walsh saw the driver’s license for the owner, Mary Jean Hamm, he was startled.

It was Vanderheiden in a bad wig and glasses. But she wasn’t living at the address on the license.

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Merle Vanderheiden in one of her disguises.

Spying on family

The investigator then traveled to Colorado to spy on Vanderheiden’s sister, Mary Kim Vanderheiden, a school principal who authorities believe has helped her sister. He sat next to her at a football game one September night, listening to her conversations.

The next day, he knocked on her door — he said he was lost. He was really looking for children’s toys. He saw none.

The search bounced from Plano, Texas, to Homestead, Fla. to Huntsville, Ala. Always close, never close enough.

The summer of 1991 found Walsh and his brother-in-law, a retired cop from Syracuse, N.Y., parking a rental car across the street from family homes in Texas in the hopes that mother and daughter would show up for Therese’s birthday.

It was a bust. The Neighborhood Watch chased them away. At the local 7-Eleven, they fled as Vanderheiden’s brothers approached their car.

Dead ends

And yet, the family connection refused to go away. The U.S. Marshals Service had registered the Ford van in the National Crime Information Center. When “Mary Jean Hamm” sold the van in 1994 to Vanderheiden’s sister-in-law in Bridge City, Texas, the transfer of ownership set off alarms.

“A local cop went there without a search warrant,” Walsh says. “She could have been in the back bedroom. We’ll never know.”

A few days later, FBI agents from Beaumont inspected the van. It had been wiped clean of fingerprints.

Special Agent Faulkner bristles at that.

“They are thumbing their nose at us,” she says. “I think this is funny to them, that they are beating the FBI.”

Last fall, authorities in Hawaii had someone on a plane waiting to take off for Colorado.

They were convinced that Vanderheiden was living in Colorado as Marie A. Vanderheiden and that she was speaking at an American Bar Association conference in Denver.

Faulkner and Anne Clarkin, coordinator for the Hawaii State Clearinghouse on Missing Children, compared photos and driver’s licenses and believed the two Vanderheidens were the same person.

At the last minute, the trip was canceled because a fingerprint check by the Denver FBI came up negative. Clarkin learned after the conference that the FBI used the wrong fingerprints — used Therese’s instead of her mother’s.

A follow-up check cleared the woman, a blonde who looked a lot like the fleeing Vanderheiden.

Just like Faulkner, Clarkin stares at the same pile of documents, wondering what she’s overlooked, knowing one thing is certain about Merle Marie Vanderheiden: “She is not a dummy. And she’s getting better at this. And she has help. Her parents are actively assisting her.”

`More power to her’

Vanderheiden’s parents, Merle and Dorothy Vanderheiden, say they are worried sick about the whole thing. They also believe their telephone is tapped.

“We hope she is OK,” says Merle Vanderheiden, a 73-year-old retired nursing administrator. “But if she is on the run, more power to her.”

They think about their granddaughter every day.

“It is horrible, but it is better than if we knew Fran had her still,” says Dorothy Vanderheiden, a 66-year-old mother of seven. “He is not a sane man.”

The Ford van was an innocent mix-up, they say. The FBI is out to harass them, their family and anyone who knew their daughter.

That’s how another daughter feels. Mary Kim Vanderheiden — who has taken a new job as a counselor at Holbrook High School in Holbrook, Ariz. — is an angry woman.

“How did you find me?” she says. “I really don’t trust anybody. Why do you consider this important? We have been harassed by Mr. Walsh. I won’t speak to anybody as it relates to Mr. Walsh.”

She pauses.

“You’re taking notes, aren’t you?”

Refuses psychiatrist

Time is draining hope from Francis Walsh. People tell him he never smiles. He and Janice won’t go anywhere they might find children. Often, she finds her husband staring at a child. At airports, Janice watches him scan the crowds.

She wants him to see a psychiatrist, but he won’t go.

It is getting harder, too, to generate interest in the search. There are so many other missing children with more promising cases. On Christmas Day last year, as on the year before, the QVC home shopping channel omitted Therese’s photograph from its annual broadcast of missing children.

Still, Walsh can push this aside, insisting that one day Therese will be old enough to track him down through directory assistance and call.

All he has to do is survive the wait with his sanity intact.

“There is a missing part of my life, somewhere,” Walsh says. “I think about it every once in a while, but I bury it. I don’t let too many people in there. When I do think about it, I really get mad. Where is she?”

Postscript: Francis Walsh never got to see his daughter again. He died in 1998.

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Francis Walsh