161,000 CHILDREN ARE ABDUCTED BY FAMILY MEMBERS EACH YEAR
MOM SNATCHES GIRL; GRANDPARENTS LEFT TRAPPED IN WAKING NIGHTMARE
By Mathew Pinzur
The Macon Telegraph
For the last five years, Robert and Jenny Cochran have been living in a nightmare, desperately searching for their granddaughter, Jessica.
The girl's mother fled their home in Virginia and went into hiding in Middle Georgia. While she ducked court orders and played hide-and-seek with local authorities, the Cochrans waged a legal battle over custody of Jessica. Even though they have been her legal guardians for three years, they haven't laid eyes on the grinning redhead since 1993.
Kidnapping is every parent's sweat-drenched nightmare conjuring
images of middle-aged drifters snatching children from the local playground. But hundreds of thousands of parents each year learn a more frightening truth: More than 97 percent of the 166,000 children
kidnapped every year are abducted by a member of their own family.
Jessica's mother, Diane Cox, drifted into the Cochrans' life around 1984 when she began dating their eldest son, Rob Jr. They never married, but they had Jessica on April 10, 1987. For the first few years, things went well, Jenny said. Jessica lived with Rob Jr. and Diane in Abingdon, Va., just a few minutes from Robert and Jenny's home in Chilhowie.
Jessica was at her grandparents' home often, and Jenny said they welcomed both their granddaughter and her mother into their family.
Robert and Jenny helped with the young couple's bills, bought them a washer and dryer and gave Diane a car. Jenny was teaching her elementary school students during the day and decorating the house with her own handiwork. One she is especially proud of is a framed needlepoint of the poem "Footprints in the Sand." Robert, a Navy veteran, retired from his years as a high school economics teacher and got involved with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post. While he smoked his Camels, he listened to a radio scanner in the living room so he could report car accidents to police. That way, he explained, officers get to the scene a little faster. It seemed like a happy family.
But Diane was not used to stability. She told Jenny she had left home
at 14 after a fight with her mother about a boyfriend of Diane's whom
her mother later married.
Diane married a minister in Warner Robins but divorced shortly after they moved to rural south central Virginia, where she met Rob Jr. Even then, staying at home, it seems, just wasn't her style. She made frequent trips back to Middle Georgia, often calling Rob Jr. to come pick her up.
"Diane was always restless," said Jenny, who has taught elementary school for 26 years in this coal-mining community about 150 northeast of Knoxville, Tenn.
By the end of 1990, her restlessness got the better of her. After a Virginia court refused to increase Rob Jr.'s monthly child support payments, Diane accused Robert of sexually abusing Jessica. Then she announced that she was taking the girl back home to Houston County.
"We were devastated," Jenny said. "This was our grandchild. She had made unfounded charges, which were proven unfounded, but she did leave."
Robert and Jenny desperately pleaded with the court for custody, but they had to be satisfied with visitation three times a year.
For the next three years, there was an uncomfortable stability. Jenny sent Jessica packages of clothes, books and toys every other week, and Jessica came to Virginia as the court ordered.
With the charges of sexual abuse pending, Robert was banned from those visits. He has not seen Jessica since Dec. 13, 1990.
"It was a headache because my husband wasn't allowed to be there," Jenny said. "But we managed."
But managing became more difficult as the Cochrans felt Diane slipping away. She told them not to bother contacting her anymore, because she said the world would end in the year 2000. Court-appointed psychiatrists said Jessica told them of being kept awake all night by Diane and her boyfriends, even claiming they had intercourse in front of her. The situation took a dramatic turn in October 1993, when a Virginia psychologist cast significant doubt on Diane's charges against Robert. In a deposition in Virginia, Steven R. Savage testified that Jessica then 6 years old gave graphic descriptions of being molested by Robert. But if her descriptions were true, Savage said, there would have been ample physical evidence. An exam of the girl found none, leading Dianne's lawyers to concede that Jessica must have "dreamed" the entire episode.
With those allegations discounted, Robert's ban on seeing the girl was lifted. The victory proved to be a small one, because Diane defied the court order and stopped Jessica's visits to Virginia. The Cochrans haven't seen Jessica since.
"The last time that the child was here, she was begging to stay, Jenny said. "I know children will do that, but this was a different type of begging."
In hiding in Warner Robins, Bonaire and elsewhere in Middle Georgia, Diane was found in contempt of the Virginia court repeatedly. A week after her seventh birthday, Jessica's last name was legally changed from Cox to Cochran. A little more than a year later, in September 1995, Robert and Jenny won legal custody.
While this legal battle was being fought in Virginia, officers from Bibb and Houston County sheriff's offices were searching for any trace of Diane Cox.
"She's the most invisible person I've ever looked for in my life," said Bibb sheriff's Lt. Robert McComb.
The search was so important because no legal steps could be taken in Virginia until Diane was served with notice in Georgia.
The last person known to have seen Jessica was Houston sheriff's Sgt. Charles Bishop. While searching for her in August 1995, Bishop received a tip she was living with a boyfriend near Lake Tobesofkee. The boyfriend was the resident maintenance man for an apartment complex, and Bishop confronted him at the complex's leasing office.
He first claimed that Diane had moved out weeks before. When Bishop insisted on going to his apartment, though, he found it locked from the inside.
"She was in the house," said Bishop, who then served Diane the official papers. He only saw Jessica for a moment, but he was shocked by the condition of the apartment.
"There were beer cans everywhere, stuff on the floor," he said. "She was being isolated from the rest of the world."
Diane still had legal custody at that time, and Bishop could not remove the girl. He did report the conditions to the Bibb County Department of Family and Children Services, but a mother with a dirty apartment simply isn't a high priority for the resource-strapped department.
"Had there been some response, maybe she could have been taken in," Jenny said.
After she lost custody, the Houston Superior Court authorized any law enforcement agency in Georgia to help the Cochrans "in obtaining possession of the little girl."
Diane Cox could not be located to comment for this story. A man who answered the phone at the home of Weyman Cox, Diane's father, said the family had no comment "on anything having to do with that subject." Edith Cox, Diane's aunt, said she knew nothing about Diane and had not seen her for years. The boyfriend she was living with in 1995 did not return messages from the Telegraph, but investigators believe he knows where Diane is.
"We're pretty sure he's still supporting her," Bishop said. "He's probably one of the few people who still knows where she is." The tragedy of the situation is that it happens more than 400 times every day, according to a 1990 study by the Department of Justice. And all indications are that the problem is growing.
"It's a trend that's going to increase because there are fewer and fewer outlets to vent emotions in a divorce now," said Ira Lurvey, a Los Angeles attorney and immediate past chairman of the American Bar Association's Family Law Section. "People find the legal system insufficient."
The proliferation of cases has created a widespread underground of organizations that hide and protect mothers on the run. The most visible advocate of these shadow-cloaked groups is Faye Yager, a Marietta woman who has operated a complex network within that underground.
Yager used to be known for speaking openly about the movement and was interviewed on national television this summer. But now she is embroiled in a new round of civil and criminal investigations that may force her to produce some of the hidden women, and she is declining all requests for interviews.
"The underground is the behavior of the powerless and the mentally distorted," Lurvey said. "It is a manifestation of people doing self-help, and they butcher it badly. You're creating children whose middle name is deceit."
Bishop fears that may be the exact avenue Diane Cox has taken.i
"My last word from anybody was that she had actually gone underground," said Bishop, who made a name for himself tracking Middle Georgia's most slippery fugitives.
"I truly believe that's what she's done."
Diane avoids leaving any real trail. Bibb deputy McComb said she hasn't worked under her own Social Security number in years and no longer has a valid driver's license in her name. She doesn't vote, doesn't take welfare, doesn't have insurance and doesn't pay taxes. Most disturbin to the Cochrans is that she hasn't enrolled Jessica in school since at least 1995.
"I want the child in school," Robert said. "We can well afford to put her through college."
Despite the fact that a judge cut off Diane's child support in hopes that would force her to surface, Rob Jr. continues to pay the money into a savings account in Jessica's name. The family has now saved more than $8,000 exclusively for Jessica, the oldest of their three grandchildren.
From their comfortable home in southern Virginia, where the neighbor children and their pets roll around the back yard with their two other grandchildren, Robert and Jenny are keeping Jessica's bedroom ready for her. The bed has been in the family for six generations, and a Bible sits on the nightstand.
When a tip from a clerk at the Goodwill Store in Warner Robins had police seemingly closer than ever to retrieving Jessica, the Cochrans bought a new Dalmatian Dixie to replace the one Jessica used to keep at their home. But the tip didn't lead back to Diane.
The Cochrans insist they bear no ill will toward Diane. Indeed, a photo collage in Jessica's room at their home includes as many pictures of Diane as of any family member.
"We feel like it takes a whole family to raise a child," Jenny said. "No one's trying to cut either parent out. We want for her to have a childhood."
They know about troubled parents, because Jessica's father has had his share of problems. He entered into a doomed marriage shortly after Diane left and started to lose control of his life. It was Rob Jr. himself who testified in 1995 that Robert and Jenny's home would be better for his daughter. They are caring for their wayward son on his road to recovery, and he is living at home with them for now and attends church regularly. He has a steady job as an auto wholesaler, and they expect he will one day be ready to be a full-time father again.
Until then, though, the Cochrans are ready to do the job. If Diane would return with Jessica, they say, they would ask the Virginia court to be lenient. In fact, they said both Diane and Jessica would be welcome in their home.
"We would welcome Diane into this house any time," Robert said. "We want that child to grow up with a chance in life, and we're willing to give 110 percent to make that happen."
But he was quick to point out that they will supervise all visits from either of Jessica's parents.
As time passes, though, the trail is getting cold, and the Cochrans are getting desperate. They already have spent thousands of dollars on private investigators, lawyers, and letters and phone calls to police in Georgia. Jenny has even considered hiring a psychic.
The only consistent lead is Diane's family in Bonaire and her erstwhile boyfriend in Bibb County. They have all told investigators that they haven't seen Diane in years, but Bishop is not convinced.
"They know where she's at," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind." In fact, Bishop believes the FBI, with all its resources, could find the girl pretty easily.
"If someone could spend a little quality time on the case, it could be solved," Bishop said.
The FBI, however, is already stretched thin across the country. Family abductions have trouble getting noticed by a department routinely pursuing murderers, serial rapists and white-collar criminals.
Almost as frightening to the Cochrans as not finding Jessica, though, is actually finding her. Though Diane told Jenny she will surface in 2001 and allow the girl to decide for herself where to live, the Cochrans are sure the girl has been taught to believe some horrible things about her grandparents. The stories she told the therapist investigating the sexual abuse charges in 1993 were graphic and elaborate. They fear it has only gotten worse.
When police arrested Diane's boyfriend in 1996 on unrelated charges, they found a video of the girl at Lake Tobesofkee and a letter she had written to him. The letter was signed, "Your daughter," and she was using his last name.
"That's something we'll have to deal with when it happens," said Jenny, who has saved every legal document, clipped every news article and recorded every phone conversation in hopes of one day showing them to Jessica. "I'll have to explain the truth the best I can. I hope she hasn't been too damaged."
Jessica herself remains the biggest unknown of the entire affair. No one is sure what she had been told about her family, what conditions she has been living in, or what kind of life she is leading. In 1995, Diane told the Bibb County school system she was home-schooling the girl, but has long since stopped sending those reports.
She is not registered at any school in Georgia.
"My concern is for the child," Bishop said. "I really feel she is being neglected and abused."
McComb, who still receives Christmas cards and phone calls from the grandparents, said Diane is using Jessica as a pawn.
"It makes me so mad when families use kids to fight with," the Bibb deputy said. "What these people are doing is taking it out of the court's hands."
For now, Robert and Jenny go about their day-to-day lives, praying for a miracle. Robert watches NASCAR races while Jenny works on her needlepoint. Jenny plays with Josh, the 9-year-old son of their daughter Connie, in the barn next to his house. Robert listens to Aaryn, Connie's 6-year-old daughter and the Cochrans' youngest grandchild, tell stories about wanting to be a veterinarian.
The grandchildren come around at least once a week, and more in the summertime.
One evening earlier this month, Aaryn burst into the back yard and leapt into Robert's lap. With a kiss to the cheek, she asked for a dollar, because she could hear the bells of the ice cream truck a few blocks away.
He gave her the dollar, but warned her the truck wouldn't come up their street. There aren't enough children living there anymore.
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