Two years ago, they were found, all grown up–and refusing any contact with their mother. Still, she hopes …
She’s a scientist, a researcher accustomed to studying life through the lens of a microscope. There the world is contained; given enough patience and skill, order can be imposed on chaos, and sense can be made of the unpredictable. Sitting in the living room of her Virginia home, her pale-aquamarine eyes intent, Barbara Kurth forces herself to examine a newspaper photograph with the same detached curiosity. Two young women gaze back at her, elegant in their evening gowns, smiles lighting their faces as Daddy escorts them to a charity ball sponsored by a Parent’s group. What are their favorite colors, Barbara longs to know. What foods do they like? What books have they read? Who are they?
She knew them once, these beautiful strangers. They were her daughters.
On an October afternoon in 1979, Barbara kissed her little girls good-bye and sent them off for a weekend visit with their Father, Stephen Fagan. Rachael was 5, and Wendy was 2 1/2. Barbara and Steve had been divorced for a little more than a year. She had custody, but he was in the process of contesting, accusing his ex-wife of negligence. They were due back in court soon. That Sunday night, a man identifying himself as a mechanic called and told Barbara that her ex-husband’s car had broken down and he would be late returning the girls. But Barbara knew instantly what had really happened: Their father had ‘taken them.
“I thought I could find them,” she remembers. “At that point, I couldn’t imagine never seeing them again.”
Barbara appealed to every conceivable local, state, and Federal agency for help, and spent most of her private resources as well. But the abduction of Rachael and Wendy Fagan never even made it onto a milk carton. Then, on September 4, 1997–Barbara’s forty-eighth birthday–the phone rang while she and her husband of eight years, Peter Gudaitis, were watching television. Barbara listened in shocked silence as a Massachusetts state trooper told her he had some news: After 18 years, her daughters had been found.
Although the search for Wendy and Rachael may be over, an even harder search has now begun-for the truth. That quest already has turned lives upside down and tarnished reputations, perhaps forever. In the process, Barbara has lost her daughters all over again: They have refused any contact with her and stand resolutely behind their father.
Charged with kidnapping and contempt of court, Fagan, 57, goes on trial this month in Middlesex County, MA. Barbara alleges that her ex-husband was a con man and thief who took the girls just to get back at her; he accuses her of being a drank and uncaring mother who could have found her daughters easily had she tried harder. But whatever Barbara Kurth may or may not have done, the price her ex-husband exacted was more cruel than any decision a court could have made. She lost not only her children, she suggests, but a piece of herself.
Today, Barbara Kurth is a respected reproductive immunologist at a prestigious medical school, married to a computer graphic artist; they listen to music, dote on the stray cat they adopted, and live quietly in the gentle green hills outside Charlottesville. Steve Fagan is a Palm Beach millionaire who appears to have lived these many years off the largesse of wealthy wives, turning up on the society pages and claiming a number of degrees and careers he never had. On national TV in an interview following his arrest, he basked in the one accomplishment that appears genuine: raising two poised, intelligent, and loving daughters.
If convicted, Fagan could face 20 years or more in prison. His attorneys are expected to argue that he was justified in taking his children. Raised to believe their mother was dead, the girls present themselves as happy and successful young adults, who enjoyed a golden childhood at the center of a doting father’s universe. (A reporter’s calls to the attorney who represents Fagan and serves as the daughters’ spokesperson were not returned by press time.)
“Daddy, we love you,” Wendy, renamed Lisa by her fugitive father, said into a camera after Fagan’s arrest. “I firmly believe that what happened with my sister and me some nineteen years ago happened for a good reason,” she added. “My dad wanted us to be safe, to grow up happy, healthy, and strong.” Hearing this, Barbara struggled to understand.
“I was very surprised that they were suddenly so dead-set against me, how terrible they thought I was,” she says now. “To them, I was a wonderful mother tragically killed, and then within hours I was a monster. And very much alive.”
Barbara was never able to completely let go of her little girls. Even now, nearly two decades and several moves after her daughters’ disappearance, she keeps a spare bedroom filled with their belongings. “I’ve always been sort of superstitious about it, that as soon as I packed it up, that meant they were gone for good,” she explains. There is a stuffed yellow elephant covered with posies, bedraggled baby dolls, and the quilt Rachael stole from Wendy after her mother threw hers away. “All the stuffing started coming out, and it couldn’t be washed anymore,” Barbara says. Her voice quickens with a guilt that time has intensified rather than tempered. “How could I have done that to her?” She saved the girls’ Etch-A-Sketch and stacks of their favorite storybooks, as well as the tiny red-and-white polka-dot clown outfit that Barbara’s mother made for her one Halloween, and that Barbara had hoped one of her own daughters might want to wear someday. Barbara surveys the abandoned toy collection. “I should give it away,” she sighs. “I keep thinking if Wendy and Rachael ever get in touch with me, though, they’d want to see it.”
Barbara Kurth met Steve Fagan when she was 17, having moved to Boston from her native Vermont after graduating from high school. She was a stunning girl with mesmerizing eyes in a delicate face. He was 25 and married, though he lied and claimed he was separated, Barbara says. They wed on a trip to Haiti in 1973 after Fagan got a quickie island divorce. Rachael was born the following year, and Wendy came along in 1977. Fagan was studying for the bar exam, and the newlyweds began living way beyond their means, settling in a 22-room mansion in Framingham, MA. Fagan later testified in divorce proceedings that although he eventually passed the bar, he never formally practiced law; instead, he gave karate lessons and borrowed money from friends and relatives to supplement his income. Barbara claims that during those years, their money came mainly from credit-card and insurance scams. The house was filled with expensive antiques, original artwork, Oriental rugs, and rare collectibles. “Things would appear,” Barbara recalls. “It was kind of a lark to me at that point.”
Barbara’s family always disliked Fagan. “He had an air of mystery about him,” remembers her younger brother, Peter Kurth, now an author living in Vermont. “The house was full of loaded guns. He had an electric cattle prod in the living room. He would hide money all over the place; big wads of bills would tumble out of books if you picked one up. Barbara would have to cook two separate meals, one for her and the kids, and one in serve him later alone in his room.”
Barbara began having health problems. She told her family she had been diagnosed with narcolepsy, a disorder that causes attacks of sudden, deep sleep. The amphetamines prescribed for her sleep disorder “did become a problem for me,” Barbara admits, and not long after Wendy’s birth, she entered a rehab facility. Things improved for awhile, but four months later, after returning from a family trip to Europe, Barbara fell into a severe depression and checked herself into a hospital. The marriage had been faltering for some time, she says, “and at that point, my husband started trying to get Wendy and Rachael away from me.” When she came home for a weekend to visit the girls, she says, Fagan refused to let her inside the house. She soon left the hospital and consulted Jacob Atwood, a Boston attorney who had a bulldog reputation in divorce cases. Her husband, she says, was furious: “People do not divorce Steve Fagan. He does all the controlling.”
The split was ugly. The brakes on Barbara’s car were tampered with, according to a statement she obtained from a mechanic, and she suspected her ex-husband. She and her brother, who stayed with her for several months, recall harassing phone calls and strangers in parked cars watching the house. Barbara gave Fagan the house and everything in it, settling for $45,000 in cash, a jade necklace, a car, and $500 a month in child support and alimony. At the time, he did not seek custody of the children and did not challenge Barbara’s fitness as a mother. Barbara moved to an apartment complex with her daughters and remarried. Fagan saw the girls for weekend visits, though their uncle retails that “Rachael used to have screaming fits and wet her pants when she had to go away with her father.” Fagan had a new girlfriend, a lawyer he’d met while working as an adviser at a legal-aid clinic.
According to court documents, Fagan claimed he received a series of phone calls in the fall of 1979 from concerned neighbors of Barbara’s. Their allegations were alarming: Wendy and Rachael were left unsupervised outside for hours, hungry and unkempt, while Barbara was passed out drunk inside. How the neighbors knew his name or how to reach him is unclear. A neighbor also called the police one day to report that Barbara was passed out on the floor, and an investigator from Social Services was quickly sent over to check, records show.
“I remember both the social worker and myself looking blankly at each other,” Barbara says now. The subsequent report said that she had answered the door after one knock, appearing to be perfectly sober, and that the children were eating pizza and showed no signs of mistreatment. The neighbors were also interviewed and described by an investigator as having gone “overboard” in their claims. Barbara vehemently denies ever having a drinking problem and flatly dismisses the neighbors’ stories as “lies, one hundred percent lies.” Fagan filed for custody, claiming his daughters were in immediate jeopardy, then went on a three-week trip abroad with his girlfriend. Barbara submitted to medical and psychological examinations, and the children’s pediatrician filed a report as well. The neighbors’ charges–and Fagan’s suspicions–were not corroborated by any of these experts. He himself never complied with the state’s request for a psychological evaluation, and before a judge could make a final custody ruling, he disappeared, taking the children with him.
Grief paralyzed Barbara. “I sat by myself in the dark. I stopped eating,” she recalls. “I spent a year in my nightgown.” Her second marriage quickly crumbled, and she moved to Vermont to stay with her mother. Family members would later remember Barbara calling out her daughters’ names in her sleep. She ran ads with pictures of Wendy and Rachael in numerous newspapers, and her attorney sent their photos and files to 6.5 police departments. Fagan’s parents were questioned under oath and denied any knowledge of the girls’ whereabouts; within 90 days, the parents were gone, too, with no forwarding address. Barbara thought Fagan might have taken the girls to Florida, where his parents spent their winters and his sister already lived. Israel and Mexico were also possibilities.
“A lot of people wonder why Barbara didn’t do more,” says her attorney, Jacob Atwood. “She exhausted every financial resource she had. Her father went down and rapped on the sister’s door in Florida, and it was slammed in his face. The private investigator turned up no leads.” And easy computerized searches, Atwood points out, were still a thing of the future.
Fagan had, in fact, settled in Florida and reinvented himself. He had changed his name to William Martin, and over the years, he would pose as a retired psychiatrist, a former presidential adviser, and a Harvard scholar. His third wife and his current, fourth wife are rich, and he made a name for himself in Palm Beach society, as the attentive father of two charming girls whose mother had been a brilliant surgeon who was killed in an automobile accident. The girls attended a tony private school and were avid athletes, with their father always cheering from the sidelines. He reportedly told them their dead mother had been a lacrosse champion, one of the few lies that causes the unathletic Barbara to laugh.
She had reinvented herself, too, but in a very different way. After that first numbing year, she decided to go back to school, though at the time, she notes, “being a mother was the only thing I could do.” She chose to study biology, “and I loved it, just loved it.” She eventually earned her Ph.D., married again, and settled in Charlottesville, where she works at the University of Virginia Medical School. The active search for her daughters gradually petered out about six years ago, she says, not only for a lack of leads, but also because she realized that so much time had passed, she wouldn’t be able to simply scoop them up and go back. “You can’t re-create the mother-daughter bond,” she notes.
Barbara’s husband could always tell by her withdrawal when it was one of the girls’ birthdays. But for the most part, her pain was not something she wanted to share with others: “I didn’t talk about it much. I just sort of closed up. The most important thing for me all those years was to try not to think. It took me until I moved here to not wish upon a star every single night.”
Still, whenever she or other family members traveled, they scoured telephone books for the name Fagan. The loss of the girls deeply affected Barbara’s mother too. “Her life has never been the same,” Peter Kurth says. “It drove her into a kind of reserve toward the other grandchildren. It’s as if she doesn’t want to get too close.” At airports, Barbara would find herself scanning the crowds, hoping to spot her daughters. Whenever she moved she would go to the local police with her box of documents and photographs and ask for help again.
Over the years, Barbara went through the hundreds of photos she keeps in albums and destroyed every one of her ex-husband. There are many pictures of Wendy and Rachael, though–wearing party hats and blowing out candles on Rachael’s fifth birthday, cuddling with their mother on Christmas morning. And there are baby books, too, meticulously filled out in Barbara’s tidy handwriting, recording the tiniest details: “Rachael sucks on her lower lip like an old man.” “First imitation of a duck–she said quack! …. Loves to eat spaghetti.” The pages are filled, then abruptly empty. There is Rachael’s kindergarten photo, and Wendy still a potbellied baby in diapers, and then nothing more.
Far from their mother’s gaze the little girls in party hats blossomed into young women. Wendy, whom her Uncle Peter recalls as “born laughing, just filled with delight and energy,” became a champion swimmer, winning an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, and graduating in 1998. Rachael, said to be quiet and reflective like her mother, works for her stepmother’s charitable foundation in New York.
Steve Fagan’s web of lies unraveled when an angry in-law revealed the family secret to a lawyer during his own ugly divorce from Fagan’s niece. The lawyer contacted police back in Massachusetts to see if there was in fact an unsolved child abduction from 1979. When the story checked out, a state trooper called Barbara.
The Middlesex County District Attorney’s office decided to pursue the case, but several months would pass before authorities could coordinate Fagan’s arrest, which finally came on April 16, 1997, in Palm Beach. Fagan’s defense is expected to center on his assertion that he had no choice but to kidnap his own children in order to protect them. To bolster their case, the defense team hired a private investigator who unearthed two drunk-driving convictions on Barbara’s record from the year before the girls were taken. Barbara acknowledges the DUIs but suggests that her narcolepsy may somehow have affected the Breathalyzer results.
Her brother, Peter, vividly remembers that time and offers some perspective. “We all drank, I would say, too much, in the way young people do,” he admits. “Barbara was in a very, very difficult, unhappy, confused state.” She was only beginning to realize how hard it was going to be for her with minimal work experience and two small children. But Peter insists there was no real alcohol problem, adding that his sister was “a wonderful mother. She adored those children and they adored her. At the most, you can say, well, she had a difficult year. Taking the kids punished Barbara for the rest of her life.”
Although no specific allegations of physical abuse have surfaced, Fagan, out on $250,000 bail, has asserted in television appearances that he believed the girls’ lives to be endangered–an assertion his daughters parroted in their own TV interview. Barbara has also heard disturbing rumors that Rachael, the elder daughter, has “recovered memory” of her early years with Barbara. Jacob At wood has offered repeatedly to open all his files–20 years’ worth–on the case for the sisters to review privately “so they can make up their own minds,” and has implored the court to unseal Social Services documents and medical records pertaining to the ease as well.
When the court convenes, it will likely be the first–and possibly only–time that Barbara Kurth will see her daughters in person since kissing them good-bye two decades ago. The one accidental glimpse she caught of them on TV, walking into the courthouse the day of their father’s arraignment, overwhelmed her with emotions she had tried to lock away.