November 14, 2001

Prosecutors, judges, governors, a sex offender, and a woman with a penchant for poor judgement entangle California and Texas in an epic child custody war with two sure losers -- aged 7 and 9.


Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail is among the largest county jails in the United States; it holds thousands of women, including, since her extradition in September, Debra Schmidt, mother, grandmother, minor media star, accused kidnapper, former fugitive, and subject of a war between Texas and California.

Off corridors that seem to go on forever is a series of rooms where inmates see and speak with visitors, by telephone, from behind a glass partition. A guard escorts Schmidt into one of the rooms and locks her in. A slight woman clad in thongs and a mustard-yellow inmate jumpsuit -- a color indicating that she's housed in medium-to-maximum-level security -- Schmidt hardly looks threatening. Her face is framed by short layers of blond hair that look surprisingly stylish given her present living situation, and she appears a bit younger than her 43 years, except for the lines on her face that make her look permanently tired. Without even saying hello, she motions to wipe off the telephone receiver before picking it up. The implication is clear: "Don't put that thing up to your mouth, you don't know who's been using it."

Schmidt has notes on a yellow legal pad; dates and court actions and major points that she wants to remember to make. It's clear that Schmidt has gotten used to talking to the press. That aside, Debra Schmidt seems an entirely ordinary woman who has, by her own admission, made a lot of bad judgment calls, most of them involving men, the legal system, or both men and the legal system.

During the last several years, Schmidt has become entangled with a host of public and private characters -- including prosecutors, judges, and even a couple of governors (one of whom went on to become president) -- in an epic child custody war over the meaning of the most basic aspects of family, law, and family law. At the heart of the matter is Schmidt's belief that her two youngest daughters are not safe with their father, a convicted sex offender to whom the California courts have, sometimes in apparent violation of the law, granted a variety of supervised and unsupervised visitation and custody arrangements. Her concerns seem eminently reasonable; public records show the father has exhibited a variety of anti-social behaviors, including child molestation and alleged spousal abuse.

Through a series of strategically ridiculous moves, however, Schmidt has managed to turn the legal tables upon herself, and to at least temporarily invalidate the agreements that are the foundation of interstate law and order. After fleeing to Texas with her children, Schmidt was able to gain the backing of authorities there -- but in doing so, she sparked the ire of California family courts and a prosecutor who has filed child abduction charges against her.

The cross-jurisdiction custody battle became so heated that one-time Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his successor, Rick Perry, refused to extradite Schmidt to stand trial in California -- a transfer that is ordinarily a matter of routine legal courtesy. Eventually, a federal judge forced Texas to hand Schmidt over, and now a mother who claims her only interest is to protect her children from a sex offender waits to stand trial in Alameda County next week on a felony child abduction charge.

The fate of her children remains unclear.

A Texas court has ordered that the children not leave the Lone Star State, where they currently live. A California court is demanding the children return to the state of California. Neither state seems willing to budge, and no one seems to know the way out of a legal stalemate that better serves the needs of large legal egos than the interests of two girls, aged 7 and 9.

Even in jail and half a country away from her children, Schmidt says that she would do it all over again. "The California courts put me in the position of having to protect my children," she says, utterly sure in her naive belief that because she is in the moral right, the legal system will eventually be on her side, too.

Debra Schmidt was married to her first husband, Lee Schmidt, for seven years. They lived in Santa Clara County and had three children who are now grown. In 1988, she had another child with a man named Mitchell McKenzie, who would later oddly become her biggest supporter in the battle for custody of her children. Schmidt and McKenzie married, but divorced after less than a year. "Mitch and I have been best friends for years," she says. "But we should have never gotten married."

By 1989, Schmidt had moved to California's Central Valley; she met Manuel Saavedra in a nightclub in Tracy. Schmidt remembers that he was handsome and his Chilean accent made him seem suave. He also appeared to be very kind. "He's charming, he's attractive, he's fooled everyone," she says.

The two dated briefly and married in March 1991, in the back yard of Saavedra's home in Livermore, where they lived. There was trouble almost from the start; during the next five years, the couple would break up and reunite repeatedly. Most of this activity is memorialized in custody orders, restraining orders, and even two criminal cases in San Joaquin County. Amid the turmoil, Schmidt and Saavedra had two daughters, Lora and Eliana, who would eventually become the focus of labyrinthine legal battles.

In 1995, the couple broke up for good. Schmidt and her three youngest daughters moved to Manteca, and the court battle over the custody of Lora and Eliana heated up. The battle has never really stopped, at least in part because although there are few things Debra Schmidt is afraid of, Manuel Saavedra is among them.

Debra Schmidt and Manuel Saavedra have beaten a not particularly pretty path through the Family Law Department of the San Joaquin County Court. A review of court filings shows that the decade-long custody fight between them was building to a crescendo well before the battle over Lora and Eliana was fully engaged.

In August 1992, Saavedra was charged with molesting Schmidt's 12-year-old niece, who was visiting from Oregon. The incident occurred during a summer block party in the small Central Valley town of Ripon, where the family lived at the time. Witness accounts and court records describe what happened this way:

After the party was over, Schmidt's children from her previous marriages and the niece fell asleep in the living room of Schmidt and Saavedra's house. Meanwhile, Schmidt, Saavedra, and their adult neighbors sat out on the front lawn, finishing the beer left in a keg after the party. Saavedra announced that he was going inside the house to get cigarettes. Some time later, Schmidt went into the house and found him hunched over her niece on the sofa. Her children reported having heard Saavedra making lewd remarks to the niece, who said he fondled her.

The house erupted in chaos, and a neighbor escorted Saavedra out; Schmidt called the police. Saavedra contends that he was very drunk and doesn't remember what happened. He was charged with a felony for molesting the niece and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense that, nonetheless, requires Saavedra to register as a sex offender.

November 14, 2001

Wives' Tale

More than one ex-spouse has had problems with Manuel Saavedra


When Debra Schmidt met Manuel Saavedra in 1991, he was not yet divorced from his first wife, a woman he regularly described in unflattering terms to the new Mrs. Saavedra, who eagerly adopted her husband's opinion. But a decade later, through a bizarre set of circumstances, the two women are bound together against their former spouse.

"We've had our differences," Marsha Molina, Saavedra's first wife, says about Schmidt. "But we worked through them and decided it was in the best interest of the children. She's an excellent mother."

Through his lawyer, Manuel Saavedra refused to be interviewed for this story. Some who know him describe Saavedra as a handsome man of medium stature, intelligent, charming, and often funny. But his ex-wives say he has a mean temper and will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Court records show that Saavedra moved from his native Chile to Los Angeles in 1984 and worked in a factory, despite advanced education. (He'd majored in English at a university in Chile and taken a translator's course sponsored by the Chilean Navy.) After a few months, he moved to San Francisco, where he met Molina in a bar. They married in 1985, moved to Livermore, and had twin daughters the following year. But the marriage ended in 1991 with a custody battle.

At first, Molina and Saavedra shared joint custody of their daughters. In fact, after Saavedra married Debra Schmidt, the girls regularly stayed with them -- until Saavedra was convicted in connection with the 1992 molestation of Schmidt's niece.

Following the molestation, Saavedra quickly became embroiled in two custody cases simultaneously: one in San Joaquin County involving Schmidt and their baby daughter, and another in Sacramento County regarding Molina and their twins.

Molina says Saavedra's visiting privileges with the twins stopped after he refused to participate in or pay for court-ordered counseling after the child molestation conviction. Finally, court records show, in July 1996, Saavedra agreed to the extreme step of terminating all parental rights to his then-10-year-old twin daughters. In exchange, Marsha Molina gave up any claim on $37,000 Saavedra allegedly owed her in unpaid child support, as well as any future support payments. A court order prohibits Saavedra from attempting to contact Molina or their daughters.

"My daughters and I have lived in fear for 10 years," Molina says. "He's repeatedly made threats to kidnap his daughters and take them out of the country. My daughters think their mother is extremely overprotective and a little bit paranoid. It's for good reason."

Schmidt has expressed the same fear in court filings. Unlike Molina, however, she decided to strike first, taking her daughters and moving to Texas. Next week, she's set to stand trial in Alameda County for criminal child abduction -- perhaps with an unlikely ally. Marsha Molina says she's ready to take the stand on Schmidt's behalf. "I wouldn't be sticking my neck out if I didn't believe her," Molina says. | originally published: November 14, 2001

June 19, 2002

Harsh Judgment An epic child-custody case, pitting California against Texas, takes another twist when an appeals court labels the proceedings "nonsense"


On a sunny evening earlier this month, Debra Schmidt walked out of the Alameda County Jail at Santa Rita, her home since being extradited from Texas last fall. As she left, Schmidt remembers hearing a woman say, "You're free."

Schmidt was a bit apprehensive. Freedom, in her case, may be only a temporary reprieve while the judges and lawyers involved in prosecuting her finish fighting with one another.

Her release comes courtesy of the Third District California Court of Appeals and seems to have more to do with the actions of Schmidt's prosecutors than with any of her own crimes. Three weeks ago, the appeals court issued a scathing opinion that, among other things, accuses justice officials in Alameda and San Joaquin counties of conducting a "tag-team operation" designed to keep Schmidt incarcerated until she does what they want -- bring her children back to California. The higher court took a dim view of the situation, stating: "The deeper this court explores the record before us the more that record reveals a substantial abuse of the judicial process."

Schmidt is at the center of a convoluted, seven-year custody battle that stretches not only from San Joaquin to Alameda County, but across state lines into Texas (see "Law and Borders," Nov. 14, 2001). She believes that her two children are not safe with their father, a registered sex offender convicted in 1992 of misdemeanor child molestation in an incident involving his 13-year-old niece. San Joaquin County courts, where the couple's divorce and child-custody case originated, repeatedly ordered Schmidt to allow ex-husband Manuel Saavedra to visit his children. And Schmidt repeatedly refused, claiming that the prescribed visitation was not properly supervised. Saavedra, she says, threatened to take the children to his native Chile. So she struck first. In 1997, Schmidt packed up the kids and moved to Texas, apparently violating a court order that the children remain in California.

But leaving the state escalated the couple's legal battle.

The Alameda County District Attorney's Office (Saavedra now lives in Livermore) filed child abduction charges against Schmidt and requested her extradition from Texas. Then-Gov. George W. Bush and his successor, Gov. Rick Perry, both refused to extradite Schmidt, essentially questioning the California courts' decision regarding the children -- two girls, ages 7 and 9. Finally, a federal court ordered Perry to send Schmidt back to California. In December 2001, Schmidt was convicted in Alameda County of two felony counts of child concealment and sentenced to a jail term (minus time served) that technically should have ended in April.

It did not.

Before her arrest, Schmidt had begun a new custody action in Texas. More than two years ago, Texas Judge Jean Meurer assumed emergency jurisdiction over the matter, noting that the California courts had refused to cooperate with her attempts to resolve things. Meurer ruled that the children may not leave the Lone Star State, where they live with family friends.

Over the years, San Joaquin County officials alternately granted joint and sole custody of the children to Saavedra, then finally ruled that the children should be placed with Alameda County Child Protective Services. Nonetheless, Texas and California remain at odds over the issue of the children's home state. Saavedra has filed an appeal to the Texas case, but the appeals court there has yet to issue an opinion.

Schmidt has always maintained that she could not bring the children to California without violating the Texas court order. But the San Joaquin and Alameda courts disagreed and repeatedly held her in contempt of court for not bringing her children back. Finally, shortly before Schmidt's release, Alameda County prosecutor Robert Hutchins Jr. filed new child-concealment charges against her. According to the appeals court, the move was entirely for the purpose of keeping Debra Schmidt incarcerated.

In fact, the court's opinion leaves no question that the justices of California's Third District Court of Appeals have strong feelings on the matter: "However indignant these counties [Alameda and San Joaquin] may be over petitioner's past conduct in thumbing her nose at orders issued by their respective courts, a line has been crossed. ... It is our intent to resolve, firmly and finally, the issues at hand, and to put an end to this nonsense once and for all."

The appellate court noted that Meurer, the Texas judge, understandably took emergency jurisdiction of the children, given the often conflicting actions of the lower courts in California and their failure to address the best interests of the children.

On the subject of the repeated court orders that Schmidt bring the children from Texas while incarcerated, the appeals court stated: "In urging petitioner, under the threat of contempt and an indefinite jail commitment, to violate an order issued by a court in another state, respondent court acted both callously and irresponsibly."

Alameda prosecutor Hutchins says he did work on keeping Schmidt in jail, while Saavedra's attorney filed motions to do the same in San Joaquin County.

"I was horrified," Hutchins explains. "This woman hasn't obeyed any orders. She's a flight risk. I'll bet she's back in Texas right now."

(Reached in San Joaquin County, Schmidt declined comment.)

Hutchins seems quite passionate about the issue.

"There are just mistakes in the opinion that the court issued," he says. "I don't know where they got their information."

Hutchins believes that Saavedra should have custody of the children, though the decision is ultimately up to a judge in whichever state finally winds up with jurisdiction. Saavedra, he says, has been wronged.

"They keep throwing up this 'he's a registered sex offender thing' ... well, that's going to end come August [Saavedra is eligible for a certificate of rehabilitation 10 years after his conviction, which would mean he no longer has to register as a sex offender. The decision is up to a court]. He's led an honorable life from 1992 to present. I've met him many times. He's got a steady job. He's paid the price. He's done what was asked. He deserves his certificate of rehabilitation.

"[The children's placement] is up to the court, but I think he would be a very good father and he would be very caring to these kids, and I don't see anything that would put these kids at risk. He's living with a girlfriend who has a daughter who is 10 years old living in the house, and he's been seeing [the girlfriend] for about five or six years. There's nothing to indicate that he would ever do this again."

Hutchins also remains undeterred in his pursuit. Debra Schmidt is due back in Alameda County Court for a hearing on the new charges of child concealment. Though she's already been convicted of, and served time for, the same crime, Hutchins argues that child concealment is a continuous crime, and, therefore, he will continue to prosecute Schmidt for it, until she delivers her daughters. | originally published: June 19, 2002