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Mother Fears She'll Never See Her Kids Again
Her ex-husband left with their three young daughters for what was supposed to be a two-week vacation. It's now six months later, and they have yet to return ...
Christine Belford avoids toy stores these days.
At the supermarket, she won't go near the baby aisle.
Being reminded of her three young daughters is just too painful. Every day, Belford wonders whether she'll ever see them again.
She worries most about 4-year-old Leigh, who has autism. She misses 5-year-old Laura's stories about preschool. She longs to help 2-year-old Karen with her vocabulary and potty training.
"They need me and I need them," Belford says of her little blondes.
It's been nearly six months since Belford's ex-husband, Newark optometrist David T. Matusiewicz, and his mother took the girls to Florida for what was supposed to be a two-week vacation to Disney World.
They never came home.
Aided by U.S. marshals and the FBI, New Castle County police are searching for 40-year-old Matusiewicz. He and his mother, Lenore, are charged with multiple felonies for abducting his children in violation of a joint custody order.
In addition, the FBI is investigating Matusiewicz for bank fraud. Eleven days before he disappeared, he borrowed $249,000 against the Middletown-area home he still owns with Belford, who contends he forged her name on a home equity loan from WSFS bank. A few days later, Matusiewicz sold his optometry business.
Attorneys for Matusiewicz would not discuss the case. His sister Amy said she is "devastated" but would not elaborate.
The Matusiewicz case is highly unusual for a child abduction, say experts in the field.
Aside from having been at large far longer than most family members who abduct a child, Matusiewicz ran a thriving business in Newark, forged extensive community ties and had primary custody of the three girls.
Those who know Matusiewicz call him a respected medical professional, doting father and dedicated volunteer with Delaware Special Olympics, where he ran a program to test the vision of competitors and give many free glasses.
"He was involved in a very caring way," executive director Ann Grunert said.
Meredith Morrison, who is managing the case for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a national clearinghouse for about 6,000 cases nationwide, said she believes Matusiewicz cares deeply about his daughters.
"If you were looking at the profile of this person," Morrison said, "you would not guess he would take off with his children."
Cases rare in Delaware
While abductions by a family member occur frequently in the United States, they are rare in Delaware.
The most recent national estimates, based on a federal study published in 2002, are that 56,000 cases, most stemming from bitter custody disputes, get reported to authorities every year. Nationally, eight out of 10 children are returned within a month, and 94 percent within a year.
In Delaware, authorities investigated 26 such allegations last year and eight resulted in criminal charges, according to data provided by state police. Police say the Matusiewicz children are the only three in Delaware who were reported abducted in 2007 who haven't been found.
Detective Jeff Shriner, the county's chief missing-person investigator, called the case a top priority. "Taking these children from their mother is absolutely a crime," he said.
Shriner said he has interviewed Matusiewicz's father, Tom, but would not elaborate. Efforts by The News Journal to reach Tom Matusiewicz were unsuccessful.
Morrison, whose group works with law enforcement and communities to spread word about missing kids through pamphlets, ads and other media coverage, has followed more than a dozen tips about the Matusiewicz girls, but none has panned out.
One of the most perplexing questions is why Matusiewicz would take off, depriving the children of contact with their mother.
Court papers reveal a possible motive, that he thought Belford was an unfit mother with mental problems. A court-ordered psychologist rejected that notion.
That same psychologist, however, said Matusiewicz was unstable, according to Family Court Judge Mark B. Buckworth's custody order in February 2007.
Buckworth wrote that Matusiewicz was "at risk of losing touch with reality."
At first, life was perfect
Belford, who grew up in Elsmere as the only child in a troubled household, first met Matusiewicz in 1993, when she was a student at Goldey-Beacom College in Pike Creek.
Then 19, Belford was a secretary at the Eye Center of Delaware in Newark. New Jersey native Matusiewicz, six years older, was a new optometrist at the center.
Optometrists provide primary vision care and prescribe eyeglasses, contact lenses and medications to treat disorders. After college, they attend four years of optometry school, but are not medical doctors.
Belford, a trim former tennis player with mid-length brown hair, was engaged at the time to a man she married the following year. Matusiewicz, a tall, burly man, was married to another optometrist.
There were no romantic sparks, but Belford found herself impressed by Matusiewicz's intelligence and compassion with patients. "I learned a lot while I worked with him, and he was always willing to help me learn," she said.
Dr. George Popel, an ophthalmologist who owned the practice, said both were "very good employees."
In 1994, Popel sold the Newark office to Matusiewicz for an undisclosed amount. The young optometrist also bought the building at 317 E. Main St. for $180,000, renaming it "Vision Center of Delaware." Belford stayed at the Newark office, becoming office manager for Matusiewicz.
Within a few years, both their marriages fell apart. Matusiewicz and his wife divorced in June 1998. Belford was divorced that August. (She has a daughter from that marriage, who is 12. This daughter has been living with a relative since the marriage with Matusiewicz broke up while Belford has tried to stabilize her own life.)
That spring, Belford and Matusiewicz began dating. They married in October 2001 at Brantwyn, the former du Pont estate in Montchanin, and honeymooned in Maui.
They bought a $225,000, four-bedroom home on 1 1/2 rural acres northwest of Middletown, where they built a big in-ground pool. The future seemed bright, with the optometry business bringing in about $1 million annually.
For the bride, "it was like a fairy tale."
Kids born and in-laws move in
The first two girls came in quick succession: Laura in May 2002; Leigh in September of the following year. Coping with two babies proved difficult for the new mother, who experienced panic attacks as a youth.
She sought treatment for post-partum depression. "I became sad for little reason. I remember crying one day because Dave had unknowingly driven off with the car seat," she said.
When Leigh was 2 months old, Matusiewicz's parents moved in unexpectedly, Belford said.
"He came home one night and said, 'They're coming.' "
Tom and Lenore Matusiewicz had sold their home in New Jersey and were looking for one in Delaware. But having them in the same house overwhelmed Belford, who was now a stay-at-home mom.
"They were supposed to stay three months," Belford said. "It was nine before I asked them to leave." They bought a home near Smyrna, but remained fixtures at their son's home.
The couple's third daughter, Karen, was born in July 2005.
To neighbors, they seemed like a model family. Barbara Dixon, who lived next door, said the girls and their parents were always frolicking in the backyard pool, playing in their fort, or running around the yard.
"They were good parents," Dixon said. "Nice people."
Troubles lead to divorce
Troubles lay beneath the veneer, however. Matusiewicz became a recluse after work, declining even the occasional night out with his wife.
"He wanted to be home with the kids, and I needed to be there, too," she said.
Matusiewicz also kept nearly a dozen weapons in the house, including a .357 Magnum, and had taken a one-week shooting course in Las Vegas. He read survivalist books, and alarmed his wife, who recalled his saying, "I know how to kill people and leave no trace."
She tried to shake off the isolation and what she perceived as veiled threats, but ultimately decided to end the marriage.
She told him on New Year's Eve 2006, while they sat at home.
Not a big drinker, he poured a tall glass of whiskey, then another, and sipped as they spoke.
"He went on to say things like, 'I hear voices in my head," and "I can't live without you," and "I can control other people's thoughts,' " she said. "It scared me very badly."
The next day, she called county police and sought a temporary protection-from-abuse order, which was granted Jan. 3, 2006.
At a hearing 10 days later, the order was lifted after Belford said she should not have taken his words as threats, court records show.
Matusiewicz also filed a protection-from-abuse petition, alleging Belford had stopped taking her anti-depressant medication and left the children unattended or with strangers. His petition was denied.
They briefly tried to reconcile, to no avail. Their divorce was finalized that November.
Belford, who took a job with a Pike Creek optometrist, moved in with her grandmother near Elsmere. Matusiewicz stayed in the Middletown-area home with their three children.
Custody battle starts
After the divorce, Matusiewicz tried to reduce Belford's contact with her children and Judge Buckworth ordered psychological evaluations of both parents.
Psychologist Samuel Romirowsky, who conducted the evaluations, wrote that Belford, despite a history of depression, sought family unity and showed no signs of being a threat to her children. The report, which Belford gave to The News Journal, said she hoped to eventually "restore their marriage."
Romirowsky would not comment, citing privacy rules.
Buckworth, in his custody report, noted that a private investigator hired by Matusiewicz said Leigh, whose autism made her behavior impulsive, ran into the street six or seven times under Belford's care, a charge she denied.
While Romirowsky's evaluation of Matusiewicz could not be obtained, Buckworth cited the psychologist's testimony in the custody report.
Romirowsky said Matusiewicz often tried the same approach with a problem after getting feedback that his way was not working, an "unhealthy sign," Buckworth wrote.
Romirowsky also determined that Matusiewicz was suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, and was at risk of losing touch with reality," the judge wrote.
Despite the misgivings about Matusiewicz's emotional status, Romirowsky thought "both parents should be equally responsible for all decision-making."
Buckworth, who would not comment, awarded joint custody. The girls would live with Matusiewicz but spend every other weekend with Belford, with visits during the week.
In hindsight, clues abound
Last July, Barbara Dixon noticed her neighbors were not using their pool, which had turned green. Matusiewicz told her a pump had broken and instead of paying $500 for repairs, he ordered a new part.
Weeks went by and the pool wasn't fixed. Dixon also saw Matusiewicz's father hauling away bedding, chests, even the hot tub.
"Are you moving?" she asked Matusiewicz one day.
"It's up in the air," he said.
Belford had heard that Matusiewicz was removing some furniture from the house, and she thought he might be planning to buy a new house in Delaware.
When Matusiewicz announced he was taking the girls on a two-week trip to Disney World in August, she didn't worry. They had gone the previous year without any problems.
Though she and her ex-husband barely spoke, she could call the girls every night.
They left Aug. 26. Two days later, Belford reached Laura, who said she was tired because they were driving so much.
After that, she called night after night -- and got only voice mail.
On Sept. 10, when they didn't return, she contacted her lawyer, Timothy Hitchings.
Car trouble was the most reasonable explanation, they concluded, expecting Matusiewicz and the girls would return the next day.
On Sept. 11, Belford got a call from Vision Care, wondering why Matusiewicz hadn't shown up for work. The police were called, and she filed a missing-persons report.
Afterward, she said, Matusiewicz's partner, Amy Farrall, said something that sent shudders through Belford.
Farrall had bought the business from Matusiewicz, who had agreed to work there part time.
"That said to me that he's going," Belford said. "He's just cut all his ties, all his responsibilities, to this area."
Property records show that Matusiewicz sold Farrall the building Aug. 21 for $625,000 -- $445,000 more than he had paid.
Matusiewicz also wanted for fraud
Within days, police filed charges against Matusiewicz.
Belford soon learned that Matusiewicz had plenty of money. Beyond the profit from selling the property and business, he also had taken out a $249,000 home equity loan on the Middletown house.
Because Belford's name was on the deed as owner, she had to sign any loan papers. Belford, however, said she didn't know anything about the home equity loan until October, when she was buying a house in Pike Creek and asked WSFS how much was owed on the Middletown home.
The bank gave her a copy of the new loan, which bore a signature on Aug. 15 by Christine Matusiewicz -- a name she hadn't used for more than a year.
Mark Pryslak, WSFS vice president for private banking, also signed, attesting the Matusiewiczes signed before him.
The document was notarized by Pryslak's assistant, Tracey-Jo Parramore. By law, a notary must ensure, by a driver's license or other means, the identity of the signee.
Days later, Belford filed an affidavit with the bank, swearing it wasn't her. She said in an interview that a bank employee told her that Matusiewicz claimed she was sick in the car, and he took the document outside for her to sign.
Last week, WSFS President Mark A. Turner issued a statement accepting blame for "this very unfortunate situation," and said the bank was working to rectify the matter.
"We do acknowledge that WSFS Bank did make a mistake and as a result the bank has suffered a financial loss," he said.
Jeff Walker, a supervisor at the FBI office in Wilmington, said the agency is investigating. "There was a mortgage fraud committed that we believe was perpetrated by him," Walker said of Matusiewicz.
Shriner, the detective, said it's clear Matusiewicz plotted his escape: "This isn't something he just thought up on a whim."
Clinging to hope
For Belford, the anxious first nights have lengthened into months. Pictures of the children fill her new home -- on the mantel, tables and walls.
She thinks they could be in Canada, where Matusiewicz had gone last year for a seminar on autism. But she knows they could be anywhere.
On a recent day, Belford was reading a story in which a character talked about living in a house with his six siblings.
"That was all it took," she said. "Now I'm crying about the kids, because that is what I wanted for them."
She longs for their chaotic shopping trips. Getting everybody out of the car. All three girls arguing. Leigh grabbing items off the shelves. Obligatory bathroom stops. Loading everybody back into the car, in one piece. It once took an hour to buy chicken for an office party.
"It's crazy, but funny crazy," she said. "These memories are all I have."
In her heart, she's convinced she's not to blame, that something possessed her ex-husband to run off. But that doesn't stop the anguish.
"Being right can't comfort me while I wander around, waiting for the little ones to come home."
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