Father Must Stand Trial in Abduction of 2 Children

Times Staff Writer

Close friends of Ronald Whitelaw, who is accused of stealing his two daughters from his ex-wife seven years ago, told a municipal judge Thursday that the girls’ mother once said she was tormented by voices telling her to kill her husband and infant daughter.

The testimony came during the preliminary hearing on a child-stealing charge against Whitelaw, 38. At the end of the hearing he was ordered to stand trial on the charge. An arraignment is set for Sept. 26 in San Fernando Superior Court.

A witness, Joanne LaLone, said Faith Canutt spoke of hearing the voices in 1972, two years before the birth of her second child and five years before the couple separated. LaLone said it was during a time when Canutt’s “sister was dying and she was under a lot of stress.”

‘Tortured by These Thoughts’

“The voices she was hearing were telling her to kill her husband and kill her baby, and she was tortured by these thoughts,” LaLone, who now lives in Astoria, Ore., testified before Newhall Municipal Judge David P. Lamb.

Virginia Hilton of Northridge, who also testified Thursday, said Canutt reported similar problems to her.


Canutt, who also appeared before Lamb, denied the allegations.

On a motion from his defense attorney, Lamb lowered Whitelaw’s bail from $200,000 to $20,000. Whitelaw’s attorneys said they planned to secure his release Thursday evening from Los Angeles County Jail.

The judge ordered Whitelaw to have no contact, direct or indirect, with his daughters, Alisa, 14, and Kristin, 11, and restricted his travel to California and Oregon.

Arrested Aug. 26

Whitelaw disappeared with the girls in April, 1978, after he picked them up at their Valencia home a few months after his divorce became final. He lived in Lebanon, Ore., until his arrest Aug. 26 after a school bus driver recognized the missing girls from a TV program and called authorities.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Kenneth Lee Barshop opposed the bail reduction. “Mr. Whitelaw has shown by his past actions that he basically doesn’t care what the court says,” Barshop said. Barshop noted that Whitelaw signed court documents giving Canutt custody of the children in 1977.

Whitelaw’s attorney, Harland W. Braun, argued that Whitelaw was justified in taking his children because he feared for their safety.

Dressed in a jail-issued, blue jump suit, Whitelaw seemed relaxed during the court hearing. At one point, he turned, grinned and winked at several friends who came from Oregon to attend the proceeding. Soon after entering the courtroom, he stared for a few seconds at Canutt. Whitelaw’s second wife, Sandy Melhorn Whitelaw, was not in court. Canutt’s attorney, Stephen A. Kolodny, observed the proceedings.

Girls’ Testimony Refused

Lamb, after hearing arguments in his chambers, refused to grant Braun’s request to allow the children to testify during the preliminary hearing. Barshop had objected to the request, saying the children’s testimony would be irrelevant and would subject them to unnecessary emotional stress.

Under questioning, LaLone testified that Canutt told her she was so frustrated at hearing the voices that she dug her fingernails into her thighs in frustration.

LaLone said Canutt spoke of hearing voices on “three or four occasions,” but she said she did not tell Whitelaw of the threats until Hilton suggested she do so. Canutt subsequently received psychiatric help, LaLone said.

Threat Alleged

LaLone’s husband, Mike, who has been a friend of Whitelaw since they attended elementary school in Van Nuys, testified that Canutt bragged after the divorce “that she could hire a hit man.” Asked about the allegations under oath, Canutt, 36, said, “I might have joked. I’m not sure.”

Both Mike and Joanne LaLone said they moved to Oregon 11 years ago but were unaware Whitelaw was living less 150 miles away. He called several times but did not disclose where he was living and did not visit, Joanne LaLone testified.

In other testimony, Canutt’s uncle, Harry Joe Canutt, testified that Faith Canutt threatened to “blow him away,” referring to Whitelaw, if he got custody of the children. Canutt denied the charge under oath.

Under cross-examination, Harry Joe Canutt testified that, in 1974, Whitelaw loaned him $20,000. Canutt said he paid the loan off two or three years ago through an attorney but could not remember the attorney’s name.