They were known as the Johnsons, and all the folks in Lebanon, Ore., thought they were an ideal family. The pretty blond daughters, Alisa and Kristin, got good grades and had lots of friends who visited them at a turn-of-the-century ranch house their parents had fixed up. Ron and Sandy Johnson coached softball teams and worked with the PTA.
“You couldn’t find two better parents,” a close friend of the Johnson family said. “They were a model family. They were the kind of family everybody wants to be.”
But the seemingly perfect family picture had a major flaw.
Ron Johnson really was Ron Whitelaw, once a wealthy Santa Barbara developer. Claiming he feared for their lives, Whitelaw in 1978 had abducted his children, then 6 and 3 years old, from his former wife’s home in Valencia.
On Aug. 26, Whitelaw was picked up by Oregon police officers on suspicion of child stealing after he was turned in by a school-bus driver who saw the girls on a TV program about missing children. Now out of jail on $20,000 bail, Whitelaw, 38, is charged with felony child stealing and interstate flight. If convicted, he could receive up to a year and a day in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Meanwhile, his daughters have been returned to their mother, Faith Canutt, 36.
“I’ll never get the years back,” Canutt said in an interview shortly after she was reunited with Alisa, now 14, and Kristin, 11. She said that during the years they were gone, she was frequently depressed, “wondering how they were, where they were, did they miss me? I’d be lying awake at night thinking, ‘Where could they be?’ ”
Now, she said, “I look at them all the time. I just keep thinking of all the years and all the times I imagined what they would look like. . . .”
Canutt acknowledges that she is not the only loser. Also shattered are the lives of her former husband, who not only faces the possibility of jail but said he sold everything to finance his flight with his children, and Whitelaw’s second wife, Sandy, who has not seen Alisa and Kristin since the night her husband was arrested.
A Second ‘Mom’
The biggest losers, all involved acknowledged, are the girls, who have been torn away from their father and the woman who had mothered them for more than seven years--the only mother Kristin remembered. Canutt has told them it is “fine with me” if they continue to call Sandy Whitelaw “Mom,” though she is pleased that they also call her “Mom.” Canutt also has encouraged them to call their friends in Lebanon.
“As with any other tragedy, sometimes you just take what’s left and you go with that,” Canutt said.
Whitelaw has vowed to follow Canutt to Hawaii, where she now lives, to try to get custody of his daughters. During an interview at Los Angeles County Jail, where Whitelaw was in custody for two weeks pending a bail reduction hearing, Whitelaw asserted that his theft of the children was justified because Canutt allegedly was mentally disturbed and threatened to kill the girls if he did not drop his 1977 custody suit.
“I would have done it even if it was a hanging charge,” Whitelaw told a Portland television station after his arrest.
Canutt, an attractive, frail-looking blonde who filled the years of her daughters’ absence with zealous activities on behalf of missing childrens’ groups, said she hopes Whitelaw will stop making “his ridiculous accusations.”
“If he doesn’t cool it, he is going to permanently damage these children he purports to love,” Canutt said.
Incredulous at the turn of events, Whitelaw’s friends in Lebanon have rallied behind him.
Of this, Canutt said only that her former husband “could be very, very charming. But those people don’t know what really happened and how he has made me suffer.”
The roots of this family tragedy were set in Whitelaw and Canutt’s unhappy marriage, during which the couple relocated halfway across the world several times because of Whitelaw’s job. Their seven years together were an emotional roller coaster. They grappled with poverty and then instant wealth. Canutt believed her life had “no direction” and Whitelaw believed his wife neglected their children.
What their union did produce was two daughters whom they both desperately wanted to keep when their marriage fell apart.
On April 7, 1978, Whitelaw went to Canutt’s home in Valencia to pick up Alisa and Kristin for a weekend visitation allowed under the child-custody arrangement ironed out in the couple’s recent divorce.
But Whitelaw didn’t take them to the zoo or the beach, as he usually did. Whitelaw and his then-girlfriend, Sandy Melhorn, went on the lam with his daughters, flying first to Florida, where they held tickets on a cruise ship leaving in two weeks for Spain. The trip was abandoned the day before they were to leave. Whitelaw panicked when a travel agent asked him why federal authorities were looking for him.
Whitelaw instead took his family to Mexico for two weeks, then flew to Washington state, where they rented a small tract house in Vancouver for two months, “trying to figure out what to do next.” Using $30,000 of more than $400,000 he received from property he had sold before he fled, Whitelaw bought a pickup truck and trailer and took his family through Oregon, California, Arizona and Nevada, staying in campgrounds under at least four aliases to avoid detection, police and Whitelaw said.
Five months later, Whitelaw settled near Lebanon, a small city in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where the neighbors were friendly but not too nosy. He married Melhorn, changed the family’s name to Johnson, enrolled his children in school and started life over.
‘Nobody Noses In’
“It’s a place where you will be allowed to go your way if you want to. Nobody noses into your business unless you give them a reason to,” said Tom Tomlinson, principal at Hamilton Creek School, where Alisa and Kristin were students.
Situated about 75 miles south of Portland, Lebanon’s predominantly white population of 10,380 consists of “home-grown people,” as the the natives call themselves, supplemented by growing numbers of Southern Californians disenchanted with crime, high housing prices and the fast pace of city life. A modern, four-bedroom home goes for $80,000. Lebanon police Detective Leonard Zucker can’t remember the last time there was a homicide in town. There are no pornographic movie houses. The children wear jeans and sweat shirts--there is no headlong rush to purchase the latest fashions. The town slogan is “The City That Friendliness Built.”
Carrying a driver’s license under the name Arnold Edward Johnson that he acquired using a false birth certificate, Whitelaw drove an aging, gray Datsun and a four-door pickup. He used his own cash and, according to court records, formed a partnership called Hilltop Ranch to buy a 20-acre ranch in tiny Hamilton Creek, several miles east of Lebanon, where a mixture of professional people and old-timers live a rural life.
The house, at the end of a winding road lined with tall fir trees and wild blackberry bushes drooping with fruit, was idyllic. “Hilltop Ranch,” as it is called, affords a striking view of mist rising over hills turned lushly green by abundant rainfall. A graceful old oak shades the yard and a large, hay-filled barn provides a playground where the children could ride a swing and play hide-and-seek.
The Whitelaws raised cattle and chickens and kept dogs and cats. Like many in the area, they raised much of their own food.
Alisa and Kristin grew from little girls into sports-minded preteens. Kristin took guitar lessons, Alisa was learning piano. Whitelaw built the girls a spacious tree house, complete with windows and aluminum siding. He drove Alisa to swimming lessons and meets and sat in the stands cheering the girls at dozens of school and town sporting events, friends said. They wanted for neither material possessions nor loving parents, according to their friends and neighbors.
“I never saw them that I didn’t get a hug, and they were always hugging their kids,” said Kay Wilkerson, a bookkeeper at a local car dealership, one of more than two dozen people who assembled at the Pizza Hut in downtown Lebanon with little more than an hour’s notice one recent weekday night to voice support for Whitelaw to a reporter.
Kept Close Eye on Girls
The Whitelaws kept careful track of the girls’ whereabouts, picking them up at the bus stop if the weather was bad. “If they were 10 minutes late, they were worried,” said neighbor Gail Osburn.
Ron “Johnson,” a 6-foot-2, baby-faced man with wavy brown hair, quickly endeared himself to the community, both for his devotion to family and his civic activities, including serving on the school board.
“If we need something we can always count on the Johnsons,” principal Tomlinson said. “We’d like to clone him.”
“He was a solid, upstanding citizen,” said Dan Wilkerson, a battalion chief with the Lebanon Fire Department.
Whitelaw also became one of the guys, joining in the hunting, fishing and other sports enjoyed in the Willamette Valley.
“Over pizza and beer, you could sit with him almost four hours and laugh until your face hurt. He could impersonate anybody: W. C. Fields, Peter Lorre . . . anybody,” said Brice Dowding, 26, a logger.
Whitelaw told people in Lebanon he was living off a large settlement he received after he suffered a spinal injury in a diving accident while employed as an underwater construction worker. That left ample time for the couple to spend with Alisa and Kristin and to fix up their home. Whitelaw played the school Santa Claus at Christmas one year. His friends included several Lebanon police officers who knew Whitelaw from “Ron’s Rhinos,” the softball team Whitelaw pitched for. He twice won an award as softball coach of the year, friends said.
Phone Records Subpoenaed
At one point, Whitelaw discovered that phone records that might have revealed their location had been subpoenaed by Canutt. The family abruptly left their newly remodeled house and fled to Hot Springs, Ark., where the girls attended school for four months. During the summer of 1980, he transplanted the family to Sacramento, where the girls attended parochial school for a year. When he felt it was safe, they returned to Lebanon, telling friends he had been working on construction jobs in different parts of the country.
“It was all by the seat of my pants,” Whitelaw said of his years underground. “I just took each step as it came. I knew to stay away from computers, change my name. I had no idea how long it could last.”
Whitelaw said he never revealed his secret to anyone in Lebanon.
“He said many times he needed someone to talk to but he didn’t want to make me an accessory to the fact,” said Arnie Osburn, a disabled Los Angeles firefighter who has known Whitelaw since moving to Lebanon in 1979.
“The girls never mentioned their mother, never did they hint that there was any other past,” Tomlinson said. “No one had any idea that Sandy was not their real mother.”
Stepmother Tells Happiness
Sandy Whitelaw, 45, said in an interview that she was “filled with happiness that they responded to me so quickly.” She said she never asked the children to call her “Mom.”
“I wasn’t trying to take the place of their mother. They wanted someone.”
She said she was “bothered” by the seven-year deception, but “at the same time it was for a very good reason that I don’t regret. . . .
“We had a very, very happy home in Oregon,” she said. “I wish I were there. My heart aches. I want to be with my children.”
She said she doesn’t know when or if she will talk to the girls; Canutt said she will not allow her to see them. “Why should I?” she said.
Whitelaw’s Lebanon neighbors have started a fund that, as of Monday, had raised $650 for Whitelaw’s legal defense. They also have sent dozens of letters of support to his attorney.
“The whole town is broke up about this,” said John Fitzwater, Whitelaw’s best friend in Lebanon. “The thing that bothers everybody is they were such a close family and now they’re broken up.”
Meanwhile, the bus driver who turned Whitelaw into the police has been receiving threatening telephone calls, according to Linn County sheriff’s officials.
Many in Lebanon said they would have helped Whitelaw escape the police had he come to them.
After a tumultuous youth that included fierce fights with her parents and a stint in Juvenile Hall, court records show, Faith Canutt left home at the age of 17 and joined two male friends to rent an apartment in the San Fernando Valley.
Adding a few years to her actual age, Canutt landed a job as a beer waitress at a Granada Hills bar called The Swinger. At age 19, she met Ronald Whitelaw, who was working his way through diving school and frequented the bar.
They began to date and, a few weeks later, Canutt moved in with Whitelaw and his roommate in their Van Nuys apartment. Two months later, Whitelaw was hired to work on a project in Saudi Arabia and Canutt moved in with Whitelaw’s mother. Shortly afterward, Whitelaw wrote to Canutt from Egypt, where he had been transferred, asking her to marry him. They wed in Cairo in December, 1969.
The way Whitelaw tells the story, the match was never a happy one.
“The little tiffs that married couples eventually have started immediately for us,” he said.
As the years passed, Canutt became depressed and irritable, complaining that she had “no direction” in her life, according to Whitelaw and court depositions from three psychologists who examined Canutt and who gave depositions during the couple’s divorce suit. The couple returned to the United States in 1970 and took up residence in Louisiana, where Whitelaw worked in offshore oil fields. Canutt became even more depressed after Alisa was born in 1971, Whitelaw said.
Whitelaw was injured in a diving accident at work shortly after Alisa’s birth and the family was forced to live on disability, loans from relatives and a minimum-wage job Whitelaw got with a Van Nuys awning company while they pressed a lawsuit against Fluor Ocean Services for Whitelaw’s injuries.
It was during that time that Canutt began “hearing voices,” Whitelaw alleged, “voices that told her to kill Alisa and me.” Canutt has denied ever hearing such voices.
According to a friend of Whitelaw’s called to testify last week in Whitelaw’s child-stealing case, Canutt told the friend she was so frustrated by the voices she would dig her fingernails into her thighs.
In 1973, a jury ordered Fluor to pay Whitelaw $587,000 in damages--$380,000 after attorney’s fees were paid--which he promptly invested in Santa Barbara real estate at the start of a land boom there.
Canutt was battling a deep depression caused in part by marital troubles, the fact that her sister had recently died of cancer and postpartum depression after Kristin was born in 1974, she said. Because of that, she said, and because Whitelaw was drinking heavily at the time, she sought psychological counseling.
Whitelaw said Canutt did not physically abuse the girls but neglected them throughout their infancy.
“When I’d go out on the job to inspect my investments, I would come home and I would find the kids there and they were soiled, they were red in their private parts, they weren’t properly fed, their faces were dirty,” Whitelaw said.
He asserted that the neglect continued after the couple separated.
Although Whitelaw started a brief custody battle in late 1977, including forcing Canutt to be examined by a court-appointed psychiatrist, Whitelaw gave Canutt sole custody of the children when they signed a final divorce agreement in January, 1978.
Canutt said Whitelaw dropped the custody suit “because his attorney and the psychiatrist told him he didn’t have anything to go on.” Whitelaw, however, claims he dropped his case because Canutt threatened to kill both him and the girls if he did not.
“She bragged that she had bought a gun and that she was learning to use it. She bragged that she had called hit men and found out how much it would be to have me killed,” he said. Whitelaw said he didn’t tell the judge about the alleged threats because “there is no law against saying you’re going to kill anybody.”
“None of that is true,” Canutt said of her former husband’s allegations that she neglected and threatened her children. “If half of what Mr. Whitelaw said about me was true, he would have had the kids legally . . . .
“He’s putting the blame on me and acting like child abduction is some brand of heroic action.”
Canutt knew that, when she finally did find her daughters, she would be reunited with strangers.
“I found out that they were worried about being acceptable children and I was worried about being an acceptable mom,” Canutt said.
Canutt said she plans to enroll them in school in Hawaii and start a new family life with her fiance.
“I want them to have the benefit of knowing both their mother and their father, to love anyone they want,” she said. “They were denied me by him. Ron made all the choices for all of us.”
Although Kristin was too young to remember her, Canutt said Alisa has told her she was aware that her mother was looking for her but did not know what to do. They had been living in her mother’s Valencia home only two weeks before Whitelaw took them, and Alisa never knew the address or telephone number there.
Canutt’s attorneys last week asked the Linn County Circuit Court in Oregon to sell Hilltop Ranch to pay part of a $1.5-million judgment granted to Canutt after she sued her former husband, his new wife and his mother for the emotional stress of having her children taken from her. The suit is believed to be the country’s first civil damage case involving parental child stealing. She has collected “not a penny” of the judgment, she said.
Sold Property to Finance Search
To finance the search for her daughters, Canutt sold the two apartment buildings, house and BMW from her divorce settlement to pay for private detectives, psychics, and cross-country travel in search of clues. She called the police detective on the case two or three times a month to see if he had any new leads.
Canutt’s attorney, Stephen Kolodny, said Canutt spent more than $250,000 searching for her children. She lobbied legislators, appeared on television shows, and testified before congressional committees, urging stricter penalties against child stealing.
“If I had known it was going to be seven years, I would have taken my money and gone to law school so I would have known how to swim with the sharks,” Canutt said. “I couldn’t determine when, but I knew that maybe someday I’d find my girls. It was so terribly wrong.”
Whitelaw said the $20,000 or $30,000 that he said remains of the $400,000 he fled Santa Barbara with in 1978 will be used in the legal battle ahead. He said he has not held a job since taking his daughters because he was afraid to apply for a Social Security number under an alias and feared that Canutt would locate him if he used his real number or a falsified one.
But Canutt said she believes her ex-husband has assets secreted somewhere, possibly overseas or in his mother’s name or in his wife’s mother’s name.
“He is not a poor man. I know he has money hidden away from us,” she said.
According to Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Deputy Gerald Johnson, who has been investigating the case since Canutt reported the children missing in 1978, Whitelaw sent a $20,000 return on his investment in a cattle feed company to an account at a Swiss bank in 1980.
Asked if he has money hidden overseas, Whitelaw refused comment.
He said that, during his seven-year absence, “I did not earn any money at all from any real estate investments or any other type of investments. . . . “
Alisa’s close friend Tisha Dishion, 13, said Alisa called her a few days after her father’s arrest to say she was nervous about meeting her real mother, whom she could only vaguely remember.
“She said that she’d write me a letter and tell me all the details. She couldn’t tell me or she’d start crying,” Tisha said.
“It was neat,” Alisa said enthusiastically after meeting her mother for the first time in seven years, “because she looks exactly like I thought she would look like . . . a lot like me. I have my mom and dad and everybody I love. It feels good.”
Both girls said they still love their father and want to see him as often as possible, but Canutt said she is still “very nervous” about the idea of allowing Whitelaw to visit his daughters. Canutt said she doesn’t want to let them visit their old home anytime soon because of the strong support Whitelaw enjoys there.
She said she cannot make up the lost years with them.
“The way they look, the way they talk, the way they were growing, the way they smell even,” she said. “Just when you bathe the kids and towel them off and put them in their jamies and put them in bed and everything about them, the expressions on their faces, the way they say good night, the way that they would play--the joy of watching them grow. . . . “