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Father Cleared by Jurors of Child Stealing

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Times Staff Writer

Ronald Whitelaw, whose flight with his two daughters seven years ago spurred his former wife to campaign on national television for their return, was acquitted Monday of child stealing.

The 12-0 verdict on the felony charge was reached by a San Fernando Superior Court jury after three hours of deliberation.

The children, Alisa and Kristin, then 6 and 3 years old, had been released to their father on a routine weekend visit in April, 1978, four months after their mother, Faith Canutt, won custody. They were never returned to their mother’s Valencia home.

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The abduction drew widespread attention after Canutt, 36, became active in the then-embryonic movement to find missing children. She appeared on television programs, testified before congressional committees and took part in a group called Child Find, lobbying for tougher penalties for convicted child stealers.

Last year she won what was regarded as the nation’s first civil damage case for parental child abduction when a judge ruled that she was entitled to $1.5 million from Whitelaw, who was still being sought. His attorneys are trying to have that judgment reversed.

Known to residents of Lebanon, Ore., a small town 75 miles south of Portland, as Ron and Sandy Johnson, Whitelaw and his second wife were regarded as typical, loving parents, working a small farm while coaching softball teams and volunteering with the local PTA.

All that changed in August, however, when Whitelaw was turned in by a school bus driver who saw the girls’ pictures on a TV program about missing children.

Whitelaw, 38, has contended that he abducted the children because Canutt, claiming she heard demonic voices, had threatened him and their children with death unless he abandoned his bid for custody. Canutt has denied those claims.

Formerly a wealthy Santa Barbara developer, Whitelaw greeted Monday’s verdict with relief, tempered by what he characterized as concern that his former wife might react to the outcome by threatening their children, who were placed in her custody after they were returned to Los Angeles in August.

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Whitelaw has been barred from contacting them since he was released on bail.

“I think justice did prevail,” Whitelaw said. “I feel strongly that the children are a lot better off with me. Their home is in Lebanon, Oregon.”

He said he will seek permanent custody during a hearing scheduled Dec. 13 in Santa Barbara Superior Court.

Canutt, who is believed to be staying in Orlando, Fla., with the children, could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Stephen Kolodny, did not return phone calls.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Kenneth Barshop expressed surprise and disappointment at the verdict.

“When I received information there was a verdict, I thought it would be guilty,” the prosecutor said. “It’s my belief that he didn’t do it for the benefit of his children.”

Barshop argued during the trial that Whitelaw had not exhausted his alternatives in seeking custody of the children and intended to deprive Canutt of custody, violating one tenet of California’s child stealing law.

Several friends of Whitelaw testified that Canutt told them she was hearing demonic voices urging her to kill her former husband.

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Jurors said that testimony severely damaged Canutt’s credibility and proved important in overcoming the prosecution’s assertion that Whitelaw’s intention was to block contact between Canutt and their children.

“They definitely discredited her,” juror Kurt Wortmann of Woodland Hills said.

“It was obvious to most of us that we weren’t getting all of the story,” added juror David Browning of Newhall. “Maybe it was self-preservation for him and the children. . . . The district attorney didn’t bring in any evidence that Whitelaw wasn’t doing it to get the kids out of a bad situation.”

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