Leroy Freeman has a problem with a lot of the social institutions he sees around him.
Public schools, courts, day-care centers, government bureaucracies--all, in the view of the soft-spoken 62-year-old minister, have gained increasing control over people’s lives, with often disastrous results.
And now, Freeman said, largely because he thought he knew what was better for his granddaughter than any judge or school counselor--or even the girl’s mother--he sits locked in another kind of institution: Orange County Jail.
Freeman is awaiting extradition to Ohio and prosecution on charges that he stole his grandchild away from his daughter 6 years ago, sparking a national manhunt that ended Friday when FBI agents arrested Freeman at his Huntington Beach apartment and took custody of the girl, Charity, now 13.
The girl’s mother, Karen Creswell of Toledo, Ohio, called the ordeal “an absolute nightmare.” Indeed, the search for the girl included unsubstantiated allegations of satanic rituals and child molesting against the grandfather and prompted Ohio police to excavate a farm field in a fruitless search for bodies reported buried there.
In a lengthy and often emotional jail interview Wednesday, Freeman rejected as “ludicrous” speculation by authorities that he molested his granddaughter or led a satanic cult.
He called the tale of him and his granddaughter “a story of love and bonding and closeness, and nothing else.”
Freeman refused to discuss the details of his route with the girl that reportedly crossed at least four state lines in the West. But he maintained that the girl was safe and well cared for at all times she was with him.
Mistrustful of public schools after he was accused of molesting Charity years before in Ohio, Freeman said he placed the girl at one time in an “alternative school” in New Mexico that he refused to identify.
He also declared: “I didn’t take her. She was mine already. She was where she should have been, with the person she was bonded to.”
Charity is now undergoing psychological and physical examinations in Ohio and is scheduled to be turned over to her mother later this week. Investigators who found her in Huntington Beach said she seemed to be in good shape and did not appear to have been held captive by her grandfather.
Creswell was not available for comment Wednesday at her Toledo home.
Freeman, who was a minister in West Virginia, Virginia and Ohio, is described in police reports as a drifter over the last 6 years.
According to Freeman, he was living with his daughter when she gave birth to Charity more than 13 years ago and helped to care for the baby from the outset. He was not working at the time and collected Social Security disability payments after a disease closed his right eye, he said.
Freeman maintained that his daughter, who was 17 and unmarried when Charity was born, was “trying to find her own place in life” and gradually turned over full care of the child to him.
Freeman said that his daughter eventually moved out, leaving him with Charity, and that he cared for her for the first 7 1/2 years of her life. In 1982, Freeman said his daughter, then married, wanted the child back and eventually won custody from a court referee in Ohio, with Freeman retaining visiting rights.
A few weeks after the custody decision, the frustrated grandfather took Charity out for their regular visit and never came back, Freeman said, adding that he was dejected by the custody decision and remains angry at the judicial system.
“The court tore us apart,” he said, complaining that the judge did not give him a chance to offer his views and treated him “like I’m a non-existent person.”
“They don’t really care about the child, not really,” Freeman said of the courts and law enforcement officers. “I don’t blame them for that, but I had to do what I had to do.
“The decision I had to make (to take Charity out of Ohio) was a horrendous one,” he said, “but I was put under the pressure of having to choose between the child and the law. And that child’s the most important thing in the world to me.”