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Rights Panel Head Agrees to Apologize : Members Confront Him Over His Role in Apache Custody Case

Times Staff Writer

Disclosure that William Barclay Allen, chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, was briefly arrested last month in Arizona after personally intervening in a child custody case has led the commission’s seven other members to demand that he apologize to all concerned, and he has agreed to do so.

The case involved Lalita Altaha, a 14-year-old Apache girl who had been adopted as an infant by a non-Indian couple, but was returned last year to the White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona under a court order directing that she live with her natural mother.

Without the knowledge of other commission members, Allen, and a nine-man party including two U.S. marshals and an NBC camera crew, took the girl off a school bus on the reservation on Feb. 7. Allen was later held for a short time for kidnaping.

Stormy Meeting

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“I haven’t gotten over the shock yet,” said Mary Frances Berry, a member of the Civil Rights Commission, as she reported on the outcome of a stormy closed meeting the commission held Friday after a public session at which Allen called on all of the other members to resign.

“I proposed a motion specifying that we could not approve or condone the chairman’s actions and requiring that he write everyone involved, including the U.S. marshals and the Arizona police, stating that he was not acting within his authority,” Berry continued.

“He finally agreed that he had not exercised the best judgment and said he would write the letters, starting early this week,” Berry said during an interview Saturday. She said that while Allen did not vote, the seven other members of the frequently divided commission supported this approach.

Allen Responds

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Allen, a political science professor at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., said in a telephone interview from his home there Saturday that he had no problem with apologizing “insofar as my behavior might have contributed to a circus atmosphere . . . an atmosphere that I did not design, that was not my intention and that I did what I could to end.”

Berry said commission members learned first from Arizona legislators of the incident.

According to a statement issued Feb. 9 by Reno Johnson Sr., tribal chairman of the White Mountain Apache Nation, Allen and the group, which included Dr. Barry Goodfield, a psychologist and a consultant to the commission, took the girl off a school bus and questioned her as cameras rolled. Five of the men later persuaded her to join them in a car, which her mother pursued. The girl was released near her mother’s home, Johnson reported.

After the mother, Thurza Altaha, complained to police, Johnson continued, Arizona Department of Public Safety officers stopped the two vehicles in which Allen and his party were riding and arrested the occupants “at gunpoint.” They were jailed and held until Allen had satisfactorily identified himself, Johnson’s statement said.

Says He Arrived Late

Allen said Saturday that he had intended only to ask the girl whether her wishes had been taken into consideration. He said he had planned a brief private meeting with the girl but arrived late, after she had boarded the school bus.

The meeting was then held on a sidewalk by the bus, in view of the television camera crew, Allen said. He blamed Goodfield for suggesting to the girl that she could leave the reservation. Allen’s account of the events, which he summarized in a four-page typed memo and amplified in a 22-page statement he read at Friday’s commission meeting, made no mention of the arrest.

In it, he said the interview led him to believe that Lalita “felt restrained against her will on the reservation, preferred to dwell with her foster parents and never had an opportunity to express the preference before a competent government entity.” He quoted the girl as saying: “I am an outcast here.”

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According to Johnson’s summary, Lalita was adopted at the age of 5 months by a Texas couple, Normand and Nadine Desrocher, but the adoption was invalidated in 1982 by the Arizona Court of Appeals. Last April, Johnson said, an Arizona court sentenced the Desrochers to three years of probation and ordered that they have no contact with the girl.

Demands Explanation

On March 1, Robert A. Destro, a Democrat who is one of four commission members named by former President Ronald Reagan, wrote Allen to demand “a full formal explanation” of his “unilateral foray” onto the reservation. Destro raised 20 questions about the incident, among them why Allen had omitted any reference to his arrest.

Responding to Destro on March 3, Allen left most of the questions unanswered but said he would reply to them all in open session at the next commission meeting, which took place Friday. At that meeting, according to Berry’s account, the commission majority objected openly to Allen’s intervention.

Instead of responding as these matters were raised and apologizing for his actions, Berry said, Allen attacked his colleagues. “He said we had no credibility,” she said, “that we should all quit.”

Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Los Angeles contributed to this story.


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