FAMILY & RELATIONSHIPS : Parents also suffer when a child is accused of a crime. Their loyalties are tried and tested, but experts say rarely is any bond stronger than the desire to protect their offspring. : Dire Duty


It was an astonishing sight: the legendary recluse unleashing his torment on the nightly news. In the newspapers. Vilifying the prosecutor, holding impromptu press conferences in the halls of justice, offering his $4-million Mulholland Drive home as bond. Why?

You know why.

Marlon Brando was Daddying his kid.

Christian Brando, 32, the actor's first child, had been charged with murder in the shooting of his sister's Tahitian boyfriend, Dag Drollet, 26.

"It's impossible to describe," Brando told reporters last spring. "You'd have to go through what I'm going through to know how it feels."

Some miles away from the Brando estate, down a southern slope of the Hollywood Hills where modest apartment houses crowd each other on noisy streets, lives Joseph Bellinger Sr. He knows exactly how Brando feels.

Bellinger, too, is the father of a child charged with murder. Like Brando, he believes his son is innocent of the crime with which he has been charged. Like Brando, he did something dramatic.

But unlike Brando, when Bellinger tried to Daddy his kid, he broke the law. He arranged for his then-16-year-old son, Joey Bellinger Jr., to flee the state.

"What I did may not have been right according to the letter of the law, but it was right according to my conscience at the time," Bellinger said recently, sitting in the living room of his Hollywood apartment.

Parents whose children are accused of heinous or highly publicized crimes find themselves thrust into a sordid kind of limelight. Already in profound emotional pain, they may be besieged by police and reporters, blamed for their errant child's behavior, ostracized by friends and neighbors or even sued by the victim's parents.

They are torn, horrified at the act yet bound by love and family loyalty. They may empty their pockets to secure legal help, speak out publicly on behalf of their child, enact some sort of penance, refuse to cooperate with prosecutors or even break the law themselves.

"It's in the nature of all higher animals that they protect their offspring and want sometimes to try the heroic act for them," said Dr. Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, a Philadelphia psychiatrist on the faculty of Hahnemann University.

Nagy, a founder of the family therapy movement, introduced the concept of family loyalty into the psychoanalytic literature in his 1973 book, "Invisible Loyalties."

"It's very difficult to overcome family loyalty in the long run," Nagy said. 'One reason is that family members are indebted to each other. They receive so much from each other that they owe it to give extra care (when one is in trouble)."

The attorney who represented a defendant in New York's notorious Bensonhurst murder case said that in his experience, families help their children no matter what.

"What I've seen is parents do everything possible financially to help their children," said Gerald DiChiara, whose client, John Vento, was convicted of unlawful imprisonment and faces manslaughter charges in the death of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins, a black youth surrounded and killed by a crowd of whites. His death deepened racial antagonisms in New York City.

"They'll mortgage their homes, empty their bank accounts," DiChiara said. "But I have never seen a parent break the law for a child."

That's what made the Bellingers so unusual. Last January, Joey and a carload of his friends were involved in a fight with two deaf brothers that began with a "staredown" at a traffic light in Granada Hills, police say. Joey is accused of killing Cesar Vieira, 30, and of attempted murder in the wounding of Edward Vieira, 25.

But before police could talk to Joey, Joseph Bellinger said that he and his wife, Phyllis Goodman, put their son on a bus to the small New York town where they grew up. They arranged for him to stay with a friend, but didn't tell the friend that Joey was wanted in Los Angeles.

Bellinger claimed he was not helping Joey avoid prosecution but was trying to secure a guarantee that the boy would be tried as a juvenile, not an adult. He asserts that Joey fired in self-defense and that he did not mean to kill Vieira. At a hearing in July, however, a judge ruled that Joey, now 17, will be tried as an adult.

"The lengths to which any parent should go in defending a child accused of crime should be definitely proportionate to their belief in the child's guilt or innocence," Bellinger said. "If I believed Joey was guilty, I would have told him a long time ago, 'Son, you gotta stand on your own two feet now.' "

In June, the senior Bellinger and Goodman pleaded no contest to charges of aiding and abetting a suspected felon. He was sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service. She was sentenced to two years' probation and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service.

"The people to whom Joey were sent in New York were clearly victims," said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Allan Fork, who had asked that Bellinger receive time in County Jail. "But there were certainly some extenuating circumstances that caused us to feel it was not a state prison case."

In 1987, the Bellingers' only other child, Michelle, 16, was raped and murdered. That the family had been beset by this tragedy and other violent incidents since Michelle's death, including a shotgun blast through their picture window, evoked feelings of sympathy, even on the part of prosecutors.

The Bellingers' actions, said one assistant district attorney, were attributable to "the normal human emotions of parenthood."

Bellinger, who expects to complete his court-ordered community service this week, is spending most of his free time compiling evidence he hopes may be used in his son's trial.

"I had a lot of soul-searching going on after" the shooting, Bellinger said. "I spent agonizing hours of asking myself, 'Could my son have done this? Could Joey cold-bloodedly have killed somebody the way they're portraying him in the press?' And after days of agonizing over this whole thing, it was absolutely conclusive in my mind that the answer was no."

Arthur Bodin, a psychotherapist and past president of the family psychology division of the American Psychological Assn. spoke hypothetically, not specifically about the Bellinger case, observing that: "It's understandable that the parent will feel terribly divided, but the parent is not the judge and jury.

"The parent may want to provide the child with every opportunity to have justice," he said. "Going to some illegal length is not getting the child his or her rights. . . . It's not likely to increase the sympathy of the court."

Joey Bellinger, arrested in New York in March, is being held without bail in Central Juvenile Court. The severity of the charge is one reason; authorities also consider Joey at risk for fleeing prosecution.

"He didn't flee on his own initiative," said Joseph Bellinger, who is disappointed that his son has been denied bail. "He fled because his father compelled him to go. Joey wanted to turn himself in and tell police his version of the story, but I said to wait, because of the tenor of all the media and police reports. It was too volatile and people were too emotional at that point."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Lee Harris, who is prosecuting the case, refused to comment on Bellinger's contention that Joey is not responsible for leaving the state.

While most parents do not intervene to the extent Joey's parents did, they may take their child's case to the media to sway public opinion, garner sympathy or intimidate prosecutors.

Ruth Seegrist, a Pennsylvania woman, has pleaded publicly for better care for the mentally ill after her schizophrenic daughter, Sylvia, opened fire in a crowded suburban Philadelphia shopping mall in 1985, killing three people and wounding five.

In a long, moving account published by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Seegrist wrote about her daughter's childhood, the first indications of illness, the family's many attempts to help Sylvia, their fear, shame, anger and finally outrage that the system failed their family and their community in such a grotesque and tragic way.

"Like all but the very rich," wrote Seegrist, "we were forced to depend on the state system--and that system was rapidly failing us. . . . I made repeated calls to county mental health offices, seeking to have Sylvia committed. . . . Providing I could find her, Philadelphia authorities said, I would have to show that she was dangerous or unable to feed or clothe herself, in order to secure (involuntary commitment)."

Last week on "Donahue," mothers of two defendants in New York's Central Park jogger case appeared with their sons' high-profile attorneys, William Kunstler and C. Vernon Mason. They, and the attorneys, insisted that the boys, Yusef Salaam and Antron McCray, both 16, were unfairly convicted Sept. 11 of assault, rape, rioting and lesser charges.

If winning public sympathy was their goal, they succeeded. Most of the questions posed both by the audience and callers were sympathetic to the young men.

A star of Marlon Brando's stature doesn't need the talk shows to make his points.

But after years of declining to do so, he suddenly announced this week that he is putting his memoirs up for bid. He rejected an offer for $2 million, far more than the estimated $1 million his son's defense will cost.

Last month, after a judge determined that the court would accept Brando's home as bond, the actor made as if to grab the arm of Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Barshop as Barshop walked away from him, then said he hoped Barshop had changed his opinion of Christian as a "slathering mad-dog killer."

The prosecutor was unmoved by Brando's action. "It goes with the territory," he said. "As the prosecutor, I have a specific role and a specific job. People sometimes make it personal. They come in and cry. They say what happened is society's fault. I've seen parents scream and yell, 'How can you do this to my child?' I understand it, but I am more concerned with the family of the victim. If we reversed the roles and Brando was the father of the victim, he'd be looking at me for support."

Some parents are so horrified by their child's crime that they make a life's work of trying to prevent other such tragedies.

Jack Hinckley sold the oil company he founded, and, with his wife, JoAnn, founded the American Mental Health Fund after their son, John, was judged not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan, press secretary James Brady and two law enforcement officers.

"We are going to bring some good out of this tragedy," said JoAnn Hinckley when they established the fund. Her husband said he hoped it could "do for mental illness what the American Cancer Society has done for cancer."

The fund, which offers public service announcements, a free booklet on mental illness and an 800 number, has answered inquiries from 330,000 people, said its president David George. "We exist to educate the public on facts and warning signs of mental illness, and on where to turn for help and learning before it's too late."

In their 1985 book, "Breaking Points," the Hinckleys wrote about the tremendous guilt they felt over not recognizing that their son was ill until he nearly assassinated the President.

"I am the cause of John's tragedy," said a tearful Jack Hinckley, in testimony during his son's 1982 trial. "I wish to God I could trade places with him right now."

That urge is not surprising, said Nagy, the family therapy pioneer. "People want to make up to society for the damage. The damage that was done by the son still has this strong, binding force on the parent."

Some parents enact a kind of primal penance by trying to make restitution to their child's victims.

Brando, for instance, announced in one of his post-court hearing press conferences that he would create a $1-million trust fund for Drollet's 4-year-old daughter by a woman unrelated to Brando.

Occasionally, a murdered child's parents will demand restitution from the parents of the killer. On Long Island last July, three months after 22-year-old Robert Golub was convicted of murdering his 13-year-old neighbor, Kelly Ann Tinyes, the Tinyeses sued the Golubs, claiming they bore partial responsibility because they failed to supervise their son properly.

"In ancient law, the family as a whole was made responsible many times," Nagy said. "The one suffers for the sins of the other. The offspring is still punished for the wrongdoing of the ancestors and so on. That was very common. But modern law is, to a great extent, individual-based and it is considered really old-fashioned to punish the rest of the family for the child's transgression."

Meantime, the cases of Christian Brando and Joey Bellinger are scheduled for trial later this year.

And if Brando and Bellinger are convicted and sentenced to do jail time, they will take a piece of their parents into prison with them.

"As long as Joey is serving time," Bellinger said, "we're serving time with him."

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