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COLUMN ONE : Her Dream Becomes a Nightmare : A mother who sought a new life in L.A. loses her sons to her former in-laws in Mississippi. At center of custody fight are an interracial romance, clash between morality of Old South, Southern California.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tammy Thomas did not come to California looking for trouble. She was fleeing it. Five years of a bad marriage had been all she could stand, and so in 1988 she boarded a bus in Mississippi with her two sons, heading west.

Los Angeles seemed as far away from Meridian, Miss., and her estranged husband as a body reasonably could go. A wonderfully exotic dream, that’s what L.A. was--a sun-kissed Babel filled with the music of unknown tongues and cultures. Stepping off the bus, she entered worlds she’d seen only on television.

Tammy found a new life in California, for a while a happy one. Then things turned ugly.

The first sign of trouble, she said, came while her sons were visiting their grandparents in Meridian in 1990, the summer after the divorce became final. Her former father-in-law called with a question: Who was the black man she was sleeping with?

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The call from Joseph Thomas was a shock, but not exactly a surprise. Tammy had known she couldn’t hide her new relationship forever. The bigoted racial views of her former in-laws were no secret either.

She never imagined, however, that the small-town Southern mind-set she thought she had escaped could still so profoundly upset her life.

Before she knew what was happening, Tammy was sucked into a legal system she did not understand as she battled her former in-laws for custody of her boys. The tug-of-war was waged across 2,000 miles and a much broader cultural expanse. Central to the battle were questions of race and morality and starkly different community standards of what is acceptable behavior--standards so different a psychologist testifying for Tammy’s former in-laws said returning the boys to California would be a form of mental abuse.

After she acknowledged she was dating a black man, Tammy, 29, said Joseph and Delores Thomas began pressing her to move back to Meridian. “The boys need both of their parents,” they told her. If she returned, they’d buy her a trailer to live in, a car, whatever she needed. As Tammy recalls it, behind the Thomases’ sweet promises they were adamant their grandchildren not be exposed to an interracial relationship.

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She refused to budge. Then came the call that would alter the lives of everyone involved. On the day before the boys were to return home, the Thomases phoned to say that Steven, 9, and Chris, 11, weren’t coming back.

That was the start of a prolonged and at one point violent battle over custody, a fight waged not between Tammy and the boys’ father, described in court proceedings as an alcoholic auto mechanic who admits he is unfit, but between her and their strong-willed paternal grandparents.

At the first court hearing, in 1990, testimony centered mainly on Tammy’s interracial relationship with Jake Brown, a corporate bodyguard she had met a year before; on the disputed question of whether they shared an apartment without being married, and on her judgment in allowing her sister, a lesbian, to baby-sit. In the end, Chancery Judge George D. Warner Jr. declared that returning the boys to her would be a form of abuse.

Acknowledging that he lacked authority to make a permanent ruling because the boys officially lived in California, Warner nevertheless ruled that an emergency existed and that their welfare would be endangered if they went home. He awarded temporary custody to the Thomases.

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Tammy was shocked. “I had it in my heart that my kids were going to come home,” she said. “I just didn’t think it was an emergency. People beat their kids; welfare takes them away . . .. Our situation was nothing like that.”

Warner invited her back to his courtroom after she had removed what he termed the moral impediments to her reclaiming her children. So two months later, after she had married Brown and after her sister had moved to Tennessee, Tammy returned to Meridian. This time, Warner decided he could make a permanent ruling, after all. He gave the grandparents permanent custody.

In court, Tammy was forced to defend a life style that was, by local standards, apparently indefensible. Even the attorney for the Thomases acknowledges that, had the case been tried in California, the outcome would probably have been different.

Warner and the Thomases declined to be interviewed for this story.

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The Thomases’ attorney, Robert D. Jones, made race an issue by constantly hammering at it in his questions. Still, he insists that Tammy’s interracial relationship was not significant. Rather, he said her morality was the issue.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California disagrees.

“As soon as I read the transcript it was so obvious that race was the issue,” said Paul Hoffman, the ACLU legal affairs director who took over from a legal services lawyer in April.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 1984 Florida case, ruled the impact of an interracial relationship could not be used to remove a child from its natural mother.

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“There’s no question in my mind that the consideration of their interracial relationship in this proceeding in any way negatively to them violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution, and it cannot be allowed to stand,” said Hoffman.

Despite the ACLU’s stance that Warner’s ruling is unconstitutional, it is moving cautiously, choosing to appeal to federal court only after it has exhausted other avenues. It is mindful that, at least for now, the arena of battle is a Mississippi courtroom.

“If the Mississippi court is going to say that the way people live in California is immoral and, therefore, the kids can’t be in California because it’s an immoral state, then I don’t know where you go from there,” Hoffman said. “I don’t know how you would answer that charge.”

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In Meridian, population 47,000, the front entrance of the county courthouse is flanked by the Mississippi flag, featuring the battle emblem of the Confederacy, and by a monument extolling the virtues of Confederate warriors. “May their lives be an inspiration . . . to generations yet unborn,” it declares.

One of the most notorious incidents of the Civil Rights Era occurred just up the road in the next county: The murders of three civil rights workers by a white mob that included a sheriff’s deputy.

As in the rest of the South, much has changed in this corner of Mississippi since those days. But interracial sex--the last taboo--can still get you killed, local NAACP President Emeritus Obie Clark believes.

In recent years, the NAACP has investigated the deaths of several black men in police custody in the Meridian area. Although it was never proven, Clark and others think the men were killed for being involved with white women.

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“It’s a situation where there are people of the Caucasian race--some men in black robes behind benches, some in three-piece suits and some in white robes in hoods--who can’t accept (people in interracial relationships) and allow them to be happy,” he said.

Around the Lauderdale County courthouse, Warner is known as a good-hearted if eccentric jurist, a loquacious sort given to quoting Shakespeare, posting jokey signs around the office and proffering unusual recipes. Outside of the courthouse, the judge is not always viewed as benignly, his unpredictable behavior sometimes raises eyebrows.

After going fishing and missing a court date last year, he found himself in contempt and paid a $100 fine. Deeming himself to be sufficiently remorseful, he spared himself jail time. Appearing on Bill Cosby’s now-canceled program “You Bet Your Life” after a national wire service reported this antic, he regaled the TV audience with his recipe for cooking fish inside his dishwasher.

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Tammy was 18 when she moved to Meridian with her mother and stepfather a decade ago from another part of the state. She soon met the man who would become her husband. It was a rocky marriage.

“Joe Allen (Thomas) has a severe drinking problem,” she said.

In 1988, without announcing her intentions, Tammy packed up, moved out of the trailer with the boys and fled to California. “I wanted to start a new life,” she said in a soft drawl redolent of a South she says she still loves despite her dislike for the region’s racism.

Life in the big city could’ve been intimidating, but Tammy found it fun. Before long she worked as a waitress at Hugo’s, a restaurant in West Hollywood frequented by actors. It took her some time to learn not to stare.

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It may be a sign of how far she had come from her Southern roots that when she met Brown, a customer, and he became an important part of her life, she could not immediately foresee calamity.

Brown, now a 41-year-old satellite technician for a communications firm, was a nice man, witty, well-traveled, and not bad looking. That he was black and she was white hardly seemed to matter in this strange new world in which she found herself.

“He was something I had never experienced in a man,” she said. “He’s so smart and so caring . . .. I couldn’t ask for somebody to be better to me than he is.” Of her former in-laws, she said, “If they had wanted to meet Jake, they could see what kind of man he was. But they had no interest.”

To her, the racial climate in Southern California seemed so non-threatening she didn’t think anything of it when a strange white man came to her door one day in the summer of 1990, while the boys were in Meridian, and started asking questions about her relationship with Brown.

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He said he was a fellow Southerner, new to the neighborhood, that he and his wife, who was African-American, wondered what the schools were like and how an interracial family would be treated.

Tammy was her usual friendly self, chattering away. Brown, who was shampooing the carpet, offered him a beer.

The next time Tammy saw the man was two months later in Judge Warner’s courtroom. It turned out he was a private detective sent by her former in-laws to find out if she were living with a black man. For four days and nights, he had staked out the apartment and followed them around. In the end, although Tammy maintains she and Brown kept separate residences until shortly before they married, the detective concluded that the Thomases’ suspicions were correct.

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* “Now, isn’t it true you lived with Jacob Brown, a man of the black race, and have been such for many months?”

* “But you had sexual relations in the bedroom with a man you were not married to, that happens to be of the black race, when your children were in your apartment?”

* “So they obviously know he is a different color than they are . . . And he is coming to the house and going in the bedroom with their mother and coming out the next morning . . . ?”

These were the kinds of questions attorney Robbie Jones asked during the first hearing. In a single day of testimony, he made at least 10 direct references to Brown’s race--references that a legal expert who reviewed the facts of the case for The Times said should have been ruled irrelevant. Though Tammy’s attorney objected, Warner allowed the race-based questions to continue.

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“The fact the lady has had some form of relationship with a person of another race is totally immaterial,” Warner said during the hearing. But he said Jones had to be given latitude to explore the issue because later witnesses might prove an interracial relationship made the immorality of the living arrangement more stressful for the boys.

It was left to Jan Boggs, a psychologist hired by the Thomases, to offer the proof. After testifying that returning the boys to California would be a form of mental abuse and a “culture shock,” Boggs was asked directly about Brown’s race.

“It is not in any absolute way a matter of race,” Boggs said. “It is a matter of what the children understand and what they are able to accept. You know, these are little boys of the South and they have just not been able to incorporate this other style out there yet.”

In an interview, Jones said one reason he dwelt on race during the hearing was to increase the pressure on Tammy. “She had to come and explain why she was living with a man she was not married to,” he said. “It was incidental that the man she was shacking up with was not of the same race, (but) it makes it sound worse.”

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He said he also stressed race to give Warner an issue he might want to consider in deciding what was best for the children.

“Whether we agree with (interracial relationships) or not, there are a lot of people who don’t,” Jones said. “So that’s a fact that the kids are going to have to deal with.”

While acknowledging that Brown’s race may have been “in the back of (the Thomases’) minds” when they started the proceedings, he said: “I’m sure that in Mississippi, with all of the archaic notions that still exist here, there are those who believe it should’ve been the factor, but I’m not one of them.”

Noting that Warner did not specifically cite race in his rulings, Jones contended that the judge clearly chose to disregard it.

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Tammy visited her sons at their grandparents’ home the afternoon the judge issued his emergency ruling. Two days later, just before she was to leave for Los Angeles, she got a friend to drive her to the Thomases’ again.

While Delores Thomas was distracted by a phone call, Tammy tried to coax the boys to leave with her. Steven got in the truck as she directed, but Chris balked.

“What’s going on, Momma?” he wanted to know. “What are we doing?”

Confused, and torn, Chris ran back to the house, calling for “Memaw,” his grandmother. Tammy chased him up the driveway.

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Delores and Tammy struggled over Chris, each of them pulling on the screaming child. Then Delores pulled a .22 caliber automatic pistol out of the pocket of her housecoat.

“Get out of here!” she screamed. Tammy retreated to the waiting pickup truck.

Two months later, when she returned to court after marrying Brown, Warner found her in contempt and sentenced her to 30 days in jail. “Tammy Brown’s hands are as stained as the character in Shakespeare’s Macbeth who shouted, ‘Out, out, damned spot!’ Her hands are tainted and her equity does not exist. She should be bounced from this courtroom for coming herein with unclean hands . . . ,” the judge proclaimed.

Warner released her about halfway through the sentence, on the day after Christmas.

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But he maintained that Tammy’s attorney, by arguing the case before him in the second hearing, had waived the right to have a California court decide the ultimate custody issue. The lawyer argued that he had been arguing only for an end to emergency jurisdiction, but Warner disregarded this. He said it was but one of several mistakes her lawyers made.

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In his final ruling, issued Jan. 2, 1991, Warner noted that Tammy’s lawyers had not addressed several issues, even though he had pointed the issues out to them.

One of them was the question of whether grandparents have a right to custody in cases where the parents have not been found to be totally unfit. But he skirted the issue: “I do not find that the grandparents have a right of custody,” he said in his ruling. “I find that the children should be with them for it is in the best interest of the children.”

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He said a factor influencing his decision was Tammy’s attempt to take the boys out of the state in violation of his order, which, he said, terrified them. Because of that, Tammy was required to post a $10,000 bond before she could visit her sons other than at the grandparents’ home. She also was required to make support payments of $100 per month.

Her appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court was rejected in July, 1992.

Because of travel expenses, lawyers’ fees and missing work, Tammy said she had no money to post bond until last July and fell behind in child support.

She visited with her sons for two weeks last month. It was the first time she had seen them in more than a year and the first time since 1990 that she was able to leave her former in-laws’ home with them.

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According to legal experts, the case points up the need for an established federal forum to referee state jurisdictional disputes in custody proceedings. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers has proposed such a system, said Linda Lea M. Viken of Rapid City, S.D., who serves on the academy’s legislative committee.

Even without such a system, “if she had filed in California she might’ve been able to get the federal court to determine who has jurisdiction,” Viken said.

But legal services attorneys sometimes are not well-versed in matrimonial law, she said, adding that they might have been narrowly focused on taking action in Mississippi because they are attorneys in that state. “That’s a raw deal,” she said. “She lost her kids probably because she didn’t have the money to do some of the things that should’ve been done.”

After losing in the Mississippi Supreme Court, Tammy began looking for other representation. The ACLU was her last resort.

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It took Hoffman several months to review the trial transcripts, but when he read them he said he knew immediately the ACLU should take the case.

Also, he said, “You meet Tammy and Jake and you can’t imagine how it could be possible that these kids would be ripped away from these people. I mean, they’re nice people, they’re smart people . . . It’s just unbelievable at a basic human level.”

Because of all the time that has passed and because of the way the earlier proceedings were conducted, there are not likely to be any bold legal challenges soon, he said. He prefers to move slowly, letting Tammy re-establish a relationship with her children through visits.

Earlier this month, Hoffman sent a letter to the Thomases’ attorney proposing a visitation schedule that would among other things allow Tammy to bring the boys to California next summer. In that letter and in two others sent last week, he also asked for a meeting to discuss a negotiated resolution that would allow the boys to return to live with Tammy permanently. He said he has received no response.

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While Hoffman said he is prepared to return to court, he doesn’t want to appeal to a federal court right away, in part because federal courts are usually hesitant to take on custody matters. “Having looked at the prior proceedings, I don’t want to leave any conceivable opening for any court to say that Tammy shouldn’t have these kids,” he said.

“So I want to prepare a case that’s completely airtight . . . “

“Our goal, I think, is to get the courts to recognize that a terrible mistake has been made . . . and have the kids gradually get back to her,” he said.

Times researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta also contributed to this story.

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