Five-year-old Courtney Thomas returned to Los Angeles Tuesday night in the arms of an unrelated Van Nuys man a judge declared her legal father, after a Pittsburgh judge ruled he had no jurisdiction in the bitter custody battle in which Courtney’s mother faces prosecution for running away with her.
The frail blond girl arrived at Los Angeles International Airport accompanied by her mother, Catherine F. Thomas of Thousand Oaks, as well as a social worker and police detective from Pittsburgh, where mother and daughter were seized last week.
As reporters and friends and supporters of Catherine Thomas gathered in the terminal, the mother, child and Kevin Thomas--a former family friend who was granted custody of Courtney--were escorted off the plane and onto the Tarmac by Los Angeles police, district attorney’s investigators and agents of the county Children’s Services Department.
Five police cars and two unmarked cars pulled alongside the plane. Catherine Thomas was taken into custody and whisked away to County Jail on a charge of felony child abduction.
Her attorney, David S. Kestenbaum, complained afterward that he was not given a chance to talk to his client and was not told where Courtney was being taken, although he added that he assumed she was placed in the custody of Kevin Thomas, since he was allowed to carry the child off the plane and into a police car.
Kestenbaum said he expected his client to be arraigned in Los Angeles Municipal Court today or Thursday, and that he hopes to persuade a judge to release her, despite the fact that she fled with the child once before.
“I don’t think she’s a criminal who needs to be put in jail,” Kestenbaum said of Thomas, who disappeared with her daughter July 29 and was taken into custody Friday in a Pittsburgh train station.
She fled “out of desperation” instead of fighting in the courts, he said, “because to her they were like a twilight zone, where she walked into court as a mother and walked out as a visitor in her child’s life.”
The mother and child were returned to Los Angeles after a Pennsylvania judge said he sympathized with Catherine Thomas but could not legally intervene in the unusual California case in which Superior Court Judge Martha Goldin awarded custody of Courtney to Kevin Thomas.
“She’s a loving parent, no question about it,” Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph Jaffe said of Catherine Thomas. He added that he knew of no evidence that she was an “unfit mother.”
In fact, Jaffe said, a lengthy report prepared by a Los Angeles psychiatrist and submitted to him as evidence had recommended joint custody.
Meanwhile, an attorney for Kevin Thomas said he was prepared to go to court if necessary to ensure that Courtney is placed in his custody, as Goldin ordered in June. Kevin Thomas has no biological tie to the girl, but changed his surname to match hers.
“We’re pleased,” Encino attorney Glen H. Schwartz said, adding that when Kevin Thomas and Courtney were reunited in Pittsburgh after a six-week separation, “the relationship was as if it had not been interrupted.”
Kevin Thomas, a 43-year-old bill collector who is openly gay, was once a close friend of Catherine Thomas and says they agreed to raise Courtney together after she was conceived with another man.
She says Kevin Thomas became obsessed with Courtney because he had no children of his own, and sued for paternity rights when she moved from North Hills to Thousand Oaks in an attempt to put some distance between them.
Jaffe said in a phone interview that Catherine Thomas came across “very sympathetically” but that she had reacted emotionally by fleeing with her daughter instead of accepting Goldin’s decision and trying to fight it through the courts.
Jaffe was drawn into the matter late Friday, when he issued an emergency, temporary stay of Catherine Thomas’ arrest warrant and allowed her to spend the weekend with her daughter in a shelter. The judge’s ruling came after Pittsburgh police and a local psychologist expressed concern over separating the mother and daughter and questioned why an unrelated man had been given custody of a little girl.
But Jaffe said he realized after a two-day, closed hearing that he had no legal grounds to delay Catherine Thomas’ prosecution or to block the child’s delivery to Kevin Thomas.
“I tried to explain to her that the judge in California made a legal decision that he (Kevin Thomas) is the father of the child, and until it is overturned or modified, she has to understand it or come to grips with it,” Jaffe said.
Exactly why the 46-year-old single mother of three lost custody of Courtney, her youngest child, is unclear because the California court records have been sealed and Goldin has declined to publicly comment on her decision.
Jaffe said he still hopes to speak with Goldin by phone to ask her about her ruling. The Los Angeles judge has been out of the country on vacation and is expected to return next week.
Jaffe also said that in his view, both Catherine Thomas and Kevin Thomas were competent and loving--and both had their problems. He recommended that Catherine Thomas undergo psychotherapy to help her understand and accept Goldin’s decision. And he sharply admonished Kevin Thomas for refusing to answer questions directly and succinctly.
“I told him outright what I thought of him,” Jaffe said by phone. “I told him I thought he was wordy, that he engaged in hyperbole, that he was selfish, narcissistic, condescending and self-righteous--and that he was also a warm, loving father.”