Son’s Heart Belongs to the Father Who Abducted Him 16 Years Ago
Leonard Cammalleri abducted his infant son and hid him for 12 years--from schools, doctors and his mother. Cammalleri went to prison for the crime. Now he has won the right to visit his son and is fighting for full custody.
The father is the only parent whom Lenny, now 17, wants to see.
It has been a devastating double defeat for the boy’s mother, who was said to be “ecstatic” when reunited with her son in 1996. She is heartbroken that she was unable to restore the mother-child bond, her lawyer said. And she opposed giving the father visitation rights on grounds that “he took the childhood away from this child.”
But Family Court Judge William Warren of Rockland County, where the boy attends a school for children with emotional problems, ruled in August that Cammalleri, 48, can take Lenny home every weekend and any other time that doesn’t interfere with the boy’s schooling.
The judge did not return a call seeking comment. Transcripts of the court session are sealed, but the Associated Press obtained a copy of the visitation order.
“It’s not the decision I would have made, but it’s not an easy decision to make,” said the mother’s lawyer, Deborah Sheehan. “You have a young man saying he wants to be with his father. I guess there’s a concern, when there’s such a longing, that it might be hurtful to him not to see his father.”
Marcia Gilmer-Tullis, family services advocate for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va., said it’s not rare for an abductor, once released from jail, to get visitation with the abducted child.
“Given that the boy was with the father and only the father for 12 years, perhaps the system was looking at a way to reduce the trauma experienced by the child when he was returned to the mother,” she said. “More than likely he was going through some kind of anxiety, some kind of trauma, and the mother probably was as well, feeling sadness and frustration.
“When a child is taken, the child you had at that point of time certainly does not come back to you, the same child you remember,” she said. “All those years have been unfortunately lost, and they cannot be regained.”
In a similar case that won national attention, Stephen Fagan of Massachusetts kidnapped his daughters--then ages 5 and 2--in 1979, told them their mother had died in a car crash and fabricated new lives for them in Florida. The daughters stood by their father and refused to see their mother even after he was arrested in 1998 and they learned the truth.
Cammalleri said his son did not want to be interviewed for this article. He will not say why he took his son in 1984, claiming any negative comments about his ex-wife, Candice Hartman, would be considered a violation of terms of his probation, which followed his 2 1/2 years in prison. But at the time of his arrest, his lawyer said Cammalleri feared his wife was a child abuser.
In turn, Sheehan says the ex-wife claims Cammalleri had abused her.
While in hiding with the child, in Florida and the Bronx, Cammalleri would not send him to school, fearing discovery. He taught the boy himself and made a living doing odd jobs and giving piano lessons, he said. He also dispensed with doctor’s visits, and the boy missed out on normal childhood inoculations and checkups.
“We were very lucky,” Cammalleri said. “Lenny never got seriously sick.”
Hartman, meanwhile, “spent those 12 years basically in hell,” Sheehan said. “She spent her time and money looking for her child. She hired private investigators and lawyers.”
In 1996 police got a tip and found Cammalleri and the boy in an apartment on East 163rd Street. Cammalleri was arraigned in federal court in White Plains, and Hartman was flown in from the Midwest for a reunion with her long-lost 13-year-old son.
“When she last saw this child, he was using a bottle,” said Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro. “She’s absolutely ecstatic.”
Lenny, however, was not.
“He was very angry when he met his mother, and scared,” Sheehan said. “His father had been taken away from him, and he had only heard terrible things about his mother. He did not feel rescued.”
The boy threatened to kill his mother, Sheehan said, and “she was advised by medical and psychiatric personnel that he needed to be in a residential and therapeutic community.” Ever since, he has been in boarding schools in Connecticut and Rockland County, with the bills paid by the victim assistance program in Connecticut, where Lenny was abducted.
For three years, until Cammalleri was released from prison, father and son had no contact. Hartman tried to restart a relationship with her son, but he began visiting Cammalleri’s family in the Bronx and rejecting his mother, Sheehan said. Now he won’t see her at all.
“It breaks her heart,” Sheehan said. “I don’t think unless it happens to you, you can understand the enormous pain.”
When Cammalleri sought visitation, Hartman opposed any contact, hoping that as the child grew “he could be able to make better judgments on his own and not come back under the influence of his father,” Sheehan said.
Though he won generous visitation, the Rockland ruling did not satisfy Cammalleri. In an interview at the Bronx apartment he shares with his mother, he said the boy is unhappy at the boarding school but can’t be removed without the blessing of the custodial parent. He claims the boy was not permitted to testify about his desire to leave the school and rejoin his father.
Lenny is eager to enter “a normal public high school” in New York City, his father said.
“The system is holding my son captive,” he said. “It’s all because I took him. They’re punishing him because of what I did. I didn’t trust the system 16 years ago, and I sure don’t trust it now.” He said he wants to keep trying for custody but can no longer afford a lawyer.
Cammalleri said the boy is well adjusted, makes friends easily and simply wants a normal life with the father he loves. He said Lenny shows talent for electrical work and there’s no reason he won’t grow into a happy and well-rounded man.
His mother hopes that one day she and her son will be reunited.
“But,” Sheehan added, “there’s no Disney ending.”
On the Net, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: https://www.ncmec.org/
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.