Turbulent Times for a Family

Times Staff Writer

The scene played live on television sets across Southern California.

Erica Henderson, 31, clung to her 8-week-old son, William, as she stood on a bank of a swollen river. It had been raining for days, and the rising waters had cut off the only road out of their remote cluster of cabins in San Dimas Canyon. She and her husband Jeffrey, 36, had called 911 for help.

Henderson, with William strapped to her chest in a carrier, clambered aboard a raft brought by the Los Angeles County Fire Department. As the craft, tethered to a lifeline, began to cross the churning water, it tipped over. The mother, baby and firefighter tumbled into the froth. For more than a minute, TV shots showed no sign of them. Then, the firefighter surfaced by a tree while Erica and William washed up on a sandbar farther downstream, gulping for breath.

They were all pulled from the water, and it seemed like a happy ending. Erica appeared on "Good Morning America" the next morning to recount the near-tragedy from her hospital bed. She held up William to the camera so Diane Sawyer could see the baby was OK.

But within hours of the interview, a social worker from the county's Department of Children and Family Services informed her that they were going to take William into protective custody. Authorities questioned whether the Hendersons' isolated lifestyle was healthy for their children.

Then, a TV station aired an interview with a captain in the Fire Department criticizing the Hendersons for the way they dealt with rescuers. "We had uncooperative parents," Capt. Larry Collins told a reporter from KNBC-TV Channel 4, one of the stations that had broadcast the rescue footage.

Suddenly, the helping hands of Los Angeles County began to look like something very different to the Hendersons. What happened next , Erica Henderson said, made her wish she had never called 911.

Isolated Environment

A friend introduced the Hendersons to San Dimas Canyon about seven years ago by inviting them up from Huntington Beach for a picnic.

The canyon is a narrow cleft in the mountains of the Angeles National Forest, about six miles north of San Dimas. The federal government started renting some of the land along the shady banks of San Dimas Creek in 1915, allowing cabins to be built below groves of alder and oak. The Hendersons said they loved the isolated environment, and decided the price of one the cabins on federal land -- $45,000 -- was too good to pass up.

They eventually moved to the cabin full time and earned money through a Web design business from home. "Down the hill, relationships are brief," Jeffrey Henderson said. "They're more insincere. They're more, 'I don't need you. You don't need me.' " Up in the forest, he said, people looked to one another.

Some residents of the canyon enjoyed hanging out with the Hendersons; others decidedly didn't. Marty Dumpis, the district ranger who oversees the area for the U.S. Forest Service, said one man came into his office missing teeth and seeking medical attention. The man said Jeffrey had knocked him out in a dispute over a fight between their dogs. Jeffrey later got into another physical confrontation with another neighbor, Dumpis said.

"They're a very interesting couple. Let's put it that way," he said. Erica gave birth to Abigail Rose Henderson on May 6, 2003, at home. William Pierce Henderson was also born at home on Nov. 10, 2004. A little more than a week later, Jeffrey did something that caused more concern from the neighbors and Ranger Dumpis: he circumcised the boy at the cabin. Jeffrey said it had been his family's practice for generations that the father circumcise his newborn son.

Dumpis said he called the county Department of Children and Family Services because he thought the cabin did not seem sterile. "The cabin itself didn't have running water," Dumpis said. "People will live in just about anything."

The department investigated but did not take action against the parents.

Heavy Rains

Beginning in October, a record rain began pounding. By early January, a Forest Service monitor near San Dimas Canyon recorded more than 50 inches of rainfall, double the amount in downtown Los Angeles.

As a new storm barreled into the canyon Jan. 10 and water and mud crept into the cabin, Erica Henderson had had enough. She called 911 and asked the dispatcher to send a crew to rescue her family.

The Hendersons found some high ground and waited. Within an hour the Fire Department's urban search and rescue unit and the Sheriff's Department arrived.

The firefighters sized up the situation and wanted to take the family upstream, where the Hendersons could cross the west fork of the creek before traversing the main fork.

The Hendersons balked. They thought it would be easier to cross exactly where they were standing, at the confluence of the two forks, where the water spread out 75 feet from bank to bank and slowed down.

After about half an hour of arguing, the rescuers convinced the family to do it their way. About 3 p.m., they formed a single-file line and waded through a shallow section of the west fork.

What happened next is a subject of dispute. Firefighter Richard Atwood said in a sworn statement that he had carried Abigail three-quarters of the way across the stream when Jeffrey ran back toward his wife and tried to pry William out of the carrier on her chest. He said other firefighters leapt between the two and Jeffrey started "shoving and pushing the rescuers."

Then, Atwood said, Jeffrey moved toward him "in a threatening manner and snatched the 2-year-old from me."

Sheriff's Sgt. Larry Wineinger, who was watching, sent a deputy over to see if he could assist the firefighters.

Jeffrey denies shoving anyone but admits he was angry because, he said, the firefighter carrying Abigail stopped in a dangerous part of the creek to watch the commotion. He said all he wanted to do was get Abigail back in his own arms.

Everyone made it across the first fork of the creek to a jetty. They still had to traverse the second fork.

The rescuers asked Erica to let them carry the baby across. But she refused, saying she was a strong swimmer and William would be safer strapped to her.

So the firefighters brought in a raft hooked to a rope to take the Hendersons to the other bank. Erica and William climbed in. As the rescuers began trying to swing the boat across the river, a current hit it from the side and tipped it over. Mother and son were dumped into the swift current along with the firefighter.

Erica's body slammed against rocks on the side and bottom of the river. The current kept sucking them under. But then the creek widened and the current slowed. Erica managed to haul herself onto a sandbar. Rescue workers reached them a few minutes later and helped them out of the cold water.

Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Collins, in an interview with KNBC that aired a day after the rescue, blamed Erica for causing the boat to tip over.

"She wasn't following instruction. That caused the front end of the nose of the boat to go under," he said. "Now my firefighter and the woman and the baby are going downstream."

Back at the jetty, Jeffrey said he had totally lost confidence in his rescuers. He seized his daughter and stormed back toward the cabin.

Wineinger initially sent a deputy after Jeffrey, but ultimately decided not to pursue the matter.

"It appeared he could get to the place safely and it was getting dark," he said.

As they were packing up their equipment, firefighters decided to file a police report alleging that Jeffrey assaulted them and interfered with the rescue. And someone called the Department of Children and Family Services, though officials with the agency would not reveal whom.

The district attorney's office decided not to file charges against Jeffrey. But the social services agency acted.

Protective Custody

The next morning, a social worker came to the hospital where Erica and William were recovering. He advised Erica that the county would be taking William into protective custody. Erica said the social worker accused the couple of endangering their children during the rescue. She tearfully pleaded to keep her son, but the next day county officials came to collect William.

The hospital released her later that night. Erica Henderson took a cab back to the canyon, offering an extra $20 tip to the driver if he would go around the landslides covering the street. When the cab could go no farther, Erica Henderson said, she hiked into the canyon, holding milk and chocolate syrup for Abigail.

The Hendersons walked out of the canyon Jan. 13, when the creek finally abated. They decided they needed to live closer to William and to the courthouse where the future of their family would be decided. They had a little money, but they knew they were going to need help from other people.

On Jan. 14, a friend drove them to the Edmund D. Edelman Children's Court in Monterey Park, where a judge ordered them to turn Abigail over to social workers pending a full hearing. During the session, the Hendersons received a list of allegations against them.

Their main fault was "failure to protect" their children.

The Hendersons "interfered" with the rescue efforts, "resulting in the child William and the children's mother being swept away by the tremendous force of the water current," the county alleged.

William had turned blue from the cold and had a body temperature of 89.2 degrees, the document stated. Authorities also criticized Jeffrey Henderson for refusing to evacuate the cabin with his daughter.

The charges went beyond the rescue. The court documents accused the parents of "medical neglect" for not immunizing the children. The county was also concerned about the children's infrequent visits to a doctor and the circumcision.

The county also noted Jeffrey's earlier alleged fistfight with his canyon neighbor, and included records of Jeffrey's treatment of Timothy Dean Rivera, Erica's son from her first marriage.

In 1998, Erica and Jeffrey Henderson were living in Huntington Beach with Dean.

The Orange County Social Services Agency discovered bruises on Dean's back and buttocks. Jeffrey acknowledged hitting the boy with a belt. The agency gave custody of the child to Erica's mother in San Diego.

Jeffrey pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of child abuse. Jeffrey and Erica Henderson attended 52 weeks of counseling and parenting classes.

The Hendersons maintained that Los Angeles County was now blowing their problems out of proportion. They said Jeffrey spanked Dean for misbehaving but never used corporal punishment again.

Jeffrey was particularly angry at the county's criticism of the circumcision, a procedure he said fathers in his family have long done on their own. He and Erica said they consulted online medical journals and made sure to swab tools and the baby with rubbing alcohol. As for the rescue, Erica said: "We didn't throw [William] in the river. We dropped in the river."

"They turned us into kooky weirdos who don't immunize their kids," she said, adding that they decided not to give their children the shots out of concern that one of the ingredients, mercury, could make them sick. "We're not weirdos and our kids are healthy."

For the next few weeks, as they awaited the full hearing, they lived in a friend's vacant condo in Covina. Erica tried to settle back into life in the city. Jeffrey got a job trimming trees.

"I miss my babies, my beauties," Jeffrey said as he lighted sticks of incense and placed them around the town house. "When my babies come here, I want to freshen it up," he said. "They're used to smelling trees."

Judge's Ruling

At the hearing Feb. 14, Joseph Langton, a lawyer for the county's Department of Children and Family Services, argued that the Hendersons should lose custody of William and Abigail. He repeatedly came back to Jeffrey's behavior.

"Mr. Henderson's history and conduct are well documented," he said. "Father has learned little about impulse control."

Judge Philip L. Soto was skeptical.

He noted that the incidents cited by the county did not result in Jeffrey being convicted of a felony.

"I'm not impressed by all those reports," he said. "Let me put this very frankly. This is not a criminal court where we deal with punishment and retribution," he said. "We deal with risk to children and how to reunite families."

Soto ruled in favor of the Hendersons. He said circumcising a male baby at home wasn't illegal, though he didn't condone it. He considered the rescue an emergency situation and said Jeffrey might indeed have been agitated, belligerent or obnoxious.

"People could say he was a total jerk," Soto said. "We don't take children away from parents for being total jerks."

He agreed with an argument made by Jeffrey Henderson's lawyer, Nathan Hoffman:

"But for the media attention of the raging river incident in January, this case wasn't going to come before this court," Soto said.

The judge, however, shot the parents a stern look. "I'm going out on a limb for you," he said. "If I find my name on the front page of the L.A. Times because you do something to these children ... I'm not going to be as lenient."

Soto said he still wanted the county to monitor the Hendersons for six months. They had to live in a residence with "easy access, not in the mountains."

The Hendersons walked out of the courtroom beaming. Erica Henderson immediately looked in her address book for the foster family's phone number to tell them the news. Then, she lighted a luxury-length cigarette.

They hurried back to their Covina town house. Jeffrey Henderson made chocolate milk in a purple cup. They opened the front door and kept it open while they waited.

When the foster parents arrived, Jeffrey ran over to the car, shouting, "Here are my babies!"

Abigail, dressed in a pink T-shirt and pants with hearts on them, was in the backseat. "Dada! Dada!" she shouted.

They had their babies back, but otherwise the Hendersons struggled. Jeffrey continued his work pruning trees. He was eager to return to computers but had trouble finding a job.

Erica was looking for a permanent apartment or a spot for a trailer that friends had given to them. "I can't believe a slab of concrete costs $500 a month," she said.

They had fallen behind in their fees to the Forest Service and about a month after the family left, the government repossessed the cabin.

They talked about staying for a short while in San Diego so they could be closer to Dean, who was living there with Erica's mother.

They wanted to regain custody of Dean and move to the South. They had been speaking to Jeffrey's brother in Atlanta about getting a job at his brother's company, which makes computer games.

"I'm pretty tired of California, and I grew up here," Erica said. "I feel like there's a predominant attitude among the residents that I find annoying and uppity."

Under terms of the settlement, they had to stay in touch for six months and go to counseling. They also had to open their home to unannounced visits from a social worker.

But when a social worker knocked on their door in mid-March, she got no response. Last month, the county went back to court to ask for police help in finding the Hendersons.

This week, the court unsealed documents showing that Soto had signed protective custody warrants for the children and ordered the arrest of the parents for violating his earlier orders.

Friends who helped the Hendersons during the custody battle said they are at loss to know where they are now. But they are not completely surprised.

"They got their objective," said Jan Prestella, a real estate agent who helped them find the condo.

"They got their kids back and they're on their own again."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°