Abducted for Love – Stolen Children – Australia
Mark Whittaker; 16/6/07
Each year, almost 100 children are abducted from Australia and taken to one of the 75 countries signed up to the Hague Convention from where their return should be straight-forward, but often isn’t. (The convention says such children should be automatically returned to their usual place of residence for the local courts to decide custody.) An unknown number are taken to non-signatory nations from where their return is never simple. It is a world that came back under the spotlight with the re-abduction of the Hawach children in Lebanon in December, and the return of the “Gillespie” children who were re-abducted by their father Prince Raja Bahrin in 1992 after their mother Jacqueline Gillespie had taken them out of Malaysia in 1985.
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They are the sorts of stories where you’re meant to say there are no winners, but this is an area where there are victors and vanquished. The question is: at what cost?
On that polish street back in 1992, Adrian Wawrzynski didn’t remember what his mum looked like, but he said “okay” and took her hand, dropping the Lego plane. His dad had told him his mum was dead, so it was a bit scary. But when she told him about all the things they used to do together, and the toys he’d once had, the seven-year-old believed her. The woman asked where his sister Jesica was. Adrian told her – in Polish, because he’d forgotten English – that she was at a different school because Dad had split them up. So they drove the van to her school and Adrian ran ahead. He remembers running down the corridor, opening her classroom door and saying, “Mum’s here.”
Jesica Wawrzynski recalls her brother entering the room. Being a nine-year-old daddy’s girl, she believed everything her father had said about their mother in the year since he’d taken them from Australia. Not that she was dead, but that she was a bad person who didn’t want to be with them. Jesica was scared of her, so when her mother walked in the door behind Adrian, she screamed. And when her mother tried to get her to come with her, she went hysterical. One of the teachers said they’d called the police.
Mirella Wawrzynski, who had sold her Brisbane house to finance this mission to bring her children home, had no choice but to leave her daughter behind. She boarded a plane with Adrian and a private detective, Keith Schafferius, and returned to Brisbane.
For Jesica, life soon settled back into its sparse, post-communist ordinariness. Lots of soups and heavy clothes. But a month later, she was walking home from school, tapping a fence as she went, when a silver-haired man got out of a car and said her mum wanted to see her.
He grabbed her and pulled her to the open car door. She screamed and clung to the door; but she was scared he would slam it on her fingers, so she allowed herself to be bundled into the back seat next to her mum.
Schafferius had just broken one of his rules – never to physically grab a child. There was already a warrant out for the mother over the first abduction and this opened him up to kidnapping charges, but it was a desperate case and he felt he had no choice since the child wouldn’t go to her mother.
He remembers that after bundling Jesica into the back seat he jumped in the front to speed away, only to realise it was a left-hand drive and he’d gotten into the passenger seat. “I had to jump out and run around the car again. We took off. She was screaming. People were coming out. Neighbours. I’d done a recce so I knew where I was going but I made a mistake and took off up a one-way street and at the end was a barricade. `Shit, I’m not going back,’ so I went straight through the barricade. Timber flew everywhere.”
Jesica kept screaming. A boy in the front seat handed her a Coke. She loved Coke and you couldn’t get it in Poland. She didn’t know it was laced with Valium. “Your dad took you away and I knew nothing about it,” her mother was trying to tell her.
“But Dad said you didn’t want to see us any more,” Jesica replied.
“Of course I did. I’m here to see you, aren’t I?”
Long before the drug took effect, her mum’s words started cutting through and she went quiet. She had a feeling that what her mum was saying made sense, whereas Dad’s stories hadn’t.
The hatchback was hitting speeds up to 200km/h when Schafferius saw a flashing blue light behind them. He hammered on, trusting an informant who’d told him how hopeless the Russian-made cop cars were. The light faded into the distance.
“We were getting closer to the German border,” recalls Jesica, “and I had to hide, but I didn’t want to hide because when I was in Poland I had become such a Catholic, God-fearing child. I was worried it would be a sin to hide.
My mum said if I didn’t hide they would go to jail and I could get returned to my father if I wanted to. But by then I didn’t want to. I hid and said I’d go to confession when I came back to Australia.” At the border, she was scared to breathe under her blanket. Every noise she made down there at her mum’s feet seemed so loud. When they crossed into Germany, everyone in the car cheered.
The Wawrzynski kids had just re-entered the world of parental abductions.
Schafferius did his first international child retrieval in 1975. He tracked down a mother who’d skipped with her daughter back to her native Italy. He learnt from surveillance that the mother went to a seaside hotel every Saturday and appeared to be prostituting herself while the child sat there drinking lemonade. “She didn’t even get a proper meal sometimes, this 10-year-old girl,” he says.
So one Saturday he organised for a couple of men to ply the mother with drinks and, having already ascertained that the toilets could be locked from the outside, they waited until nature called. When it did, the cubicle was locked, the dad appeared, grabbed the kid and they sped down to the docks. A fast boat took them up the coast, then it was overland into Switzerland.
Schafferius was hooked, and went on to retrieve more than 30 children overseas for 24 clients. He says the girl from the Italian job grew up happily with her father, and the mother never came back to try to get her.
Before he took any job, he would charge the parent a fee to do his own checks on who he thought was most deserving of custody. He says he rejected 40 per cent of cases. “I’d inquire through old neighbours or relatives or churches, Sunday school, kindergarten or wherever I thought necessary to get a feeling for the wellbeing of the children. I didn’t want to make a mistake and take them away from who was possibly the best parent. Luckily, to date, every one I did, I was respected for doing it. Not one kid has grown up and said, `You did the wrong thing, you took me away from my daddy who I loved.”‘
About half the cases he did were in contempt of a court order, he says. “Courts are all about whoever tells the biggest lies and gets believed … So many times we did surveillance where there was custody and the kids were so mistreated, the father or mother would just dump the kids with their parents or relatives and go off and do their own thing. The court might give custody to a mother who is sleeping around or on drugs … The courts don’t see the evidence to prove this sort of behaviour. I’d get it by looking over the back fence.”
Asked how he got away with it for so long, Schafferius pulls out a little dossier of identity documents. There is a Rhodesian passport with his picture in it, and another from British Honduras in the name of Kevin John O’Neill. The fact these country names no longer exist didn’t seem to matter. “Third World countries wouldn’t have a clue,” he says. “You can’t use them to cross borders, but hotel bookings, hire cars, all that sort of stuff.” They each have a smattering of immigration stamps that look legitimate. “That comes from a CIA contact,” he says.
Schafferius has some extraordinary stories: like disabling a Lithuanian border guard with a kick to the groin in order to walk through a boom gate into Poland with a sedated baby girl; like setting up a film company to go into Yemen pretending to be scouting locations, in order to snatch back two children for a mother posing beneath a burqa as a movie star; like flying in the Philippines president’s helicopter to get a kid out of Mindanao for a Swedish dad.
But perhaps his most intriguing story comes when I ask him about the Gillespie case. He says Jacqueline Gillespie (now Pascarl) came to him about 10 years ago inquiring about snatching her children back from Malaysia. The claim that she was looking for her children to be abducted for a third time is at odds with her recent statements.
Speaking to the Herald Sun in December about the Hawach case, she said: “My personal views are that counter-abductions are not only illegal but very counter-productive on the emotional and psychological welfare of a child, particularly when it involves paid mercenaries, who can be like loose cannons.” In any case, Schafferius rejected the job.
If Australia and Malaysia had been signatories to the Hague Convention in 1985, the case would have been straightforward. Jacqueline Gillespie took her two children from their Malaysian birthplace and began custody proceedings in the Australian Family Court weeks before telling her husband they weren’t coming home. Under the Convention, such children should be returned to their usual place of residence, where local courts decide which parent gets custody. In the end, she got custody in the Australian courts while her husband won custody in the Malaysian courts. Possession became 100 per cent of the law.
While Schafferius said he knew of no kids he’d re-abducted who were unhappy with their lot, this was hard to verify given his apparent poor memory for their names. But I found two cases that had been mentioned in contemporaneous media accounts, and tracked down the now-adult abductees.
Andrew Ibbotson, 20, can’t remember much about his eight months travelling the world on his dad’s yacht in 1993.94. He remembers hearing a tiger roar in the jungle in Indonesia. He remembers the pyramids in Egypt. He remembers coming up on deck when there was no TV reception and seeing nothing but ocean. That was so boring for a six-year-old.
“Sometimes a storm would hit us and the boat would be rocking so bad it seemed like it was going to tip over,” he says. “But I never actually felt scared about what was happening with my mother; I always thought I was going to see her again. I didn’t know 1 was being kidnapped.”
He wondered why the holiday was taking so long but his dad was always evasive when asked. They were in Cyprus when Andrew looked up at the building around the harbour and saw his mother looking down “Dad, I just saw Mum,” he remembers saying.
“No, Mum’s not here. Mum’s in Australia.”
But the following day she appeared at the dock and after a lot of haggling his father allowed her to take Andrew for a day – so long as his passport stayed on the boat. But, unknown to his dad, Schafferius had organised a replacement passport.
Says Andrew: “At first I thought I was just going with her to the airport and then she told me, `You’re coming with me, we’re going home,’ and I was really happy … I just missed staying in the one place and missed my mother and that sort of thing.”
Like Jacqueline Gillespie leaving Malaysia, Le Ibbotson had taken Andrew out of the country with the permission of the other parent. Like her, he said he only later decided he wasn’t going back. Andrew can’t remember much about his dad being sent to jail for a year. He hasn’t seen much of him since, either. There were a few presents, a few visits. “It was kind of strange because, you know, I was sort of like, `Why did you do that?’ I didn’t hate him; I just wanted to know why he did what he did. I can’t really remember the explanation he gave, but I’ve heard a hundred of them now from different sources. They’re all different so I’m not sure what to believe.”
The last Andrew heard, his dad was a restaurant owner in Spain. “I guess I do want to see him again, but it would be very awkward,” he admits. I ask what he would say to someone who had just had their child taken away by another parent. “I’d say, do what my mother did. She did a good job. She found me. I’d get a hold of Keith [Schafferius], I guess. You need to get ’em back.”
Author Robin Bowles was in Darwin 2005 covering Bradley Murdoch’s trial for the murder of Peter Falconio when she saw a little T-shirt splattered in red, with the logo, “I survived a crocodile attack in Australia”. She bought it for her French grandson because she doesn’t want him to forget his Australian roots. She also sent him a Socceroos top for the World Cup, and his mum couldn’t get it off him. “He’s a bit schizophrenic in that he knows there’s this country he comes from but he’s not allowed to go to,” Bowles says.
In March 1999, Bowles’s son Andrew came home from working his second job to find his French-born wife and 18-month-old son gone. In the space of hours he got legal advice that he could stop the mother’s flight in Perth before she left the jurisdiction. But, still hopeful of a reconciliation, he didn’t proceed because he knew she would be deeply wounded by the humiliation of being hauled off a plane. He’s regretted it ever since. For while France is a signatory to the Hague Convention, there are always loopholes. The mother found one, and the child stayed in France.
“A re-abduction was discussed,” says Robin Bowles. “We even talked to Channel Nine to see if they’d be interested in covering the story and flying him out in a chopper. We didn’t want any money, but we wanted a chopper. The biggest risk was getting to the border. But the overwhelming feeling we had was, the child was 18 months old; he was very close to his mother. She is a good mother. Do you twice abduct when you are so angry about it being done to you? Is the child a possession? `You’ve got it now, I’m having it back.’ We made a decision that we would rely on the court. But it was a stupid decision, knowing now what we know about the French justice system.”
Bowles later wrote a book, Taken in Contempt, about parental abductions and re-abductions. “At first I thought all’s fair in love and war and stealing kids, but I don’t think that any more … the more I talked to abducting parents and the left-behind parents, and the kids, the more I realised it was in nobody’s interests. It’s just a horrible situation. It’s a bit like divorce, only worse. The kids end up suffering; they’re all damaged.”
I spoke to a child psychiatrist who works in the field of parental abductions (and who asked not to be named, because of “personal and professional risks associated with what I do”). He is often brought into cases when an abducted child is returned to Australia, and he has to decide which parent is best for the child. “The issue of reunification is horrendously difficult,” he says. “You might have a kid who at the age of three is removed to the Middle East and comes back as an eight-year-old. Doesn’t speak any English. How do you reconnect them with their mother or father? How do they understand what’s happened? How do they understand why their mother or father stayed behind and had no contact? It’s a fundamental betrayal at the most basic level.”
The surprising answer to these questions is that sometimes you don’t reconnect them. “Usually it’s a pretty damaging kind of exercise. I’ve had cases where no repair has been possible … especially if the other parent is demonised and vilified. And usually the circumstances of their return are very dramatic. Either a parent takes them back, or they are confronted at the airport by federal police after their passport has rung alarms. Often kids have been told the reason their mother or father is in another country is because they’re so bad, so violent or so hurtful. Then, if the police come and take them away, it proves what the parent was saying. What does that do to the child? There aren’t easy answers. It’s a bloody mess.”
He says the most difficult children to deal with are those who were taken young and had no contact with the left-behind parent until they’ve regained custody. “They’re generally more anxious … Their whole view of reality is being challenged to the core.”
I tell him I’ve spoken to a brother and sister who were abducted and re-abducted, and that they both seemed very well adjusted. “Are they the Gillespie children?” he asks. I tell him no, and he explains: “Somebody I know well is involved and both those kids are remarkably well adjusted.”
I tell him about the Wawrzynski kids and he puts their wellbeing down to the fact that their mother re-established trust in them.
Received wisdom may be that children need both parents in their lives, but not in these cases, says the psychiatrist. But he adds: “There is a cost involved. There are no happy endings. It usually entails the excision of one parent from a child’s life, either by the abduction or the return. There’s not a happy medium.”
This brings me back to the Gillespie children. Are they so well adjusted in part because the father excluded the mother from their lives? “Those kids were a little bit older,” he says. “It’s hard to know how they’ve maintained the image of their mother. It’s significant that they’ve chosen to return to her. I also suspect they’ve lived a comfortable life.”
Fourteen years after being snatched from Poland, Jesica Wawrzynski works as an event organiser in a sparsely hip, inner-Brisbane office. She finds it scary to think what her life might have been like as a 23-year-old in Poland. “My mum came to Australia for a better life and she didn’t want that old life for us, whereas my father didn’t care,” she says. “He just cared that my mother didn’t have us.”
Her mum has never made her feel bad about the day she didn’t come with her. “Oh my gosh. I look
back on that. How annoying would that have been?” She says it was more traumatic coming back to Australia than it was going to Poland “because it was at that point that I learnt a lot of truths”. She was confused. Everyone was so happy to see her but she was thinking about her father a lot. She felt sorry for him. She was his little girl. But these feelings subsided.
“The more time that went by, the more I actually did start to think he was a really bad person. My mum would always say he wouldn’t have done the things he did if he wasn’t an alcoholic, but that stopped being an excuse to me. He ended up beating up my mum and my great auntie when he came back [six months later]. Then he went to jail [for assault] and then I just felt like I hated him.”
But she says kids are adaptable, and the trauma side of things is overstated. “Everybody makes it out as if it’s such a big deal, and I know I was a little bit affected when I was a teenager. I know I had a bit of obsessive-compulsive [disorder], always having showers … But I just think children are really adapt-able. It wasn’t really a big deal.”
Her brother, however, did it tougher. When Adrian Wawrzynski arrived back at his old school after a year away, the other kids would ask him questions and he could only answer in Polish. It took him about six weeks to relearn English. His mum bought him a cat, and they lived with their aunt because their house had been sold to pay for the retrieval.
Adrian was fine at first, but over coming years he became a brute of a child, always angry, throwing things around and breaking them. He was sent to psychiatrists and put on medication. “I can’t say it [the abduction and re-abduction] contributed to what happened,” says Adrian, now 22. “Probably it did, but who knows.” At high school, though, something changed.
“They were saying, `You’re always going to be like your father.’ That was one hard thing to accept … one day you wake up and realise you’re putting a lot of pressure on mum, a single parent trying to support two kids. I knew what my mother had sacrificed to get us back, selling all her possessions. That’s when you wake up to life and realise what your mother is and what she’s done for you. It’s just time to settle down and do things right for her.”
Adrian now works for Queensland Rail, and is looking forward to the future with his girlfriend. He says his experiences have made him more aware of the realities of the world. “I wouldn’t mind a family one day and it makes me stronger to assure myself, `I won’t do that’ [what his father did] … I’m very family-orientated now. If anything, it’s probably made me stronger, not weaker.” He has no intention of getting back in touch with his dad. “He still blames everyone but himself. That’s what Jes tells me.”
For his part, Roman Wawrzynski is still angry; he says he feels screwed over by a female bias in the Family Court. He says he stopped working when he couldn’t pay the lawyer’s bills any more. It was the only way he could get Legal Aid. He hasn’t worked since. “You just work for child support,” he says. “That’s a rich man’s business.” Despite living just a couple of kilometres apart, he has not seen his kids since their re-abduction.
THE OILMAN TURNED RETRIEVER
Bryan Wickham fell into the world of parental abductions when he met a Malaysian man called “Raja” in an airport bar in 1988. They got yarning and the soft-drink-sipping Malaysian with exquisite manners told the Aussie with big, calloused hands that he had two children in Melbourne who had been taken from him by his Australian wife.
Wickham, having downed a few Tiger beers, said: “Well, why don’t you just go and take them?”
Raja told him he couldn’t do that, and would persist through the legal system.
“From what I know of the bloody legal system,” said Wickham, “I’d just say to hell with it.”
The two kept in touch. Wickham visited Raja a couple of times when he was en route to his various jobs drilling for oil in Africa and the Middle East. Wickham, now 70, admits it was an unlikely friendship, “but he’s a very likable person”.
Four years after they met, Raja Bahrin took Wickham up on his suggestion, and asked him to help. Wickham, who still didn’t know his friend was a Malaysian prince, agreed, and so became a central figure in Australia’s highest-profile parental abduction.
They picked up Iddin, 9, and Shahirah, 7, from the kids’ mother, Jacqueline Gillespie, on an access visit in Melbourne. They drove non-stop to Weipa in Far North Queensland, transferring to a boat Wickham had bought to cross to Merauke in Irian Jaya. But the boat
conked out and they drifted for days before washing up near a remote village. The children then flew with their dad to Malaysia.
Wickham says he was never paid a cent for his role. He was given a bag of gold bullion worth about $100,000, but spent much of that on the job and handed back the rest at the end. All he kept was the boat, but he was forced to sell that for a few thousand in Irian Jaya when he was prevented by strong winds from getting back to Weipa.
Wickham became a fugitive for almost a year. Arrested in the US, he was brought back to Australia and served nine months for removing a child from the custody of the Family Court. “When I went into Pentridge I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “Anything to do with children, you’re looked on like a cockroach. Anyhow, from the minute I went in there, there wasn’t a guard that didn’t shake my hand. All them prison guards with the anti-social hours of work, they’ve all got divorces, all paying maintenance, all lost their children through the Family Court … and 95 per cent of the prisoners in there have gone through the same shit.”
After he got out, his wife, Sheila, wanted to set her mind at rest about what had happened to the children. Raja Bahrin paid for their air fares and accommodation. In the week they spent with the children, Sheila says she was “very, very pleased to see they were very happy … I was concerned they were going to be miserable and miss their mother but they weren’t at all.”
Although the Wickhams lost their home when Bryan went to jail, he says he has no regrets. Recently retired, he wants it made clear he has not received nor asked for any money for this story.