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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Mother pleads not guilty in battle over two girls

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

WAILUKU, Maui — A former Maui woman accused of taking her two children to Central America to keep them from their father pleaded not guilty yesterday to two charges of custodial interference.

Mary Lou French, 55, who was considered a federal fugitive for more than a year before her arrest in Panama in April 2000, is scheduled to go on trial Sept. 17 before Maui Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza. A judge earlier allowed her to remain free without posting bail. 

Deputy Prosecutor Carson Tani said federal charges against French have been dismissed to allow prosecution on the state level. The custodial interference charges carry a potential penalty of five years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.

The FBI had tracked French to Costa Rica, where she allegedly hid from a state Family Court order that she share custody of the two girls with her husband at the time, James French, former director of the Maui Symphony Orchestra.

The couple's adopted girls from China, Emily and Sarah, are now 6 and 5.

Mary Lou French, former owner of an ice-cream franchise, told The Advertiser last year that she left the United States to save her children from abuse. Her allegations moved a Costa Rican judge to release her from jail in March 2000 and return the two girls to her, even though officials there were aware that the FBI considered her an abductor.

James French, who now lives in California with the girls, said the claims of abuse were invented by his ex-wife only after she lost custody of the children. No mention of the abuse occurred in the divorce and custody proceedings, he said.

Mary Lou French originally was arraigned on Maui a couple months ago, but her Colorado attorney had yet to qualify to practice law in Hawai'i, so the arraignment was redone yesterday with a new attorney.