Maui mother guilty of fleeing U.S. with children
By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau
WAILUKU, Maui A jury yesterday rejected a former Maui woman's claim that she had disobeyed a court order and taken her children to Central America to protect them from sexual abuse by their father.
Mary Lou French, 56, cried when the verdict was announced in Maui Circuit Court after an hour and a half of jury deliberations.
She faces five years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000 for each of two counts of custodial interference. Judge Joseph Cardoza set sentencing for June 13.
French was considered a federal fugitive for more than a year before her arrest in Panama in April 2000. The FBI tracked her to Costa Rica, where she was evading a Hawai'i family court order requiring her to share custody of Emily, now 7, and Sarah, 6, with ex-husband James French, former director of the Maui Symphony Orchestra.
The couple had adopted the girls from China.
During her three-week trial, French testified she fled the country to save her children from abuse that began after she started leaving the children with her ex-husband under the joint custody order. She did not make any claims of sexual assault during divorce or custody proceedings.
Defense attorney David Bettencourt told the jury in closing arguments last week that testimony from his client's friend and a pediatrician supported her decision to flee.
He also argued that French felt she could not get justice from the Maui court because her former husband was well-connected in the community.
Deputy Prosecutor Carson Tani said the claims of abuse were a fabrication.
"She was unhappy with the joint custody arrangement,'' Tani said. "This defendant just didn't like being told what to do.''
Tani said phone and bank records indicated the woman was making arrangements to leave the country long before her January 1999 departure.
James French, who now lives in California with his daughters, said in a statement, "our family is grateful and relieved'' by the verdict.
"... Emily and Sarah have a support system unrivaled by any children anywhere, and moreover they are thriving, happy and popular in their neighborhood and school. We have found the silver lining."
Reach Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.