Waiting for a family — A happy ending to a sad story
Source: Cult Help and Information
Original article from Syracuse Herald American, Sunday, April 13, 1997.
After eight years on the run, her sons are home again. Reclaiming kids from cult took Scriba woman across America.
By Janet Gramza and Todd Lighty
When the phone call finally came, Laurie Johnson’s heart soared. After an eight-year search for her two sons, authorities had found them in a small town in Florida.
But the moment she had prayed for held little joy. When she finally met them, her sons refused to look her in the eye.
“I hope I don’t ever see you again,” they said.
Johnson and her husband, David, had expected the worst, and they got it. Now, Laurie Johnson counts her painful reunion as the moment she and her sons began repairing their shattered bond.
By the time she brought them home to Scriba in Oswego County last month, Johnson’s sons, 12-year-old Seth and 17-year-old Nathanael, had spent their childhoods isolated in a religious sect whose leaders banished their mother and branded her as wicked.
Authorities say the cult, called The Community, and encouraged the boys’ father, Stephen Wootten, to abduct them in 1989 on the eve of a court hearing granting their mother custody.
The Community allegedly helped hide the boys in “safe houses” around the country, sheltering them from the outside world.
Seth and Nathan Wootten used the aliases David and Andrew Leonard, forgot their own birthdays and had no Social Security numbers.
As members of The Community they weren’t allowed to attend mainstream schools, play with toys, watch television or befriend “worldly” children.
For their mother, their abduction began an exhausting quest that led her and her husband across the U.S. and to Canada and put them $50,000 in debt.
“We led a life that was just waiting for a family,” Johnson said.
The eight-year wait ended March 11th, when the FBI found Stephen Wootten’s rented house in Havana, Florida, arrested Wootten and took custody of Seth and Nathan.
In an interview from his jail cell in Tallahassee, Fla., Wootten defended his flight with the boys.
“In my heart, I was resolved that whatever I went through, I went through for the sake of the boys,” he said. “That’s what kept me continually on that same course.”
With help from a hired cult “deprogrammer,” the boys have reclaimed Johnson as their mother and the word “Mom” now comes naturally from their lips. Johnson, who declined to have her sons interviewed, said the boys look forward to going to school, making friends and living a normal life.
Raised in religion
Laurie Marrano was raised in Attica by born-again Christians who forced her to break up with her high school sweetheart, David Johnson, because he didn’t share their beliefs, she said.
At age 18, her parents packed her off to Bible school at the Elam Bible Institute near Rochester. There in 1976, she met Stephen Wootten, an aspiring minister. They married the next year.
By 1980, they had an infant son, Nathanael, and Wootten was pastor of the local Assemblies of God church where Laurie’s parents were active members. In 1983, Laurie gave birth to Seth.
The next year, Johnson’s parents took notice of The Community. The group drew national attention when Vermont police, acting on allegations of child abuse, raided houses in the group’s main branch at Island Pond and took more than 100 children into protective custody.
Within days a judge ordered the children released, citing a lack of evidence for the raid. Johnson’s parents saw the incident as religious persecution. After visiting the group, they said goodbye to their children and moved to Island Pond.
In fall 1986, the Woottens followed.
Wootten said his ex-wife liked the group’s focus on home schooling, the healthy diet and “the loving discipline.”
The Community claims about 2,500 members in 25 communities throughout the world but they are primarily located in New England.
Law enforcement authorities said The Community is a nonviolent, strict fundamentalist religious group that runs its own businesses, such as candle and soap shops.
From the outside, The Community looked like a commune of hippies wearing long hair and plain clothes and living off the land. From the inside, Johnson said, it was a rigid hierarchy in which male elders made the decisions, male followers enforced them, and women and children obeyed.
Instead of living a carefree country life, Johnson said, she worked 12-hour days teaching other members’ children, doing chores and preparing communal meals. She hardly saw Seth and Nathan, she said.
She also learned that “loving discipline,” meant hitting children with wooden sticks [dipped in resin] like those used on circus balloons. The Community’s idea of misbehavior, she said, included slacking off on chores and indulging in make-believe play.
Without toys, Seth, then a toddler, made do by pushing a wooden block along the floor and saying, “Vroom, vroom.” She was ordered to discipline him, she said.
Within eight months, Johnson was disillusioned with The Community and her husband was a devout follower. She wanted to leave. He didn’t.
Johnson left the community twice, the second time for six months. Although she stayed with Wootten’s sister and called often, Wootten says she abandoned him and the children.
Johnson said she went back because she missed the boys. The elders summoned her to a six-hour “confession” of her sins, during which she admitted she had been unfaithful to Wootten. They declared her an unfit mother and banished her.
Months later, she reunited with David Johnson and moved to his home in Scriba, where he works as a mechanic at Nine Mile Point nuclear power plant. Today she credits him with giving her the strength to reclaim her children.
The Community’s elders frustrated her attempts to visit her children, she said. In September 1989 she filed for a divorce from Wootten and sought custody of the children. A judge granted her visitation and set a custody hearing for September 28th.
Before the hearing, the couple spoke by phone for the last time before Wootten fled.
“He said I was the best mother in the world,” Johnson recalled. “The problem was, I lived in the world.”
Asleep in her arms
Johnson has replayed her last visit with the boys countless times in her memory.
“We picked Seth up,” she said, “and a Community member was ranting and raving and banging on our car window. And a woman I had known in The Community brought Seth out to me. He was 5. And I just wept uncontrollably.”
“‘We went to a park. We really enjoyed each others’ company. . . On our ride home, Seth wanted to stop at a hotel and stay with me. And I cried because I couldn’t keep him. And he fell asleep in my arms.”
The next day, they went to get Nathan.
“You need to come back to The Community,” she remembers the 9-year-old telling her. “If you want to be my mother, you need to come back to The Community.”
After a day of shopping and talking, they went to a brook and David Johnson showed Nathan how to skip stones. “I heard Nathan laugh from his toes right to his head, and it’s a laugh I remember to this day,” she said.
The custody hearing was 10 days later. Johnson began calling to check on the boys. Each time she was told, “Stephen is away, and we’re not sure when he’ll be back.”
When she got to Island Pond, she said, Community members greeted her with smug looks and said only, “He did what he did in the best interests of the children.” Wootten and the boys were long gone.
The next day, a judge granted her sole custody of her children.
Jean Swantko, a lawyer and Community member, said Wootten had no choice but to run with the boys.
“The courts would not treat him fairly,” she said. “He knew in his conscience that he could not turn them over to her.”
A long, futile chase
Thus began the search that would consume the Johnsons’ time, money and energy for eight years. They plastered Vermont with “Missing” posters, which they believe The Community tore down.
They borrowed money from friends and family to hire private investigators and contacted missing children’s groups.
A year into their ordeal, Laurie and David Johnson got married.
Each time authorities had a possible sighting of the boys, the Johnsons jumped on a plane, making futile trips to Missouri, Florida, Vermont, Nova Scotia and Winnipeg, Canada. The leads grew colder and the children older.
Sheriff Jeffrey Bitcon of Caledonia County, Vt., said Wootten was like the cartoon character Roadrunner, always one step ahead of Wile E. Coyote. Except that Wootten had help.
“Most of the time when someone takes off and wants to hide, cops will say, ‘Well, he has nowhere to go,’” Bitcon said. “But this guy had a lot of places to go. He had his church friends. They were hiding him out.”
That same year, Johnson appeared on an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show.” The talk show broadcast snapshots supplied to the FBI by a Community member. They showed Seth and Nathan five years older than she’d last seen them.
On the show, she was shouted down by a dozen members of The Community, including her parents and sister. When asked why he wouldn’t help his daughter see her children, her father said, “These are the choices she made. There’s nothing we can do.”
Meanwhile, Wootten and the boys were criss-crossing the country, moving a dozen times in eight years to Vermont, Missouri, California and Florida, police said.
In 1991, at a Community house in St. Joseph, Missouri, Wootten met Julie Williams, formerly of Cortland. He married Williams in January 1993.
In a telephone interview, Williams described the boys’ life on the run as “productive.” They spent their days being home-schooled by Wootten, doing chores, preparing meals for their parents and visiting Community members, even helping on their father’s painting jobs.
“There were times they would be kind of rebellious, you know how teenagers get,” said Williams, 40. “And we’d say, ‘Listen, do you want to just go live with your mother?’ And they would just get fear on their faces. ‘No. No. No, don’t send me to my mom, please.’ ”
Wootten, Williams and the boys had moved to Havana in the Florida Panhandle by the spring of 1996, according to town records.
Wootten, 41, used the alias Mark Leonard and got work as a painter. Williams worked as a project coordinator for a construction company.
At 8 p.m. on March 11, 1997, police and FBI agents raided Wootten’s rented house. When the agents arrived, Wootten and Nathan were on a painting job and Williams was at work. Seth was home with two Community members from Vermont, Williams said.
As Wootten and Nathan arrived home, they saw the police cars and kept going. They drove to a pay phone and called Williams, who joined them.
Their next call was to The Community’s elders in Palenville, N.Y. Wootten faced what he called a “heart-wrenching” decision: flee and divide his sons, or go to jail.
“It was a real tug at my heart knowing that they had (Seth). That was real suffering,” Wootten said. “I’m thankful for the time that I have had with my sons.”
He returned home to be arrested on federal charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution and Vermont charges of custodial interference, or parental kidnapping.
The police led Wootten away in handcuffs. Social service authorities placed the boys in a group home.
A painful reunion
In Scriba, Laurie Johnson was alone reading a fitness magazine ready to go to bed, when the phone rang at 10:15 p.m.
Johnson let the answering machine pick up. Even when she heard Essex County (Vermont) prosecutor Jan Paul, she hesitated. She didn’t want to talk about the case.
“David and Laurie, this is Jan Paul. I need you to pick up the phone right now. If you’re home, you need to pick up right now,” Johnson heard.
Johnson picked up. Paul told her the news. Johnson repeated it back to her: “You have both Nathan and Seth in Florida together, and they are safe.” And Paul said. “Yes.”
She dropped the phone and began jumping around the room, screaming and laughing and crying.
The next day, Laurie and David landed at the Tallahassee airport. The social worker told her the boys didn’t want to talk to her. Still, she asked to see them right away.
“That was a no-brainer,” Laurie Johnson said. “… It didn’t matter what their reaction was, the fact was that they were going to see their mother.”
The reunion was more of a rejection. They used almost the same words in blaming her for abandoning them, their father and The Community, Johnson said.
But the next day, the boys surprised the Johnsons by greeting them warmly. It was as if they had rehearsed eight years for their first meeting with their Mother, David said, “but they had no prepared speech for the next day.”
Nathan had grown into a slim, dark-haired young man who resembles his mother. Seth is huskier and blond, like his father.
They spent the day catching up, laughing over the baby pictures Laurie brought, talking about their lives and asking about hers. They let her touch their hands, their shoulders, their necks. Seth showed her his recent appendectomy scar.
The next day, the custody hearing that Wootten avoided eight years earlier was repeated in a different state, with him in handcuffs. The judge gave custody to their mother. He granted Wootten a few minutes to say goodbye.
Laurie Johnson said that meeting was brief because Wootten kept shouting at her. Wootten denied that.
“I expressed to them how much I loved them,” he said. “I expressed to them that our Father in heaven knows the number of hairs on their heads and he’s going to take care of them, and that I would see them again.”
The plane trip to Syracuse was the first novelty in the boys’ return to mainstream life. They were glued to the windows and chewed gum so their ears wouldn’t pop. On the drive to Scriba, Seth delighted his mother by repeating, “Are we there yet?” every five minutes, “just like when they were really young.”
The boys were “courteous and polite,” but were hostile to any criticism of their father or The Community. Laurie and David took them shopping for bikes and new clothes, and gave them each a television for their bedrooms.
Laurie Johnson’s fear that The Community would try to reclaim the boys followed them home, she said. After two phone calls from Community members, she said, the Johnsons got an unlisted number and began sleeping in shifts.
On the third day, the boys were outside when a van pulled up near the end of the driveway. Laurie looked out and saw that the driver was her father. She screamed and shooed the boys back in the house. The van drove away.
Carmen Marrano, Johnson’s father, said last week that he was there to see his grandsons. If he had wanted to kidnap the kids, he said, he could have.
The next day, cult deprogrammer Rick Ross arrived. Ross showed them [many videos about cults and techniques of mind control often employed by cults — this included] footage of the mass cult suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, the federal raid of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and their mother’s appearance on the Springer show.
At first the boys challenged his assertion they had been brainwashed. But soon they were immersed in discussions about the parallels between The Community and other cults.
A week later, the Heaven’s Gate cult suicide in San Diego reinforced Ross’ arguments.
During that week, the boys stopped calling each other “David” and “Andrew.”
Then came another breakthrough. Dave Johnson was in the garage when Nathan walked in and said, “Mom’s cooking supper.”
“I came in and told Laurie, ‘You just got called ‘mom’ out in the garage,’” he said. “Of course, she started crying.”
By the time Ross left March 24th, [after days of dialogue and discussions] the family was tired of deprogramming. The boys began enjoying the things they’d missed, including their mother.
Together, they reminisced about their last visit, about Seth sleeping in Laurie’s arms, Nathan skipping stones. The boys’ recollections were as vivid as hers, she said.
“I think they really like me,” she said. “They’ve told me that they love me.”
The sky’s the limit
With his first allowance 17-year-old Nathan bought himself a set of Hot Wheels cars. Then he applied for his learner’s driving permit and got behind the wheel of the family car.
The boys have been busy setting goals. They started school last week, Nathan at The Academy, Seth at Oswego Middle School.
Their mother tells them they can be whatever they want, the sky is the limit. At the same time, every instinct tells her to hold them close and never let go.
Laurie said she thinks Seth and Nathan would run to her if anyone from The Community approached them again. Still, she’s grown attached to a gift Dave’s mother gave them: walkie-talkies.
And so, on a recent day as the boys headed out to fish at a nearby pond, Laurie picked up her walkie-talkie and said, “Seth, can you hear me?”
“Yeah,” he responded.
“Here’s a big kiss!” she said, with a loud smack.
“10-4,” he replied.
Then she held the walkie-talkie to her cheek. Her eyes misted.
Now that she has her boys back, the hardest part for Laurie Johnson is letting them go.
The ex-husband of a Scriba woman who hid their two sons from her for nearly eight years was transported to Vermont Wednesday to be arraigned on a parental kidnapping charge. Stephen Wootten had been in a Tallahassee, Florida, jail since police and FBI agents tracked him down March 11th. The boys, 12-year-old Seth and 17-year-old Nathan, were returned to their mother, Laurie Johnson of Scriba. Authorities say a religious cult called The Community had helped Wootten hide the boys since September 1989. State Attorney Jan Paul of Essex County, Vermont, said Wootten was being returned to Vermont Wednesday by federal marshals, and was to be arraigned either late Wednesday or early today. She said she would request that his bail be maintained at $750,000, because he poses a flight risk and because The Community has many assets. Wootten also faces prosecution on a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
On the trail of two children
Laurie Johnson’s eight-year wait for the return of her children included sightings and disappointments across the country until her ex-husband Stephen Wootten was found earlier this year.
- In 1986, the Woottens move to the Island Pond, Vermont, home of The Community, a religious sect. When they divorced, Wootten takes the boys into hiding in 1989.
- In 1991, at a Community house in St. Joseph, Mo., Wootten met Julie Williams, whom he marries in January 1993.
- In 1994, authorities – acting on a tip – check a Community house in Santa Cruz, Calif., but Wootten’s not there.
- In April 1996, police raid a Community house in Winnipeg, Canada. Again, Wootten’s not there.
- By spring 1996, Wootten Williams and the boys move to Havana, Fla., and adopt aliases. On March 11th of this year, the FBI finds Wootten.
- Today, Laurie Johnson has the boys in Scriba.