A mother's 15-year journey ends in her arrest
by Mike Frassinelli/ The Star-Ledger Sunday May 11, 2008, 8:00 AM
WALLINGFORD, Vt. -- The house sits beyond the antique shops, general stores and grazing sheep along U.S. Route 7, up a narrow dirt road even natives avoid because of its steep climb.
On her secluded 20-acre property, Emily Pels found what seemed to be the perfect refuge from a previous life 275 miles and 15 years away in New Jersey.
When she took her two daughters and fled Warren County amid a custody dispute with her estranged husband a decade and a half ago -- likely with the assistance of a group that helps battered women, police say -- she was known as Michelle Kimble.
The story of her life on the run reads like something out of a spy novel. Kimble took on an assumed identity, twice changed her name and lived in three states, the past 13 years in Vermont, authorities said.
"It's an interesting odyssey," said her lawyer, Frank Whittlesey of Flemington. "And it worked for 15 years."
The lies caught up to Michelle Kimble, aka Amy Huff, aka Emily Pels, on April Fool's Day. That's when police arrived shortly after sunrise at her rented home in this one-traffic-light southwestern Vermont town and arrested her as a fugitive from New Jersey, wanted on a 1993 grand jury indictment for interfering with custody.
Kimble, 41, an advocate for domestic violence victims in Vermont for nine years, was released on $150,000 bail April 16 from the Warren County jail in White Township, the same town she fled in 1993.
She is scheduled to return Friday to Superior Court in nearby Belvidere to face the interfering-with-custody charge that carries up to a five-year prison term.
Ironically, her biggest legal ally could be the husband she left. Daniel Kimble, who now lives in the Poconos, does not want her behind bars, saying it would only punish his daughters.
"My daughters are safe and grown. What more could a father ask for? Vengeance? Against a woman who loves her kids as much as I do? Not in this life," he said.
Warren County Prosecutor Thomas S. Ferguson said he will take into account all aspects of the case, including the ex-husband's wishes that she not be jailed.
A reporter's knock on Michelle Kimble's door in rural Vermont last month went unanswered, but she later provided a statement to The Star-Ledger, through her lawyer:
"Fifteen years ago I chose to leave New Jersey with my two young daughters because I did not have faith in the system to protect them. I understand that there is a consequence for my actions and I am prepared to address whatever the consequences are in court. For me, the consequence of not taking the action that I took 15 years ago was far greater than what I must face today."
ON THE RUN
When Michelle Kimble took flight in spring of 1993, she left behind just about everything.
"She left it like they disappeared," said Daniel Kimble, who at the time was seeking a greater share of custody.
She changed her name twice -- once by using the birth certificate of a baby who died more than a quarter-century earlier in Alabama -- and got new names, birth dates and Social Security numbers for her daughters, authorities said.
Daughter Andrea Josephine Kimble, 5 when she left New Jersey, became Bev Andrea Pels. Jeri Lynn Kimble, 4 when she left, became Elizabeth Lynn Pels.
Michelle Kimble got the Social Security numbers after telling a tale about how she was a former runaway and drug abuser who lived on the streets, police said.
Whittlesey assumed Michelle Kimble picked Minnesota, Maine and Vermont as places to go because she had no contacts there.
"These are probably some of the last places anybody would have looked for her," he said.
Soon, her tracks got cold.
What would become a notorious missing-person case remained largely dormant -- until Detective Bill Tietjen, a New Jersey state trooper working in the Missing Persons Unit, came along and began an investigation in March.
Michelle Pels (her maiden name) had grown up in Tietjen's hometown of Bloomsbury, Hunterdon County, and as a young boy he remembered her driving around in a little red car with her "Dorothy Hamill haircut."
Using the powers of Patricia's Law, legislation enacted by the state in January, Tietjen went to the home of Colleen Pels Gardner, Michelle Kimble's sister, as well as the workplace of the missing woman's ex-husband, to collect DNA.
Knowing Kimble's daughters were now adults, Tietjen said he asked Gardner to persuade her sister to return to Warren County to resolve the old indictment and show that the girls were safe.
Gardner at first didn't respond, but a neighbor told Tietjen that Gardner had a sister in Vermont.
Tietjen later found photos of Kimble and her youngest daughter, Elizabeth, on the Facebook page of Gardner's daughter. He determined from abbreviations on the website that Elizabeth Pels was a 2007 graduate of Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon, Vt. The school, which has 600 students in grades 7-12, also confirmed her sister, Bev, was a graduate.
On April 1, Daniel Kimble got the news he had been waiting years to hear: His daughters were found.
"It's just like having something that's never closed," said Daniel Kimble, 42, who runs a hunting supplies kiosk in a Stroudsburg, Pa., mall. "I've been 33 percent of a man for 15 years. It's like 15 years of being in a prison."
Daniel Kimble said he missed his daughters and, although he has remarried and has four stepsons, he keeps in his car a photo of his daughters as young girls. He said he never doubted that his ex-wife was taking good care of them.
"That's my one solace. I knew she would do anything for those kids," he said. "Looking back, should I have walked across the world to find my kids? I don't know. I didn't know what to do."
'YOUNG AND SCARED'
Michelle Kimble told police last month that she left her ex-husband because he was abusive to her and at least one daughter. But Tietjen said she never filed a police report in Warren County.
And Daniel Kimble called the claim "as ridiculous as it can be."
He said his ex-wife's parents moved from Warren County to Montana right after she married, leaving her feeling isolated.
Tietjen said police once were called to a library after a dispute between the Kimbles, but it was a minor argument over visitation.
Daniel Kimble said he and his ex-wife were too young -- he was 21 and she was 20 -- when they married in 1987. He added that his ex-wife needed more than he could give her, and he needed more than she could give him.
"I'm not trying to make it look like I had wings on my back," he said. "We were young and scared."
Michelle Kimble returned to the Rutland County Women's Network in Vermont, where she works helping domestic violence victims.
"I've handled some of the most bitterly contested custody battles," said Michelle Kimble's attorney. "But I've never seen a parent act with such conviction and go to such lengths to alter their entire life. Until somebody's actually in that position, it's hard to judge."
In a statement made available to The Star-Ledger, Bev Pels, 20, said her mother provided food, clothing, shelter, security and stability, and that she and her younger sister grew up surrounded by people who loved them.
She mentioned their successes in college and said she and her sister believed their mom left New Jersey in their best interests.
"Our mother spent the last 15 years working to ensure that we were happy, well-adjusted and self-motivated," she said in the statement, also signed by 19-year-old Elizabeth. "She is a strong, courageous, self-sacrificing individual."
While officials sort out the multiple identities and Social Security numbers, the driver's licenses of all three women were to be revoked, and the daughters' student loan applications also could be compromised, authorities said. The girls attend colleges in North Carolina and Michigan.
"Both kids were essentially forced by their mother to live this falsehood, and now it's on federal applications," Tietjen said.
The mother could still face record-tampering charges in Vermont, authorities said.
Thomas Snyder, of Einhorn-Harris, a Denville attorney who specializes in family law, said a few years ago he represented a Morris County woman whose husband kept her from their two daughters in their native Nigeria. The father, Longy Anyanwu, spent just over 4 1/2 years in prison, a state record for defying a court order.
After reading a summary of the Kimble case, Snyder said: "You cannot condone people becoming their own judge and jury ... regarding custody and parenting time."
Snyder could not recall another local case in which a parent took a child for 15 years, and believes Michelle Kimble will have an uphill legal battle defending her decision.
However, the runaway mom has supporters at her daughters' old high school, where she was regarded as a caring parent.
"That mother did everything for them," said Mill River Union High School secretary Mary Bride. "You won't find a person in the whole state of Vermont to say a bad thing about her."
Mike Frassinelli may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (908) 475-1218.