Tug of War

Two counties, feuding parents, a sex-abuse allegation and one quagmire of a custody battle.

Less than a year into their marriage, Tony got out of the military and wanted to move to Arizona to be close to his family. They had to stay at his parents' house at first, which was difficult for the couple, as Darla and her mother-in-law rarely agreed. Darla found her own group of friends, away from Tony and her in-laws. They were the people she celebrated with when she turned 21. But after a few nights of getting drunk, Darla decided she'd had enough and told Tony she wanted to start a family.

They tried for months, with no success. Then, as soon as they stopped trying — Darla was going to join the Marines and hold off on motherhood until later — she got pregnant. "I remember finding out," she says. "I saw the test and fell to the ground. I was crying and so overwhelmed. So excited. Thank you, God, I'm going to have a baby."

When she told Tony, he was just as excited as she was, calling everyone they knew at midnight. "Our lives seemed great. Structured," she says. "We still had problems, but things were getting better."

Ethan and Eliot share a stuffed-animal-filled bedroom.
Ethan and Eliot share a stuffed-animal-filled bedroom.

Darla wanted two kids two years apart, and she got pregnant again just slightly ahead of schedule. It was then that she started to feel like something wasn't right. "As a parent, you watch your children," she says. "Ethan just acted weird."

She would go to change his diaper, and he would push her hands away and yell "Monster, monster!" like he was scared. When her mother came to stay with her, she, too, noticed something odd when she tried to change his diaper. "I got the diapers and wipes, and he was looking deep in my eyes," recalls Dorothy Plant. "I thought maybe he don't like to get his diaper changed or something, so I said, 'It's okay, baby. Grammy's just going to change your diaper.'" When she took the diaper off, Ethan rolled over and stuck his butt in the air. "He did it automatically. Very calm. He just rolled onto his tummy and stuck his booty up to me. I thought about it, and I just kept having this sick feeling."

Dorothy told Darla about how Ethan had acted, and Darla began watching everybody, seeing how adults interacted with her son. Soon afterward, during a visit with her in-laws, Tony's father picked Ethan up by the crotch area and tickled him in a way that made her uncomfortable. She decided she didn't want her father-in-law to be left alone with Ethan or the new baby. "It was just to be safe," Darla says. "It was a precaution until we could figure out what was going on. Obviously, if there had been any accusations, I would have gone to the police. But Ethan was so young."

At the same time, Darla and Tony's marriage was on the rocks again. Darla recalls Tony telling her he "didn't even want this one," referring to their unborn baby. After Eliot was born, Darla told Tony she was unhappy in Arizona and wanted to move to Colorado — with or without him. Tony wanted to keep the family together and agreed to make the move.

Just as they were packing up, Darla's grandmother noticed that Ethan's right testicle was hanging much lower than his left. A doctor diagnosed it as a right testicular hernia. Ethan needed surgery as soon as they got to Colorado. "Obviously, Ethan didn't lift anything too heavy or do anything like that to cause it," Darla says. The doctors told her he could have been squeezed or grabbed. She was horrified but thought she had left behind the person who had hurt her son. "I went on the assumption, because Tony seemed so supportive. I never would have thought..."

In Colorado, they lived with her sister, jumping into whatever jobs they could land. "We were very grateful, but it was hard. Especially when you're having problems in your marriage.... We didn't really want to be around each other. We argued a lot. It was like there was no love left. I would come home from work, and he would go to work. We were basically there just to take care of the kids."

Still, they tried for years to make it work — even talking to couples at church about their problems. But by the summer of 2003, Darla was ready to throw in the towel. "Our marriage just sucked," she says. "I tried. I was unhappy." She had already asked Tony for a divorce once when she met Dan Carrigan in July 2003. He was her manager at Wal-Mart, a divorced father of two girls. They found themselves looking for ways to spend time together, just talking and getting to know each other.

At the end of August, Darla again asked Tony for a divorce. This time she said she had feelings for someone else. In September, she moved out of their Lakewood home and into her own apartment, filing for divorce in Jefferson County. She told Dan she was getting a divorce - but not because of him. It was something she'd been wanting to do for a long time. "If you'd like to date and take things slow, that'd be great," she remembers telling him. "I'm not asking for anything."

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