Tug of War

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

The letter only meant that Tony's name would go into an internal database that would be checked if a new allegation was ever made against him. But Darla says the caseworker told her to hold on to it as evidence, because it could help if Tony ever tried to go back to court.

The exchange confused her at the time. Why would she need evidence, she wondered? The judge had already made his decision. But she didn't give it much thought. She believed her kids were finally safe.

Darla Carrigan waits in her boys' empty room.
Mark Manger
Darla Carrigan waits in her boys' empty room.
Eliot's life went badly off the tracks.
Mark Manger
Eliot's life went badly off the tracks.

When Tony had moved to Denver with Darla, he'd left all his friends and family behind. His mother- and sisters-in-law and their husbands became his closest and only friends. After Darla asked for a divorce, after he found out she was already sleeping with Dan and things got ugly between them, when he couldn't afford the rent on their place alone, he moved in with one of his sisters-in-law. He had nowhere else to go.

After the sex-abuse allegations, Darla's family turned him away, and Darla refused to let him see his kids. He claims she made the allegations out of anger: "She uses it as her weapon. She was just trying to tie me up in court and make me look bad."

Tony's not sure why Ethan would have said what he did to his therapist and the interviewer. "My son said that I, supposedly...I guess I was giving him a bath, washing him like I normally would. He said, 'You're not supposed to touch me at all.' I said, 'That's fine. I'm just trying to give you a bath.' I gave him the washcloth. I would bathe them, change their diapers. Same thing with Eliot. He didn't know how to wipe himself when he started potty training..."

In 2005, in the midst of the dependency-and-neglect case, Tony decided to move back to Arizona. He was depressed, bankrupt and hadn't seen his kids in a year. He wanted to be around family. "I was going to take some time, figure out what to do to get the kids back," he says.

He agreed to the supervised visits recommended by the Denver Department of Human Services because he believed it was designed to help reintroduce the boys to their dad — not protect them from any abuse. But it was difficult getting to the visits. Tony needed to plan each one at least two weeks in advance to get a decent price on a flight, but Darla would say she didn't know what she'd be doing in two weeks, or she just wouldn't return calls to arrange a visit. (Darla says her only request was that Tony not visit the kids on school days during school hours because Eliot was already behind in speech.) A year ago, Tony stopped trying altogether and got himself a lawyer instead.

In August 2006, he filed a motion in Jefferson County District Court to modify the custody arrangement. He asked for unsupervised visits and the right to take them for "significant periods" during summer and school vacations. The motions characterized past allegations against him as having been "inaccurate" or "unsubstantiated." The court responded to his requests by calling for mediation and eventually scheduling a hearing.

Darla never responded to the mediation order, and at the hearing in May, she was a no-show. Tony was surprised. Still, he says he assumed she was receiving the orders and choosing to ignore them — even though she'd never missed a court date regarding their children in the past. "My lawyer handles everything," he says. "I told my lawyer I don't know how to get ahold of her. Just make the best effort you can to try to serve her. I don't know what else to do."

With no one representing Darla or the kids, Jefferson County District Court Magistrate Joe Martinez found it was in the "best interest of the children" that Tony's requests be granted. Tony could pick the children up at the commencement of summer recess and return them one week prior to the start of the school year. He could take them from school at the start of winter break and return them the day before school resumed, and do the same for Thanksgiving and spring break. He could take them out of the state or out of the country. The judge even signed a writ of assistance authorizing police to use "every reasonable means necessary" to enforce the order. Because Darla had failed to allow past parenting time, he ruled that she be sanctioned by fine and possibly imprisonment.

On May 31, Ethan and Eliot's last day of school this year, they insisted on spending time at the playground before they went home. Dan had walked over to Lincoln Elementary to pick them up. He said they could play while he ran on the adjacent track. He'd run a couple of laps, stop and wave to the boys, then run another. As he was finishing his last turn, he saw Ethan running toward him. Dan ran to meet him.

"Bad Tony's here," he said.

Tony had approached Ethan and Eliot on the playground, and Ethan went to get Dan. When he heard the news, Dan rushed to get to Eliot, but Tony got in his way. They shoved each other. Not knowing what else to do, Dan yelled for help on the playground, which was crowded with parents and kids: "Help! A rapist is trying to take my kids!"

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