Pulling Off The Bandages
By Harald Breiding-Buss
The odds were not good for 3- year old Sean when his mother got involved with a guy from Los Angeles’s worst neighbourhoods. This is the story of a courageous father, who saved his son. By Harold Breiding-Buss.
Rob Fitzpatrick was not a man who desperately wanted a son. “I didn’t really care that much either way”, he says.
Neither did he want to “take him away from his mother” years later, and yet, through a series of events that saw his life turned upside down, he ended up as the sole carer of his 6 year old son, Sean.
After having to hire a private investigator to find him in the slums of Los Angeles and save him from serious abuse, the Californian court for the first time awarded custody to a father, who had clearly stated his intention to leave the country. He insisted on getting this in writing.
He wanted to leave this behind him, to be free the moment he boarded the plane to New Zealand with his son.
Everything started out so well. When Rob met Linda, it was a Hollywood movie-like love affair. When they married in Reno, she had a good job as an executive secretary, and Rob was ready to settle down in L.A. after 20 years of travelling and odd jobs in various countries, including working in Aussie mines.
He loved cars and soon had his own restoration business that he ran from home.
Her pregancy came as a surprise, as Linda had been told she could probably not have children. At the time the couple were unaware that little Sean Fitzpatrick has a famous namesake in New Zealand.
Today, Seans dramatic birth seems like an omen of what was to follow in the next 3 years. Linda had a traumatic emergency Caesarian Section, one month before the baby was due. Rob remembers his helplessness amidst the flurry of doctors and their helpers, when Sean’s heartbeat stopped at one stage.
“They knew they had only so much time to get him out. The whole room, people were just yelling”.
Sean spent the first 3 weeks of his life in an incubator. Before he was released, the LA riots over the brutal police beating of Afro-American Rodney King broke out. Los Angeles was under a curfew.
Rob drove across town to see his son and wife, anyway, at risk of being caught, fined, possibly locked away. “These deserted streets were unreal, like out of a horror movie.” he remembers.
As Rob was working from home and Linda had a regular 9 to 5 job, Rob was Sean’s main caregiver from day one. Linda was into computers and, often, went straight to her desk at home to work or surf the Net.
But all was not well in the relationship between Rob and Linda. He found out that she told lies about him, like going to a restaurant with friends and leaving her alone for several hours, while she was in labour. Rob denies this. “I wanted to be with them for every single second of it.”
Today he believes, Post Natal Depression may have had something to do with it, but he was also suspicious of a girlfriend of his wife.
“I think she wanted Linda to have the sort of life she never had. Put all sorts of funny ideas in her head”, he says.
When Sean was just over a year old, Linda decided she needed more space. She moved out, after “cleaning out all bank accounts”, including the money from the sale of an old, much loved Corvette Rob has had for years and sold just the week before. She took Sean with her. Shortly after, they signed an agreement for joint custody.
From then on things went downhill. Linda developed a taste for hanging around in bars late at night and went through a long line of boyfriends.
She left messages on his answerphone several times a day, abusing and cursing him. She lost her job, blew all her money on drugs. A few times she accused Rob of assault and stalking, took out Restraining Orders, which would prevent him from seeing Sean for 30 days. The alternative would have been police supervision.
“I would not do that”, says Rob. “I could put up with not seeing my son for 30 days, but I would not go to the police station and sit there with him while being watched by a cop.” Unlike in New Zealand, Californian Restraining Orders expire after 30 days unless the complainant has produced evidence that violence has actually occured.
So Rob knew that he would have his son back after those 30 days. But, in fact, it did not come to this.
“She did all those things to prevent me from seeing him – but it was really just a way of getting back at me, because as soon as she had him, she begged me to take him back. She couldn’t do it, couldn’t cope with him.”
Linda kept breaking court orders, and often Sean would not be picked up by her. “I ended up with Sean more and more often”. says Rob. She would move in and out of places a lot, some of it in rather bad parts of Los Angeles.
Sean did not like going back to mum, and exchange often had to take place at the police station.
“Sometimes I would be walking back to my car alone and hear him screaming behind me ‘Daddy, Daddy’, and I would drive home with tears in my eyes”.
When Sean was starting to display behavioural problems, Rob enrolled him at a special preschool. At about the same time Linda got involved with Kevin, a relationship that would see 3 year old Sean badly beaten up months later.
“He was a rather agressive sort”, says Rob, “once he had a go at me and rammed me with his car.” After this incidence Rob refused to take Sean back to Linda and got sued for contempt of court. Rob defended himself.
“Of course, I’m in contempt of court, I told them”, says Rob,” but I’m under two laws here: the law as a parent and the law of the State of California. I have to protect my child, even if that means breaking the law of California.” Rob got sole custody of his son.
“Then one day they turned up at Sean’s pre-school, picked him up, threw him in Kevin’s truck, and took off.” Sean was abducted! Rob hired a private investigator, spent “thousands and thousands of dollars” to get him back.
Twice he had to go to the morgue to look at little ‘John Doe’s -unidentified children of Sean’s age. “Looking at these dead babies was like tearing my heart apart.”
After 2 1/2 months they located him in Inglewood, one of the most violent suburbs of L.A.
“Once we found them, I took her to court immediately and she actually turned up. The judge ordered her to bring Sean there, to the courtroom, and hand him over to me, which she did.
When Sean saw me, he was just so full of joy. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy”, he went and hugged me.” Nevertheless, custody for Sean went back to joint custody between his parents.
In November 95 – Sean was now 3 1/2 years old – Rob got a call from Linda at 10 o’clock at night to pick up Sean. He raced across town to find Linda badly beaten up and thrown down the stairs by her boyfriend Her collarbone was broken. But his worst surprise was yet to come, when, back at home, he undressed Sean, who had a big black eye.
The boy had bruises and sores all over his body, front and back, including the legs.
“There is no way you can have an accident as a 3 year old boy that gives you bruises in the back of your knees. You could see the marks where that bastard had held him by his ankles, upside down, and given him a beating.”
Rob took him to see a doctor, they took photos, and the doctor rang the police. “I remember the doctor turning round, red-faced, going “that bastard, bastard, bastard…”
Linda told a social worker that she had told her boyfriend when he came home that night to “take Sean into another room and give him a good lashing”, because he had been hassling her all day.
He didn’t need to be told twice. Kevin already had a conviction for child abuse on his police file. But the police of his local district weren’t interested in prosecuting him. “They were annoyed by my funny accent, thought, why is this strange guy from this strange country trying to mess around with us.”
Kevin was never charged with this crime.
At this point, Rob decided that Sean would not be safe in Los Angeles and wanted to take him home to New Zealand. Linda agreed to this in the custody settlement that followed. On that occasion Rob gave her photos of Sean’s bruises.
“I told her: ‘Pin it to your wall. I want you to remember for the rest of your life, what you’ve done to this little boy.”
Later, when Rob visited Linda in a psychiatric ward, it hit him what an incredible change this woman had undergone. “When I saw her there, screaming like mad, ripping her tubes off, I couldn’t believe it: this is the woman I once loved.” To the present day, he can’t really believe that this has happened, does not really understand why her life deteriorated so much.
When Rob and Sean boarded the plane Rob remembered a song called ‘crawling from the wreckage’. “That was exactly how I felt”. They arrived safely in Dunedin, with Rob leaving behind 16 years of living in L.A.
Sean needed language therapy and lots of “time and love”. He was very aggressive, hitting, spitting at other children.
Two years down the track, Rob says people don’t recognise him as the same boy that he was when they arrived in New Zealand. Sean settled down, thriving in the care of his father.
“I have done many things in my life, but I look at this as my greatest accomplishment”, says Rob. “I was the only person in the whole world who could save this kid.
But his own wounds only really started to heal after he had met the other fathers, which are now involved in setting up the Father&Child Trust Otago. “That was the final piece in the puzzle.” he says., “I’m pulling off the bandages. I’m feeling better than I have in five or six years.”