Sunday, February 21, 1999
Custody suit reveals tangled web of deceitBy Kevin Simpson
Denver Post Staff Writer
Feb. 21 - Like many down-and-dirty civil wars, this one started as a love story.
Steve Sinohui and Ariel Van Rijkhoeven met at a motorcycle rally in 1989, found that they shared an affinity for music and travel, and proceeded to live together for the better part of a decade. Over time, they grew more distant - and then one monumental event changed everything.
Two years ago, Ariel bore a son named Raven.
"As long as she had my child, she had a place to live,'' says Sinohui, now a 49-yearold Lakewood real estate agent. "When Raven came along, I thought this was a second chance, that our relationship could grow strong again.''
"He never gave a damn (about Raven),'' counters Ariel, "until now.''
Now, their relationship has given way to a tale of sex and deceit, a crossfire of civil acrimony and criminal charges that has only begun to sort itself out in court.
Ariel, a 36-year-old lab technician with a history of stretching the truth, already has admitted to a string of lies involving her affair with a high-ranking Air Force officer.
That liaison destroyed the career of John Rabins, a 47-year-old Air Force Academy graduate who met Ariel in 1995 on a Colorado Springs racquetball court. In Ariel's subsequent custody suit, he also was ordered to pay child support for Raven and more than $50,000 in hospital bills for Raven's twin sister - a child Ariel claimed had died, but who never really existed.
The bogus claims came to light only as Sinohui, unaware of the 1998 court case, recognized his failing relationship with Ariel and started looking into his own legal rights regarding Raven, whom he considered his son.
Earlier this month, the Jefferson County district attorney charged Ariel with felony theft and perjury related to the Rabins case. She has admitted to lying and "inadvertently'' defrauding the court. She says she is willing to accept her punishment. Her preliminary hearing is set for next month.
Raven recently celebrated his second birthday in foster care, pending resolution of the criminal case against his mother and the current custody dispute.
But at the heart of the matter lies the separate - and largely fabricated - custody action Ariel filed, and won, more than a year ago. Among the evidence presented in the Rabins case: a blood test that indicates Sinohui isn't the biological father of the little boy who had been living with him.
"My world crashed,'' Sinohui says.
In 1990, Ariel Elizabeth Van Preij changed her name to Ariel Lucien Van Rijkhoeven because, she wrote on the court document, "My parents were murdered several years ago. It is still very painful for me to answer "blood and gore' questions from people who recognize my name.''
Her father had died 10 years earlier. But a Silver City, N.M., firefighter's report listed the cause of death as smoke inhalation during a house fire. Her mother was believed to be alive as late as 1996.
Sinohui says he found Ariel's use of seemingly interchangeable names - Martin, Van Preij, Van Preis, Van Rijkhoeven, Van de Leeuwen - more endearing than mysterious. And besides, she always seemed to have an explanation for everything.
"She could be charming,'' he says. "I loved her. When she'd sit by me and put her head on my shoulder, I'd believe anything.''
Sinohui soon found he wasn't the only one who swallowed Ariel's words whole.
In January 1998, Ariel Van Rijkhoeven took John Rabins to court in Jefferson County and told a heart-wrenching tale. Ariel said Rabins, a married Air Force colonel, got her pregnant with twins and frightened her into fleeing to the Netherlands to give birth.
She went on to claim that one of the twins, a daughter named Celeste, later died after a lingering illness in a Mexican hospital. She walked out of court with $53,000 in medical expenses for the deceased daughter, more than $5,000 in back child support and an order for Rabins to pay $649 a month for Raven.
A court-ordered blood test, administered by the Air Force, pointed to Rabins as Raven's biological father, and he never seriously questioned Ariel's fabricated story about twins - or the phony hospital bill for "Celeste'' upon which much of it was based. He was demoted to lieutenant colonel and forced to retire from the Air Force, losing $550 a month in benefits as a result of the demotion.
"This has really torn up my family,'' says Rabins, who declined to be interviewed further.
Once Sinohui learned of Ariel's fraud in the Rabins suit, he went to court seeking to ensure that she did not flee with Raven. The boy was ordered into temporary foster care. After the judge ordered Sinohui to contact the district attorney, a warrant was issued for Ariel's arrest.
She contested the removal of Raven from her care, but the lawyer for the Jefferson County Department of Social Services, as well as Raven's guardian ad litem, expressed reservations about Ariel's judgment and truthfulness. The order stood.
One of the lawyers referred to "the Villa Italia incident'' as a relevant footnote to Ariel's "ongoing fraud.''
Around 8 p.m. on Jan. 15, 1998 - the same day Ariel filed the custody suit against Rabins - Lakewood police were called to the parking lot at the Villa Italia shopping center on a report of a child left unattended in a car.
At 8:35 p.m., the woman described in the police report as "Ariel Van Preis-Van Rijkhoeven'' returned to her car to find that officers had used a slim-jim to unlock the door and had taken Raven out of the 44-degree chill. According to the officers' report, Ariel at first said she had left the boy with her husband, "Steven Van Rijkhoeven.'' She later admitted that she left Raven in the car and that she "is no longer married,'' the report said. Ariel was issued a summons for child abuse, but the case was never pursued.
Ariel acknowledges "misrepresentations'' regarding her pregnancy and the subsequent birth of Raven, but casts herself as a frightened victim who didn't want to lose her child to a powerful, married military officer.
She contends that one lie snowballed into an avalanche of untruth in the case against Rabins, and that she sought financial support only at the insistence of attorney Leonard Martinez - a contention Martinez vehemently disputes.
"She's saying I pressured her into doing something, which is totally false,'' Martinez says. "The client makes the ultimate decision on what to seek.'' Ariel declined to be interviewed directly, but elements of her account emerge in court documents and in a three-page letter she submitted to The Denver Post.
In the letter, she claims she tried several times to turn herself in to authorities after the Rabins case, but "they wouldn't take me.'' She also describes Sinohui as uninvolved and disinterested in both her pregnancy and Raven's upbringing and refers to various property disputes with him.
Her court filings offer further elaboration.
Ariel says she and Sinohui haven't had sex for the past 4 years, rendering any paternity claims by Sinohui untrue.
Once pregnant with Raven, Ariel says she became "terrified'' that Rabins would attempt to take legal custody of the child. Ariel considered that scenario very possible because, she claims, Rabin's wife felt the affair was "God's will'' and occurred because the couple was unable to have more children.
Prior to Raven's birth, Ariel says, she falsified two birth certificates - one for a boy and one for a girl, because she didn't yet know the gender of her unborn child. She established the birthdate as Sept. 7, 1996, and the birth place as the Netherlands, where she planned to establish residence to make it difficult for Rabins to gain custody.
She chose a date earlier than Raven's eventual birthdate on Jan. 29, 1997, because, she claims, she could not depart for the Netherlands with a child under the age of 4 months. And by the time Raven was born, the two birth certificates already had been recorded in the Netherlands as twins.
Ariel never left the country.
She says military authorities assured her that Rabins would be prosecuted for his affair and serve prison time. She stuck to her story about giving birth to twins overseas in statements to the military because she thought foreign nationality would hinder any future effort by Rabins to gain custody.
"I never intended for things to happen the way they did,'' Ariel says in her letter to The Post. "At the time, I was simply going from "point A' to "point B.' I was doing the best I could, under the circumstances, to keep my baby safe. I never, never anticipated winding up at "point W,' and once there, couldn't figure out how to get out of the mess I was in.''
Rabins, who has never seen Raven, didn't contest Ariel's move for sole custody.
Sinohui says Ariel's claim that they didn't have sex for the last 4 years is false, and that while he suspected Ariel of fooling around over the course of their time together, his "minuscule doubt'' about paternity was soothed by her assurances early in the pregnancy.
Earlier this month, though, DNA test results confirmed that he is not Raven's biological father. "I've steeled myself for this moment,'' says Sinohui, who will nonetheless press his case for custody. "He's not my biological son, but I love him like he was.''
The boy's guardian ad litem reported that Raven is happy and healthy and seems to have a close and loving relationship with both Ariel and Sinohui, who each get one supervised visit per week pending the custody resolution. At the lawyer's request, the court has ordered both to undergo psychological evaluations.
The civil war is far from over.
"I will be punished, of course,'' Ariel writes. "But I don't think it's right to take my son away and hold him hostage to punish me.''
Says Sinohui: "I know I'm fighting an uphill battle. But I can't live with myself if I don't try. I can't give up the fight.''
Copyright 1999 The Denver Post. All rights reserved.