Toronto Star

Jan. 23, 12:55 EDT

Ont. triplets spend first day at home

Toronto Star

STRATFORD, Ont. (CP) - A set of Ontario triplets allegedly abducted by their mother spent their first day home getting reacquainted with their toys and loved ones, their happy and grateful father said today.

Craig Merkley said he'll be letting his three eight-year-olds do just what they want for the next couple of days after a three-month trip took them to Nova Scotia, Texas, Panama and Mexico.

''They've just come back and I want them to get comfortable,'' Merkley said from his southern Ontario home where well-wishers draped a huge Welcome Back sign. ''They need some rest, too.''

Family and friends greeted the trio with hugs and kisses late yesterday night when they returned to Canada at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

Merkley said the kids were ''very, very happy to be home, that was very obvious.''

''They went up to their rooms and grabbed their toys as soon as they got home,'' he said.

Police say Olivia, Gray and Peter were whisked away by their mother, Carline Vandenelsen, after a supervised visit in Scotland, Ont., on Oct. 14. Craig Merkley was awarded custody of the children five years ago.

A co-ordinated effort between RCMP, Mexican police and the justice departments of Mexico and Canada tracked the children to Acapulco, Mexico after sightings in Halifax and Corpus Christi, Tex.

Merkley left for the sunny destination with police last week and was stunned to find his sons wandering unattended through Acapulco streets last weekend.

''We were driving up this hill, and there were two kids walking down the street,'' he told the London Free Press.

''They were just by themselves, completely.''

His two boys seem bewildered when they saw him.

''They were frozen. They just kind of looked and stared at me,'' said Merkley, adding he felt a mixture of excitement, apprehension and nervousness.

''And then Gray said, 'Dad? How did you get here?' And I said, 'I've been looking for you guys.' ''

''Then they just both walked up to me and kind of grabbed me and held on tight. And I just whispered the kind of things you whisper to your kids.''

Merkley said he was later reunited with his daughter at another location.

Olivia told him she saw his picture on an episode of America's Most Wanted.

''I was shocked when I heard that,'' he told the London newspaper. ''And I said, 'Well, how did that make you feel?' And she said, 'It made me feel really sad that I didn't get a chance to say goodbye.' ''

Vandenelsen, 38, was taken into police custody and could be extradited to Canada to face abduction charges.

Merkley said he didn't know what she had told the children during their flight from authorities.

And in the meantime, he said he won't press for details.

''They have been through a lot,'' said Merkley, noting it will take time to know how the children are doing emotionally.

''I haven't forced anything. I'm just letting that come out on its own.''

Merkley, his fiancee Jan Searle and the three children were mobbed by a crush of reporters at Pearson International Airport when they emerged from the arrival gate Monday night, Merkley still trembling from the reunion.

''I am very grateful for the media,'' he told reporters who met the family.

He also thanked neighbours and townsfolk who volunteered efforts to find the kids, famous in the area for being London, Ont.'s New Year's babies in 1993.

''I could not have done it without the support I have had,'' he said.

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