Toronto Sun

January 23, 2001

Triplets home again

Dad found kids wandering in Mexico

By DICK CHAPMAN -- Toronto Sun


PHOTO: Mike Cassese, SUN
Stolen triplets home safe: Craig Merkley cuddles with his kids (from left) Olivia, Peter and Gray last night at Pearson airport after he arrived back from Mexico with them. "The kids are all in one piece and they're happy to be here," Merkley said following their 14-week abduction, allegedly by their natural mother.


The Merkley triplets arrived back home in Canada last night with their dad and his fiancee in a joyful, tearful reunion with grandparents, relatives and family friends at Pearson Airport.

 Covered with insect bites, having had repeated ear infections and even a dog bite on a Mexican street during their 14-week abduction -- allegedly by their natural mother Carline Vandenelsen -- the kids nonetheless seemed none the worse for wear.

 "The kids are all in one piece and they're happy to be here," Craig Merkley, 44, said after catching his breath when a crush of media rushed to meet him and Peter, Gray and Olivia -- who turned eight years old Jan. 1 -- at Terminal 1.

 "There are are so many things to be thankful for. They seem to be okay physically. I think mentally, it's going to be a challenge. I've been told that's not something you deal with right away ... We have a lot of support in place for that."

 Merkley said he always "had hope" he'd find his kids. "That's what I hung on to, but I was not certain," Merkley said. "There's an awful lot of parents out there who are in my situation ... I feel bad, in a way, to have been so lucky to have all the help I've had in the last period of time. I don't think everybody is fortunate enough, as I've been, to have that type of help. I just feel humbled, I guess."

 Two days ago, he literally stumbled upon two of his children -- Peter and Gray -- who were wandering alone on an Acapulco, Mexico street after police there arrested his ex-wife, Carline Vandenelsen, and recovered Olivia.

 "I was in a back street, a narrow street in Acapulco. We were driving up this hill and there were two kids walking down a street. One of them didn't have a shirt on and they were just by themselves completely," Merkley said.

 'WEIRD FEELING'

 "It's a weird feeling. I wasn't expecting it. I haven't got the words to describe that yet, but it was a combination of excitement, apprehension, nervousness. You've worked so hard to get that far and they're standing right in front of you. What do you do?"

 What Merkley did was jump out of the car and shout happily at his two sons: "Hey, what are you guys doing here?"

 Merkley said his sons were "stunned" to see him. Then they ran and hugged him tightly around the neck, he said.

 Merkley credited veteran CITY-TV reporter Peter Silverman with crucial work that brought in an anonymous phone tip leading to a break in the case about 10 days ago.

 "It boiled down to some investigative work from a reporter that did it -- 'Silverman Helps'" said Merkley, who works as a conservation specialist with the Thames River Conservation Authority in London, Ont.

 Merkley refused to surmise what motivated his ex-wife, who lost legal custody years ago, to allegedly take the triplets into hiding during a supervised day visit -- at her own mother's -- in late October, and then on an international chase.

 "She has no sense of what damage she's done to a number of people, let alone the kids," he said.

 Merkley said he learned their mom had them watch a segment of America's Most Wanted, and had seen their dad's picture on TV.

 His fiancee, Jan Searle, whose own children Brittany, 14, and Devon, 21, were among the welcoming party, had plenty to say about Vandenelsen, who's been arrested and charged with unlawful removal of children from legal ustody.

 "The six days we spent in Mexico were absolutely excruciating," she said. "We had a lot of fears for the kids' safety. We were very concerned about what might happen, or that they might get away again."

 Searle said she found the triplets in a healthy mental state.

 "They didn't seem traumatized. I would have expected much more," she said.

 "They were very very glad to see us, which felt really good.

 Searle is taking the triplets to a doctor today. "They're covered with bites, I'm assuming (insect bites). ...Peter told us he was bitten by one of the dogs on the street ... I'm very uncomfortable with that. She put them in great danger."

Copyright © 2001, Canoe Limited Partnership.