L. A. Times

August 31 2002

Kidnapped Boy Is Found Safe

Abduction: Authorities return Nicholas Farber, 9, to his father, hours after issuing 'Amber alert.' His mother and a man are arrested at a camp near San Diego.

Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

Nicholas Farber with his mother, suspect Debra Rose.
Nicholas Farber, 9, kidnapped in Palm Desert early Wednesday, sits in a patrol car in Jamul with his mother, suspect Debra Rose, 38, before returning by helicopter to his father. Nicholas reminded officers to get his mother’s medicine before she was taken away.
(NELVIN CEPEDA / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Nicholas Farber
Nicholas Farber, abducted by masked gunmen in Palm Desert, is moved from a helicopter as he is escorted home by officers.
(Associated Press)

Michael Farber, Nicholas' father.
Michael Farber, left, arrives at the Palm Desert sheriff’s station to reunite with his son.
(Associated Press)

JAMUL, Calif. -- Nicholas Michael Farber, the 9-year-old boy snatched from his Palm Desert home this week in a violent predawn abduction, was discovered unharmed Friday at a remote campsite east of San Diego, and his troubled mother, suspected of orchestrating the abduction, was taken into custody.

Earlier in the day, officials had issued a so-called Amber alert, which included a detailed description of the motor home that investigators believed Nicholas was in, down to the kangaroo decals on its sides. Hours later, a security ranger at Thousand Trails' Pio Pico, a membership-only campsite and recreation park about 20 miles east of San Diego, saw the RV.

The ranger, Harold Stayton, said he watched a television news program to confirm that the license plate on the motor home matched the information contained in the Amber alert that flashed on freeway signs across Southern California.

When he found that it matched, he called authorities. Shortly after noon, a phalanx of San Diego County sheriff's deputies and California Highway Patrol officers surrounded the motor home with guns drawn. After several requests--authorities heard "scurrying" behind the motor home's drawn curtains, an official said--Nicholas' mother, Debra Rose, 38, and an unidentified man emerged with their hands raised.

Nicholas, his hair dyed and cut to mask his identity, was inside, "frazzled but otherwise OK," said a CHP officer, Steve Lopez. Before agents could sweep Nicholas off to a waiting helicopter, the boy begged officers not to separate him from his mother, Lopez said. His mother, though she was handcuffed, tried to comfort him by stroking his bangs and forehead before she was placed in the back of a sheriff's van. Nicholas reminded officers to get his mother's medicine before she was taken away.

Nicholas was flown in a helicopter to the Coachella Valley, where he was quietly and privately reunited with his father at a Riverside County sheriff's substation. The father, Michael Farber, 47, had been beaten by the two gunmen who burst into his Palm Desert home around 2 a.m. Wednesday and took Nicholas.

"We don't just have good news--we have great news. We have Nicholas. And he is safe," a beaming Riverside County Sheriff-elect Bob Doyle said at a hastily called news conference.

Investigators surmised that Rose, fighting to keep custody of the boy despite a recent arrest at her home in Colorado Springs, Colo., had embarked on a desperate flight--one that was doomed from the start, they said.

Some suspect she was en route to Mexico, but officials pointed out that it would have been difficult at best for her to cross the border in a motor home that police throughout the West were searching for.

Even the popular campsite they chose, peppered with live oak and cactus and part of the Thousand Trails park network, was particularly crowded because of the Labor Day weekend, a ranger said.

Still, Doyle conceded that, before the ranger's tip, investigators had been at a loss, though they had earlier spotted Rose's pickup truck in a casino parking lot near Las Vegas, and though they had been able to provide the public with a detailed description of the motor home.

"Seriously, we did not know where the motor home was," Doyle said. "They could have been anywhere in the country. Up to 12:25 [Friday] we did not know where the vehicle was."

Stayton, 69, said his stomach was in knots when he realized he was looking at the motor home.

"I was just doing my job," the ranger said. "The real hero is the Amber alert."

Rose will probably face both state and federal charges, officials said.

The investigation into the kidnapping--the latest in a series of dramatic child abductions that has alarmed parents nationwide--is not over.

Authorities suspect the man taken into custody at the campsite is one of the two gunmen who broke into the Farber home, but they weren't sure Friday evening. And at least one of the two men who carried out the abduction was still at large.

Investigators continued searching for Rose's friend and former Colorado Springs roommate, Carla Bender. Authorities had thought Rose was traveling with Bender, who has also been labeled a suspect in the kidnapping.

"She has some culpability," Doyle said.

FBI agents were also scouring a Laguna Niguel neighborhood Friday.

Rose's aunt, Julie Dohle, 60, lives in the neighborhood next door to two sisters, one of whom owns a motor home similar to the one seized Friday. One sister also has used the last name--Benvenuto--that Rose used to register at the campsite. Property records also show that the sisters have lived in Florida, and the motor home has a Florida license plate.

Nicholas was wearing only his briefs when he was kidnapped, but Rose appeared to have clothes waiting for him after he was abducted, officials said.

He had been fed and "it doesn't appear that he was harmed or neglected in any way," said Riverside County Sheriff's Deputy Lisa McConnell.

After several other high-profile abductions, such as that of Danielle van Dam in the San Diego area, ended in death, law enforcement officials involved in the case described a feeling of overwhelming joy when Nicholas was found.

"When you have a child abducted in a violent and dangerous way, and then the child is found safe, that's just pure elation," said FBI Special Agent Matt McLaughlin. "That's why we're in this game."

Michael Farber and Debra Rose were married in 1991 and divorced in 1995. For Rose, it was the third of five marriages and divorces.

Nicholas lived with his mother in Colorado until earlier this month, when Rose violated a restraining order in a dispute involving another ex-husband and was jailed briefly in El Paso County, Colo. Michael Farber, who manages an upscale Mexican restaurant in Palm Desert, received a phone call from an acquaintance, suggesting that he go to Colorado to collect Nicholas. He did, and he received temporary custody of the boy on Aug. 23.

Largely because he was unhappy with the conditions Nicholas was living in, Michael Farber decided to seek full custody, his attorney said this week. He and Rose had been assigned a Sept. 5 court date in Orange County to debate the boy's future.

In court documents, Michael Farber accused Rose of being a drug addict and said she suffers from such severe migraine headaches that she is unable to hold a job or care for the boy.

Farber also wrote in court documents that Rose had become so disruptive at times at Nicholas' school in Colorado that she had been banned from the campus unless she restricted her visit to its administrative offices.

Rose's fourth husband, Stanley Rose, filed an affidavit in support of Farber's petition for custody of Nicholas, saying that Debra Rose is addicted to prescription drugs, including morphine. Stanley Rose, saying he was concerned that Debra Rose is unstable, was granted a permanent restraining order against her this week in Colorado Springs.

At the campsite Friday, families continued to arrive in recreational vehicles even as investigators, ducking under yellow crime scene tape, poked around the motor home and prepared to tow it north to Riverside County. Campers were alternately captivated and terrified at the sight.

"We've never seen anything like this here," said Rosa Tejada, an Ontario resident who visits several times a year. "This is very scary. This is a family place and you think it's safe."

The Amber alert issued for Nicholas on Friday provided motorists and law enforcement officers with a detailed description of the Bounder motor home that they suspected Rose and the child were in.

It was one of two alerts Friday.

The other was issued for 9-year-old Cierra Rose Walden, whose mentally disturbed mother, Pamela Rose Walden, 50, apparently abducted the girl Wednesday from a foster care facility in Madera, Bakersfield police said.

Bakersfield Det. Mary DeGeare said the girl was placed in foster care after her mother told health officials she was communicating with God through a computer chip placed in the girl's head. The mother also insisted that someone was trying to kill the girl and blame her.

In that case, officials were looking for a blue 1999 Hyundai Accent sedan with California license plate 4SHV526.

Authorities said Friday evening that truckers who had seen the Amber alert about Cierra on roadside signs spotted the Hyundai and tried to surround it and stop. But the driver was able to get away.

Amber alerts include more than flashing freeway signs advising motorists to watch for a particular vehicle. The CHP also issues advisories to the media for broadcast on radio and television and provides detailed information for other law enforcement agencies.

A dozen Amber alerts have been issued since Gov. Gray Davis ordered the program to begin July 31.

Last week, an alert helped locate 10-year-old Nichole Taylor Timmons, who was abducted from her Riverside bedroom and taken to Nevada. Police arrested a 68-year-old man who had been her baby-sitter.

But officials said Friday they are careful not to overuse the system. The Highway Patrol screens each request to ensure each case meets certain criteria. The child, for example, must be in imminent danger.

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Times staff writers Tony Perry, Jeff Gottlieb and Eric Malnic contributed to this report.

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times