Father, son reunited
PITTSFIELD -- A Pittsfield man embroiled in a custody dispute with his son's mother has been reunited with the boy for the first time since February 2008, according to officials with the Lyon County Sheriff's office in Emporia, Kan.
"It's my understanding that it went very well," Sheriff Deputy Supervisor Daniel Evans said of Wednesday's reunion between Pittsfield resident Richard Rodriguez, 42, and his son, Richard "Ricky" Rodriguez Jr., who is now 8 years old.
Ricky was the subject of a 2009 Massachusetts court order that granted legal custody to Rodriguez. But Ricky had been living out of state since Feb. 3, 2008, when Tina M. Helfer -- Ricky's mother -- suddenly left for Kansas with her son after meeting a new boyfriend online.
Helfer and Rodriguez were a couple when they lived together with Ricky, their biological child, in Pittsfield, but they never got married. In Massachusetts, the mother is recognized as the sole custodian in out-of-wedlock arrangements. That is why Rodriguez could not file a missing-person report or ask authorities to pursue kidnapping charges after Helfer left with Ricky.
A Nov. 13, 2009, order from Berkshire Probate & Family Court Judge Edward J. Lapointe awarded sole physical and legal custody of Ricky to Rodriguez, who had petitioned the court for custody. The order was granted after Helfer failed to appear for a Nov. 9 custody hearing, according to Rinaldo Del Gallo III, the attorney who has represented Rodriguez in the case.
But Helfer, who had legal custody of the child when she left Massachusetts, was unaware of the judge's change-of-custody order and therefore did not commit a crime, according to authorities familiar with the case.
Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless said Helfer did not break any laws when she left Massachusetts with Ricky. "I know of no facts that would change our assessment of this situation," he said Wednesday, echoing remarks he made to The Eagle in an August 2009 interview.
In that interview, Capeless stated: "This woman had legal custody [of Ricky] and she leaves [Massachusetts]. A year and a half later, we hear about a custody change. Our understanding is that this woman had no notice of the change. Therefore, she is not knowingly involved in any criminal violation. ... It is not up to us to go looking for her. There is no criminal case."
Law enforcement officials in Kansas have referred to the case as an "abduction," although Helfer will not face any criminal charges in that state, according to Evans.
Rodriguez declined to comment through Del Gallo, who said Rodriguez was elated from Wednesday's reunion with his son, who left Massachusetts just days before his sixth birthday. The father and son were expected to arrive back in Pittsfield later that day, according to Del Gallo, who will hold a 2 p.m. press conference today outside Berkshire Probate & Family Court on North Street. Del Gallo said Rodriguez will likely be on hand, but Ricky is not expected to attend.
"My client's chief objective was to get his kid back," said Del Gallo, who has criticized authorities for taking so long to post Ricky's name on the website for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Ricky's name appeared for the first time on the center's website last week, followed by online pleas issued over Craigslist. By Tuesday, Rodriguez said he had received numerous phone tips about the location of his son, who had been living in the tiny town of Americus, Kan.
Evans said he was among the authorities who took Ricky into custody on Tuesday afternoon. "[Ricky] was not overly distraught," Evans said.
Law enforcement officials were contacted Tuesday morning by officials at Ricky's school in Americus, said Evans, adding that Ricky was in custody a short while later.
Evans said Helfer was "contacted and notified" that her son was taken into custody, but she was not permitted to see him before he left for Massachusetts.
"[Ricky] is with his father," Evans said.
Pittsfield Police Detective Capt. Patrick F. Barry, commander of the department's Special Operations Division, said Del Gallo first notified city police about a "missing child" in July 2009. Barry said that after police sought a legal opinion from the city's solicitor, it was determined that no law was broken and that Ricky was not a missing person.
Capt. John Mullin, who is responsible for reporting missing children for the department, determined that because Ricky was not abducted, kidnapped or technically missing, his name therefore was ineligible for inclusion on national registries of missing children. Del Gallo has been critical of this determination process, however, arguing that Ricky should have been categorized as missing as soon as Helfer removed him from Massachusetts.
"It was a big mistake for this child not to immediately be considered missing," the attorney said.
A preliminary court order in July 2009 gave Rodriguez temporary custody of Ricky, followed by the November 2009 order that gave him permanent custody of the boy.
After spending the night at a friend's house, Rodriguez returned to the Pittsfield apartment he shared with Helfer and Ricky on the morning of Feb. 4, 2008, and soon realized that his girlfriend and son were gone. He later learned through computer postings and phone records that Helfer was having an Internet relationship with a man in Kansas and had moved there with Ricky to start a new life.
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