Local case shines light on parental rights
You sprint to his bedroom and take an uppercut to your gut -- all of his drawers are open, his clothes ... gone.
Check the other rooms. His video games ... gone. Your girlfriend's clothes ... gone.
Now comes the dose of reality -- she took your son from the home the three of you lived in.
That disappearance is what Richard Rodriguez experienced on the morning of Feb. 4, 2008, the day after the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
That's the day his girlfriend, Tina Marie Helfer, and their son, Richard "Ricky" Rodriguez Jr., vanished from their Pittsfield apartment.
Since then, Rodriguez, a 41-year-old clerk at A-Mart on North Street, said he has learned through computer postings and phone records that Helfer was having an Internet relationship with a man in Kansas and moved there with Ricky to start a new life.
Rodriguez hired Pittsfield lawyer Rinaldo Del Gallo III, a family law attorney and spokesman for the Berkshire Fatherhood Coalition, and on July 20, Berkshire Family and Probate Court Judge Edward J. Lapointe granted Rodriguez temporary custody of Ricky, now 7.
But in a case that shines a spotlight on parental rights in out-of-wedlock custody cases, the judge's ruling hasn't brought Ricky back, and Rodriguez has no legal standing to file kidnapping or missing-person charges.
In this situation, it's Dad vs. Mom, and Mom remains in charge of Junior, apparently in a state where the custody ruling doesn't apply.
"I just want to see my son again," Rodriguez said. "I miss having him around. He was my entire life."
The following details were told to The Eagle by Rodriguez. Attempts to reach Helfer or several of her friends who remain in the area were unsuccessful. When a reporter visited Helfer's father, John, at his home off of Holmes Road recently, Helfer said he knew nothing about the whereabouts of his daughter or Ricky.
He declined to comment further and closed the door.
Rodriguez met Helfer, now 40, in 1998 at the Tyler Street Cafe, just a few months after he moved from Long Island to find work. She was a 1986 graduate of Pittsfield High School and a former manager at Kentucky Fried Chicken on East Street.
Rodriguez was raised in a foster family. He moved here because he had friends in the area.
Rodriguez said the two fell in love almost immediately and moved in together shortly thereafter. He said they didn't marry because Helfer received disability checks, and their combined income would have dropped if they had.
They didn't make much, but they managed, renting an apartment on Wilson Street and pooling their money.
"We had a great relationship for eight years," Rodriguez said.
Ricky was born on Feb. 6, 2002. Rodriguez said he was a spunky kid who loved to hear stories about pirates, spent hours with his parents playing in the snow, and enjoyed dressing up as Superman.
The couple's relationship soured, Rodriguez said, after Helfer slipped at work and herniated several discs in her back. Out of work, she turned her attention to their computer, spending hours in front of it every day, sometimes deep into the night.
Rodriguez said the two grew apart. They started sleeping in different rooms but vowed to stay together to raise Ricky.
Outside of a shoving match early in their relationship, Rodriguez said there was no physical or mental abuse.
"I never gave her any reason to leave," he said.
Michael J. Wynn, Pittsfield's acting police chief, said there were never any reports of domestic abuse at the couple's residence.
Late in 2007, Rodriguez confronted Helfer about computer postings that he said showed correspondence with a man. Helfer didn't deny it but said, according to Rodriguez: "I'm just doing it for fun. It doesn't mean anything."
With his favorite football team -- the Giants -- in the Super Bowl that year, Rodriguez was invited to a friend's house in Lanesborough to watch the game on the evening of Feb. 3, 2008. He hadn't planned on staying over, but Helfer told him to enjoy himself, have a few drinks and spend the night.
The opportunity to party with the guys sounded good, so Rodriguez kissed Ricky goodbye and headed out. When the Giants won, he called home to see if Ricky had watched.
The two shared congratulatory exchanges, and Rodriguez told his son, "Get some sleep."
The next morning, two days before he was to turn 6, Ricky and Helfer were gone.
Rodriguez said Helfer nearly emptied their joint checking account, leaving just $20 out of $770.
Distraught, Rodriguez called his foster brother, who lives in Maryland, for advice. The brother told him to call Pittsfield Police.
Rodriguez can't file a missing-person report or ask authorities to pursue kidnapping charges because Massachusetts recognizes the mother as the sole custodian in out-of-wedlock arrangements. But five days after calling his brother, Rodriguez hired Del Gallo, an outspoken advocate for father's rights who immediately began filing motions in family court on Rodriguez's behalf.
Del Gallo said the law concerning out-of-wedlock custody arrangements is flawed.
"The fundamental problem is that out-of-wedlock fathers are treated like they don't exist in the statutes until a court says otherwise," he said. "They have no standing. It's completely gender biased."
Professor Charles P. Kindregan, who teaches family law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, said he doesn't believe the law favors out-of-wedlock mothers, but he did say that fathers need to take initiative.
Kindregan, given specifics of the case by The Eagle, said Rodriguez could have protected his rights as a father when Ricky was born if he had had Helfer sign an acknowledgment-of-paternity document that stated he was the biological father.
"This is all very interesting, but in the end the father has no legal standing," said Kindregan, the author of "Family Law and Practice," a four-volume guide on family law practice in Massachusetts. "He [Rodriguez] didn't do anything to protect his legal rights as a father. Unless they can prove the child's in danger, there's no criminal case.
"And the question remains, ‘What is the child's home state?' And since he's allegedly been living in Kansas for more than six months, then that's his home. Kansas has jurisdiction over the case. The father would have to be adjudicated the father in Kansas to win custody."
In the early weeks after Helfer and Ricky went missing, Rodriguez and Del Gallo searched for clues. A copy of phone records showed several calls to a Kansas number over a two-month span leading up to that day. One call even was placed the night of the Super Bowl.
Rodriguez said he called the number repeatedly. A man picked up once and quickly hung up. The line was disconnected within two weeks.
Rodriguez said he appealed to one of Helfer's friends, who confirmed for him that Helfer did take off for Kansas.
"She told me she didn't agree with what Tina had done," Rodriguez said. "She told me that Tina had Ricky calling that guy ‘Dad.' "
The friend, feeling badly for Rodriguez, called Helfer in late February of last year and had her put Ricky on the phone. The friend handed the phone to Rodriguez. They spoke for about a minute.
"I asked him how he was doing and told him that I missed him," Rodriguez said. "As soon as I told him -- ‘Listen, Daddy didn't do this. This wasn't my idea for you to leave' -- Tina hung up the phone. That's the last time I heard his voice."
Rodriguez said several neighbors told him they saw Helfer carrying boxes to a van that Rodriguez believes was owned by one of her friends. Helfer told the neighbors she was cleaning out the basement.
In a preliminary hearing overseen by Judge Lapointe on May 5 of this year, Lapointe ordered the Massachusetts Department of Revenue to forward information on the pending custody hearing to Helfer. A June 15 court date was set.
Del Gallo said the DOR was aware of Helfer's whereabouts because the woman had her disability checks forwarded to a Kansas address.
Helfer never showed up for the court date. Lapointe, in the July 20 ruling, gave temporary custody to Rodriguez.
A full-custody hearing is planned for Nov. 9, when both parties are required to be present to state their cases.
But Del Gallo said he believes the temporary custody order is enough to push several actions into motion. For one, he wants the Pittsfield Police to enter Ricky's name into the Central Registry for Missing Children.
Secondly, he has asked Wynn and Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless to pursue criminal charges, namely kidnapping, against Helfer and enlist the support of the FBI in finding Ricky and seeking extradition.
"She doesn't have the lawful authority to keep the child anymore," Del Gallo said. "She acted as the judge on her own, and this type of behavior should be against the law."
Wynn requested the help of both Capeless' office and City Solicitor Richard M. Dohoney to review the case.
In his review two weeks ago, Dohoney wrote that "at the time the child was relocated, it was done so with the knowledge and consent of the child's sole legal custodial parent," and therefore he is not a missing child.
Capeless said two weeks ago that he sees no criminality in the case and views it as a civil matter.
"This woman had legal custody and she leaves," Capeless said. "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 would appear that attorney Del Gallo is asking Pittsfield Police to do his job on a domestic custody case. It is not up to us to go looking for her. There is no criminal case."
Del Gallo argues that Massachusetts General Law Chapter 208, section 30, called the "removal statute," says it's illegal to remove a child from the state against the consent of the other parent when the child is a native of the state or has resided here for more than five years.
"This is typical of how many fathers are treated in custody cases," Del Gallo said. "I can't even consider how they're not treating this as a missing person's case. The woman is in willful ignorance of the law. We're very disappointed that they are not, at the very least, making any effort to find out the location of the child.
"They have a definitive legal responsibility to locate the child. We need the help of law enforcement here. We need to reunite a father and his son."
On Aug. 10, Wynn contacted Del Gallo and informed him that Pittsfield Police Capt. John Mullin had spoken to a staff member at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children about the case and that the official said the organization would attempt to locate Ricky.
No information has come to light yet.
Rodriguez said he'll hold no hard feelings if Helfer just brings Ricky back. He said he's even willing to go to family counseling or work out a visitation plan, as long as he can be a part of Ricky's life.
"I miss having him around," said Rodriguez, who has since moved to a new apartment on Lenox Avenue in Pittsfield. "Pretty much, I don't have a life anymore. She took my life. I try to keep busy, work as much as I can. But I just sit around the house a lot.
"I was a foster child myself, and I never wanted Ricky to have that kind of life."
The only photos Rodriguez has are 18 pictures given to him by his friends. He still holds on to the few mementos that were left behind the day Helfer and Ricky departed. There's a box full of toys in his attic, things like Power Ranger action figures and board games.
On his kitchen table -- underneath an oven mitt, a pile of change and a set of keys -- sits an unopened "Pirates of the Caribbean" Monopoly game.
It was the present Rodriguez bought for Ricky's sixth birthday.
"I've already missed two of his birthdays now," Rodriguez said. "I raised him his whole life. This isn't fair."
To reach Benning W. De La Mater:
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.