This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2003, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Holding her toddler, Aubree Riegel answered a knock at her parents' door. Her father, his hands in shackles, was standing on the porch between two FBI agents.
"They have Papa in handcuffs," she screamed. K.C. Merrill admonished her daughter never to joke like that, but then she saw Aubree's face and when K.C. rushed to the door, agents placed her under arrest also.
Crying, Aubree grabbed her mother's shoes. She reached for K.C.'s wallet.
She scrambled to find her mother's blood pressure medication, but couldn't. Then, she kissed her parents goodbye.
Fifteen days later, Stephen Riegel emerged from the Salt Lake County Jail as Edward LaBois, K.C. as Karri. And the Riegel name disappeared forever. After 19 years on the run for a crime they didn't commit, Edward and Karri LaBois were free to use their real names.
In 1984, under investigation for alleged sexual abuse, the couple gave up their lives in Minnesota, cut all ties with family members and moved west. They assumed fake identities, worked a series of menial jobs, mainly in small towns, and kept to themselves.
They were a family with a goal to keep out of prison and protect their daughter from state custody, where Edward and Karri worried Aubree would be fed lies about her parents' alleged abuse.
Nov. 10, 2003, was not the first time police unexpectedly arrived at the LaBois family doorstep.
A social worker and a Minnetonka, Minn., police officer demanded to talk to Karri in July 1984 about allegations of child abuse. Karri watched three children and two infants at an unlicensed day care she ran out of her home at the end of a modest cul-de-sac.
Police say a woman found her 4-year-old daughter playing naked with a toy doctor's kit. The girl told her mother everyone played that way at the LaBois day care, including the adults, according to court documents. The girl later denied saying this, but social workers suspected she changed her story so her parents would let her return to the day care.
Karri wasn't home when police arrived, but authorities later obtained a court order allowing Sharon Satterfield of the University of Minnesota's Human Sexuality Program to interview Aubree, who, like the girl from the first report, was 4-years-old.
The LaBoises' shock quickly turned to fear.
Just 30 miles away in Jordan, Minn., recent allegations of atrocities against children had sent the community into a panic. Stories about ritual sex abuse filled the newspapers.
In the summer of 1983, more than 60 adults were either charged or accused of molesting more than 100 children in Jordan, according to a report from the Minnesota Attorney General's Office. The children told stories of torture and murder, but the high-profile prosecution led to only one sexual assault conviction.
Similar cases were sprouting across the country in the early 1980s involving day cares, teachers and parents. The hysteria surrounding ritual sexual abuse has since been largely debunked as a witch hunt.
Edward and Karri hoped the psychologist would conclude Aubree had never been sexually abused -- but they packed a couple bags, just in case.
Satterfield interviewed Aubree on Sept. 4, 1984, at her University of Minnesota office with the help of anatomically correct dolls. During the interview, Aubree described a sexual game involving touching and said "she was spanked when she told her parents that it hurt," court documents say.
Satterfield recently told The Salt Lake Tribune the nature of the allegations made her worry about Aubree even before the interview took place. For the first time in her career, she asked a social worker to fill out the necessary forms to take the girl into state custody right there. After the interview, Satterfield placed Aubree with her secretary and then told her parents "your child will not be coming home with you today."
In a panic, Karri pushed past Satterfield and grabbed her daughter. Edward blocked anyone from stopping her.
"We were all kind of stunned," Satterfield now says. "This is one of the most traumatic events during my history as a psychologist."
And it was a life-changing event for the LaBoises.
"We went right to the airport," Edward says, intending to spirit Aubree away until she turned 18. Karri paid cash for two one-way tickets to San Francisco.
Today, Aubree, 23, remembers parts of the interview and driving away. Her parents simply told her she was going on a trip.
"I don't remember it as a traumatic experience," she says. Edward saw it differently. He watched Karri and Aubree fly away, then he got a motel room.
Edward, who ran a one-man marketing company and worked as a professional cleaner, remained in Minnetonka for two weeks to sell off his businesses and ship some family items to his mother-in-laws' California storage shed. He also found new homes for his pets, including a declawed bobcat named "Tang." But, mainly, he savored a few last moments with his family.
His adoptive mother, Marie LaBois, was 83 and suffering from congestive heart failure. She lived with Edward, who was her primary caregiver.
"I snuck back to the house, past the [police] lookouts," he says. "We talked. It was hard for her to understand how this could happen."
He told her he would probably never speak to her again. Before he went to San Francisco, Edward also penned a letter to each of his adult sons from a previous relationship. The letter explained that he had been falsely accused of sexual abuse and had to flee. "Beware of the government that consumes its own citizens," he wrote.
Edward and Karri were charged with intrafamilial sexual abuse on Sept. 11, 1984.
Starting over: Friends harbored Karri and Aubree until Edward arrived. The family briefly moved to a motel.
"It was a very emotional time," Edward says, mostly because they thought every cop car was coming for them.
Edward bought a birth certificate for $50 from someone on the street. The dated document was filled out by hand. Edward erased the first name but left the surname Riegel. Once he could duplicate the handwriting, he called himself Stephen, made a copy of the document and created a birth certificate for Karri, using the name Katherine Carrie Merrill. She went by K. or K.C. most of the time.
Edward, now Stephen Riegel, changed his appearance -- shaving his trademark mustache and gaining weight. His clothing turned from "white collar" to "blue collar." He found work as a plumber.
The middle-class Minnetonka couple with a big home and two cars were forced to take a string of menial jobs to stay afloat. K.C. worked briefly answering phones at the plumbing company and then was paid under-the-table to serve cocktails at a jazz bar.
The reborn Riegels stayed in San Francisco for a year before moving to Pollock Pines, Ca., just outside of Sacramento, a location more suitable to their small-town preferences.
Stephen commuted to San Francisco each week, but soon gave up on the city and became an independent plumber in the small mountain community of about 3,000 people.
"They called themselves mountain folk. We fit right in," he says. "Everybody knows everybody."
They stayed in an 18-foot travel trailer the family purchased for $100 in a fire sale. Stephen fixed it up.
The small town, K.C. says, "gave us a chance to have our animals," which included a wolf, a parrot and numerous house cats.
The couple worked hard. The three other plumbers in town would push mainly rooter work toward Stephen, while K.C. cooked at area restaurants.
Aubree turned 11 when Pollock Pines became a little too large for her parents. The town had just started paving the sidewalks and the three plumbing companies had blossomed into 13 when Stephen and K.C. loaded up the travel trailer and headed for Idaho in 1991. They settled in Coeur d'Alene, where Stephen continued plumbing and K.C. landed a job at the Target in-store restaurant.
When Aubree turned 12 in this Kootenai County town, the Riegels told her about their assumed names and the sexual assault charges.
"She has been 100 percent clear on exactly what happened," Stephen says.
Aubree sensed her family was different but until then didn't know why or how. She took the news in stride. "It never stopped me from being a kid."
"I knew it never happened," she says.
After awhile they moved from the trailer park into their "sanctuary," a small cabin in Bayview, Idaho.
K.C. describes Bayview as "a nice little fishing town with one grocery store and five bars."
Genevieve Miller, who lived across the street in Bayview, says the Riegels kept to themselves. "I can't say they were actually friendly with anyone around," she says. "Their daughter was pretty well out of hand. She was a boy magnet."
The only social event Miller remembers was a barbecue K.C. held for her Target co-workers. Sheri Skalak, who worked for K.C. at the department store, attended that barbecue.
K.C. is "very outgoing, very caring. A great boss and a good friend," says Skalak, who was shocked to hear about the allegations.
"They were very hard working parents," she says. "They provided the best life they could for Aubree."
Aubree, who calls herself a tomboy, felt at home in the 30-student high school and relished the freedom her parents gave her.
But on May 8,1996, county Deputy Sgt. Dan Mattos stopped Aubree and a friend as the then-15-year-olds were hitchhiking on Highway 95 -- Idaho's primary north-south artery -- to a barter fair in Newport, Wash., more than 30 miles away. They carried bed rolls, food and a hatchet to chop firewood. Mattos tried unsuccessfully to call Aubree's parents and then took her home.
The encounter, though, didn't tip off police.
"That wasn't on my mind at the time. All I thought about was 'I got to get to that barter fair.' "
The last move: Aubree enjoyed moving to new places. "It was adventurous, fun. I liked it. Until that last move."
Target asked K.C. to relocate to the Salt Lake Valley in late 1996 to help open a store on Fort Union Boulevard. Getting antsy to move again, K.C. and Stephen agreed.
They were shocked by the high rents when they moved to Taylorsville and Aubree never felt comfortable at school. The large number of students scared her. The police officer stationed at the high school made her uncomfortable.
"I was different, a country kid. I didn't fit in," she says.
During her junior year, she dropped out.
For a year and a half, she cleaned houses for cash, keeping state and federal tax records clear of her name. Worried about police finding her family, Aubree refrained from getting a driver license. Aubree has never cashed a check, gone to a dance club or bought her own pack of cigarettes. While in Salt Lake City, Aubree gave birth to Thayne, now 1, and moved in with her boyfriend, Thayne's father, Craig Morley.
Stephen had an easier time adjusting. He worked a couple small plumbing jobs and then tried telemarketing before answering a classified ad for a bus driver at the Work Activity Center. The center cares for disabled adults. For five years, he drove people with severe physical disabilities from their homes to the center, never missing a day. A pre-hire background check failed to unmask his identity.
"The Work Activity Center had a real human aspect to it," he says. "I just liked it."
K.C. stayed on with Target, but moved to the Sandy store and eventually took a better offer from a competitor.
Their days consisted of "going to work, going shopping, maybe getting some movies and then going home," K.C. says. And, after turning into bed, they suffered recurring nightmares of being chased.
"You would never, ever forget," K.C. says. "I would wake up with a horrible dread feeling."
Stephen has never been able to shake his anger at authorities in Minnesota, he says. "The rage has always been more than the fear."
Crime or punishment? The couple's escape with their daughter, and ability to avoid detection using fake names and Social Security numbers, is extraordinary when compared to the hundreds of men and women ensnared by false charges of sexual abuse during the 1980s.
The most famous case involved the McMartin preschool run by Ray Buckey, his sister, mother Peggy McMartin Buckey, grandmother Virginia McMartin, and three other teachers in California. Children at the preschool described satanic rituals and sexual abuse that supposedly occurred in underground tunnels. But after two trials, and years of incarceration for Buckey and McMartin Buckey, jurors either deadlocked or voted for acquittal.
Later studies by task forces convened around the country determined investigators in child abuse cases too often asked leading questions. While the LaBoises were in hiding, many states, including Minnesota, revised their interviewing techniques of children.
In 1992, Utah formed a "Ritual Abuse Crime Unit," which issued a report that contained little evidence to substantiate what was perceived as a widespread problem. The unit later disbanded.
Nevertheless, child sex abuse is a serious national problem. A Department of Justice study conducted from 1991 to 1996 found 67 percent of all sexual assault victims were juveniles and 34 percent were under age 12.
In Utah, child sexual abuse cases continue to hover around 16 percent of all substantiated complaints filed with the state Division of Child and Family Services. In 2003, DCFS investigated 2,112 substantiated cases. In 2002, 1,939 cases and in fiscal 2001, 1,750 cases.
In 1991, Arvin Shreeve of Ogden and 10 members of the Zion Society were arrested and charged in a sexual abuse ring. Shreeve later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to up to life in prison.
In 2003, allegations against the LaBoises were as real and serious as they were in 1984.
As Aubree grew older, she came to believe the hiding would end. Every time she saw a suspicious car parked near their home she would think: "Is this it? Are they here for us?"
Captured: On Nov. 10, outside their rented West Valley City home, headlights blinded Stephen as he walked the garbage to the curb. Two FBI agents placed him under arrest.
The family was "less than cooperative," the FBI says, and would not admit their real identities at the beginning. Eventually, Stephen admitted to being Edward and K.C. to being Karri.
Two decades of hiding came to an end. Agents were acting on an anonymous tip from someone in the Salt Lake Valley. Edward, 60, and Karri, 49, say they have a good idea who turned them in, but have no plans to confront the person despite their anger.
Jail officials told Karri to change her attitude and be more helpful after she accidentally signed her name as K.C. Merrill twice on her booking sheet, she says. It's a habit she still finds hard to break.
In jail, inmates targeted her the first time her mug shot appeared on television news.
"I was taunted, tormented," she says. "Some barked at me like I was a dog."
One woman assaulted her saying she was a "baby raper." A fellow inmate helped end the fight. For safety reasons, jail personnel moved Karri to a 23-hour lockdown cell for five days.
This was Karri's first experience in jail, but not Edward's. He spent some of his adolescence in jail on burglary and robbery convictions.
"I was a real rogue when I was younger," he says.
Edward spent most of his 15-days in lockdown.
He paced around his small cell for 10 hours a day hoping to get tired enough to sleep. He made four toilet paper balls that he moved in a coordinated pattern on a small table to help him keep a daily routine of exercises straight. He would do a yoga stretch every 15 minutes for five hours and then push-ups or sit-ups every 15 minutes for the next five. He lost 20 pounds.
Aubree spoke by phone with her mother once, but never visited either of her parents because she lacked a driver license or other form of identification needed to get into the jail.
On Nov. 18, Edward and Karri waived extradition in a short court hearing conducted via short-circuit television. Then they sat in jail and waited for Minnesota authorities to come get them.
Meanwhile, Minnesota prosecutors were giving the case a fresh look.
No one at the Minnetonka Police Department remembered the LaBoises. They found their file in a vault. The original investigator, Michael Atkinson, now worked for the Hennepin County Attorney's Office. He assisted prosecutors in locating the original witnesses and examining the evidence, including the taped interview psychologist Satterfield conducted with Aubree.
What police characterized nearly two decades ago as "numerous pictures of children in the nude" turned out to be pictures of a young Aubree playing in the tub.
None of the people who attended the LaBois day care claimed to be abused.
Even more significant, neither did Aubree.
While her parents sat in jail, an investigator spent hours interviewing Aubree at their home. He showed her police reports and let her view the Satterfield interview, according to Paul Scoggins, who heads the Hennepin County Attorney's violent crime division.
"She was leading me to say things," Aubree says. "She made me uncomfortable."
On Nov. 25, prosecutors dropped the charges.
Edward and Karri were released in time for a low-key Thanksgiving dinner.
"We had a great Thanksgiving," Karri says. "Probably the most we had to be thankful for."
Reunion: The night her parents were arrested, Aubree received a voice mail that caused her to scream. For the first time since she left Minnetonka as a 4-year-old, she heard the voice of her stepbrother Lance.
"My biggest concern right away was for Aubree, because I knew she would be all alone," Lance LaBois, 39, told The Tribune from his home in Grand Rapids, Minn.
A guard at the jail gave him Aubree's number. She waited 20 minutes before returning his call.
"We were both a little quiet at first," Lance says. "It was just nice to hear her voice."
The first thing Aubree said was, "When can I see you guys?"
"I never forgot about them. Papa never forgot about them," she says.
Since their release, Lance and his older brother Eddie have talked to their dad on numerous occasions.
"They sound the same -- just older," Edward says.
Edward apologized for not being in their lives for nearly two decades. He asked about the three grandchildren he has never seen. Lance never doubted his father's innocence.
But not all of their conversations have been jubilant.
Lance told Edward his mother died in January 1992 at a nursing home in Bagley, Minn. On her death bed, surrounded by her grandchildren, Marie LaBois told Lance that if he ever saw Edward again to tell him that "she loved him very much and that they would see each other in heaven."
"She was in poor health when they fled," Lance says. "She hoped she would see them again. She couldn't wait any longer."
Despite everything, the arrest brought relief. It confirmed his father was alive, Lance says, "and I knew it would somehow bring us all together."
Jump page A15: Courtesy of Labois family Aubree LaBois, 23, who lived most of her life on the run with her parents, now has a boyfriend, Craig Morley, and a son, Thayne. She says she didn't mind the moving around. "It was adventurous, fun. I liked it. Until that last move." It was there, in the Salt Lake Valley, that she felt she disliked her school. "I was different, a country kid. I didn't fit in," she says. The large number of students scared her, and the police officer stationed at the high school made her uncomfortable. During her junior year, she dropped out.
Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune
Jump page A14: Graphic: The LaBoises' fugitive flight (map)