The Meanest Divorce

He kidnapped their kids. She bankrupted his family. He hid out for seven years. She had him put in jail. A story of love turned to hate.

October 1992By Comments

“TELL ME SOMETHING,” CHUCK SMITH asks, fixing me with a Rasputin-like stare. “Would you let your kids suffer? Would you break the law to keep them safe?” His voice, usually as fervent as an evangelist’s, drops to a half-whisper. “Would you sacrifice everything for your own kids?”

I have come to Cuernavaca, Mexico, fifty miles southwest of Mexico City, to meet Houston’s most infamous father. In 1984, while divorcing his wife, Carolyn, Chuck Smith, then 26 years old, the scion of one of Houston’s wealthiest and most politically influential automobile dealers, kidnapped his own two sons—Charles, age 6, and Christopher, only 4—and vanished for more than seven years. Chuck testified that the boys tearfully begged him to take them away from their mother, who had become so addicted to prescription drugs that she slept through the day, forgetting to feed them, shaking them when they woke her. On occasion, Chuck said, she refused to allow them out of their room, forcing them to urinate in the closet. Fearing that the divorce courts would still not give him full custody, Chuck decided there was only one thing to do. “What self-respecting father,” he asks, his 250-pound body looming over me as he paces the room, “would leave his boys in that environment?”

Although family abductions, as the United States Department of Justice calls them, are not all that unusual—thousands happen each year during custody battles, with the kids usually brought back within weeks—Chuck Smith’s crime played out in Houston like a torrid soap opera. Depending on who you talked to, Chuck was either a noble hero or a villainous member of a vengeful family, willing to do anything to keep control of the boys. The slim, hazel-eyed Carolyn, the daughter of a middle-class Houston oil-field supply manager, was either a monster of a mother or a victim of monstrous lies.

Charles and Christopher, on the other hand, became something of a cause célèbre, their faces appearing on milk cartons, their kidnapping featured on a network television show. The Houston media detailed Carolyn’s futile efforts to find them—from her desperate flight to England to her tumultuous courtroom showdowns with Chuck’s family. Law enforcement agencies from both sides of the Atlantic—the FBI, Interpol, Scotland Yard—looked for Chuck. There were rare sightings of Chuck and the boys—in Scotland and Switzerland, then in Greece and Mexico. But over those seven years and four months, Carolyn never got a phone call from Chuck, not even a letter informing her that her children were alive. He always stayed a step ahead, slipping across borders, telling his boys to pack their little suitcases and get ready to move again because “Carolyn is catching up.”

Finally, last January, when the FBI closed in on Chuck and the boys in Cuernavaca, a lot of people thought the story had come to its logical end: Chuck would go to jail, and the boys would be returned to their mother. When thirteen-year-old Charles and eleven-year-old Christopher stepped off the airplane in Houston to meet Carolyn, however, they didn’t even recognize her. “It’s me, your mother,” she said, her body going weak. But they refused to call her Mom, and they would not let her hug them.

Obviously, this is no mere custody dispute. For many people who have followed the case, the struggle over the two blond-haired boys has turned into a dark parable about the world of adults—about the way they will destroy one another and even themselves, all for the love of children. Since his arrest, a tanned and handsome Chuck has told swarms of reporters that he will never stop fighting to keep Charles and Christopher from Carolyn, that he will prove his case, winning them back at some future date. “As God is my witness,” Chuck declares, “I will see that my boys get their wish to be with me.”

Meanwhile, at her small home in Sugar Land, a suburb of Houston, Carolyn Smith locks both bolts on the front door, worried that Chuck, or someone else from his family, might try again to steal the boys. “My children are now with me,” she says, “and I don’t care what Chuck Smith tries to do. He won’t have them back.”

WHEN TWO PEOPLE HEAD INTO A COURTROOM for a divorce fight, especially one involving the custody of children, you can be certain that no one is going to tell the whole truth. Both sides, highly aware of the answers that could turn the proceedings to their advantage, tend to present thick gumbos of claims and counterclaims. Some stories are dredged up from the past, others conveniently forgotten. Psychologists arrive with expert testimony. And, of course, there are the lawyers, masters of the language of blame, fueling such anger between the couple that compromise is rarely possible.

For nearly a decade, in one court setting after another, many people have been trying to find out what happened to the marriage of Chuck and Carolyn Smith. To this day, no one is sure who originally wronged whom. In thousands of pages of depositions and trial transcripts, there is hardly an anecdote about the marriage that both sides agree on. Any story Carolyn or one of her family members tells is contradicted, down to the tiniest of details, by Chuck or one of his family members—and vice versa. As one lawyer familiar with the case says, “It all comes down to which misinformation campaign you want to believe.”

Nor do court records reveal the reason why Carolyn and Chuck’s matrimonial squabbles turned, quite suddenly, into an obsessive, poisonous fight. To understand that, you have to go back to the summer of 1977, when a cute teenage girl walked into a Ford dealership in downtown Houston. All divorces begin with a love story, and the story of Chuck and Carolyn Smith’s romance was in many ways nothing but a foreshadowing of the tragedy to come.

In 1977 Carolyn Shaffer was eighteen, just graduated from high school, working as a secretary in her first full-time job. She was not a particularly sophisticated young woman. In high school, she was far from socially popular or academically outstanding—“I was more like a wallflower,” she would later say—and she had no plans to go to college. She was simply a product of the kind of unpretentious working-class family that populated the southwest Houston suburbs. Her father, Daniel Shaffer, started working in the Oklahoma oil fields when he was only eleven and had come to Houston during the great oil days of the mid-seventies. Broad-shouldered, with an unflinching stare and taciturn manner, Shaffer once made his family change churches in Sugar Land because he thought the people in the first church “were the type who stick their nose up at you.”

If the Shaffers were the salt of the earth, the Smiths were delighted to be the pepper. When Chuck’s father, Chick Smith, came to Houston in 1975, he was already a famous Florida auto dealer. Chick Smith Ford in Clearwater, near Tampa, was reputed to be the largest-volume retail dealer for Ford in the southeastern U.S. A jockey-size man with a kind of bantam rooster strut befitting his name, Chick was energetic and charming, an ingenious salesman who, according to one of his associates, “could meet you and within five minutes make you feel like you had known him all your life.”

Chick talked Ford executives into selling him a defunct dealership in downtown Houston with the promise that he could move it within three years. Chick could sense that a new boom was coming to Houston—but the new Texans, he said, were going to head north of the city, far from the tract-house neighborhoods of people like the Shaffers. By 1979 Chick had moved his dealership to the suburb of Spring, next to the Goodyear blimp base off Interstate 45. During promotions he gave away shotguns and cowboy boots, even trips to Las Vegas, to those who bought new cars. The silver-haired Chick was always at the dealership, wearing a black suit and dark tie and gold Texas-shaped cuff links. He inundated Houston with television commercials: Chick would sit on a stool and snap out prices and deals in an annoyingly enthusiastic voice. “Shop anywhere you want in the world, but check with Chick last,” he’d bark. By 1982 Chick Smith Ford was one of the Houston area’s top dealerships, selling an estimated 350 new cars a month, and Chick had become an influential north Houston businessman, a friend to judges, politicians, and law enforcement officials.

After Chick opened his north Houston dealership, all three of his children—two sons and a daughter—moved from Florida to work for him. Investigators who have spent years following the Smith case marvel at the way the family has always stuck together, working in the same offices, living near each other, even going so far as to refuse to answer a prosecutor’s questions to protect one of their own. Asked why the Smiths would want to risk everything to keep control of Chuck’s two sons, friends and former business associates invariably refer to this feeling of family loyalty. They recall how Chick Smith passionately talked about his own childhood—how his father abandoned the family when Chick was only four and how Chick’s overworked mother, unable to keep a close eye on him, sent him to a military school. As an adult, Chick was obsessed with driving home the importance of family to his wife and children. “Chick,” says one former friend, “was not going to let the same thing happen to anyone in his family that once happened to him.”

No one worshipped Chick Smith more than his youngest son and namesake, Charles William Smith, Jr., known as Chuck. As a kid Chuck was famous for his cocky ways, brashly reminding other kids who his father was. He quit high school in his senior year, telling his father that he was ready to follow in his footsteps in the car business. Although Chuck had to start at the bottom, working in a small office with two other salesmen, there was no question that he was being groomed to run a dealership. Like his father, he wore dark suits and ties. He picked up Chick’s emphatic speaking style; it was difficult to distinguish the voices of Chick and Chuck over the telephone. He went through the salesman’s class, where he memorized the Chick Smith Ten Step Plan, a series of basic rules on how to greet a customer, make him feel at home, and persuade him to buy a car. At eighteen, Chuck was on the floor at Chick Smith Ford in Spring, selling cars.

“At that dealership,” Chuck says, “I succeeded above expectations in each and every department I worked in. I was the best salesman. I was the best manager. I was the best at anything I put my best effort into.” Other salesman considered Chuck such a pompous imitation of his father that they derisively nicknamed him “the Little Rooster.” But to an impressionable girl from Sugar Land looking to buy her first car, there was something thrilling about a young man her own age—the dealer’s son, no less!—putting his leg up on a fender and breezily rattling off a sales pitch. Carolyn Shaffer bought a silver-blue Mustang, and Chuck—impressed, he says, by Carolyn’s “long Texas legs”—asked her out for dinner. He took her to the revolving restaurant on top of the Hyatt in downtown Houston and, according to Carolyn, told her about his dad’s big home in Florida. It was love, glorious young love. That night, recalls Carolyn, they decided to get married.

Chuck remembers it differently. He says he didn’t decide to marry Carolyn until she told him, a few months after they had met, that she was pregnant. He felt trapped. He says that he overheard Carolyn’s mother, Shirley, telling her early in their courtship, “You handle this guy right and he’ll be your ticket to fame and fortune”—and that, as a result, Carolyn got pregnant in order to secure her way into his family.

Regardless of which version of their romance is correct, the fact is that Carolyn and Chuck came from two very distinct worlds. In March 1978 those worlds collided, as Chuck and Carolyn, both nineteen years old, got married. For the rehearsal dinner, Chick Smith rented a ballroom and hired a band at a hotel adjoining the Galleria. The Shaffers threw the wedding reception in a room at the little Sugar Land church where the ceremony was held. There, the Smiths were disgusted to find punch being served in plastic champagne glasses.

IF CHUCK AND CAROLYN SMITH were un-suited for one another, they initially didn’t have much time to notice. Two months after they were married, their first child, Charles, was born. Carolyn stayed home and took care of the baby. Chuck was always at work, six days a week, usually past ten o’clock at night, “wearing out more shoes,” he says, “than four other salesman combined.”

In 1980, around the time that Chuck was promoted over far more-experienced salesmen to the position of new-car manager, Carolyn gave birth to their second son, Christopher. They were still very young, but as a former executive at the dealership recalls, “To everyone who knew them, they seemed happy on the outside.” Often when he would close a big deal at the office, Chuck would buy Carolyn jewelry, once bringing home a diamond-embedded ring in the shape of an “S” (for Smith).

Carolyn, however, knew she was never part of the Smith inner circle. For one thing, the Smiths made no pretense about their dislike of the Shaffers. Chick met Daniel and Shirley Shaffer for the first time during the weekend of the wedding and scarcely saw them again. As attorneys for the Smith family would later make clear in custody hearings, the Shaffers were far from the perfect family. Carolyn’s sister, they alleged, went through a period during which she used illegal drugs and worked as a topless dancer, while one of Carolyn’s two brothers had undergone counseling for what he called a “psychological battering problem I had with my family.” Although Carolyn had no blemishes on her past, the Smiths were not very fond of her either. “They thought she was a dumb blond, an airhead,” says Jo Larsen, a friend of the Smith’s eldest son, Mark. Larsen remembers how, on family outings, no one would direct any conversation Carolyn’s way. “She was ignored, just like a little church mouse who would sit in the corner,” says Larsen. “It was obvious to me that they didn’t think she was good enough to be the mother of Smith children.”

But the family’s problems with Carolyn, Chuck says, had nothing to do with her personality. Almost to the day Charles was born, Carolyn began having headaches. As a result, he says, she ignored her responsibilities as a mother. Chuck insists that he had to feed Charles at night because Carolyn didn’t want to get out of bed. He did the laundry and prepared the boys’ meals in the mornings. “Let’s face it,” Chuck says. “Some people can’t handle the responsibilities of children. It drives them straight up the wall. I love children; I love them jumping on my back; I love them being my best friend. Carolyn wasn’t capable of giving hugs or kisses.”

Carolyn heatedly denies Chuck’s claims. She alleges that Chuck shook the kids when they were making too much noise and that he would shove or threaten her if she failed to meet his demands. But she does admit that she was having no success handling her headaches. “They felt like somebody had pounded me on the head with a hammer all night,” she says. As the years progressed, the headaches worsened. Sometimes, she says, they were so excruciatingly painful that she could not pick up around the house or prepare meals or chase after the boys. During such periods, she readily allowed Charles and Chris to stay with relatives—not with the Shaffers (Chuck wouldn’t permit it) but with Chuck’s mother, Pat, and Chuck’s sister, Kim. Sometimes, testimony later revealed, Pat and Kim would keep the boys for as long as two weeks a month. Carolyn could hardly complain about their treatment: The boys were given nice gifts and taken on trips to Florida. Nevertheless, she soon felt her in-laws were trying to control her sons, coming over unannounced to visit them, telling her what the boys should eat and when they should see a doctor.

From such small disputes are marriages ruined. By 1983, Chuck and Carolyn’s relationship had slid into that brutal world of bitterness and retribution. Nearly ten years later, it is amazing that the intensity of their arguments has not even begun to diminish. Carolyn, for example, still tells a story about Chuck’s pushing her against a wall in 1983 because he was angry at her for buying the wrong kind of bulb for the lamp in the bedroom ceiling fan. In a five-minute rebuttal, Chuck insists that he was assembling the ceiling fan from parts scattered on the floor, when Carolyn, woozy from a large dose of headache medication, staggered into the room. To save her from falling on one of the sharp fan parts, Chuck says, he had to grab her and hold her against the wall.

In the Houston media’s coverage of the Smith marriage, Carolyn is always portrayed more sympathetically, the helpless casualty of Chuck’s domineering ways. It is, in fact, difficult to find evidence to suggest that Chuck was a significantly better parent than Carolyn. For one thing, he was usually at the dealership, not at home, when the kids were awake. (In one legal deposition, Chuck had difficulty recalling any activities he did alone with his kids during all of 1983.) He also has admitted in court that he had an affair in early 1983 with a woman he met at a Bennigan’s.

But what is often overlooked is that Carolyn herself made a disastrous mistake, one that would call into question her own strength of character. Unable to cope with her headaches, she began taking more and more pills. She would plead for extra medication from various doctors, including one who told her that he suspected the headaches were not migraines but were psychosomatic. By March 1984, Carolyn had filled prescriptions for an astonishing 586 doses. There was no question about it: She was getting hooked.

Carolyn says now she unconsciously turned to the medication to escape the torment of a bad marriage. That might be true, but her drug use undoubtedly took its toll on the children. Her neighbors started noticing how Charles and Chris would spend hours outside, playing by themselves. A few times the boys wandered over and asked to be fed. They looked dirty, improperly clothed. Their mother, the boys said, was asleep in the house.

How often Carolyn neglected the boys is, of course, in dispute. Carolyn says she never left the boys unattended for any significant period of time, while Smith family members allege she was so doped up that she couldn’t carry on a conversation or walk straight. In one court hearing, Chick Smith said Carolyn’s house “resembled a derelict hotel in downtown Houston. I have witnessed dog manure all over the floor that had been there obviously for hours, because it was hard. I have witnessed food left over from who knows when on the table.”

In order to watch over the boys, Chuck says he quit his job at the dealership to work near his home at his father’s ranch. Yet in April 1984 Chuck left home for a week-long horse show (leading some observers to suggest that Chuck must not have felt Carolyn’s problems were all that serious). Right after he left, Carolyn dropped the boys off with the ranch manager’s wife, went to her doctor’s office to get a shot of Demerol, and then drove home to sleep off its effects.

When the Smiths heard about what she had done, they exploded. Arriving back at the ranch manager’s home the next day, Carolyn was met by Pat and Kim. They said Chuck had been informed that the boys had been dumped at the ranch and that he had ordered them kept away from Carolyn until he returned. According to Carolyn, both Pat and Kim then told her, “You’ll never see your kids again.”

AND SO THE LINES WERE DRAWN for a modern-day custody war, one that would play out like a classic Greek tragedy, with all the characters eventually brought down by their own rage and need for revenge. In Texas, where court-ordered alimony is banned and community property issues are resolved mostly by accountants, the most vicious divorce fights are always waged over the children. And according to one lawyer involved in the Smith case, the battle for Charles and Christopher between these strikingly dissimilar families quickly became Houston’s equivalent of “the Hatfields and McCoys, possibly the Montagues and the Capulets.”

After her confrontation with Pat and Kim, Carolyn says she contacted the sheriff’s department, which told her there was little it could do in such a family matter. Using money given to her by her father, she then hired a prominent Houston divorce lawyer, Lindsey Short, and prepared to file for divorce. He gave her a quick piece of advice: Hire a private detective to find the kids. A judge, he said, will tend to look more favorably on a mother who walks into a divorce hearing with possession of her own children. About a week later, Kim pulled into a car wash with the two boys. Carolyn, her father, and a group of private investigators swept in from the rear. Someone snatched Christopher, and Kim and Carolyn both tugged at Charles. Kim claims she was pushed to the ground. According to Kim, one of the men shouted, “What do you think you are doing, bitch?”

It was a confusing, hysterical moment for the boys. Here they were with Auntie Kim, and suddenly Mommy was bundling them into another car. Crying with fright, they were raced toward Sugar Land, where they were eventually hidden in the home of an elderly widow friend of the Shaffers’.

Immediately the Smiths were after them. In a private helicopter, Chuck ordered his pilot to swoop down on the Shaffer’s Sugar Land home. Constables whom Chick knew from north Harris County went to look for the kids in Sugar Land. Chick also had $4,000 in cash delivered to the office of Clyde Wilson, the most prominent private eye in Houston, to secure his services in finding the boys.

No one could find them. For Carolyn, it was a pivotal moment in her life—this wallflower of a woman finally standing up to the Smiths. But for the Smiths, Carolyn had committed the ultimate act of betrayal, snatching away two boys—Smith boys!—that she did not deserve to have.

After Carolyn filed for divorce, a hearing was convened to decide temporary custody of the boys. In cold, even voices, Carolyn and Chuck took the stand to tell how terribly unfit the other was to raise children. After moving through a minefield of contradictory testimony, the judge gravely warned Carolyn to cut back her use of prescription drugs, but he still gave her temporary custody of the boys, pending the outcome of the final divorce trial; Chuck would be allowed weekend visitations. To most people in the courtroom, his decision was no surprise—most divorce court judges in 1984 favored maternal rather than paternal custody—but the Smith family was in shock. An executive from the dealership who was with the Smiths watched Shirley Shaffer triumphantly shake her fist at Chick as everyone filed out of the courtroom. “Uh-oh, that’s it,” the executive thought. “Chick will never stop now until he has won.”

Indeed, Chick told his associates at the dealership that he would spend every cent he had to keep the Shaffers from getting the children. He hired off-duty police officers to maintain round-the-clock surveillance on the Shaffers’ home, where Carolyn was staying with the boys. Chuck also was “near panicked,” according to one of his lawyers, about the safety of the children. When he arrived to pick up the kids for his weekend visitations, he brought along a paramedic to check for signs of physical abuse.

A month after the first custody hearing, the Smiths’ lawyers persuaded a second judge to convene a rare “emergency intervention” hearing to listen to testimony that the boys were being abused by Carolyn. This time, the attorneys portrayed the Shaffer family as a clan as deviant as William Faulkner’s Snopeses. Smith family members testified that they had seen dark bruises on the boys’ arms and legs and that Charles had received a black eye. On the witness stand, Carolyn claimed she had stopped taking prescription drugs, then confessed in the cross-examination that she had not stopped taking Triavil, an anti-depressant tranquilizer. According to sources, the judge literally fell asleep. Needless to say, he denied the emergency motion.

Later, because of docket overcrowding, a judge reset the final trial date for the divorce to January 1985, which played right into Carolyn’s attorney’s hands. Every good divorce attorney knows that the longer the children are kept with one parent before the trial, the less likely a judge will change custody arrangements. With this postponement, Carolyn would have time to settle down and cut back her use of prescription drugs. (In fact, court records show that her prescription orders and her headaches began to drop as soon as she separated from Chuck.)

Unfortunately for her, Chuck Smith had devised another plan. On September 21, 1984, Chuck picked up his sons for his previously arranged weekend visit. Charles and Christopher hugged Carolyn good-bye, and then, Carolyn remembers, Charles hugged her again. “Don’t worry, Mom,” he said. “We’ll be back.”

Carolyn had known the boys were anxious about something—they had recently been hinting about a secret their father had told them—and two days later, when they did not come home at the appointed time, Carolyn suspected what that secret really was. She made frantic phone calls to the Smiths, who said they didn’t know where Chuck was. A few days later, she filed a missing person’s report with the Sugar Land Police Department.

But it was too late. Chuck and the boys had first flown to Tampa. Then, using aliases to cover their tracks, they bought tickets for the next flight back to Houston, where Chuck had left a car in the airport parking lot. He says he drove himself and the boys to South Texas, where a man met them and took them across the Mexican border. After a few weeks, they flew to Rio de Janeiro, Spain, and London. For a year and a half they crisscrossed Europe, then returned to Mexico to make their new life in Cuernavaca, a city where few questions are asked of the rich Americans who come there to be left alone.

THERE WAS ONLY ONE TIME in those next seven years that Carolyn got close to her sons. In January 1985, on the very day that she was at the courthouse receiving the final divorce decree and obtaining full custody of the missing children, her private investigators illegally obtained Chick’s phone records and learned that he had been dialing a number to a lodge in Scotland.

The next day, Carolyn and an investigator were on a plane for England. To their dismay, six rows in front of them was Chick, accompanied by a Harris County deputy constable, apparently acting as his bodyguard. As it turned out, the lodge owner had informed the Smiths about a suspicious phone call from a woman pretending to be Chuck’s sister, Kim. Obviously, Carolyn had found them—and the race was on for the boys.

On the plane, Chick and Carolyn never spoke. In London, for some undetermined reason, Chick and the constable slipped through customs easily, whereas Carolyn was detained for six hours by British authorities and then ordered to file court papers that would allow her to take the boys back to the U.S. Securing the papers took a few days; by the time she and her investigator drove up the narrow mountain roads to the lodge, the Smiths were gone. When Carolyn asked the lodge owner if she could just look at the rooms where her two sons had been living, he refused. He had been told that she was an abusive mother who was trying to kidnap the boys, and he asked her to leave.

A desperate Carolyn had already decided that if she couldn’t see her sons, she could at least make the Smiths suffer as she had suffered. With the help of Randy Donato, a lawyer three years out of law school, she filed a civil lawsuit against the entire Smith family, claiming they had participated in a conspiracy to aid and finance Chuck’s kidnapping of the boys. But cavalierly, the family refused to tell Carolyn anything. When asked under oath about Chuck’s whereabouts, they would either claim to have no knowledge of his location or take the Fifth Amendment and refuse to answer.

At the trial, jurors were appalled by the Smiths’ attitude. Although Carolyn had asked for only $2 million in damages, they awarded her an unbelievable $53 million, reportedly the largest sum for damages ever given in such a case. Afterward, an unrepentant Chick walked up to Donato and told him he’d never see a dime. And he made good on his word: After losing his appeal in the civil case, Chick went into hiding, with Pat and Kim, en route to a new life in Georgia, mum as to his whereabouts. On the lam, Chick gave up his beloved Texas dealership; later, when Donato picked up his trail, he filed for personal bankruptcy.

But Carolyn wasn’t done fighting. She turned to a young Harris County district attorney, Edward Porter, who was so inspired by her story that he tacked a picture of Charles and Christopher next to his desk. Porter was able to persuade a grand jury to indict Pat on a charge of assisting Chuck’s child custody interference, yet even he knew it was a weak case. His best evidence was a rental car agreement that Pat had signed in England; Porter claimed the car was used to transport Chuck and the boys. A jury easily acquitted Pat—and there seemed to be nothing more anyone could do.

AS THE YEARS PASSED, CAROLYN began to doubt whether she would ever see her sons again. Those who knew her during that time often talk about the changes that came over her. There was something so remote about her. Refusing to trust anyone, she lost all her friends. She stopped going to her parents’ church. On the rare occasions when she would step outside her parents’ home, she would barely speak to the neighbors. She says whenever she would hear about a plane crash somewhere in the world, she would wonder if her sons had been on it. At grocery stores she would see a little blond-haired boy in the distance, and she would find herself starting after him, calling out the name of one of her sons. At night she would dream that she was in a house full of empty rooms. Suddenly, she would see Charles and Christopher—and then, just as suddenly, she’d turn around and they would be gone.

Then, in May 1990, Larry Boucher, an investigator for the Family Offenses section of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, decided it was time to clean out an old file cabinet. As one of two investigators in his section, Boucher has plenty to do; Family Offenses gets four thousand phone calls a month from citizens complaining of domestic disturbances from bigamy to wife beating. But he was intrigued by a thin yellow folder he found hidden far in the back of a file drawer. He sat down to read a brief summation of the case against Chuck Smith.

“What’s being done on this?” Boucher asked. Immediately he went to work, at first hitting nothing but dead ends. Chick and his family were so well hidden that Boucher could find little relevant information about them on national law enforcement computers. Working with two irrepressible amateur private eyes—Skip Nichols, who owned an insurance office, and Millard Land, who owned an automobile repossession company—he traced the names of every “Charles Smith” and “Christopher Smith” registered in schools in various states and Canadian provinces. He clandestinely tailed Chick for a week. In a last-gasp effort, Boucher made a phone call to NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries and begged a producer to listen to his story. On January 20, 1991, Unsolved Mysteries ran a segment on the missing boys and asked viewers who might have information to call the FBI. More than four hundred calls flooded in. When the show was rerun the following July, the FBI got more calls, including one from a Cuernavaca schoolteacher who gave the exact address where Chuck and the boys were residing.

The Smiths were living in an upper-class neighborhood, in a large five-bedroom home surrounded by a fifteen-foot wall—practically impossible to scale without a ladder. Around the swimming pool in the back yard were gloriously colored tropical flowers. The boys were attending Cuernavaca’s most prestigious private school, and Chuck was engaged to a pretty Mexican woman, Ana Traconi, whom the boys were already calling Mom. There was no question that Chuck had become a better father since he left Houston. Raising his children had become his passion: It was his way of showing the world that he was right. Ana says she fell in love with Chuck when she saw his gentle nature around children. Chuck would quit work in the middle of the afternoon—he owned a small gardening company and jointly operated a chemical-supply company with Ana—to pick up his boys from school, and on weekends he was always taking them on trips to places like Acapulco.

It seems impossible to believe that two boys, ages four and six, would not at least be interested in their own mother, even if she had been neglectful as a parent. But Chuck says that not once in their seven years on the road did the boys say they missed their mother. He says that when he asked them if they wanted to return to Houston to see her, the boys would firmly shake their heads no. “No, Daddy,” Chuck recalls Charles telling him. “I don’t want to go back. You told me we’d never go back. You promised.”

Although the Mexican government was unwilling to do anything about Chuck’s case—parental kidnapping is considered a domestic dispute, not an extraditable offense in Mexico—a persistent Larry Boucher sent letters pleading for assistance to a high State Department official and to George W. Bush, the president’s son, whose secretary notified the White House. It is not known what effect the letters might have had, but on January 13, 1992, Mexican officials devised a way to deport Chuck and the boys for immigration violations. When they arrived at Houston International Airport, at least a dozen armed officers were waiting for Chuck. “Dad,” Charles said, “would you look at this show?”

THE TRIAL, HELD IN MAY, had all the bathos of a B-movie—lawyers delivering horse-opera speeches, witnesses weeping on the stand, spectators rustling in their seats. “My God,” said Marilyn Skinner, the official court reporter, during one recess, “I feel like I’m transcribing a Danielle Steel novel.”

On opening day, Chick Smith, back from his self-imposed exile, came striding down the hallway of the Harris County courthouse in one of his trademark black suits, his lips slightly curled into a thin smile. A few onlookers gasped. Television lights fired up. Reporters rose to their feet. It was as if Howard Hughes had just arrived.

The courtroom gallery also strained for a look at Chuck. Sitting at the defense table with his head bowed, Chuck certainly looked like the grieving parent. Throughout his four-and-a-half-month stay in jail, he had written more than fifty letters to his sons—all of them dutifully photocopied by the defense in case they were needed as evidence—in which he adamantly declared his love. “Our love is stronger than all the lawyers in the world!!!” he wrote. “We are a family and we allways [sic] will be.” But like a Greek chorus, the reporters covering the trial endlessly speculated about his motives. Was he really the good father? Or did he take the kids out of spite?

There were just as many questions about Carolyn’s new relationship with Charles and Christopher. In pretrial interviews with the Houston media, Carolyn put a good spin on things, saying she and the boys were cordial, gradually getting to know one another. Christopher, she said, had almost hugged her. But others who had been over to the house said the boys were barely speaking to her. Privately, Carolyn had admitted that she was locking her bedroom door at night because Charles scared her and that he had once hit her with a belt, apparently angry that she was trying to put his father in prison.

From a strictly legal point of view, the case was open and shut. Chuck faced the rather mundane charge of “interference with child custody,” a third-degree felony, which required prosecutors to prove only that Chuck had violated a court’s custody orders by taking his children out of the state for at least seven days. But in opening arguments, Stanley Schneider, a tenacious Houston defense attorney who had been working for the Smiths for years, told the jury, “This case is about the love of a father, his fear for his children, and his desire to protect them.” He walked over and gently placed his hands on Chuck’s shoulders. Chuck’s eyes closed. In his dark suit, he looked as if he was praying.

Schneider’s strategy, obviously, was to try the old 1984 custody hearings all over again—to prove to the jury that Carolyn had been a pathetic mother and that Chuck was legally justified in kidnapping his own kids. Prosecutor Ed Porter objected vehemently. After years pursuing the Smiths, he wasn’t going to let Carolyn become the scapegoat. Pacing around like a mad ostrich, he told the jury that the only issue was whether Chuck—that “smooth-talking, fast-walking salesman”—had broken the law.

Briskly, Porter presented the facts. For his last witness, he called Carolyn Smith. To those who had not seen her since her days as a young mother, she looked like a different woman. At the age of 33, Carolyn’s skin had turned pale, the color of eggshells, and the lines had grown tight around her mouth. She came to the stand wearing a navy dress with a pink blouse, highlighted with a pink bow.

Porter refused to ask Carolyn any questions about the details of her marriage. He simply wanted to know if she had given Chuck permission to take her kids for seven years and four months. “No, I did not,” Carolyn said, her voice quavering. Chuck was watching his former wife intently, and for a moment she looked back. After all this time apart, after all the viciousness, they were still strangely intertwined, their fates linked forever in their children.

When Chuck took the stand, he wasted no time ripping into Carolyn, bringing up her past drug use and alleged neglect of the boys. Chuck took in great intakes of air and then blew out slowly. “I saw a woman killing herself in front of me, and she didn’t care,” he said, sobbing. “I saw my children dying, and she didn’t care.” He cried several more times during his testimony, especially when describing his feelings for his children: “I spoiled them with love! I gave them love every second of the day!”

If Chuck was expecting through his testimony to get a single sympathetic look from a juror, he failed. But Chuck was not the star witness. Into the courtroom, in shiny white tennis shoes, the bangs of his blond hair cut straight across his forehead, walked Charles Smith, age fourteen. Nothing else in the trial would come near the sheer dramatic power of this moment. Finally, after almost a decade of legal warfare, of adults showing their most fiendish natures, of lawyers ranting for the rights of children, a child would get to speak.

Charles was in the throes of puberty. He was gaining weight, he had blemishes on his face, and his voice squeaked. That day he had tried to get out of testifying in the courtroom, but Schneider had met with him and said, urgently, “Your dad needs you.” As Charles tentatively sat down in the witness chair, he gave a thumbs-up sign to Chuck.

In short, mostly one-sentence answers, Charles spoke first about his early years with Carolyn in Houston. She “screamed a lot at us,” he said. “She was real mad. She used to lock us in our room and yell a lot, I remember.” Charles then said he recalled her taking “a lot” of medicine. “We woke her up to feed us, and sometimes she became angry.”

Charles described his love for his father (“He’s helped me with my life, made my life better”) and how he wanted to go back with him to Mexico. And then Stanley Schneider asked Charles about his feelings for his mother. The young teenager did not hesitate.

“I don’t like her. I have no feeling for her, and I never will,” he said.

It was a stunning moment. Here was a boy exonerating his own kidnapping. The jurors were focused on Charles’s face as if nothing else existed in the courtroom.

“Did you have feelings for Carolyn before you left?” Schneider asked.

“No, not that I can remember,” Charles said.

In his final argument, Schneider said there should now be no question in anyone’s mind that the boys felt they were in eminent danger. But Ed Porter told the jury that Charles’s testimony was like a tape recording, that he had been subtly conditioned over the years to believe that his mother was evil.

Surprisingly, no matter what Charles said, the jurors took just 21 minutes to side with the state. What especially outraged the seven women on the jury, they later said, was the fact that Chuck never gave his boys a chance to know their own mother. Chuck was convicted and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, approximately the same amount of time he had kept the boys.

Ed Porter and Carolyn Smith tearfully embraced, but to those watching from the fringe, it seemed like a hollow victory. Although both families in the fight said they were broke from the legal battles, their bank accounts and retirement incomes stripped, they pledged to press on. Within minutes after Chuck’s sentencing, Chick Smith held a press conference in the courtroom. “I am terrified of those boys being with that woman,” he said, his voice swelling with anger. Citing a highly publicized case in Florida in which a boy was given the right to divorce his parents, Stanley Schneider later hinted that Charles and Christopher would file a similar lawsuit and try to divorce Carolyn. Meanwhile, Carolyn’s lawyer, Randy Donato, had filed another lawsuit against the Smiths to try to obtain their home and assets.

After filing an appeal over his conviction, Chuck was released from jail on an appeals bond and allowed by the judge to return to Cuernavaca. There he remains, pacing his home, continuing to wage a moral crusade against Carolyn. “They are being guarded like prisoners in that house,” he tells me. “They are not permitted outside activities for fear that they would get on an airplane and leave.” To prove what kind of life they once had, Chuck drives me around the city, past Charles and Christopher’s school, where a group of schoolmates had recently taped a video telling the Smith boys how much they were missed.

IN THE MIDDLE OF A JULY AFTERNOON in Sugar Land, there is the sound of two bolts unlocking, and then the front door opens. “Come on in,” Carolyn Smith says to me. Charles comes out of his room, where he has been playing video games, and good naturedly offers a high-five greeting. Christopher, a good-looking kid who turned twelve that month, has just come in from Fame City, a nearby water park that he has nicknamed Babe City because of the girls who flock there. For a house allegedly in a state of siege, everything appears to be quite normal. The boys don’t seem angry at Carolyn’s presence. She watches them play basketball out in the driveway and then sits beside them at the kitchen table to have a soft drink. She giggles at the way her sons tease two small children who wander over from next door.

But when I come back for another visit to see the boys alone, another story emerges. “Oh, we’re not scared of Carolyn,” Charles tells me. “You know, she’s okay to joke around or play with. But we won’t do any of that lovey hugging and kissing stuff with her. Never! We’re just biding our time until we can leave.” Christopher nods his head in agreement, then looks around, already bored with the conversation.

While it cannot be said that her house is a prison environment, Carolyn has certainly cut off the boys’ access to their father. She does not allow them to read Chuck’s letters—she says the letters falsely bolster the boys’ hopes that they will soon return to Mexico—and she allows them to talk to Chuck only once a week on the telephone for 15 to 25 minutes. During the conversations, Carolyn stands next to the phone.

It hasn’t helped. A well-known Houston psychologist who worked with Carolyn and the boys for about six months tells me the boys “have such a positive picture of their father and have spent so many years exposed to an absent mother that there’s not much Carolyn can do. Even if she has won the legal battle, she is pretty much destined to lose the emotional one.” The pscyhologist pauses. “It’s heartbreaking to say this, but Carolyn can’t make those boys feel any closer to her. She’s put out all this effort and gotten nothing back. I think it has become emotionally very damaging to her—and to the boys—to live like this.”

Carolyn is acutely aware of what the psychologist has said. “He thinks it’s best that I just go ahead and send them back to Mexico,” she tells me as she walks me to my car at the end of one of my visits. She looks down her narrow sun-bleached street in Sugar Land, her eyes blinking rapidly behind her glasses. “After all these years, there were so many things I had hoped”—but she cannot finish her sentence. Carolyn Smith’s face finally crumples and tears slip down her cheeks.

A minute later, she regains her composure and heads back to the house, making sure to slide the double locks into place after she shuts her door.

Related Content

  • DC is Evil

    What a dysfunctional family Chick raised. Fortunately for the rest of us, he’s no longer with us — he’s gone to that great used car salesman building in Hell.

    • ralph

      It is so strange and sad to see this story. I was raised in St. Petersburg/Clearwater Florida and used to see Chick Smith, the father of Chuck I now learn, on television ads every single day for years when I was a teenager. I didn’t like him but my father pointed out to me one day that although I didn’t like him, that from a salesman’s standpoint, I was talking about him and remembering him at least. I had to acknowledge that.

      But now, reading this story, I can’t help but feel that although the mother, Carolyn, had a dependency on tranquilizers it would appear, it also seems clear to me that her need for them was mostly if not exclusively caused by her marriage to Chuck Smith. There is just something dishonest about Chick and his son Chuck as well. I don’t even think the Smiths understood the energy I am speaking of. I don’t mean they meant to be dishonest exactly but I believe, emotionally and spiritually they were. I mean that they were shaming and overbearing and acted better than others/hi pressure and that that energy disabled Carolyn such that she needed drugs to deal with it.

      I hate to say it but I think maybe the simple act of dating for awhile/not getting sexual so fast rather than marrying right away might have smoked out some of the important differences they and their two families had but instead they got sexual fast and then got serious and then they “had to” get married because she got pregnant so there you go. Then they spend the next xx number of years trying to back out of the consequences of marrying/getting sexual too quickly.

  • santini

    I actually worked at the Chick Smith Ford dealership in Clearwater,FL in 1974. Never actually met Chick. Had an awful experience there. Sleazy people there.