“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