People in love do crazy things. That was certainly the case when Rhonda Tavey went on the lam across Texas last summer with five children aged eight and under, all of whom technically belonged to a 24-year-old black Katrina evacuee named Erica Alphonse. Rhonda, who is white, was 44, a single mother driving a Chrysler minivan with her 18-year-old daughter, Lauren, riding shotgun. “Mom,” Lauren begged as they ping-ponged from north Houston to Las Colinas to Port Aransas, “you have to tell me what’s going on!” But Rhonda wouldn’t. A stocky woman with melancholy eyes and not a shred of vanity, she was a churchgoing Lutheran and a kids’ volleyball coach, someone with an unchallenged reputation for being an “angel” with “a heart of gold.” Yet here she was, in August 2008, charged with kidnapping, the target of a statewide Amber Alert.
The children—three girls and two boys—sat in the backseat. The girls chattered while watching DVD players on their laps. Their braids were fastened with brightly colored balls that matched their clothes and bobbed when they talked. These were strikingly beautiful children, with burnished skin in shades from café au lait to mahogany, beckoning smiles, dancing eyes, and a knowingness that sometimes caused Rhonda to stop and stare. “My Katrina kids,” she’d proclaim proudly to gawking strangers.
“When are we going to get where we’re going?” eight-year-old Rod’Keesa demanded. She’d been five when she began living with Rhonda; she was then a tiny, spindly child who knew how to make breakfast for her little sisters and change her brothers’ diapers but didn’t know her letters. “I need to go to the bathroom,” Alaysa, who was six, called out. Seeing her happily cuddle the baby doll she’d gotten for her birthday, it was hard to recall how shy she’d been when she had first met Rhonda. “When are we going to eat again?” asked Yasmine, or Ya-Ya, who was four and had turned to a coloring book. “I want to stop at McDonald’s.” The twin boys, Erin and Eric, were asleep, safely strapped in their car seats. Like Yasmine, the boys had spent more of their short lives with Rhonda than with the woman who had given them birth. Unhurried, unworried, the children sang along every time Ra-Ra—that’s what they called Rhonda—stopped the car, took out a map, and began their new song: “ Eeeny, meeny, miney, moe, tell me where you want to go!”
Sometimes Rhonda’s cell phone rang, and she would have to pull over and trot a few steps away from the car to answer, or she would step out of a hotel room to take a call when they’d stopped for the night. Naturally, she didn’t want to upset the kids. Sometimes the caller was a relative or a friend begging her to turn herself in; sometimes the call was from the Harris County constable’s office or the district attorney’s office, whose representatives suggested, in firmer tones, that she do the same thing. Instead, Rhonda kept going. She was, she explained, afraid for the safety of her kids. She wouldn’t give them back to Erica, not with what she knew.
Back in Houston, Erica Alphonse was in a panic. It was surreal, she told herself, a bad TV show. Until just a few days ago, Rhonda Tavey had been her friend—the mother she’d never had, she had told the Dallas Morning News in 2006—and now the relatives who had warned Erica that Rhonda had been getting too close to her children looked to be right. Erica was alone in Houston, with no man, a few impatient relatives, and just a handful of friends. She wept on the phone when she called family back in New Orleans. Rhonda was telling everyone who would listen—falsely, Erica insisted—that Erica was a drug user, that she had pulled a knife on Rhonda, that she just wanted her kids because without them she couldn’t get food stamps. Erica hadn’t asked for any of this—the helicopters hovering over her aunt’s apartment, the reporters camped outside, the calls from the police and the district attorney.
She was a pretty young woman, soft and round, with a broad smile that was so bright it could nearly erase the hopelessness of a past that included a chaotic childhood, the murder of the father of her first baby, an education that ended in the ninth grade, and five kids to look after. Erin and Eric had been just two weeks old when Katrina hit; when the levees broke, Erica brought them to safety strapped into a car seat she carried over her head through chin-deep water. She evacuated to Houston with her children and wound up at Reliant Center, where she met Rhonda, who took her in and for three years cared for the kids while Erica tried to rebuild a life for her family in New Orleans. Erica had considered Rhonda her angel of mercy.
Now a Houston police officer was giving her attitude. Erica explained that Rhonda had thrown her out of the house when Erica had made it clear that she was leaving with her kids. Rhonda had told her she would deliver the children to her later that day, but she’d never come back. Erica hadn’t wanted to call the police; she didn’t want any trouble, she just wanted her kids. It took three phone calls before the cops showed. “I can’t do anything about this,” the officer told her initially. “You left your kids with the woman.” It wasn’t until Erica described Rhonda that she got some action. “Oh,” the policewoman said. “She’s a white lady?”
“My kids are all I have,” Erica told the police, reporters, and wide-eyed neighbors, but she wasn’t sure anyone believed her. She couldn’t stop thinking about that woman named Andrea Yates who had drowned her kids in a bathtub. Erica realized, too late, that the person she had trusted with her childen was someone she didn’t know at all.
During the nearly four weeks that