One February day in 1995, Eileen Clark felt that she had had enough. So she grabbed her three children and fled from the New Mexico home that she shared with her husband, John. Then, after a period of time on the run in North America, the four escaped to the other side of the world, where they began a new life. However, nearly a decade and a half later, their past finally caught up with them.
The story began in the mid-’80s in the Southeastern U.S. state of Georgia, where the then 28-year-old Eileen Van Sant had a job as a waitress in a restaurant. Presently, she got friendly with the guy who ran the place, John, 25, and the pair soon became an item. A short time later they then got engaged, and in June 1986 they tied the knot in the city of Atlanta.
Over time, Eileen gave birth to two sons, Chandler and Hayden, as well as a daughter, Rebekah. With the arrival of her children, Eileen had decided to quit work and dedicate herself to raising them as a full-time, stay-at-home mom. And although she suffered from a small bout of postpartum depression, she seemed to settle comfortably into her new role.
Then in 1993, not long after Rebekah was born, things took a turn for the worse for the Clarks, Eileen claims. Apparently, John lost his job, and he spent four months unemployed. Eventually, then, he persuaded Eileen that the family should leave their home in Atlanta and start a new life in New Mexico, some 1,400 miles away. So, the Clarks settled in Albuquerque, where Eileen supported John financially while he established his own window blinds business.
Now according to Eileen, John had always shown a violent and verbally abusive side to his character. But at this point, she said, it grew worse as the stress of his new life began to take its toll. Suddenly, she claimed, she found herself on the receiving end of a torrent of serious threats and abuse. And finally, in February 1995, Eileen decided that it was time to act.
After writing a letter telling John that she had taken the kids to an amusement park, Eileen and the children left the family home. At the time, Rebekah, Hayden and Chandler were, respectively, just two, five and seven years old. And at first, the four found refuge at the home of one of Eileen’s friends in California.
However, Eileen later claimed that John had managed to track her down in the Golden State, and she maintained that she feared for her children’s safety. Subsequently, the apparently scared mother decided to drop off the map. “He kept calling me, saying, ‘I know where you are,’” Eileen told U.K. newspaper The Sunday Times in 2011. She added, “I was frightened, and I didn’t want to go back.”
With that, Eileen and the children simply disappeared from John’s life. And although Eileen claimed that she kept the authorities informed about where they were living, she admits that John was kept in the dark. In her absence, moreover, Eileen was charged with custodial interference at a court in New Mexico in June 1995.
For the next 13 years, John had absolutely no idea where his children had gone. Not knowing where else to turn, then, he continued to file suits against Eileen in American courts. As a result, the Clark children were listed on the FBI’s website as missing. Yet with no leads to go on, John began to consider the very real possibility that he might never see Chandler, Hayden and Rebekah again.
Then in 2008 John was at work when he received a call that would change things. It seemed that the authorities had finally managed to track down Eileen and the children. By that time, however, they weren’t living in California or indeed anywhere in the U.S. In fact, they had traveled some 5,000 miles and started life afresh in the university city of Oxford in southern England.
Apparently, back in 1999 Eileen had moved with the kids to the Isle of Wight, off the South Coast of England. What’s more, she had a new husband, a Canadian called Ron Woollsey, in tow. In 1997 the wanted mother’s marriage to John had been dissolved, and her new partner’s Scottish ancestry seemingly afforded her the right to remain in the U.K.
After spending some time living in Scotland and Wales, then, the family eventually settled in Oxford. Once there, Eileen began home schooling Chandler, Hayden and Rebekah. Eileen’s detractors, however, believe this was an attempt to conceal the children’s identity – by keeping their names off official registers. Nevertheless, the mother maintains that she always tutored her kids at home.
In fact, Eileen claims to have been unaware of John’s search for his children until 2004. This was when a friend informed the wanted mother that her name was being circulated by the FBI. Concerned, then, Eileen contacted a lawyer, who later informed her that the custodial interference charges against her had been dropped. However, that was far from the final chapter of the story.
In 2007 middle son Hayden mentioned to a medic that he had seen his own name on an online FBI list of missing children. The medical professional therefore wasted little time in informing the U.K. police. And apparently, it was this revelation that led to the family’s discovery by the U.S. authorities the following year. Still, even though John now knew where his children were living, it would be years before he would see any of them in the flesh.
In 2009 Chandler and Hayden wrote a letter to the FBI. The by now 21- and 19-year-old young men denied they were “missing” and stated that they were living happily in their mother’s care. However, their pleas were ignored, and they found themselves listed as “endangered adults” on the FBI’s website. Eileen, moreover, had a new charge against her name: international parental kidnapping.
This time around, the full force of the U.S. government descended on Eileen. Back in 2007, a new treaty had come into play giving the U.S. extra powers to extradite suspected criminals living in the U.K. In the post-9/11 political climate, following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the treaty was sold as a quicker, more effective way to fight terrorism.
But in 2010 Eileen was arrested and found herself facing extradition under the very same treaty. Partly as a result of the war on terror, U.S. prosecutors were demanding that the mother of three return to New Mexico and stand trial. This was two years after her whereabouts was discovered and 13 years after her marriage to John had been annulled. And with two of her children now adults, to some minds it just didn’t seem fair to Eileen.
Meanwhile, as part of her fight against the extradition process, Eileen began giving her side of the story regarding John’s alleged physical and verbal abuse. She claimed it was so bad that it caused her to flee the U.S. in fear for her life and the safety of her children. According to her statement to the U.K. Parliament, John had been physically violent towards her for many years and had even threatened to have her killed.
For the next four years, John and Eileen’s battle was fought on both sides of the Atlantic. While Eileen managed to garner support from the British press and human rights groups, John made an appearance on U.S. talk show Dr. Phil to make his case. Meanwhile, John was briefly reunited with Chandler and Hayden in 2010 when the boys visited him in New Mexico. Apparently, though, the pair subsequently returned home to their mother and cut off ties with their father once more.
Finally, in July 2014, Eileen was successfully extradited back to the U.S. In an Alberquerque court, she pleaded guilty to the charge against her on one account – that of her daughter Rebekah. She was the only one of the mother’s offspring who was still a minor. In exchange, Eileen was sentenced to one unsupervised year of probation, and she rejoined Chandler, Hayden and Rebekah back in the U.K. Meanwhile, 22 years since they left the family home, John is still holding out hope that one day he will see his children again.