by Dana Gray

Essex County's presiding judge on Thursdayhelpedalleviatethe state's attorney's fear that the community church in Island Pond might help bail out a church member accused of stealing his own children.

Supporting a motion made by attorney Jan Paul, Judge Meredith Wright upped a $10,000 bail figure to $750,000 in the case against 41year-old Stephen V. Wootten.

Wootten, formerly of Island Pond, faces a charge of custodial interference that is 71/2 years old.

Essex District Court

Since Wootten allegedly left Island Pond with his two sons in September 1989, law enforcement officials have been after him.

FBI officials found him in Florida on March 11, and the now teen-age boys have been reunited with their mother, Laurie Johnson, who now lives in New York.

The Disappearance And Search

It was Sept.27, 1989, that Johnson won full custody of the boys, Seth and Nathan. By then, the boys and their father were gone.

The state's attorney at the time for Essex County, David Weinstein, filed the charge of custodial interfenceagainstWootten.The Caledonia County Shenff's Department began the investigation and an arrest warrant with $10,000 bail was issued.

Under the next state's attorney for the county, Sue Davis, the FBI became involved in the search and a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution was filed against Wootten.

The FBI reported following leads throughouttheU.S.andinto Canada.

Last April, authorities believed they had located Wootten in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Araidresemblingtheone authorities executed at the Northeast Kingdom Community Church in Island Pond on June 22, 1984, was made on religious sect homes and businesses. The warrant provided for the search of the Wootten boys. They weren't found then and stayed missing until last week.

Wootten's Status

Assisted by Havana, Fla., police officers, FBI agents arrested Wootten and jailed him.

In a Florida court, Wootten waived extradition, allowing Vermont authorities to return him back to the state to face prosecution. The hearing also established Johnson's right to take the sons, now 17 and 13, back to her home in New York.

According to Paul, the Florida deputy state's attorney involved in the case said Wootten admitted to taking the boys.

"It's a pretty open and shut case as far as the custodial interference charge," said Paul.

She said she's not sure when Wootten will be making the return trip to Vermont but believes she has taken a step to ensure he doesn't leave the state again until he faces prosecution. Paul filed her motion to amend the original $10,000 bail request on Tuesday. In support of the motion to make the bail $750,000, she noted Wootten's membership in the Island Pond church and her fear that assets of the church might be used to pay a low bail amount of $10,000.

She also supported her request for the much higher bail figure reminding the court that Wootten has avoided prosecution for almost eight years.

Wright faxed her decision to grant Paul's motion to the Guildhall court Thursday morning. The decision provides for Wootten - himself or through an attorney - to have the bail figure reviewed.

Attorney Jean Swantko, a member of the community church, has contacted the Guildhall courthouse in regard to Wootten. On Thursday, she could not be reached for comment about whether she intends to represent Wootten.

A Mother Again

The maximum sentence of five years Wootten could spend in jail, if convicted, is still a shorter amount of time than the near-eight years Johnson has spent without her sons.

In September 1989, she thought shewouldhavefullcustody throughout the childhood years of her children. Now, her oldest son is only six months away from his 18th birthday and adulthood.

The six months is a short amount of time to get reacquainted with the boy before he has the option to move out.

Not only does Johnson believe she was robbed of her sons' past. She also believes there's a strain on the present because of eight years of the community church's influence.

According to Paul, a "deprogrammer" is working to help Johnson and the sons become a family again.

When Johnson was married to Wootten, she spent some time in the Island Pond church in 1986 - two years after the church was subject to a massive raid in which 112 church member children were temporarily removed from their homes because the state feared the children were

A judge quickly deemed the raid unconstitutional.Thechildren returned to the community and the abuseallegationswent unprosecuted.

Even though Johnson left the church, Wootten did not.

In fact,Johnson realized Wootten had taken the boys after talking to a NortheastKingdomCommunity Church elder. She said the man told her Wootten had left with the children because he believed it was best for the children.

Reached for comment Thursday night, Tom Wall, who called himself a "brother" in the current Island Pond church community of about 40, said the church supported Wootten's flight from the area.

"He left with our blessing," said Wall.

Hesaid the church believed Johnson to be an unfit mother.

Different branch communities of the religious sect are believed to have kept Wootten going during the past 7 1/2 years.

It has not yet been determined whether sect members will be criminally charged with interfering with law enforcement in its search for Wootten.

Wall said during the time Wootten is believed to have been on the run he never sought help from fellow community church members in Island Pond.

He added Wootten may have found help from like believers in other areas.

When asked if the help may have included hiding Wootten and the children, Wall said he wouldn't use the word hide. He said the more accurate word is helping, not hiding.

"Wherever there is a church, they should offer help," he said.

Copyright 1997

The Caledonian-Record

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