Father Wins $100,000 Settlement from U.S.
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A man whose two children were taken by federal marshals and hidden with their mother and her boyfriend for nearly two years under a witness protection program has won a $100,000 settlement from the government.
The 10-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter of Robert Salmeron were taken from their grandmother’s Richmond home to another state with his ex-wife and her boyfriend, a witness in a drug and racketeering trial against members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.
Salmeron’s case is one of a series of suits against the government for hiding children from one parent when the other parent is being concealed under the Federal Witness Protection Program.
That program, created by a 1970 law, provides new homes and identities for witnesses in federal trials whose lives may be in danger.
In one such case, which inspired the movie ″Hide in Plain Sight,″ the father’s lawsuit was dismissed. But several other parents have won settlements, including a case in Washington, D.C., that was settled two weeks ago for about $150,000 including legal fees, said Patrick Bupara, an assistant U.S. attorney in Salmeron’s case.
Salmeron’s divorce suit against his wife, Susan, was pending at the time the children disappeared, and a judge granted the divorce five days later, awarding him custody.
Court records indicate the children were taken from their grandmother’s home by marshals the same day in August 1979 that the government released Mrs. Salmeron and her boyfriend, Mikel Jennings, from a county jail.
Jennings was being protected for his testimony in a racketeering and drug case. The couple and the children, Robert and Melissa, were relocated in another state.
It was unclear why the government kept the children in the program after their father was awarded custody. Mrs. Salmeron called her former husband the day the children disappeared to tell him she had the youngsters, but she didn’t provide any details. Salmeron contacted the district attorney, who referred him to federal authorities.He learned from a federal official in 1980 that the children were in the Witness Protection Program.
It was not until May 1981 that Salmeron’s lawyer got a call from the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., saying that the children would be returned if Salmeron agreed to drop his suit.
He agreed, but after the children were returned, Salmeron sued for damages. U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti ruled that the agreement was valid, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Salmeron should have a chance to prove he had signed involuntarily under duress.
If Salmeron is telling the truth, the court said, his children ″were being concealed from him as virtual hostages,″ despite rules in the witness program requiring authorities to honor custody orders. The evidence suggested the government ″recognized the impropriety of using the Witness Protection Program to relocate children in derogation of parental rights,″ the court said.
Under the settlement, in which the government does not admit wrongdoing, Salmeron gets $95,000 and his children, now living temporarily with their mother in Arkansas, get $2,500 each. Court papers containing the settlement were disclosed Thursday.