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S.D. Teen Ends Rancorous Custody Battle

July 2, 2003

WINNER, S.D. (AP) _ A 14-year-old at the center of a rancorous custody battle elected Tuesday to live with his late mother’s boyfriend in South Dakota and spend summers and holidays with his biological father in Illinois.

The decision by Timmie Meldrum ends a five-year fight between farmer Chuck Novotny and the teen’s father, Timothy Meldrum of Colona, Ill.

``It’s finally over, after five years. Thank goodness,″ Timmie Meldrum said after signing a one-page document with the heading ``Timmie’s Choice.″ The document names Novotny as his primary physical custodian.

On a second identical document listing Tim Meldrum Sr. as physical guardian, Timmie scrawled ``Refused.″

A settlement last August granted both men joint legal custody, but allowed the boy to choose where to live after spending the school year in Illinois. He returned to Winner on June 1 for summer break.

Timmie maintained throughout the case he wanted to live with Novotny, who began caring for him in 1992. Timmie’s mother, who eventually divorced Meldrum, died in a car accident in 1998.

On Tuesday, accompanied by his lawyer, Timmie went to the Winner courthouse to make it official.

He then returned to Novotny’s ranch to share the news with the man he calls Dad and a 9-year-old half-brother. Timmie said he would call his father to explain his decision.

The parties, including Novotny and Meldrum, were restricted from commenting because of a gag order. Lawyers also declined comment.

The matter drew national attention to the rights of nonparents and stirred changes in state law regarding their standing in custody battles.

After the death of Timmie’s mother, Meldrum sought to regain custody of his child, and Novotny and Timmie fought back.

Novotny argued Meldrum had abandoned Timmie; Meldrum countered that Novotny had prevented him from seeing his son.

A judge ruled in favor of Meldrum, and in 2001 the state Supreme Court refused to block his order requiring Novotny to turn over the boy. The justices said Novotny was unlikely to win on appeal because South Dakota law did not recognize a custody claim by someone who is not a parent.

Timmie was taken to Illinois later that summer, as a crowd of television cameras recorded the emotional transfer in which the boy lashed out at his father.

On appeal, the state Supreme Court decided another hearing should be held to determine the best placement. The settlement came in the midst of the new hearing.

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