By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
Cohen recalls the months leading up to the custody hearing as being fraught with conflict. He says Thomas repeatedly told Connor that "when she gets custody she's going to take [him] and leave St. Louis, and the grandparents and father will never see the child again."
Adds the guardian ad litem: "It was like she couldn't get out of her own way."
Cohen says Dawan Ferguson did not attend any of the custody hearings. "I remember the judge saying, 'He better show up and tell us what the hell happened [with Christian's disappearance].'"
But Frawley's December 31 ruling makes no mention of Christian's abduction. The judge awarded custody to the Steffens, who required no child-support payments, employed a full-time nanny, and had already enrolled the boy in Messiah Lutheran School and paid his tuition.
Frawley also rebuked Theda Thomas for her incessant public protests, for alleging a conspiracy on the part of court, medical and police personnel and for the fact that she had biased Connor against his father by taking him with her on numerous occasions when she filed complaints about Dawan. The judge noted that the Missouri Department of Social Services (MDSS) had substantiated none of Theda's abuse or neglect claims.
Cohen says Frawley did not have access to records of the ongoing police investigation and that the judge mainly relied on evidence of Thomas' parenting dating from 1998 and 1999. "Had there been somebody from Theda's family who was capable, willing and able to care for the child, that would have been preferable. But there wasn't," Cohen says. "And when you looked at all the things that had gone on with Theda — the protesting, the media attention — and compared that to a set of grandparents who are upstanding citizens with a roof over their heads [and] two children about Connor's age...."
Years later, Theda Thomas' attorney from that period remains troubled by the way the matter played out. "This case has stayed with me," says Gay Harris. "A lot of caretakers — [MDSS], nurses, doctors, the grandparents even — dropped the ball. And if the caretakers had dropped the ball, why shouldn't Connor at least have been with his mom?"
Connor Ferguson, now fourteen, says he couldn't believe the perks that came with living under the Steffens' care. At the Steffens', "It was food galore. Food galore! I could have whatever I wanted. There were toys and video games and music."
But the teen's tone toughens when he describes the emotional toll of trading families overnight. "I had so many contradicting messages coming my way: From my mom and her family, from John and Dawana," he says. "I remember in the course of that first year, I was sat down in the living room and told what happened by John and Dawana: the carjacking story. I believed them. When I started visiting my mom, she would ask what they had told me. She wanted me to not be so gullible and to think for myself. Then every time I came back [to the Steffens'] from a visit with her, it was like: 'What happened? What did she tell you? What did she do?'"
In the Steffens' custody, Connor enjoyed private school and sleep-away summer camps. He sang in a choir and got to take drama classes at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA). But visits with his mother were sporadic and caused friction between Thomas and Connor's caretakers, occasionally resulting in formal complaints lodged by one party or the other.
Nathan Cohen says that by early 2007 Connor was becoming "defiant," and his relationship with the Steffens' two children had frayed. Cohen says the Steffens felt faced with a dilemma: their children or their grandson. "They decided to relinquish their custody, really, for the purpose of protecting themselves from Theda," Cohen says.
On March 9, 2007, Thomas and the Steffens agreed to three pages of terms stipulating Thomas would reclaim custody of Connor if she would not disparage the Steffens, would not enroll Connor in any of the extracurricular activities he had pursued with the Steffens' children and would not permit Connor to speak to the media about his brother's disappearance. (Thomas allowed Connor to speak with RFT because, she says, "The entire case against me was illegal from the beginning," adding, "It was just a bunch of papers to me. Still is.")
Judge Frawley had misgivings about the arrangement, says Cohen. "I sanctioned it because I thought it was the only way to stop the damage Theda was doing. I preferred her over a foster parent. I knew she'd never harm him. I knew she loved him intensely."
On March 12, 2007, just before relinquishing Connor to Thomas, Dawana Steffen accompanied her grandson for an interview with Dawan Ferguson's defense attorney, John Rogers. Rogers says he asked to question Connor because he "was confident that once he got back into Theda's custody, she would manipulate him to try to offer testimony that was untrue and that would assist the prosecutors in prosecuting my client."
Connor says his grandmother gave him a piece of advice before the interview, which was conducted under oath. "She said answer his questions truthfully, and don't be talking bad about your dad."