Photos of a Baby With Confederate Flags and Guns Couldn't Persuade a Court to Prevent a Kidnapping
UPDATE: Since this story was published, the judge in charge of this custody case, Steven Feren, lost his seat in August's elections. Robert Baumann has still not seen his daughter, Lilly.
The clock reads 20 to 6 as Robert Baumann wheels his Ford Escape north. The 26-year-old is beat-tired, his wide shoulders slumped like a bent clothes hanger from another day installing air conditioners in South Florida megamansions. His nerves, though, are on red-alert. Today, he's going to pick up his daughter, Lilly.
It's taken a full year of courtroom battles with his ex, Megan Everett, to hash out this arrangement, and even though a judge finally ruled that the beaming, curly-headed 2-year-old would split time with her parents, Baumann is anxious. Concerns constantly roll around the back of his head: Megan's YouTube-ranting, gun-toting new boyfriend; her sudden obsession with the Confederacy and antigovernment activism; and worst of all, the photos Baumann found on Facebook of his daughter playing in piles of bullets.
Just thinking about those images sets him stewing again. How could a judge see his kid surrounded by a heavy-duty arsenal yet still let Lilly stay part-time with her mom and her boyfriend? He shoves the thought aside.
Instead, Baumann and his fiancé chat about what to make Lilly for dinner: mac 'n' cheese or dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets? Ten minutes later, they pull up to a manila, bunker-like house in Sunrise. It's ten to the hour. Imagining the angry email Megan would send his attorney if he knocked early, the father waits, staring out at the bumper stickers plastering the Ford F-150 truck in the garage: "Free the South," "Obama: Why Stupid People Shouldn't Vote," "Fight Crime Shoot Back."
At 6 sharp, Baumann knocks. The door inches open, and Carlos Lesters peers out. The 33-year-old with long, stringy surfer hair has been living with Megan for more than a year, but today he calmly announces: "She don't live here anymore. She moved." Then he slams the door.
A familiar anger jets through Baumann, but his Long Island-accented voice stays calm. "Is this a freaking joke?" he demands. Then he calls the cops. When they arrive and question Lesters, though, they quickly confirm his worst fears.
Megan has taken off. She left a neatly hand-scrawled note, the cops tell him, on the back of a childhood photo of herself: "I love you and Lilly loves you," she writes to Lesters. "You are a great dad. If I let them take her and vaccinate her and brainwash her, I wouldn't be doing what's right. I cannot let a judge tell me how my daughter should be raised. We will miss you. But I had to leave. Lilly will be raised right."
It was May 15, and jet-propelled by the antivaccination angle, Lilly's kidnapping shot through the news cycle, leaping from local newscasts to Gawker and the Daily Mail to Nancy Grace and Dr. Drew. A mom on the run from the law with her own daughter was tabloid drama to the nth degree.
But three months later, with Dr. Drew and his ilk long gone and Lilly and Megan still missing, key questions at the heart of the kidnapping remain unanswered.
Advocates say the case is a clear example of a broken family system in which overloaded judges show an institutional bias toward mothers in custody cases -- even when faced with clear evidence that a kid could be endangered. The saga of Megan's mad dash also cracks a window into the Sunshine State's growing right-wing fringe, a bizarro world where Lincoln and Obama are a tag team bent on destroying America, the end times are ever nigh, and the Confederacy lives on. The movement, Megan's family says, propelled her toward the decision to risk everything to defy an "unjust government."
"If people ask me if I've heard anything, I just say, 'No, but I'm sure tomorrow,' " Baumann says, the fake cheer souring in his mouth. "Tomorrow. Tomorrow. It's something to say. It avoids the deeper conversations."
For Baumann, of course, those larger issues take a back seat to a far more personal tragedy. Now, for three months and counting, the heartsick father has waited for news and wondered how the system could have failed him so badly.