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Stephen Fagan's unsettled second act

The Boston Globe
March 10, 2002

Stephen Fagan's unsettled second act
Defends kidnapping daughters, worries about others' opinions
by Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff

PALM BEACH, Fla. - Striding through Donald Trump's monumental Mar-a-Lago
Club, a perpetually tanned 60-year-old man is greeted warmly by personal
trainers, waitresses, hair stylists, and receptionists with a smiling
deference that oozes sophisticated servility.

''Hello, Mr. Martin,'' breathes one hostess. ''Good afternoon, Mr. Martin,''
adds a fitness coach.

Martin answers with a nod, a handshake, or a snatch of jocular repartee.
All is well in the world of Mar-a-Lago, where plush croquet lawns and clay
tennis courts carpet a half-mile swath of this gilded island.

Image is everything in Palm Beach, but this particular image has been
refracted. The good Mr. Martin is actually Stephen H. Fagan - who
kidnapped his daughters in 1979, told them their mother had died, and
still is regarded by some people in Massachusetts as a shameless con
artist and gold digger.

If his new life is the residue of punishment, the pain is hard to see on
the surface. But Fagan, despite all the creature comforts that Palm Beach
affords him, appears obsessed with rewriting the case once and for all -
even though his daughters still have not contacted their mother, and
continue to stand by him.

''In some ways, I'm really lucky,'' Fagan said in his first lengthy
newspaper interview since his 1998 arrest. ''But when you put it all
together, you've got an overwhelmingly villainous portrait.''

Once the ''socialite'' in handcuffs, Fagan does not turn heads now. During
an evening fund-raiser at a Palm Beach mansion, Fagan is nearly ignored as
he eats pate and pineapple near a sumptuous pool and cabana. At a luncheon
lecture on Oscar Wilde by the Kravis Center Cultural Society, no one
appears to recognize Fagan, who introduces himself as ''Bill Martin.''

Fagan is adamant that his past notoriety does not bother him today. But
he concedes that he sometimes wonders whether he is being ''vilified
mentally'' by people he meets. Do his Palm Beach neighbors see Bill
Martin, or do they see the Steve Fagan who abducted his two young
daughters and lived a lie for two decades?

In late October 1979, Fagan, a divorced supervisor at Harvard Law School's
legal clinic, did not return his daughters - Rachael, 5, and Wendy, 2 - to
their mother in North Adams after a weekend visit. Then and now, Fagan
portrays his ex-wife, Barbara Kurth, as a neglectful alcoholic who placed
their children in mortal danger, lapsed into stupors for hours at a time,
and planned a clandestine move to California.

The Kurth family vehemently denies those allegations. They say Kurth took
good care of the children and that any ''stupors'' were due to narcolepsy,
not drinking.

But Fagan said he decided, on that fall day, that he could no longer take
any chances. Instead of driving the girls from his home in Framingham to
North Adams, he flew with them to Key West, where they moved in rent-free
with an acquaintance who once had been a Combat Zone stripper.

There, with regular infusions of money from his parents in Palm Beach
County, Fagan assumed the name of Bill Martin - ''a common name,'' he
says - and changed his younger daughter's name to Lisa. In Key West, at
the laid-back tip of the country, he crafted a connected, Ivy
League-educated persona to satisfy the questions of the mothers he talked
with each day as elementary school let out.

''My plan was to spend five years as a full-time parent, and then move in
with my parents and get a job,'' Fagan says.

That scenario never materialized. Fagan did move north to Palm Beach
County to live closer to his parents. But there he married Linda Vine, a
wealthy widow whose money helped expand and improve their jointly owned
real estate. Along the way, Fagan's net worth rose with the escalating
value of the property.

After divorcing Vine in 1995, Fagan married Harriet Golding, another
wealthy widow with whom he bought an oceanfront home. Three years later,
Framingham and local police knocked on that door after authorities tracked
down a tip provided by a former relative by marriage.

In court, the daughters continued to back their father as they shunned
their mother. The result: a deal that allowed Fagan to plead guilty but
receive no jail time. The penalties - a $100,000 fine, and 2,000 hours of
volunteer work at a veterans hospital - were lambasted by many in
Massachusetts as much too light.

The deal still does not sit well with the Kurths, who contend Fagan
unfairly demonized a caring mother who was stripped of her right to watch
her children grow. Kurth, who remarried and is a research scientist at the
University of Virginia, continues to be troubled about the case, family
members say. She declined comment for this story.

''Barbara has tried to contact her daughters through every avenue known to
her from the day Fagan was arrested,'' said her brother, Peter Kurth. ''It
wasn't her decision, obviously, to prosecute for kidnapping, any more than
it was her decision to abandon the prosecution. ... Barbara has no other
wish than that her daughters be happy.''

Fagan motions a guest to the front seat of his Mercedes, parked on a
semicircular driveway outside his front door. Inside the car, he places a
25-year-old tape into the dashboard player and sits back to await the

On the tape, which Fagan said was recorded in late 1977 in his bedroom, a
woman's voice takes the listener on a roller-coaster of wild emotion -
alternately screaming, pleading, crying, and threatening.

This, Fagan said, is Barbara Kurth, and this is how he lived in the final
weeks before their separation. The memory of those days seems alive to him
even now. He mouths the words as the woman accuses him of planning to take
the children away, and as she also contemplates suicide.

When the woman screams, 25 years after the event, Fagan still recoils
slightly in his seat.

Inside Sunview, the two-story Mediterranean house he and his wife bought
for $2.5 million, Fagan leafs through a thick scrapbook of newspaper
articles about the case, jabbing at characterizations of him that he
derides as caricatures, fuming at what he calls a public-relations assault
on a father who felt compelled to save his children, pulling out police and
government documents that he says show Kurth's instability at that time.

Lisa Martin, who has begun a law career in Boston, said she remains
solidly supportive of her father, but declined to comment further for this
report. Rachael, a vice president of an Internet company in New York,
declined an interview request.

Mementos of their affection for Fagan are placed around the house. One of
them, a wax mold of clasped hands, carries this 1997 inscription on its
base: ''Daddy, holding your hand through life has always led us in the
right direction. Love always, Lisa and Rachael.''

Other adornments give the house a genteel, but exotic, appearance: African
masks and headdresses acquired on the family's many trips; a human arm
bone, kept under glass, from the Cambodian killing fields; an Etruscan
vase; family photographs with primitive tribes in New Guinea.

Neither Fagan nor his current wife holds a full-time job, although Golding
tutors twice a week at a public school, and Fagan attends charity events
and volunteers occasionally at the veterans hospital, even though he has
completed his court-ordered work there. It's a dream lifestyle for the
average American - doing yoga and Pilates in the morning, reading in the
afternoon, attending fund-raisers at night.

''I can't say I'm better off now, but I think my children are,'' says Fagan,
reclining on a low, plush couch in an art-filled loggia beside his pool.

He and Golding, who has a form of lupus, are active in the Lupus
Foundation, and in an organization that helps preserve Vatican treasures.
The couple has pledged money to restore a tiara used in the coronation of
a long-dead pope. ''One of the early Leos, I think,'' Golding says.

Still, the past is a nagging companion for Fagan. ''When I meet people, I
think, `What are they thinking of me?''' For that reason, he said, he does
not seek any positions of prominence in Palm Beach. ''I don't want to put
anyone in a position where they have to defend me,'' he says.

Four or five friends in Palm Beach abandoned him after the arrest, Fagan
says. But he says he's made many new acquaintances who believe he acted
honorably, although illegally.

''If you look at the pieces on the surface, it's easy to vilify,'' Fagan
says. ''Ten to 55 percent could think I'm the devil; I don't know.''

Fagan bristles when he is asked whether he has paid an adequate price for
his felony. Disbarred, fined six figures, ordered to 2,000 hours of
community service, barred from leaving the country for five years, and
branded with controversy - Fagan sees all of this as sufficient punishment.

Shannon Donnelly, society editor for the Palm Beach Daily News, says Fagan
is a social non-factor there. ''I don't see him at all now,'' she said.
But if he were to try to join the prestigious Everglades Club, she said,
''He would have a problem. They would be horrified.''

Apparently, any horror about Fagan's past does not extend to the
Mar-a-Lago Club, where meeting the entrance fee of $150,000 can help allay
any social discomfort. And it does not extend to the proper ladies who
filled the Kravis Center for the Oscar Wilde lecture.

''Hello, I'm Bill,'' Fagan says to the woman beside him at lunch.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/10/2002.

Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
Boston Globe Home:
Related articles (selected):
[a search for Stephen Fagan will yield numerous articles]

Changes Sought In Child Support
by MN Staff -- MassNews, Aug 01

S.J.C. Order of Disbarment entered by Justice Greaney
...on December 30, 1999.

Dad pleads guilty in kidnappings
Gets five years probation, fined
by Alexis Chiu/AP -- Standard-Times, 29 May 99

Fagan pleads guilty to kidnapping his daughters  [pdf format]
MA Press Release -- Commonwealth of MA, 28 May 99
Statement by Martha Coakley, D.A.

Fagan "Kidnapping" Case Underscores Need for Reform of State's Family Courts
by Mark Charalambous -- CPF, 27 May 99

Lawyer: Mom whose kids were taken had drunken driving arrests
by Erica Noonan/AP -- Online Athens, 16 May 98

My sister's little girls were stolen 19 years ago by her ex-husband.
So why is the media putting her on trial?
by Peter Kurth -- Salon, 07 May 98

Re: Kidnapped  [letters to the editor]
by various -- Salon, May 98

End of an 18-Year Illusion
Stephen Fagan led a charmed life in Palm Beach;
now he's accused of kidnapping his own children
By STEVE LOPEZ -- Time Magazine, 04 May 98

The father was always there for them  [*not, per anti-father author -- just fyi]
By Ellen Goodman -- Abilene Reporter-News, 01 May 01

Daughters praise father accused of kidnapping them
by CNN/Gary Tuchman/AP -- CNN, 27 Apr 98

Prosecuting Parental Kidnapping

by Susan S. Kreston, Senior Attorney -- APRI/NDAA, Apr 98



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