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Rebuilding a fractured family

Sun., April 11, 2010

After about half an hour, Bill Connington suspected something was wrong.

His estranged wife was due in a Spokane grocery store parking lot that afternoon with their two boys, but she didn’t show up.

Connington called police – then spent years riddled with worry, after it became apparent she had abducted their sons.

Were they OK? Would he see them again? Were they even alive?

That was more than a decade ago.

Eventually, Connington pulled away from the incessant worry out of concern for his health. But he could never truly move on, and he never forgot about the boys he last knew as toddlers.

The intense worry returned one day last December, when he got a voice mail from a Spokane police detective saying the boys had been found. Connington didn’t know if that meant dead or alive.

“My girlfriend said I was shaking so much I just turned white and she had to come over and take the phone from me,” Connington said this month, sitting in the living room of his Nevada Street home.

He called police and soon breathed a sigh of relief. His sons, now 15 and 17, were safe in Pennsylvania, and his ex-wife, Jill D. Haugen, 48, was in jail.

“Everything changed when I got that phone call,” he said.

Now Connington, accused of abuse by his wife but cleared in a police investigation, is preparing for his sons’ return to Spokane after nearly 12 years hiding with Haugen, also known as Jill Connington and Ann Thompson.

Police in Milton, Pa., learned her real identity after responding to a report of a domestic dispute at her apartment in December. They ran several names through national databases and discovered an arrest warrant in Spokane County from 1998 for custodial interference.

Haugen was taken to jail and her sons to foster care. She fought extradition, but a judge ruled in early March that she return to Spokane.

Booked into Spokane County Jail, she pleaded not guilty April 1 to one count of first-degree custodial interference, a felony.

Her lawyer, public defender Jeff Compton, urged a judge to decrease her bond from $25,000.

But Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Gayle Ervin described Haugen as “rather sophisticated in her ability to avoid detection” and said she worked hard “to avoid being caught and brought before this court.”

Haugen’s bail remains at $25,000.

She declined an interview request at the Spokane County Jail but said at a court hearing in Pennsylvania she’ll “do anything” to prevent her sons from returning to their father, according to the Milton, Pa., newspaper the Daily Item.

Connington, who works in maintenance at NorthTown Mall, said he has nothing to hide. Police investigated Haugen’s abuse claims and found no evidence, and Connington won custody of the boys when the couple separated in 1996.

Now he’s focused on their return, which he expects to happen this summer in time for the next school year.

He’s planning a Disneyland vacation to reunite with family members whom Anthony and Jamey have never met, including Connington’s son from another marriage. And he wants to give them the stability he says they didn’t have when they lived with their on-the-run mother.

He flew to Pennsylvania to meet the boys after their mother’s arrest. It took time to sort through the questions and apprehension, but they soon began to understand the family’s situation was more complicated than their mother had told them, Connington said.

“They didn’t know anything about this until after she was arrested,” Connington said. “They’re not happy she’s (in jail), but they understand. …  They’re old enough to make up their own minds.”

Connington saw Haugen for the first time in more than a decade at her extradition hearing in March.

The anger he felt so strongly when his boys first disappeared is fading slowly. But he’s still unhappy that Haugen faces a maximum of a year in jail if she’s convicted.

“That’s 11 and a half years she robbed me of. I told the boys I don’t want vengeance, I just want proper justice.”

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