On the wall just inside the doorway of Bill Connington’s northeast Spokane home is an old photo of his boys, taken when the children were 4 and 5 years old.
That’s how the 49-year-old father remembers them, before they were abducted by their mother and spent more than a decade in hiding.
Fast-forward nearly 12 years, and a new photo sits underneath the old image. This picture is of a grinning Connington sandwiched between his now teenage sons, one flashing the “rabbit ears” over his father’s head.
After years of not knowing where his children were, he got a call six months ago that the boys, Anthony, 17, and Jamey, 16, had been found safe in Pennsylvania. Their mother, Jill D. Haugen, as also known as Jill Connington and Ann Thompson, was arrested and extradited to Spokane.
With Haugen behind bars – she is awaiting sentencing for a conviction of custodial interference – Connington hopes today will be the last Father’s Day he spends without his sons.
On Wednesday a judge cleared the boys for release from their foster home in Pennsylvania back to Spokane, into Connington’s custody.
“We are trying to get them home by the end of the month,” Connington said. “I’m not so much nervous as anxious; they are not the little kids I remember anymore.”
The boys were taken on Fourth of July weekend 1998. Connington says the boys’ mother had visitation that weekend, but never showed up in the parking lot where they were scheduled to meet to return the boys.
During their bitter divorce, Connington had been accused of abuse by his wife but was cleared in a police investigation. And when a Spokane County Superior Court judge awarded Connington custody, his ex-wife took the boys and fled.
“From the beginning she made threats that I would never get the children,” Connington said.
Connington and authorities searched but were never able to locate the children or their mother.
“Occasionally I’d still go online to see if her Social Security number was active,” to see if she was applying for work anywhere, Connington said. “I finally had to let go. It was out of my hands, I had to accept there was nothing more I could do.”
The children and their mother lived in homeless shelters, and changed schools and their names several times before settling in the Milton, Pa., area, where they had been for two years when they were found by police in December, Connington said.
On Dec. 26 the boys’ mother called the Milton Police Department, telling authorities her oldest son was causing trouble and wouldn’t listen to her.
It was the second time in two days that police had been called to the home for a domestic disturbance between mother and son, records show.
On the second visit, Anthony told police that his mother was “out of control.” Haugen told police that she did not want Anthony back in her house, and wished for him to be placed in foster care. The youngest son, Jamey, said he would not stay without his brother.
Court records show that Haugen then asked authorities to take both boys and signed them over to child protective services.
A caseworker later put the pieces together when she did a Google search on the boy’s real names and found them in a missing persons database.
Connington got the call Dec. 28.
Initially, the boys weren’t sure they wanted to return to Spokane.
“Their whole world has been turned upside down,” Connington said. “They’ve said they feel like their life has been a lie; nothing has been true.”
Their mother had always told them that they were “hiding because Dad was abusive and Mom was afraid I’d come and hurt them,” Connington said.
After weeks of phone calls and several trips to Pennsylvania by Connington, the boys decided they want to live with their dad in Spokane.
While the Center for Missing and Exploited Children likely will help pay for airfare to get them home, Connington – who makes a modest living working in maintenance for the corporation that owns the NorthTown Mall – hopes he can raise enough money to set the boys up with furniture for their own rooms, including bedding. And then there’s the cost of feeding two teenage boys, paying for school fees like driver’s education, sports, and health and dental care.
Both boys want to get their driver’s licenses, and Anthony is preparing for his senior year in high school and making plans for college.
“It’s not just me here anymore – I’ve got to think about all that stuff,” Connington said. “I’ll definitely be playing catch-up.”