Fugitives From Terror

Are Maricopa County's jails so barbaric that a foreign nation could refuse to give up fugitives bound for Sheriff Joe Arpaio's gulag?

That could be the result when a court in Iceland rules on the extradition case of Connie and Donald Hanes, who are wanted on a charge of felony custodial interference in Maricopa County. The Haneses are accused of taking Connie Hanes' granddaughter, 4-year-old Zenith Helton, away from her mother.

Last week, the Haneses' attorney in Iceland, Ragnar Arnason, submitted to an Icelandic court the federal Department of Justice report which found that inmates in Arpaio's jails suffer physical abuse, that such abuse is covered up, and that inmates are denied access to medical care and legal services.

Arnason argued before District Court Judge Ingibjorg Benediktsdottir that extraditing the Haneses to Maricopa County's jail would violate Iceland's humanitarian standards of inmate treatment.

Donald Hanes tells New Times that he and his wife plan to surrender to Maricopa County authorities even if Iceland decides not to forcibly send them, hoping, he says, that they will be allowed to post bail and avoid incarceration in Arpaio's jails until a trial can be held.

In January, the case was the talk of Iceland: The FBI had teamed up with Interpol to snatch Zenith from her preschool class and return her to her mother, Scottsdale resident Kelly Helton.

Connie Hanes--who is Kelly Helton's mother and Zenith's grandmother--and her husband, Donald, had disappeared with Zenith in October 1995 after a visit with her. The Haneses had raised Zenith for the first two years of her life.

The return of Zenith to Kelly Helton was hailed by American news organizations as a triumph of American justice and a credit to two television shows that brought Kelly Helton's plight to the public's attention.

Back in Iceland, however, the press and government officials weren't so sure justice had been served. The FBI took Zenith back just days before Icelandic courts were scheduled to review a motion by the Haneses that Iceland should recognize their custody of Zenith.

Iceland's highest court later reprimanded officials from its Ministry of Justice for allowing Zenith to be snatched, and awarded the Haneses attorneys fees.

The Haneses say they want to surrender in a Phoenix courtroom and hope to avoid being put into chains upon immediately landing in an American airport. If Iceland decides not to extradite the couple, they will be in a better position to ask that they be allowed to surrender, explains Donald Hanes. To that end, they're appealing to Icelandic standards of prisoner treatment, as well as recognition that their case is complicated by the messiness of a domestic meltdown.

Kelly Helton admits that the October 1992 birth of Zenith was a hardship on her; she had just broken up with the girl's father, and when her mother and stepfather invited her to stay with them, she gladly traveled to their home in Utah.

There, Connie Hanes convinced her daughter to sign a consent form in which Kelly Helton gave up all future custodial rights to Zenith. Why Helton did this, and what she expected to happen as a result, is hotly contested by both sides.

The Haneses point to court testimony by Helton to show that she was fully aware she was giving up Zenith permanently for her mother to adopt and raise as her own. But Helton contends that her mother had convinced her the adoption was only temporary, to help her with raising Zenith until she could get her life in order.

Helton left Zenith with her parents and returned to Arizona, but soon regretted her decision. In April 1993, Helton returned for Zenith and took her home to Arizona.

Armed with an arrest warrant for custodial interference, Connie Hanes traveled to Arizona, took back the child and then dropped criminal charges against her daughter. Three months later, however, in a court hearing, Helton filed a motion objecting to the adoption. After mediation failed to resolve the matter, a Utah judge ordered psychological evaluations of all parties.

By her second birthday, Zenith Helton had spent most of her life in the custody of her grandparents. And, while recognizing the dubiousness of Helton's claims that she hadn't meant to sign over her rights to Zenith permanently, the Utah judge awarded Helton custodial rights to the child anyway, relying instead on the recommendation of a psychiatrist. The Haneses appealed the decision.

They were allowed to visit the child, however, and they claim that when they did, they were alarmed by conditions at Helton's home. Helton counters that her Mormon parents simply objected to her single-parent lifestyle and have exaggerated their concerns to justify what they did next.

On a visitation in October 1995, the Haneses picked up Zenith and disappeared. As a result, their appeal was automatically dropped, and they were charged with felony custodial interference, which, according to county attorney spokesman Bill FitzGerald, carries a penalty of two to eight years.

With the FBI unable to locate her parents and Zenith, Helton turned to the Maury Povich Show and Unsolved Mysteries for help. After each broadcast, an anonymous caller told the FBI that the Haneses were living in Iceland. Acting on the tip, agents found the family and began surveilling them, waiting to seize Zenith when she was away from the Haneses at a preschool.

Donald Hanes says they had chosen the North Atlantic island nation because, as an avid chess player, he had read favorable things about the country in chess magazines.

Today, Helton says Zenith is healthy and thriving, but suffers headaches and nightmares related to the events. The Haneses, meanwhile, say they are prepared to face the charges against them before Superior Court Judge Ronald Reinstein, but they object to county and federal attempts to bring them back via extradition and prisoner transport.

Their local attorney, Tom Hoidal, says he has tried, to no avail, to convince deputy county attorney Louis Stalzer to ask U.S. attorneys to cancel a federal flight warrant so the Haneses can travel under their own power to Phoenix. Stalzer has answered none of Hoidal's letters, and declined to speak to New Times.

"They're trying to surrender. They won't let them come back," Hoidal says. "They want them in custody as soon as they enter the United States. That's what we're trying to avoid. Let them come back and we'll have a bond hearing."

In Iceland, meanwhile, Ragnar Arnason argued last Thursday against the extradition on several grounds, one of them being the brutal nature of Arpaio's jail. Arnason also tried to convince the court that "custodial interference" does not fall under the 1902 treaty between the two countries which governs extradition.

Donald Hanes, in an e-mail account of the hearing, tells New Times that the Icelandic prosecutor pointed out that if the couple are convicted of the felony, they would probably not serve their time in county jail. However, Hanes contends, the prosecutor noted that the Haneses might still have to spend considerable time in Arpaio's jails, and he admitted that the jails, by Icelandic standards, are inhumane.

"Many think this is far too severe, bearing in mind the real facts of the case, the nature of the crime and also bearing in mind the conditions in the jails in Maricopa County," Arnason wrote to New Times last week. "The Haneses have refused to leave Iceland until they are reassured that they will be treated as they deserve, not as dangerous criminals but as grandparents who let their emotions towards a child they had been raising rule their behavior.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega