It was an odd thought. Dan was merely taking his two-year-old son Justin to visit his grandmother in north Scottsdale.
But Dan Rivera had reason to worry. For most of his life, little Justin had been bouncing back and forth between parents who hated each other.
Justin's mother Elan Rivera had whisked Justin away from Dan three times, hiding out for months in places like Hawaii and Guadalajara. Dan retrieved the child twice.
Dan had an unusually bitter relationship with Elan's mother Betty Faull. He suspected she had planned and funded the child-snatchings on behalf of her daughter.
On the morning Dan drove Justin to Faull's house, Elan was hiding out in Mexico, eluding an Arizona warrant for her arrest for an earlier child-snatching. She was also making plans to get Justin back.
Each snatching and countersnatching caused Dan and Elan to hate each other more.
Dan calls Elan "the snake from hell" and "the crazy animal." Elan wrote Dan a postcard calling him "a pig who wallowed with pigs."
Faull and Elan accuse Dan, through a friend, of hanging out with gangsters armed with Uzis and teaching little Justin how to sniff through a straw. Dan, forty, denies it all, although his appearance lends credence to the charges. A professional singer who records in Spanish, he affects black outfits and flashy gold jewelry. A publicity photo shows him staring theatrically into the camera with a fur coat flung around his shoulders. Dan says the gangster packaging is necessary for his singing career.
But that doesn't explain why he wears a gun and has bodyguards lounging around his expensive house. Or why he says things like, "If I had wanted the mother dead, she would be dead, especially in Mexico."
And he's not shy about the fact he once went to prison. In fact, he practically boasts about that. In 1977, Dan Rivera was arrested and charged with murdering a Scottsdale drug dealer. The charges were dropped, but Dan served time for conspiring to import heroin. He insists over and over that he's been a law-abiding citizen since he walked out of prison.
Even with all his shortcomings, Dan Rivera still looked like the better bet as a parent. A Maricopa County Superior Court judge gave Dan custody of Justin when the choice was between Dan and Elan.
"The judge gave the child to me," Dan grins, flashing teeth as even and strong as the keys on a Steinway. "Can you imagine what kind of a dog Justin's mother is if the judge took the child away from her and gave him to me?"
BUT DAN HASN'T done much parenting lately. Justin, now four, has been missing for more than a year, ever since Dan Rivera pulled into Betty Faull's driveway on that hot July morning in 1989.
Because Faull's husband had died several days earlier, Dan had agreed to take his son to a family gathering at her house. He figured the mourning grandmother wouldn't try any monkey business.
He figured wrong. Before that day drew to a close, Justin was gone and Dan Rivera thought for sure he was going to be murdered.
After parking his black Cadillac in Faull's driveway, Dan leaned over to the passenger side and released Justin from his car seat. The boy jumped out. Faull grabbed him and took him into the house before Dan had even climbed out of the car.
Like so many events in the life of Dan Rivera, what happened next sounds like a bad made-for-TV movie.
What happened next is reported in documents obtained by New Times from the Scottsdale Police Department. It is substantiated by an indictment handed down last month by a federal grand jury in Phoenix charging Betty Faull, her daughter and two private detectives with kidnaping. What happened next, police say, is this: Two men hired by Betty Faull kidnaped Dan at gunpoint, cuffed him and drove him to Nogales, Mexico, where waiting federales threw him in a Mexican jail.
It all began when Dan heaved his six-foot-one, 225-pound, elegantly clad frame out of the Cadillac in Faull's driveway. Suddenly, a man jumped into the driveway and pointed a .45 automatic at Dan's nose. The man told Dan he had a warrant for his arrest from Mexico.
Dan reached for his holstered gun, but the lapel of his Armani jacket got in the way. As Dan fumbled, another man came up behind him and whacked him on the back with a baseball bat. When Dan didn't fall down, the man dropped the bat and shakily pointed yet another pistol at him. The first assailant, Dan later learned, was a Phoenix private detective named Beaux Marks. The second man was named Christopher Vlasic. He once sold vacuum cleaners.
Although he didn't know their names, Dan recognized both men. They'd visited him in the elegant Arcadia district of Scottsdale several days before, feigning interest in buying his house. He was suspicious then, Dan says, because Vlasic's cheap clothes were "triple polyester, enough to cause cancer."
But now, as they pointed guns at him, Dan realized the polyester duo had been checking him out. When he recognized them, he says, they looked terrified. "I knew I was dealing with Heckle and Jeckle," he says. "These guys were nothing. They were amateurs. They would never shoot me." In the scuffle that ensued, Dan knocked Beaux Marks into a cholla cactus. Eventually, however, they subdued him. His legs and hands were cuffed and he was pushed into the back seat of a rented Eagle Premier. A third man drove Dan's Cadillac to an airport parking lot, wiped all the fingerprints off the car and abandoned it with the keys locked inside.
Dan talked the whole way to Mexico, Marks later told police, alternately offering the two men money to let him go and threatening them by saying he'd killed a man before and they were making a big mistake. It was a long ride. Dan denies saying he'd killed a man. "Do you think I am crazy?" he asks. But he admits trying to buy "Heckle and Jeckle" over to his side. When he got too obnoxious, he said, they threatened to subdue him with a stun gun. Just before they reached the Mexican border, according to police, Marks stopped in the desert and hid the .357 Magnum they'd taken from Dan. They also hid their own guns.
When they reached Nogales,the kidnapers handed Dan and the Mexican warrant over to the federales, who were expecting him. Later, Marks would admit to police he'd been paid by Betty Faull to deliver Dan to the Mexican authorities.
That is the reason Betty Faull, Elan Rivera, Beaux Marks, and Chris Vlasic were charged in United States District Court in Phoenix in October with conspiracy to kidnap Dan and Justin, kidnaping and being accessories after the fact. Dan knew at the time of the abduction who was behind it. He bumped into Elan in the Nogales police station where he was being booked by the federales.
DAN'S FAMILY BAILED HIM out a few days later. Back in Scottsdale, he made a promise he would later regret bitterly. He promised his lawyer Victoria Kjos he'd "work within the system." He would not try to snatch Justin back by storming down to Mexico with his piece and several armed cousins. But such restraint hasn't done him a damn bit of good, he says. If he had taken matters in his own hands, he could have retrieved Justin within days. Now, more than a year has gone by, Justin has turned four and no one knows where he and his mother are hiding out. "What is going through his little head?" Dan says. "I ask myself that every day."
Looking at Dan, it's hard to place him squarely on the side of law and order. "My family was involved in organized crime," he says, although he denies a connection of his own. His great-uncle rode with Pancho Villa and owned bordellos in Bisbee. A cousin is serving time for murder. His father sold real estate in Scottsdale and was a friend of the late land swindler Ned Warren, whom Dan still defends. When Dan was a kid, his family moved from the Golden Gate barrio of South Phoenix to a $10,500 red-brick Hallcraft home near a cotton field in Scottsdale. His mother, who still lives with him today, is an x-ray therapist. Scottsdale was not a terrific place for a Hispanic kid in the early Sixties. "We were probably the only Hispanic family in the whole area," he says. "My parents would go to PTA meetings and hear all these wonderful, bright Caucasians discuss how to keep the Mexicans and Indians out of the school."
Dan went to three high schools before he finally graduated from Scottsdale High. He says he was far more interested in helping his dad in real estate and working in his own shop, Coachcraft Custom Detail. He and his friends detailed cars.
Unfortunately, he became interested in other business ventures. Like giving money to drug dealers to invest in heroin. "You could double your money in a week," he says, with characteristic candor.
One person he met through business was a heroin dealer named Roberto Macaluso. In 1977, Roberto Macaluso's skeleton was found in the desert near Scottsdale, still wearing boots. At the time, Scottsdale police accused Dan of ordering his "enforcer," a Coachcraft employee named Mark Koch, to stab Macaluso to death in the desert. They said Dan Rivera was angry because Macaluso stole heroin from him.
Dan was arrested and charged with murder. He said he was innocent. He still does. "Koch got in a fight with Macaluso," he says. "He accidentally killed him. It was a total accident. He hit his head on a drainpipe and died." Koch was sent to prison for Macaluso's murder by then-Superior Court Judge Sandra Day O'Connor. Dan's murder charges were dropped, although he pleaded guilty to importing narcotics, and served four years of a ten-year sentence in several Arizona prisons. According to court records, he has not been in trouble with the law since he was released.
Dan used his time in prison well. He painted, and even had a jailhouse art show. He also decided that when he got out, he'd be a singer. "My past is an open book, I even used it as a promo thing for my musical career," he says.
As soon as he was a free man, Dan began hanging around rich people in places like Avanti's and Mancuso's. He trumpeted the fact that he was a rehabilitated ex-con with substantial artistic talent. He showed off his portraits of lonely but wise Hispanic people--old men, children and nude women--staring out at stark Southwestern vistas.
He also began singing in clubs and at weddings. But his musical abilities were to help him most during the kidnaping. After being taken to Nogales, Dan was sent to a Sonora jail. According to Scottsdale police, the capitana, or head jailer, discovered that Dan was a professional singer and set another prisoner free with instructions to telephone Dan's family in Arizona. To repay the capitana for his kindness, Dan listened to dozens of impromptu auditions by members of the capitana's family. It was typical of the way Dan could butter up people he thought were important. After he got out of prison, he socialized with Charlie Keating, and defends the embattled savings-and-loan czar with as much fervor as he defends Ned Warren. He also met Elan at this time; she was similarly dazzled by power. Dan has photos of Elan and himself at Charlie Keating's house during a fund raiser for Senator Dennis DeConcini, now one of the infamous Keating Five. Dan provided paintings for the fund raiser.
But the most interesting snapshot taken that evening at Keating's house is of Dan and Elan standing together. Dan is wearing a tux and looking bored. Elan stares blankly at the camera. Her expression contrasts pitifully with her festive white frilled gown. The photograph says it all: This is not a relationship made in heaven.
DAN SAYS HE MET ELAN through a mutual friend at a party. At the time, she was going by the name Jodie Ferguson. Later, she took Dan's name and became Elan Rivera, despite the fact they never married. She was tiny--less than five feet tall and only 95 pounds--and, says Dan, witty.
When they met she was selling real estate. But it was not the career she'd dreamed of. She'd hoped to be a dancer, but that was cut short after she injured a leg dancing on the Merv Griffin Show, Elan told Dan.
He thought Elan was wealthy. He knew she came from a rich family: Her mother Betty had married her stepfather Don Faull, a Phoenix contractor, when Elan and her sister Dinee were kids. Dinee grew up to be a Jehovah's Witness who liked to ride Arabian horses. Elan, on the other hand, became wild. Don Faull grew to dislike her, and told her she was not welcome in his north Scottsdale house.
"She was a hot little fox," Dan recalls of Elan. The 32-year-old "little Caucasian" appealed to him sexually, and for him, that was the basis of their relationship. "I never lived with this woman," Dan says. "I never dated her exclusively. She knew it."
But Elan, as Dan tells it, wanted to get married. Dan refused, even after Elan got pregnant in 1986.
The custody fight between Dan and Elan began the minute Justin was born. Dan says he was present at his child's birth. The way he describes the event is significant: "I pulled the baby out of his mother. From then on I was his mommy and his daddy."
Shortly after Justin's birth, Elan began her bizarre pattern of disappearing with Justin. The first time was after Dan's father died. Elan attended the funeral with the baby. As Dan was shoveling dirt on the coffin, the two got in a fight, says Dan. Elan and the baby disappeared for a month.
When she returned, she was ready for battle. She sued Dan in superior court for child-support payments. In March 1987, a judge ordered Dan and Elan to share custody of Justin.
Later that year, in a Las Vegas wedding chapel, Elan married a man named Bobby DeLuna. Strangely enough, she never introduced her new husband to her mother.
Shortly after marrying DeLuna, Elan and Justin disappeared for four months. At this point, Elan called herself "Mrs. Robert (Jodie) DeLuna."
During this time, Elan wrote Dan postcards that are now on file in superior court. They are full of poison and misspelled words.
"The boy will be told that his natural father, a poor unfortunate orphon was killed in an automobile accident instead of the truth about his father the loser who died from AIDS because he was a pig who wallowed with pigs. May you rot in hell loser." This postcard was mailed from Guam.
Some postcards were supposedly from Justin. One read: "Dad. Thanks for ruining the first year of my life. Justin." Another said: "Good Bye Dad from Great Barrier Reef. Mom does not have much money since you took all of hers. We won't have any money for postage or stationary too bad. Hope your `personal life' will console you for replacing me."
Elan also wrote Dan's family. "We are happy to be away from all the trash in Dan's life. Hope you can understand we love you. God bless you."
Reading these cards, it's not hard to see why Dan thought Elan was going to have him killed when he was kidnaped. "They were going to pay lots of money to have me transported by airplane to Guadalajara from Sonora," he says. "They were going to sit in that plane and watch while I was pushed out at a nice 20,000 feet or something."
The postcards may have been mailed from different parts of the world, but Dan suspects Elan was in Hawaii the entire time, arranging to have the cards sent from foreign lands to put Dan off the track.
To fund the Hawaii trip, police found out later, Elan borrowed the credit card of a Scottsdale man named Victor La Tempa. Later, she took his wife's driver's license and used it to build a phony identification when she was on the lam. She had yet another name now: Debra La Tempa.
When Elan and Justin disappeared in 1987, Dan hired a private detective and in four months tracked them down to Hawaii. He grabbed Justin from his mother's arms and fled with him to Scottsdale. Elan was arrested in Hawaii and extradited to Phoenix, where she pleaded guilty to custodial interference.
The postcards were introduced as evidence. After reading them, Superior Court Judge Morris Rozar decided Justin would be better off living with Dan.
Court officials didn't trust Elan. Rozar reminded her not to leave town with Justin. The parole officer said Elan "was probably deliberately sabotaging Mr. Rivera's right to have access to his son."
Dan and Elan were also ordered to undergo psychological tests. Neither Dan nor Elan could have been terribly surprised when the psychologist said their relationship was "highly dysfunctional" and that the two "do whatever they can to get back at each other."
The psychologist said Dan was "impulsive, irresponsible, pleasure seeking and frequently lacking ability to postpone gratification or profit from past experiences."
Elan, the doctor concluded, snatched Justin for reasons "based on self-centered drives rather than the best interest of her child."
A few months later, Elan proved the court officials right. She split again with Justin. This time, she went to Mexico, since she would have been arrested if she stayed in the United States. Dan was furious. In March, three months after Elan ran off, he found the two in a condo in a Mexican village.
When he and his compadres broke into the living room, they did not hurt her, Dan insists. Elan claims Dan entered the house with machine gun-toting thugs, beat her and tried to kill her.
"That is nonsense," says Dan. "I could never kill my son's mother, even if she is a snake from hell. I could never kill her because some day my son would find out. I could not live if my son said, `Daddy, you killed my mother.'"
Elan had warrants issued for Dan's arrest. Within days, posters of him were up all over Mexico. By then Dan and Justin were safe in Scottsdale. This time, Judge Rozar gave Dan full legal custody of his son. Dan was thrilled, and would take Justin with him on wedding gigs where Dan crooned his Hispanic love songs. "I was Donna Reed," says Dan. "I was June Cleaver. I have always been a wonderful mother."
One of Dan's favorite photographs, the one that sits on his living room mantle, is of Justin and Dan dressed in matching tuxedos for a performance.
A few days after Dan brought Justin back to Scottsdale in March 1989, Betty Faull was asked in a deposition what, exactly, she knew about the three child-snatchings of Justin Rivera. She took the Fifth Amendment 71 times.
Four months later, the cops say, she masterminded and paid for Dan Rivera's abduction to Mexico.
SCOTTSDALE POLICE DETECTIVE Tom Van Meter handled Dan's case. His investigation was swift and immediate. He found Dan's black Cadillac in the airport parking lot. He found Dan's .357 Magnum in Faull's garage. He found phone bills linking Faull and the abductors with Elan. He got Vlasic to describe the fight in the driveway, admit taking Dan to Mexico and implicate his partner Beaux Marks. He also got Vlasic and Marks to admit they'd seen Betty Faull with Elan and Justin in Nogales when they delivered Dan to the federales.
He got Beaux Marks to admit he knew the Mexican warrant Faull had told him to serve on Dan was no good in the United States. He also got Marks to admit that yet another local private investigator named Carol Curtis was hired by Faull, and that Curtis warned Marks to lie about the abduction. And he got Marks to admit that he served as a postkidnaping bodyguard, protecting Elan, Justin, and Betty Faull as they traveled with Carol Curtis from Mexico to British Columbia.
Van Meter discovered that Faull had paid $20,000 to Ed Maciag, another local private eye. He discovered Maciag had hired Marks for $10,000 to do the dirty work.
But when Van Meter interviewed Betty Faull on July 31, 1989, she denied knowledge of the kidnaping. She said Dan had tried to kill Elan. She said she didn't know where her daughter was. Or her grandchild.
"This is embarrassing, but I've been having some trouble with diarrhea, I'm going to have to get off the phone here," she told Van Meter. She promised to call back the next day. She has not talked to the detective since.
DAN IS NOT COMFORTED by the fact that Chris Vlasic and Beaux Marks were arrested by federal authorities late last month. Nor is he cheered that Faull turned herself in a few days later. What he wants is to have his son back, and Elan, also charged in the kidnaping, is still hiding out in Mexico. The three accused criminals pleaded innocent to charges of conspiracy to commit kidnaping, kidnaping and accessory after the fact. Vlasic was released on his own recognizance. Marks posted $25,000 bail and was released after a night in jail. Betty Faull was released after posting $80,000 bail, and spent no time in jail. Maciag was not charged with any crimes, and is believed to be cooperating with the prosecution. Maciag, Curtis, and Marks did not return repeated telephone calls. Vlasic and Faull refused comment.
"They should have put her in chains," Dan says of Betty Faull. "You can bet that it would have taken about four seconds for the cops to arrest me if I attacked Betty Faull with a baseball bat, cuffed her hands and legs and took her down to Mexico."
What bothers him is that he still doesn't have his son. What bothers him is that he resisted his instinct to settle things privately and instead cooperated with the law, only to have the law drag on for what to Dan has seemed an eternity.
Van Meter, for instance, completed his investigation a short six weeks after the kidnaping and handed the report over to assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Connelly, assigned to prosecute the case. Connelly let the report sit on his desk for nearly a year. He said he was working on the case behind the scenes, trying to negotiate a "deal" to return Justin back to Dan. But perhaps Connelly had more pressing "deals" to work out: He resigned unexpectedly from the U.S. Attorney's Office this summer shortly before his part in a federal contracting scandal became public.
Dan's hopes revived when his case was turned over to assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Husk in late summer. "He's Hispanic," Dan says happily. "He speaks to me in Spanish! Can you imagine my relief after this person Connelly?"
Husk presented the Rivera kidnaping to a federal grand jury in October. The jury handed down the indictment that led to the arrest of Marks, Vlasic, and Faull.
The indictment spells out Van Meter's investigation, detailing how Faull engineered and paid for the kidnaping. The indictment also says that Faull wanted drugs planted on Dan prior to his being turned over to the Mexican authorities.
HAD DAN ATTENDED Betty Faull's arraignment in his usual flashy clothes and gold jewelry, he would have contrasted sharply with her friends from Scottsdale, mostly retirees in their sixties.
Three suntanned, style-conscious women arrived early and sat in the front row, each wearing costume-jewelry earrings to match her bright outfit. One woman in pink stared and stared at the chemically frizzed hair of a court clerk. "I can't imagine any white woman wanting to wear her hair like that, I think it's so ugly," she whispered to her friends.
Then Betty Faull walked in the courtroom with her lawyer Mel McDonald. Even with her face puffy from crying, she was pretty, and looked younger than her 59 years. She wore a proper black suit and a blue silk blouse.
Faull hugged her three friends in the front row, alternately trying to look brave and weeping uncontrollably. It was the first time Betty Faull had ever been accused of a crime. When the magistrate told her she might go to prison for life if convicted, and might have to pay $750,000 in restitution, she sobbed inconsolably and shook so hard she had to lean on McDonald. Her friends were eager to defend her.
Dick Zeman said, "I've known Betty for years and years. She's done just what any grandmother would do. She's a wonderful person. And it was terrible the way that man beat her daughter."
Betty Hayes has known Faull since 1972. "She always thinks of everybody else," she said. "She took care of her husband. He didn't want to go to a nursing home, so she took care of him. He didn't want her to have a maid, so she cleaned the house herself." Another friend said Faull was frightened for Justin because the toddler had learned how to "sniff from a straw" and because Dan had Uzis lying around the house. "What kind of an environment is that?" Her lawyer Mel McDonald said Faull is innocent. "She is one of the most loving, caring people that anyone could ever know," he said.
The lawyer is upset with prosecutor Husk, who refused to meet with him before going to the grand jury. McDonald claimed he had evidence that would exonerate Faull. "They indicted her without knowing the full story," McDonald said. Gary Husk retorted, "The government doesn't make a practice of negotiating when a child has been missing for over a year."
Husk has no pity for Faull. In court he warned the tearful grandmother that if she knew where Elan and Justin were hiding out, she'd be obligated to tell authorities.
Faull, through McDonald, told the court that Elan and Justin were somewhere in Mexico. That is all Faull knows, McDonald said.
DAN RIVERA HAS BEEN TOLD that Faull's trial might not take place for a year. That means he may not see Justin until the boy is five. Or six. Dan spends a lot of time rolling the same questions around his head. Will Faull betray Elan to save her own skin? Will Elan kill herself and Justin rather than turn herself in? Is Justin even alive?
Dan often sits on the circular gray couch in his living room, playing the same cassette over and over. It is a tape he made after the judge gave him custody of Justin.
"So what does your mother say?" Dan asks the boy.
"She says . . . " Justin starts in a weary little voice that trails off until his father asks him the question again. "She says not to love Daddy."
What Dan realizes only too painfully is that Justin is the most defenseless, innocent victim of all. "The most important thing right now is to get him back. The last time he saw me, men were pointing guns at me. What could be going through his mind?"
Dan flicks off the tape player. "I want my son back," he says.
He calls her "the snake from hell" and "the crazy animal." She calls him "a pig who wallowed with pigs."
"Can you imagine what kind of a dog Justin's mother is if the judge took the child away from her and gave him to me?"
Dan reached for his holstered gun, but the lapel of his Armani jacket got in the way.
The 32-year-old "little Caucasian" appealed to him sexually, and for him, that was the basis of their relationship.
"Good Bye Dad from Great Barrier Reef. Mom does not have much money since you took all of hers."
"They were going to sit in that plane and watch while I was pushed out at a nice 20,000 feet or something."
She claims he entered the house with machine gun-7toting thugs, beat her and tried to kill her.