OPPOSING STORIES AT HEART OF BITTER CUSTODY BATTLE

Published: Saturday, March 12 1994 12:00 a.m. MST

On Sept. 23, 1986, while in the middle of Texas divorce proceedings, Brent Degraff took his three young sons and fled to Mexico. He said he circumvented the court process because he didn't want his children subjected to any further physical abuse from their mother, Shauna Degraff Pierce.

He and his sons lived in Mexico for two years, moved back to Texas and two years ago came to Utah. In his absence, the divorce became final by default and Pierce was awarded custody of the children. Because the divorce was not final when Degraff fled Texas, he was never charged with kidnapping.On Jan. 4 of this year, Orem police arrested Degraff on an outstanding Texas theft warrant and tossed him in jail. He was released a week later and the charge was dropped.

While Degraff sat in jail, however, the Division of Family Services took custody of his three boys, Broch, 9, Ryann, 11, and Bradden, 13. After living at a shelter for a few days, the boys were turned over to their mother - now living in American Fork.

"Jail was just a ploy to get me away from my kids," Degraff said.

While in jail, Degraff filed suit in 4th District Court asking that the court give him official custody of the children. In his suit, he said the children don't know their mother and will suffer irreparable harm if they are required to live with her.

"I don't want to force the kids to go anywhere," Degraff said. "I just want the court to listen to where the kids want to go and then let them go there."

Degraff said his ex-wife has known his whereabouts most of the past seven years but has "adamantly declined" to contact the couple's children. Court documents say Pierce made several telephone calls and wrote several letters to relatives saying she didn't want her children back. Several court affidavits from Degraff's relatives outline more claims of abuse and disinterest in the children. One relative says she offered to make the children available, but Pierce declined.

Pierce says the allegations of abuse and her disinterest in the children are false. She said she has spent the past seven years frantically searching for her children with the assistance of several-missing children agencies. She claims her ex-husband's family has taken drastic steps to keep her children hidden. It wasn't until she ran into a relative in December that she first learned of her children's whereabouts, she said.

"I have not stopped looking for my kids for one minute," Pierce said. "And if all these things they're saying about me are true, then why have I never been turned in or had a complaint filed against me?"

The case has turned into one of the most bitter custody battles ever presented in 4th District Court - involving tales and threats from members of both families.

"I have heard such diversified stories that this whole thing is incredible," said guardian ad litem attorney John Moody during a recent court hearing. "This case has all the makings for a movie or a book."

Pierce says Degraff has religious convictions that he must be the children's caretaker and is still plotting to take the children and flee. If he wasn't trying to be secretive of his whereabouts, he wouldn't have changed his name in Mexico and listed her as deceased on Utah school records, she said.

Degraff said he changed his name in Mexico because he was working as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency. He said the letters and telephone calls show Pierce has no interest in the children. He claims Pierce is still abusive to the children and that her sole motive for wanting custody is the child-support money she would receive.

Domestic Relations Commissioner Howard Maetani apparently believes Pierce's version. He recently awarded her temporary custody of Broch and Ryann while giving Degraff temporary custody of Bradden. Degraff can only visit the two younger children when supervised.

"The court has grave concerns over whether (Degraff), if given the opportunity, would disappear in the middle of the night with the children as he has done previously," Maetani wrote in his ruling.

Maetani also ordered Degraff to pay $2,000 toward Pierce's legal bill. He ordered both parties to participate in a custody evaluation and appointed a mediator to try to resolve the dispute. If the mediator is unsuccessful, the case will go to trial.

"If Mr. Degraff is given custody, it will encourage others to grab their children and run. That is not the intent of the law," said Thomas Patton, Pierce's attorney.

On the movie and book possibilities, Pierce said she's going to write a book about her experience, and Degraff said he's been contacted by television movie producers. If both projects come about, it's unlikely the story lines will be the same.

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