Barbara Kurth walked away from a bitter 1978 divorce with $45,000 from her ex-husband - a boon for a former coat-check girl raising two little daughters on her own.

She would need it.Kurth eventually would spend every dime of the award, and then some, trying to find the girls after they disappeared, allegedly snatched by her former husband during a weekend visit.

Nearly two decades later, a telephone tip led authorities to ex-husband Stephen Fagan, who was arrested last week. He is charged with kidnapping his daughters in Massachusetts, taking them to Florida and reinventing himself under an assumed name as a socialite.

But Kurth's now-grown daughters - who thought all these years that their mother had died in a car wreck - have so far displayed their affection for, and loyalty to, their father.

And Kurth fears the whole story has become a "media spectacle" that might keep her from ever being reunited with Wendy and Rachael, who were 2 and 5 when she lost them.

Back when the girls vanished, Kurth sought media attention, trying to get on TV talk shows to plead for help. She went to the police, too.

"She could get nowhere," said Kurth's 72-year-old mother, Constance. "Nobody would pay any attention to her."

Kurth, now 48, initially tried asking for help in Florida, where Fagan had family.

"Massachusetts seemed to think if (Fagan) left the state, there was nothing they could do," recalled Peter Kurth, her brother and a free-lance writer. "Florida told her there was no crime committed in that state."

Kurth then spent more than $50,000, most of which she had received in her divorce settlement, on several private investigators, none of whom netted useful information, Peter Kurth said.

As her financial resources dried up, Kurth began to rebuild her life. She eventually got a doctorate in cellular biology and now works at the University of Virginia.

"My family is ever amazed at Barbara's stupendous transformation from a coat-check girl in Boston in the early '70s to a dedicated researcher," Peter Kurth wrote in a first-person article largely dedicated to his sister's accomplishments that ran in a 1995 issue of Forbes magazine.

After fleeing, Fagan obtained a stolen Social Security number, took the alias Dr. William Martin, renamed his younger daughter "Lisa" and settled into Palm Beach, where he drove a red Ferrari, ran in the most exclusive social circles, lived in a $1.4 million mansion and belonged to Donald Trump's country club.

Fagan was caught after Massachusetts state police received a telephone tip last fall that he was living in Florida; authorities have not offered details about that lead.