By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By the first day of spring, Brittany Ann Corcoran, age seven, was pretty much on her own. She had not seen her father, Jim Corcoran, with whom she had been living, since August. That's when Brittany's mother, Nikki-Marie Jones, picked her up at Corcoran's house in Bellaire and never brought her back.
When the judge ordered her to produce her daughter, Jones said she'd rather go to jail. The court obliged her, but by then, Brittany had already been placed in the care of her mother's friend, a lady who called herself "Froggie."
Without her mother around, life on the lam was kind of boring for Brittany. She couldn't see her friends, and there weren't many children around. On the other hand, she wasn't cooped up in a classroom all day, because when you're a missing person, no one makes you go to school. Instead, Brittany moved around a lot, sometimes in and around the city, but mostly from one quiet place to another. Once in a while, she'd go to Louisiana with her grandmother, who liked the casinos but usually lost. On one trip, Brittany had five dollars. She bought herself something to eat for a dollar and used the rest to buy a beer for her grandmother's friend.
Most of the time, though, Brittany tagged along with "Froggie." On the afternoon of March 20, Froggie took Brittany to Angleton, where she made the acquaintance of Emma Johnson, a 70-year-old retired nurse.
Through Froggie, Brittany had met a lot of people like Emma Johnson, older folks who treated her kindly and rarely became angry, even on those occasions when she misbehaved. So, Brittany wasn't scared or worried when Froggie gave her a hug, told her to mind her manners with Miss Johnson and, promising to return in one week, got in the car and drove away.
It wasn't the first time it had happened, and as long as her mom was in jail, it wouldn't be the last. Brittany missed her mom, but she understood what was happening. She hadn't seen her father in so long, she'd forgotten his name.
Four days later, Brittany got up early and went into Houston with Emma Johnson and her daughter-in-law. They left Angleton in a black pickup truck and drove to Texas Orthopedic Hospital, at Greenbriar and Main streets, where Johnson's daughter-in-law had a doctor's appointment. While they waited, Johnson decided to have a smoke. Brittany followed her to the parking lot and climbed into the back of the pickup.
A few minutes later, Brittany looked up and said, "There's my daddy."
Some years ago, Jim Corcoran dreamed that Nikki-Marie Jones appeared before him engulfed in flames, "like Moses' bush," he says. A small figure emerges from the pyre. It draws nearer until Corcoran sees a little girl, and she's running toward him with outstretched arms.
"That little girl," Corcoran says, "needed my help."
For seven months, while private investigators and the police searched in vain for Brittany, Corcoran thought about his dream. He found "tremendous strength" in its promise of a reunion with Brittany. That, he says, is what brought him, on a Tuesday morning, to a black pickup truck in the parking lot of Texas Orthopedic Hospital.
"It was a miracle," Corcoran recalls of the moment he realized he'd found his daughter. "It's unbelievable."
Mostly, though, the story of Brittany Ann Corcoran is no more or less interesting than any other custody battle that's turned nasty. There are allegations of domestic violence and sexual abuse, as well as bitter complaints about cronyism and corruption within the family-court system. Both parents sink to uncharacteristic depths to gain an edge. And, of course, both sides say they want what's best for the child, even as their personal attacks on each other intensify as the desire for revenge forbids the slightest restraint.
The conflict is as old as sex and, in the same kind of vaguely repulsive way, is of considerable sociological interest. The Corcoran case could fill a week of Jerry Springer. At the same time, there's a heroic element, even a certain romance, to tales of parental kidnapping. In the news not long ago was the woman who lost custody of her children, but rather than turn them over to their father, she took them to Denmark. Recently, a man who absconded with his two daughters 19 years ago resurfaced in Florida. Family-court watchers and children's advocates jumped all over his case before his daughters stepped up and defended him as a model father. And two weeks ago, Time magazine published a cover story on an "underground" network that assists women who want to disappear with their children.
It is no longer so shocking or unusual, this parental abduction business; like everything else, it only gets more sophisticated. The continuing saga of Jones v. Corcoran, for example, has taken on another, thoroughly modern dimension -- spin.
In mid-November, while she was hiding out with her daughter, Jones agreed to be interviewed by KHOU-TV/Channel 11 reporter Dan Lauck. The piece, which was taped at an undisclosed location, was essentially a vehicle for Jones to voice her disgust with both the court system and Jim Corcoran. At one point in the broadcast, Lauck, who apparently never interviewed Corcoran for the segment, said, "It's hard to believe that a mother could lose custody of a child to someone who was a deadbeat dad."