By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
She and brother Jared had just arrived in time to enroll as sophomores at Malibu High School. They had the blond hair and good looks to fit in with a fabled Southern California lifestyle that was in full bloom.
Krystal's science class was on a field trip to the beach. Jared was back on campus. The mountains of Colorado, where they last made their home, was far to the east. Even more remote was Houston -- and daily life with their hard-charging father.
Jim Crane had his choice eight years ago, and he made it. There was the divorce from their mother. She took the children, a sound custody support arrangement and cleared out of his life. He was already a wealthy man at that point, but continued chasing his dream of a business empire. Fueled by the fire of his relentless energy, Jim Crane's EGL Eagle Global Logistics and various corporate offshoots soared through expansion and acquisition.
Along the way, he married an attractive attorney cultured in the arts. He closed on a home with a fashionable North Boulevard address. And Crane began collecting occasional mentions in the society columns and all the respect and acclaim that a few hundred million dollars in assets could bring him.
That was fine with his ex. Theresa Crane had what she had wanted most -- two attractive children, now teenagers. More importantly, she had the time with them to cultivate a strong sense of family and a future together.
Until that day last September.
Krystal and her classmates saw the law enforcement officers approaching them on the beach. One asked who was Krystal Crane. "Come with us," the officer politely ordered. Within hours, what began as a routine school day dissolved into a dazed Krystal and Jared aboard a private jet screaming back to Houston.
"If you think you and some judges and lawyers (I've never met) can decide what my future is, you are wrong," Krystal advised her father in a letter. "I'd rather live with my mother and have nothing materialistic, than live with you and have 'everything.' This is one problem your money can't solve."
However, they had underestimated his reach. Asked under what authority the children were being taken, the answer was blunt: the courts of Harris County, Texas. Never mind that the mother wasn't advised of -- or represented in -- a hearing. The subsequent order was all that was needed.
The air freight mogul had summoned up a very special cargo, one with same day service from California. It was arriving on time and on schedule. Just the way Jim Crane expects his deliveries to go.
As he told a business magazine in 1998, his personal motto is "Execution is everything."
It was a noble gesture that seemed to temporarily flush the tension of the moment from the couple. However, the kids served as almost an aside in this court confrontation. There were no especially dramatic personal secrets or revelations spilling forth about either of the siblings.
In fact, the most unusual aspect of it was the relatively commonplace nature of their lives. Both are immersed in the awkward teen years -- Krystal's almost 16, and Jared will be 18 in December. They've dabbled with the grunge look and started to delve into the dynamics of dating, cars and social conscientiousness.
Jared was diagnosed with attention deficient disorder. He improved with medication, but has learning problems and has lagged more than a year behind others his age. For both, the entry into adolescence was accompanied by a decline in academic scores -- even a few failing grades and increased absenteeism.
However, by almost accounts, these are the kind of kids that ought to make most parents proud. They are bright, friendly, sociable and seemingly adjusted for their ages.
In this case, the grown-ups are the ones who have gone after each with a special vengeance. Bedrock issues -- custody, support and visitation -- were supposed to have been settled with the divorce nine years ago. But litigation to modify the terms of that earlier agreement has dragged on through five years and almost that many judges. Every supposed attempt at healing the conflict has added fresh wounds to the underlying layers of scar tissue.
After an estimated half-million dollars in legal fees for the divorce and aftermath, the latest fray has added at least $100,000 to the bill. All this for a court decision that would be legally binding for the focus of the fight -- Jared -- only until he reaches the independence of adulthood in seven months.
No matter. In Jim Crane's mind, he was ready to reclaim full-time fathership after carving out his airfreight empire. In the eyes of veteran family law attorney Joan Jenkins, the kids' court-appointed guardian, it is "a classic example of 'too much too late' in that effort."
That same stress on discipline and structure that had spelled success for this organizational man was spurned by Theresa Crane in raising the children. Her notion of family was a foundation of openness and relative freedom and exploration together. They'd gone with her to stay in tepees on Indian reservations and wilderness trips. She's introduced them to alternative therapies, herbal medicines and an astrologer or two. That New Age approach widened the clash with her ex-husband's old-line ideas.
As Jenkins put it, the mother is downright "flaky." Kathryn Geiger, the mother's attorney, summed up the conflicts: "Jim and Theresa Crane are at opposite ends of the earth."
He was the ex-college jock with an industrial safety degree and a few unimpressive years as a claims adjuster for Home Insurance Company in St. Louis. Theresa was administrative assistant for the company when they first encountered each other.
"I felt like I had known him a long time when I first met him," Theresa says. "I'm sure it was a karmic connection." They got divorced from their spouses and she followed him on his transfer to Kansas City, where they were married. Times were tough. Jim got an offer to come to Houston to work for a friend at an air freight business, and they were on their way to Texas, where Krystal was born in 1984.
Before long, they realized the potential of the expanding business of air cargo. Jim learned most aspects of the industry in his work, and Theresa applied her office managerial skills for them to kick-start a firm of their own. Eagle USA Airfreight opened with one employee, a truck and a forklift. Within a few years, there were 300 employees and international offices.
The cost was steep, at least in terms of family tranquility. Theresa, now looking out after Jared and Krystal as well as her daughter from her first marriage, wanted Jim as well.
"We were making a million-a-year in that business by then," she says. "I was very content with that and wanted to really stay home more and raise the children. He said he didn't have time, that he wanted to make his business very big, have lots more money and airplanes and things like that He was driven by that time. I thought we could gear down -- he couldn't."
Theresa says money wasn't his sole motivator.
"He was gone a lot. I realized he was using the business to lead a sort of double life. He had that same trait when I first married him. I just didn't recognize it then." By the late '80s, she knew his other side, she says. Theresa tells of "losing it" one night, after another evening of waiting for him to return home from what he said was a golf round with important clients.
She got a friend to watch the children, then drove by some of his haunts. She found his car in the lot of a topless club where she knew the company regularly "entertained" executives and found her husband inside.
Jim and his attorneys declined to talk to the Houston Press, so the only version of marital split is that of his ex-wife's.
However, some eerie parallels to her story have surfaced. Earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says EGL Eagle Global, formerly known as Eagle USA, should pay $20 million to settle one of the larger discrimination cases ever pursued by the agency. Investigators accused Eagle -- in some cases, Jim Crane himself -- of secret policies against hiring or promoting minorities and women, and threatening those who cooperated with the probe. Crane, the EEOC alleged, told company supervisors not to hire women in their child-bearing years saying there was the potential for low productivity.
Company officials deny the EEOC allegations, including charges that the company regularly issued reimbursements for officials who entertained valued clients at strip clubs and bought them the favors of lap dancers and prostitutes.
Those alleged practices weren't mentioned by Jim in an 1998 interview for Investor's Business Daily. He told of richly rewarding productive employees and stressing clear lines of communications. His advice on success: "Be concise and -- above all -- be honest."
Jim sued for divorce in 1990. Theresa countersued, alleging adultery and other misdeeds. Both enlisted top-notch divorce attorneys and set about trying to divvy up community assets of almost $2 million.
With them being the only directors of the company, she hit him with accusations that he was draining corporate assets with checks ranging up to $411,000. She attacked him for making $220,000 in transfers to his profit sharing plan. A company attorney tactfully advised in a letter that "it would be helpful if the issue with Mrs. Crane could be satisfactorily resolved in a manner that would not cause this issue to be presented to the IRS."
Jim seemed to reel from those legal assaults and others. By 1991, he'd already spent $350,000 on attorneys and accountants with "no effort, to this date, made by Theresa Crane to settle," he said in court documents.
Egos and assets were definitely on the line, although the case file reflects no apparent efforts by Jim to claim what usually triggers such fierce wars: custody of the children. Through his goodness or guilt -- or the offensive mounted by Theresa -- the Cranes reached agreement in April 1991. She got the kids, the house, a note from him for about $700,000, about $500,000 in cash and $2,500 monthly support payments each for Jared and Krystal.
He received standard visitation rights. In a recent appearance on the witness stand, he tried to tell a jury that the agreed settlement thrust him back into poverty -- leaving him only with his clothes, a car and a "million-dollar note" to Theresa.
Oh, yes, and the business. When Eagle went public in 1996, it showed that the crying hankies weren't needed. Securities and Exchange filings show Crane, for example, pulled in $12.3 million from an early stock sale, one of many such transactions. As late as last December, he unloaded more shares to reap $11.7 million. Eagle Global chalked up nearly $600 million in revenues last year. It has more than 3,000 employees and some 90 domestic and international offices.
She's informed him that Jared no longer wants to play on the little league team coached by him. His note says he knows otherwise. If the boy doesn't stay on the team, "I will be left with no other alternative than to pursue this issue legally."
Apparently, the threat of kids' league litigation keeps the boy playing. The court record shows a similar 1994 corporate letterhead correspondence from Jim Crane detailing his latest furor. Jared had called at 5:25 p.m. asking him for a ride to the 6 p.m. game because Theresa was too busy to take him there. "Further, I offered to pay for a cab to take Jared to his games which you denied him, stating I would not pay for the cab."
In later questioning by his attorneys, Theresa admits that children who played with Jared when he was at Jim's house were not welcome at her house.
And on and on. Flare-ups were frequent over visitation and the most minor of bills. Theresa labeled the contact from her ex harassment and attempts at intimidation, while Jim says he tried positive communications with a woman who was impossible to deal with.
In 1995, Theresa says, she had all she could take -- of her ex and of Houston. She and the kids bailed out for the Boulder Colorado area, enraging Jim. That surprise move violated the custody arrangement and began the current round of court actions aimed at finding her in contempt and curtailing her rights over the children.
Theresa says she only wanted to get the children away from the increasing crime and big city perils of Houston, although the relocation also distanced them from Jim. She also was moving from the fairly mundane life of a homemaker, even an affluent one, and into explorations of her outer world and inner self.
"The Houston lifestyle had been the country club, nice cars and the rest of that," she says. "I'd accomplished those things in my life, but I realized there was so much more to living. I tried to move increasingly into self-awareness, that the inside is what is most important."
Her search included studies of various Eastern religions and meditation. She gradually engaged in various environmental causes. She helped in a movement geared toward establishing domed retreats on Indians reservations, as a retreat for Anglos wanting to know more about Native American ways, their religions and harmony with the land.
Where she went, the kids often followed. Her daughter stayed with her in an Indian settlement in Canada.
Jim's life changed in its own way. He met Dallas native Francigene "Franci" Neely Beck, an attorney with an influential Houston civil firm, and married her in 1993. Not long after that, the tension escalated over educational choices made by Theresa for the children. The parents clashed over the use of tutors, the choice and changes in schools, and visitation schedules.
Philosophical differences stretched into huge angry gulfs. Jim accused her repeatedly of alienating the kids, even of telling Krystal that he had affairs during their marriage. Theresa says the daughter asked her about them. "I don't think lies to children is a good way to develop a relationship."
As their grades in school declined, didn't she push them to do better? "I don't like the word 'pushing.' I help them. I don't push anyone. I love and encourage them," Theresa testified later. She told of her fears that Jim and Franci were scheming to get custody to ship the children to overseas boarding schools.
A new car for Jared arrived from Jim, with the stipulation that he keep his grades up. Theresa says it only led to swearing matches over the telephone when the father would "berate" his son for academic problems. She says she believes a gift should be just that -- given without strings attached. As to why she didn't enforce Jim's edict on the car, Theresa says, "I gave discipline and structure; I didn't give threats."
By all indications, Jim believed his children were headed on a collision course with reality, that they were going to emerge as spoiled adults who weren't equipped with the fundamentals -- academically or otherwise -- to cope with life. Their mother had them in and out of several schools. But at the same time he was protesting their lagging grades and raising the issue of summer school, he took them on a grand summer trip to Africa. That was followed by a Labor Day trip with their father to Nantucket.
If it seemed like the uneasy relationship might be working out, the worst was to come -- all within the next few weeks.
He told of having to hire a private investigator to track the family to Malibu. "Both children find themselves in an unstable and erratic environment," his court documents stated. They had no permanent home, a lack of proper care and bad grades, he protested. He felt like they were in imminent danger.
What Theresa Crane felt apparently didn't matter. His attorneys had rounded up her last known local lawyer, Sheryl Johnson, and brought her to the emergency hearing. In fact, Johnson had withdrawn months earlier and knew nothing of the current situation.
The case file was in disarray and showed no notice that Johnson was off the case. And the judges had moved on with more frequency than Theresa had ever thought of doing. Bill Henderson had been elected in 1994 as part of a family courts reform push, only to leave when he was accused of tax fraud in '97. Henderson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in that case a year later, followed by the election of former associate judge Doug Warne to the bench that same year. In the meantime, the Crane case had languished for five years.
With Theresa and the kids unaware of the events unfolding more than 1,000 miles away, the hearing went on as scheduled. A parent can't indefinitely delay such legal actions by dodging process servers, although it appears that the father's attorneys had the ability to easily locate both the mother and the kids.
Jim got his legal order to seize the kids and haul them back to Houston. Theresa concedes that she had not given her ex written notice about the relocation, but says she told him three days before it happened. She argues there was an urgency to the move because school was starting and they needed to be there to be able to enroll the children in school.
As for her motives, the mother says she had a job prospect with a planned music channel in Los Angeles -- there was never evidence offered to back that claim -- and the oxygen-thin altitudes of Colorado had aggravated a health problem. Theresa swore in testimony that Jim was aware of their moving plans and had discussed it with her and the kids. And that he'd been in "daily contact" by telephone with the children. She says he made her an offer she had to refuse: "Give me my son and I'll help you move to California -- or I'll make your life miserable."
Attorneys for Jim strongly disputed her version and, in questioning, accused Theresa of taking revenge on the father for not acting on her desires to set up a lucrative trust for the kids. Despite the contradictions and her challenges, there was one concrete reality -- she'd been under a court order barring her from moving, and she'd moved anyway.
Jim and his wife Franci had reclaimed his children. It didn't come with the happily ever-after ending.
Some witnesses said Franci and Krystal started the screaming match. Theresa and Jim had their own shouted exchanges, with Jared adding to the bedlam. Then it turned physical. Jared and his father grappled and tumbled to the ground -- there is dispute over whether punches were thrown. Jim's lawyers later accused Theresa of hollering to Jim that she would "bring him and his empire down." She denied that, as well as accusations that she'd threatened to beat Franci up.
So much for an orderly transfer of children.
After a couple of weeks of living with his California imports, Jim had agreed to give Krystal up in exchange for Theresa accepting that the father would retain temporary custody of Jared. She was bringing her son back to stay and picking up her daughter when all hell broke loose.
"I knew Jim never really wanted Krystal, and never intended to keep her," Theresa alleges. "He just used her as a negotiating tool to keep Jared." It definitely had side benefits for Jim's legal efforts. His attorneys had added an argument for any court session in the fight -- why was Theresa in Houston, battling for her son? Why, they asked, wasn't she back in California, tending to her daughter? Every absence, every grade involving Krystal got special attention from the other side.
Jared's father enrolled him in the private Alexander-Smith Academy in Houston, an exclusive academy available for problem students of parents wealthy enough to pay the tuition. But any calm collapsed in another fight. It came around the mid-December date of his 17th birthday, after Jim and Franci presented him with a watch valued at a few thousand dollars.
Words were exchanged with Franci -- Theresa says he was defending his mother while the stepmother was savaging her. It escalated to yelling. Then Jim hit his son, either with an open hand or fist. A scuffle followed. Attorneys for Jim described the incident as Jared attacking his father, spitting on him and wrestling him to the floor "while yelling and screaming obscenities at both adults." The father told him to apologize to Franci.
Police were summoned, apparently by Jared, although an officer took no action. Jared went to his room, stuffed his backpack with belongings and kept right on going out the back door. He stayed at a friend's house, then flew to California to be with his mother and sister. There were more sharp arguments in telephone conversations with Jim before he returned to Houston.
Had such violence occurred while he was with his mother, the battery of attorneys for the father would have instantly been in court, seeking immediate removal of Jared. However, the lawyers had their explanation ready for Associate Judge Ellen Shelton: Mom must have made him do it. "The confrontation that occurred can be traced directly to Theresa Crane's longstanding disobedience of this court's orders." The mother, they said, "encourages Jared to defy authority generally and show disrespect to the father."
Shelton actually reduced visitation for the mother. And the attorneys for Jim effectively barred the media from a January hearing. They argued successfully to Shelton that a Houston Press reporter should be sworn in as a witness and banished to the hallway. Of course, the reporter was never called as a witness, having already explained to the judge that he could offer no evidence on the case. Then the hearing proceeded about the need for parental accountability and discipline -- Shelton never made the lawyer accountable for his insistence that the newsman was vitally needed as a witness for the hearing.
"You see what I mean?" Theresa said after the session. "No wonder these courts have such a bad reputation -- his lawyers can get away with anything."
And they weren't disappointed.
Warren Cole, Jim's attorney, was a member of the slash-and-burn barristers from the notable Lilly and Piro family law firm. Franci, herself an attorney for the upscale Susman Godfrey civil firm, furiously scribbled notes to the questioners. From her seat that backed directly in front of jurors, she vigorously shook her head "no" to dispute many of the responses from the witness stand. There was another specialist, formerly of her law firm, who was the appointed inquisitor of this woman who'd dared challenge their authority to seize the children.
Theresa Crane had gone through three lawyers since losing Jared and was now with her attorney of about 60 days, Kathryn Geiger. In small clusters, Jim and Franci's allies in the spectators' area gawked at this mother. One of the onlookers turned to her friend and ran her index finger alongside her nose, tapping it, then both of them burst into brief subdued laughter. Yep, Theresa was wearing a small diamond stud in her pierced left nostril.
And the gallery grinned widely, displaying impressive dental work in the process, at this woman's answers in two days of questioning. Theresa was not a bad witness -- she was terrible. Jim Crane's legal juggernaut was underemployed in this outing, it seemed. These weren't clever interrogators, nor did they need to be. Not when inquiries like "State your name please" would be enough to trip up this troubled mother with the soft, almost childish voice.
Theresa gave them her name. When they asked if she went by other names, she told them she'd used her middle name Kaye in her early years. Finally, they quizzed her about Shekinah.
The witness explained that, since she had done work with Native Americans on projects, she wanted to take a name that would relate to them. She thought Shekinah was an Indian name. "It turns out to be Jewish," she explained as the handful of spectators bent forward to deliver silent, mock belly laughs.
Similar derision accompanied her explanations on her search, and the quest she led her children on, for higher meaning in life. Wigwams on reservations. Women's rights conferences and the tribe in the jungle. Herbal medicines and all the rest, even a Los Angeles gathering where they were told that water in plastic bottles loses its ability to hydrate humans. Often, her responses brought opposing attorneys to read long transcripts of earlier hearings and contradictory testimony. At one point, Warne himself threatened to call for a perjury review.
"I've never felt so alone," she said during one break. "They've kept all my friends out. They made them witnesses in the case. I just want it to be over. I just want to be back at home with my children -- to have our lives back."
However, Jim's attorneys needed to do more than just skewer the mother on the witness stand. For that, they called court-appointed psychologist Kit Harrison, who began calling Cole, the father's attorney, by his first name.
Harrison referred at one point to Jared and Krystal as "feral-like" and said they had extremely close bonds by virtue of the parental split and the fact they were in the same grade in school. "Both appear to have mastered the youthful art of parental manipulation and splitting," his reported stated. Their stubbornness and rigidity "helped them cope with a decade of emotional and behavioral self-reliance," he said.
The psychologist had sparred during sessions with Theresa, and clearly came away as a big fan of the father. He argued that the children were angry at Jim because he was the one who would try to assert control, rather than because he pursued business over being a father. Jim seems to "under appreciate the time commitment" needed for the kids, while Theresa had good rapport with "no skills in managing kids."
Harrison's report chalked up the mother's moves to Colorado and California as the result of stress and failures. There were fantasies in her tendency to relocate and keep "life in a flux." The children follow "out of loyalty and a lack of alternative," his report said.
Harrison accused her of strongly alienating the children against Jim. He blasted her for wanting to involve them in the litigation. Indeed, the biggest worry Jim's attorneys appeared to have was in trying to convince Warne to keep the kids from testifying, even on limited matters. The same side that was arguing that Jared needed more responsibility was also arguing that a 17-year-old shouldn't be heard about who he wants to live with. Theresa told of including the kids in all family decisions, but apparently their decision in this custody fight wasn't the one that their father wanted to hear.
In the cross-examination, Harrison was asked about having the kids seized in California -- if a girl in the sensitive teen years might be affected by having police take her away in front of her classmates in California.
"It could thrust her to the top of popularity out there," Harrison replied with a quick laugh. This time, even the sophisticated set in the courtroom didn't laugh with him.
He took jurors through the adopted nicknames. The skinny Jared's known as "Bone" and the father's Big Jim. Or just Jimbo.
His testimony was mostly a matter-of-fact rendition of his case. No dramatic or emotional accounts had been delivered by the time Harrison arrived to replace him on the witness stand.
But this tough chief executive of Global Eagle stepped down with tears. He never came close to actually crying, but he wiped and dabbed at his watering eyes, as if he was embarrassed that he showed tears -- or couldn't outright cry. Franci looked at him and the tips of her ears turned a bright red. Then her own ducts opened.
By that afternoon, the case of Crane vs. Crane concluded.
Warne dismissed jurors and listened to as much of an agreement as the two warring parents could muster. Basically Jared would finish his spring semester at the private Houston school, then relocate back to Boulder to live with an adult to be approved by Jim. Jared would be under no legal obligation to continue that arrangement after his 18th birthday in December.
When parental common sense gets translated into official legal edicts, it is always accompanied by a clumsiness. Lawyers awkwardly tried to recite a maze of provisions about curfews and visitations and the consequences of rising or falling grade-point averages for Jared. Theresa, in her longstanding contempt of court charge involved in moving the kids, was fined $4,000 -- the cost to Jim for the private detective to track her down.
Attorney Joan Jenkins, representing the children in the case, had argued strongly to jurors that however "flaky" Theresa was, the kids belonged with her. "The woman makes bad judgment calls. But the kids see her as nurturing -- as the only real constant they've had. They deserve to be with her."
Jared had no circle of friends in Houston, just a busy father to be with him at times, Jenkins pointed out. Left here, she said, "Jared doesn't have a life." But Jenkins and Geiger say the settlement was best. Jurors would have decided custody -- Warne was the one to determine more relevant issues; educational plans, custody and visitation. While advocating the mother's position, Jenkins faults both parents.
Theresa, she says, should never have made the rash decision to suddenly relocate to Malibu. "I think she intended to deceive Jim because she knew he would try to stop her. I don't think she's been a uniformly bad parent, but I certainly think she creates a majority of her own problems."
As for Jim, there were less intrusive methods than seizing the children, the attorney says. "Would I have sent the sheriff swooping down on Malibu High to send those kids kicking and screaming back to Texas?" Jenkins asks. "No. I believe Dad over-reacted. I think he was furious with her for ignoring the court order and having the audacity to pick up and move."
Jenkins says she argued for Jared's return to his mother for several reasons. "If you have a boy who is 17-and-a-half, who is bright, honest, sweet, kind, caring -- I just think that child is too old to be made to do something that is going to make him miserable, especially when you factor in problems with stepmom and those sorts of issues."
So who is to blame? A father who focused on business until it was too late? Or a mother prone to impulsive action?
"You find out after you've been in family law for years that there usually is not a case of black and white," Jenkins says. "Where there's one nut, there's usually two. That's been my philosophy all along."
Counseling for all the Cranes will be part of the settlement. Psychologist Harrison said it may take years for the family to reach a full détente. Krystal's careful handwritten letter explained that, to her, love was not the issue. Custody and credibility were.
"I cannot trust you," she wrote her father. "From everything to cheating on mom, paying people off, not being there when I needed you and, worst of all, manipulating anyone and everyone."
Theresa, the daughter continued, "has cared for me for my every breath If you take me away from that I will never be able to look at you without hate or disgust in my eyes." Their mother made decisions based on what was best for the children and "she has molded her life to fit around me, unlike you.
"Jared and I are her life," Krystal stated, "and your money is your life."
E-mail George Flynn at email@example.com.