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Lewiston Morning Tribune Wednesday, August 6, 1997

Leas sisters tell of life on the lam

David Johnson

MOSCOW -- The prosecution rested in open-shut fashion Tuesday and Fred Leas of Helmer groused that the system condones child abuse.

Leas, 49, is on trial for felony child custodial interference after he allegedly secreted his two young daughters away from their mother to South Dakota last summer.

He has spent the last year accusing authorities of keeping the whole story from becoming public and his attorney, Steven C. Mahaffy, didn't have much luck Tuesday in attempts to bring Leas' tale before a jury.

District Judge John R. Stegner of Moscow told Mahaffy he would not allow testimony from some 13 prospective defense witnesses on grounds of irrelevance and hearsay.

That left Mahaffy with one decision before court reconvenes today at 9 a.m. -- whether to call Leas himself as a witness.

"I haven't made that decision yet," Mahaffy told Stegner.

Latah County Deputy Prosecutor Robin Eckmann, meanwhile, sped through her case after telling jurors the evidence will provide a "road map of proof" about Leas' guilt. Among witnesses Eckmann called was Leas' ex-wife, Ruth Mohr, formerly of Moscow.

The two young Leas girls, Audrey, 9, and Heather, 8, also testified that their father took them to Rapid City, S.D., where they had their blond hair dyed red, wore glasses they didn't need and changed their names to Sarah and Hallie, respectively.

"It was so the cops couldn't find us," Audrey said under questioning by Eckmann.

But the young girl also testified, under cross-examination by Mahaffy, that she and her sister were subjected to corporal punishment by their mother.

"Yeah, she used to spank us a whole lot," said Audrey. She also said Mohr made her stand in a corner and locked her in her room as forms of discipline. The jury was dismissed when the girl testified about the spankings and other disciplinary measures.

"They made me stand in corners for a long time. And they grounded us for a long time, things like that," said Audrey. Ruth Mohr has been remarried to Paul Mohr. Only their mother spanked them, Audrey said.

Fred Leas has said he feared for the safety of his daughters after they told him of the treatment they allegedly received from their mother.

But Stegner continued to rule Tuesday that Leas had no legal right to defy a court-ordered custody agreement unless he could prove that his daughters were in imminent danger of physical harm. The judge said he didn't consider spankings, as described by both the child and her mother, a form of physical harm.

"Two to three swats on the bottom," is how Mohr described her spanking technique.

Leas and Mohr divorced in 1994. He received residential custody of their two older sons, Shane and Scott, while she was granted custody of the girls.

Both of the Leas girls, wearing dresses and talking quietly, said they loved their father and enjoyed being with him. They testified separately and said they went with their father and brothers first to Arizona and then to South Dakota last summer.

According to the custody agreement, Leas was supposed to return his daughters in August to their mother after five weeks of summer visitation. When the children were not returned, Mohr notified authorities and mounted a nationwide publicity effort that included numerous newspaper articles, a poster campaign and information over the Internet.

Authorities say an anonymous tip led investigators to Rapid City S.D., where Leas, assuming the name of Brad Levus, was found with the children. Audrey testified that Levus was short for "leave us alone."

Mahaffy has all but begged Stegner to allow his client's "whole story" to come out at trial, that Leas' state of mind is crucial to his defense. When Leas was told of the spankings by his daughters and heard reports from other people about Mohr's alleged handling of the children, Mahaffy said, he truly believed the girls were in danger of physical harm.

But none of the testimony Stegner said he heard Tuesday convinced him that physical harm was imminent.

With that in mind, Mahaffy turned his strategy to preserving enough of a record to support an appeal in case Leas is found guilty. Leas faces a possible five years in prison and a $50,000 fine if convicted.

Stegner said he understood Mahaffy's concern about the record and allowed the attorney to voice his concerns outside the presence of jury.

After the testimony of his oldest daughter, Leas was admonished by Stegner to stop blowing kisses and gesturing to his children when they were in court.

Stegner told the jury he expects the case to be concluded today and they might be able to start deliberations.

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Last modified: August 14, 1997
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