In his wedding pictures taken during the 1980s, Steve Fenton is on top of the world. He’s a handsome American newlywed with a sly smirk on his face, about to drink a toast with his beauty queen wife in a traditional wedding in Xalapa, Mexico.
Eight years later, the rising tension begins in this real-life, Hollywood-styled drama, detailed in his new book, Broken Treaty. He became estranged from his wife Silvia, but allowed her to take their son, Stephen, 6, on a two-week trip to her native Mexico in December 1992. More than four, frantic weeks later, he found out Silvia had enrolled their son in a school there, quit her job in California and had no plans of coming back.
“I know a lot of mothers down here who have done this same thing with no problems,” she told him over the phone.
Fenton also spoke with his son during that call, and could tell the boy was close to tears.
“He wanted to come back home to his friends, his school and a model submarine project we were working on,” he says. “Silvia hung up the phone shortly thereafter.”
He pursued the Hague Convention Treaty, an international accord signed by Mexico the previous year, to return his son. A year later, although adamantly assured by both Mexico and the U.S. State Department that his son would be returned to his birth country, Fenton saw that his only hope would be to leave diplomats to their own devices. He began quietly engineering a complex plan to bring his son home to California.
Fenton grew his hair and a beard and donned sunglasses and a hat to disguise his appearance. He hired a pilot and others to help in the extraction of his son from southeastern Mexico. After spending tens of thousands of dollars and risking his life with no guarantee of success, he landed back on U.S. soil – with Stephen.
Here is our exclusive interview with him….
Celebzter: You had it all, the beautiful wife, the gorgeous son, and then….then it went horribly wrong. Did you just feel like your world was turned upside down and you had the rug pulled from underneath you?
Steve: Absolutely. My life as I had come to know it would never be the same regardless of the outcome. I knew what it meant the moment I got the news.
Celebzter: Looking back now, did your then-wife act in any way that was suspicious or were there any clues in hindsight of what she might do?
Steve: No indication whatsoever. Twice a year trips to her hometown in southern Mexico were routine even after our two year separation. I would never have denied her taking our son on the trips. The visits were sacred and I wanted my son to experience the Mexican half of his heritage.
Celebzter: Can you walk us through the range of emotions you felt when you learnt that your wife was not returning your son?
Steve: The first days were shock, then numb despondency, followed by a dark heaviness in my heart as though it was trying to pump wet cement. I would dream at night about finding my son, only to awaken feeling betrayed by my own heart for allowing such brutal taunting.
Celebzter: What impact did it have on your day-to-day life when you were trying the legal route to get your son?
Steve: I realized that if I had any hope of getting my son home, I was going to have to collect my wits and organize the only two things that mattered from that point: Time devoted to work for the inevitable legal costs that were ahead vs. time management away from work to devote to documents and their translations; local District Attorney investigator’s office; almost daily contact with the State Department in Washington and the Mexican Central Authority in Mexico City. I believed that burying myself in all of this and working ten-hour-days, seven days a week, I would try to manage the costs from every judicial strategy ahead, eventually creating the legal alignment needed to bring my son home.
Celebzter: When did you conceive the idea to concoct the elaborate escape plan?
Steve: I piloted small planes when I was younger. I noticed a small government controlled field on the outskirts of Xalapa even before Stephen was born thinking it would be fun to privately fly in one day with wife and son. Nine months into the disappointments of the Hague Convention Treaty efforts to recover my son, I was approached by a U.S. official sympathetic to my case. The agent forwarded a discreet note with the name of a specialist. I still had hopes for a US/Mexico sanctioned return of my son, but in a meeting with the specialist, the strategic location of the small field made it worth a look at a small plane escape. However I still had no confirmed location on my son at that time, so the concept was only a bold probe at the time.
Just after a year from the date that my son had been taken, I made a phone call to a contact in Xalapa. I was told that my son had been seen in town. I thanked my contact, careful not to telegraph what I had begun to envision. Planning for the rescue began almost immediately after reconfirming Stephen’s location through another reliable source. The rescue had to be delayed for six weeks when we found during planning that “Clear and Present Danger” was being filmed at the small field we needed. Blackhawk helicopters on loan created a security perimeter closing the entire field. From the time of the plan’s inception to our arrival in Xalapa, three months had elapsed. The approaching torrential rain season began to close our window.
Celebzter: That must have been one of the most terrifying moments of your life when you were trying to get him out and onto US soil?
Steve: The intricate and nearly flawless plan began to be chiseled away by a series of unforeseen events—some with human variables — others natural, but all beyond our control. My heart sank and I became despondent after the disappointment of the first attempt. I believed that we had lost our chance.
Celebzter: How happy was he to see you when you got him?
Steve: My disguise had been too effective and he no longer spoke English. Not until I reminded him of something only I could know in Spanish did the pandemonium subside. He immediately understood why I was there and extended me a fragile trust to end a broken promise that I’d kept too long—“It’s time to go home Son”, I explained.
Celebzter: Why did you decide to pen the book Broken Treaty? And was it a cathartic experience for you?
Steve: A newspaper asked for my journal to feature as a story. The story ended up on the front page of the paper in a three-part series that drew more interest than any story the paper had ever seen. The editor convinced me that the story was worthy of a book. The sights, sounds and emotions of the rescue are fiercely vivid in my memory. I did reach a therapeutic form of closure by the last chapter after a lunch with my son when he talked freely at great length for the first time about what the rescue meant to his past, present what lay ahead. My son encouraged me to finish the manuscript with his blessing.
Celebzter: Your relationship is still very fractured with your ex-wife….can you believe the things she has done to you still?
Steve: I learned through all of this that no matter how much we wish we could determine the outcome in dealings with others, there is a point that we have to let go; realizing that we simply don’t have control over other’s behaviour. I focus these days on trying to be tolerant and accepting things and people as they are.
Celebzter: How often do you have communication with her?
Steve: We haven’t spoken for years.
Celebzter: What are your personal thoughts towards her?
Steve: As a courtesy to my son, I wish her the best.
Celebzter: Your second marriage broke down because of the stress, do you think you will be able to find happiness in a relationship again?
Steve: Absolutely, I have.
Celebzter: How is Stephen doing?
Steve: Stephen made it through all of the drama over the years relatively emotionally unscarred. I saw him graduated in May with a B.S. degree in Business Information Systems and is still going steady with his high school sweetheart. She is a terrific young woman, a great influence and wonderful mate for Stephen.
Celebzter: At the end of the day, when you see him happy, healthy and enjoying life here, does it make all your heartbreak worth it?
Steve: Yes of course. I was never about me—only about keeping my promise to my son.
Celebzter: Captain Sully helped a little with the tome, how did that come about?
Steve: Aside from many years as his contractor, we were both breeder caretakers; volunteering by taking service dogs into our homes to provide litters for select training. My dog was from Canine Companions and Sully’s from Guide Dogs for the Blind.
One day in a casual conversation, we began talking aviation. I asked if he was familiar with the single engine Cherokee Six (I had only flown Cessna’s) and Gulf of Mexico airspace we slipped through for Stephen’s rescue. Turned out he knew the aircraft like the back of his hand and grew up in Texas. He got interested in the story and began providing crucial specs about avionics, ceiling, fuel consumption and range which was of paramount concern in light of the fact that we could not refuel once airborne while trying to fly undetected with transponder off and radio silence in our escape. The range of the Cherokee was just short of making it to the U.S. so we actually topped of the fuel tanks with two five gallon cans of aviation fuel brought in the trunk of a car from Veracruz.
His personal insight to what our pilot was up against was priceless.
One thing about Sully’s modesty and gentle manner is that it is no hype. He is one of the most genuine and gracious people I have ever known. I smiled to myself realizing what a hero he was going to be when the press caught up with his moral character after the Hudson River event.
Celebzter: Looking back on life and the past two decades, is there anything you regret?
Steve: No. Everything is exactly the way it is supposed to be.
Celebzter: And the message you would like to share with other parents?
Steve: Nothing good at all can come from taking a child away from a home and the people they care about. The recovery of my son is an extremely rare case. Most parents will never see an internationally abducted child again. If most parents saw the inevitable, irreversible damage that is ahead even for a recovered child (that may not surface until years later as an adult) I am convinced that there would be few parental child abduction cases. Please stop anyone you know who might be considering the wrongful removal of a child—anywhere or anytime.