It's ringing now, and the maid is saying, "Shah residence," and there's something in her voice, a here-we-go-again aria, as she tells 58-year-old Bipin Shah he'd better take this one.
Britain. Italy. France. Australia. The whole of the U.S. The call could be from anywhere. Bipin Shah's bounty hunters, chasing a $2 million reward, are scattered around the world. The multimillionaire Philadelphia banker, who helped develop automated-teller systems, has 100 Sherlocks sniffing trails, rummaging through trash and cashing in chits with official sources. Each one scrabbling to find Shah's abducted daughters--Sarah is 8, and Genevieve 6--and claim the prize.
Shah takes the call in the living room of his three-story, seven-bedroom manse near Philadelphia, surrounded by those daughters. Photos of them are on every desk, every table, every single available flat surface, a gallery of big bright eyes and little-girl smiles.
This call is from France. One of the bounty hunters checking in. He has found the home of someone who might have been in contact with Shah's ex-wife, and the detective is sitting on the house now, waiting it out. He and Shah share notes and plot strategy.
Could this be it? Could this be the lead Bipin Shah has been waiting for since last June, when his ex-wife snatched the kids and ran?
Shah has burned $1 million so far on detectives, lawyers, plane tickets, even a press agent, and his wallet is still open. Yet that money, all that time, and the one thing he has learned--aside from the fact that Ellen Shah had half a million when she ran and transferred money through accounts in England, the Isle of Man and Switzerland--merely deepens the sting.
Seven hundred miles south of Shah's war room is Faye Yager, a legendary, sharp-tongued Atlanta belle on a holy crusade, who proudly admits to hiding Shah's ex-wife and daughters in her sprawling international underground for alleged victims of abuse. To hear her tell it, Shah's sorrowful tale of a father's love isn't even close to the real story, which, Yager claims, is a docudrama of sex and lies, money and madness, violence and revenge.
There is no dysfunction like the dysfunction of the rich.
You're damn right ole Faye Yager has got a dog in this fight, honey. If she hadn't helped Ellen Dever Shah disappear, Yager twangs, Ellen would have gone the way of Nicole Brown Simpson.
"He threatened to kill her, and she feared for her life," Yager says.
Bipin Shah has sued Yager for $100 million. He denies her every rant and threatens to crush her network--one that doesn't just skirt the law but defies it, taunts it, bedevils it. Children of the Underground, which Yager basically runs out of a Dunkin' Donuts shop, is her answer to courts that don't work. And it has turned hundreds of mothers into fugitives and nabbed children from fathers who don't get two minutes in their own defense.
"I will destroy her operation!" promises Shah.
Come and get me, Yager drawls. She has faced down Satan himself and won, she says, and "I'm not afraid of Mr. ATM."
Other abduction cases have got bigger headlines. Just two weeks ago, Stephen Fagan of Palm Beach, Fla., was arrested after 18 1/2 years for kidnapping his two daughters and spiriting them away from their mother's home in Framingham, Mass. Fagan nearly pulled it off; a lone tip to police gave him away. But the case of Bipin and Ellen Shah is more typical, and it illustrates both the intense emotions and the murky underground networks that often play a role in parental abductions.
And so the battle lines are drawn, and Shah sits impatient and alone in the parlor of his wealth, where the light is yellow with the afterglow of his own meaningless success. The house, the money, the two Jaguars in the garage. What good is all that paper without the girls giggling and running around? His dining room has been turned into a war room stocked with WANTED posters, surveillance reports and the makings of a question he can't afford to answer objectively.
Can all his millions buy him what he wants most?
"I've always gotten what I've wanted," he says through narrowing eyes. It is a chilling warning to Ellen and to Faye, but he doesn't say it for them. "There are no failures in life. There are only delays."
Born in India and raised in Burma, Shah knew as a young boy that he was supposed to be somewhere else in the world. He would pass beggars in the shadowy streets of Rangoon on his way to the movies, where a glamorous, faraway place filled the screen every day. William Holden was up there, along with Gregory Peck and Kim Novak, golden with the light of the West.
"Our ancestors have made a terrible mistake," Shah told his parents. "We were born in the wrong place."
In 1958, at age 19, the son of diamond merchants packed up and headed west, with $93 and a scholarship in his pocket, following the star his family had missed. He attended Baldwin-Wallace College near Cleveland, Ohio, filled with the impatience of his own promise. He was working on a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania when one day he realized that he didn't have the money to get a pair of broken eyeglasses repaired. It was a revelation; there would never be money in philosophy, he reasoned, so he promptly quit school to take a job in electronics. Eight years later, he switched to banking and became a rising star, first at Philadelphia National Bank, then at its successor, CoreStates Financial. Colleagues describe him as hot tempered and strong willed, but they say his work was phenomenal. And so it was that although Shah is no Cary Grant, the boy who loved American movies would come to live the very life of society depicted in The Philadelphia Story.
He met Ellen Dever at Philadelphia National Bank when he was a $600,000-a-year executive vice president and she a $24,000-a-year computer programmer. He was 42, and she was 26. He was married, with a daughter, and Ellen was single, born in the Midwest and raised middle class near Valley Forge, Pa. They had an affair, and he soon moved out on his wife of 19 years.
"I didn't want to get married, and Ellen kept pestering me. Finally she said, 'Marry me or else,' and we broke up for a month. I missed her and went back," says Shah.
They were married the modern way in 1985, with a prenuptial agreement, and moved into the big house on Wyndon Avenue in Rosemont. Within a year, Shah would be named vice chairman of CoreStates Financial, with compensation of more than $1 million. It was a life of chauffeur-driven limos, poolside cocktails, shopping binges in Manhattan, winter getaways to their beach house in Boca Raton, Fla., and three-star excursions in Paris. Lithe and athletic Ellen, who loved to dance, twirled from one grand charity ball to another, and Bipin was absolutely dazzled.
"Ellen was a very fun-loving, vivacious, delightful personality. Bipin adored her, and she adored him. They would joke together, laugh, tease. It was a very nice relationship," says Lynne Dillett, who went on occasional weekend getaways with the Shahs and her husband Greg, a banking colleague of Bipin's.
Sarah was born in 1989, with her father's round face and her mother's light features. "We immersed ourselves in the child," Shah says. Two years later, Genevieve--Vivi--arrived, with her mother's long face and her father's dark features. The girls' finger paintings decorated the kitchen. Each had her own bedroom. Out back, they shared a jungle gym.
He had enough money socked away, Bipin says, to last till the end of their days. It was all so perfect.
Faye Yager has an assignment for women who want to run. Write a story explaining why. Ellen seemed to have relished the opportunity, filling five typewritten pages. In the mini-series of her life, Valley of the Dolls meets A Good Man Is Hard to Find. The first words are these:
The signs were there even at the beginning of the relationship ... We fell in love over a short period of time. He said his first wife didn't "understand" him, and that was one reason why his anger got out of control. He told me that he had other girlfriends while still married, but this was due to his unhappy marriage. [Bipin denies this.] He was charming and different. I believed him. Then he punched me in the nose.
Things never really changed, by her account. And yet she married him, stayed with him, forgave him.
I had had obscenities screamed at me on a continual basis, and had been sexually and physically abused by him. When confronted and challenged, he said he was sorry... I was unsure of myself and ashamed of the abuse, and afraid of him... Without knowing it, I had turned into the classic victim. I was afraid and sorry for my abuser.
Bipin and Ellen separated in 1992 and divorced in 1993, with shared custody of the girls, but they bickered constantly over money and visitation. And then, on Dec. 16, 1993, Ellen called the police and reported that Bipin had assaulted her when she went to his house to pick up the girls. In a petition for protection from abuse, filed in Montgomery County court, she wrote,
Ex-husband beat me while I was holding my two-year-old child--my four-year-old child was watching this screaming... [Shah] said to me in front of my children that all I wanted to do was "suck d___." I asked him not to use this language in front of my children... I said that his drinking had caused him to lose his job, wife and children. [Shah denies that he drinks to excess, or that drinking has ever cost him a job; former colleagues confirm his account.] He came down the stairs...and punched me in the face, he hit me with the car seat which he had picked up, threw me to the ground and I fell in order to protect and cover the child in my arms. He continued to hit me. I looked up and saw both the nanny and my four-year-old crying and screaming.
A damning statement, obviously. But a police source says there was no visible sign of injury to Ellen Shah. And her petition for protection was dismissed when she failed to show up in court. The nanny lives in California now and refuses to say what she saw that day. Through her daughter, the nanny says it was no picnic working for either Bipin or Ellen, and she's glad to be rid of them both.
Ellen would file protection orders again in 1994 and 1996, and file multiple claims that Bipin violated those orders with harassing phone calls and faxes. In one letter to the police she said that Bipin, while returning the children to her house, began "screaming many obscenities" and said, "You're a prostitute and a slut...you're going to get nothing from me." Ellen ended that letter, "My children and I are afraid of him." But while he signed agreements not to harass her, there was never an admission of guilt on his part or any criminal finding against him.
Do you know why? Bipin asks. Because he never laid a hand on her during or after the marriage. "It is all lies."
There was a pattern to her madness, according to him. Each time he refused her push for reconciliation, she filed abuse claims. If she was ever bruised, he says, it was from one of the several plastic surgeries she underwent to feed her vanity and draw ogles at the tony Main Line gym where she worked out almost daily, a spandex emporium for the young and the restless. He can give you the dates too, for the nose job, the eye job, the breast job, the chemical peels.
"Ellen does nothing in moderation. Everything is done to excess with her," Shah says.
The true story, as he tells it, is that he caught her in an affair in 1988 and suspected her of others. And the marriage--though it had begun with their own affair, and with Bipin's first wife actually walking in on them one day--could not survive the cheating.
In his war room, Shah offers piles of letters from Ellen both before and after the breakup, telling him what a wonderful father and husband he was. "I realized that I broke your trust in me after I had an affair with David," she wrote in August 1993. In a 1989 letter she refers to his "special brand of tenderness" and calls him her "brown eyes," "bunny" and "sweetheart." It was considerably more affectionate than the faxes she later sent telling him to go back to India and ride camels, or the many faxes demanding that he lay out more cash.
A 1996 fax from her asks for $43,000 because "the girls would like a swimming pool for themselves and their friends." She also wanted $9,289 for a vacation, $5,239 for a new chest of drawers for Sarah, $6,379 for new wallpaper in the girls' bathroom and $1,224 for a new TV stand for Genevieve.
Shah is still indignant about Ellen's claims that he was a tightwad, and he shows stacks of canceled checks that add up to about $140,000 in support and alimony each year. When they split, he bought her a house for $600,000, which he paid for in cash, and gave her $100,000 to furnish it. He also agreed to give her $40,000 a year for five years, and covered all expenses for his daughters, who were with him Thursday, Friday and Saturday each week.
Shah had left banking and started his own company in 1992 to set up an ATM system for credit cards. The company was named Gensar after his daughters. He sold it in August 1996 for $200 million and a personal profit he describes as "tons of money." In September, he says, Ellen wanted to reconcile and they even went on a date, but he refused to give the marriage another chance. The following month, she filed for protection from abuse.
In early 1997, Shah took his daughter from his first marriage, Nelie, on a tour of his homeland. Nelie, an attorney, suggested a plan to get Ellen off his back--a plan Bipin Shah may forever regret. He sued Ellen for full custody of the girls, hoping it would give him an edge in their daily battles. But there would be no day in court. Before the first hearing, Ellen had sold her house, pocketed $90,000 in cash and wired $420,000 into a Swiss bank account. Then she grabbed the girls and ran.
The Dunkin' Donuts at Roswell Road and Sandy Springs Place, just north of Atlanta, has more to offer than crullers and glazes. Show up around midmorning, and you'll find a striking 49-year-old woman dressed to win a role in a Victorian stage production. Faye Yager has a collection of hats Mae West would have killed for, and today's is a black felt, feathered affair.
"I like the coffee," Yager says of her unofficial office of Children of the Underground. This unlikely spot, which advertises a dozen doughnuts for $3.20 on its marquee, is where Yager usually has her first meeting with desperate women who fly, drive and bus in from all over the U.S., a caravan of national dysfunction, heartbreak and wild fear. This is where Faye looks into their eyes, hears the whys and wherefores, and determines whether they're "runnin' material."
And if they are, a judgment Faye makes with scandalous bias, they get her whole deal. New names, new resumes, new life stories. There is no charge but the life you walk in with, because that person is ended forever, and a new one rises up and disappears into a network of safe houses and churches, zigzagging away from dads and police and private detectives. A blond might become a brunet. A long-haired girl might become a short-haired boy. It takes months, sometimes longer, before you can stop and blend in somewhere, unreachable, unrecognizable. And then you'll get a job and the kids will go to school and you'll pretend you have no past.
Ellen Shah came to this Dunkin' Donuts last April. "She was sittin' right there," says Faye.
There had been earlier telephone contact with Ellen and a second face-to-face, but Faye won't say when or where. She recognizes no rules but her own. Who knows when the FBI might be eavesdropping? They were parked right outside the doughnut shop for years, she says, taking notes every time she blinked.
There is one story Yager will tell you every last detail of, though, and it is the one that explains why this doctor's wife, who used to spend her Southern days with lady friends at teatime socials, is out here risking lawsuits and maybe even jail time.
It's her own story.
Her daddy had a feeling about Roger Jones, but Billie Faye had a streak way back then too, as a 17-year-old hillbilly girl in West Virginia. She just had to marry this boy, and they had a daughter before long, and everything was fine until the day Faye walked in and saw Michelle's little hand wrapped around her husband's penis.
Nobody believed Yager, of course, and her husband fueled doubts by accusing her of being delusional, a real sicko. Somebody please help her!
At her husband's urging, she was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit, dosed with Thorazine and given shock therapy. When she got out of the straitjacket, she dumped Jones and married a fellow patient with a drinking and gambling problem. She apparently hadn't yet developed her keen knack for character judgment. Faye lost custody of Michelle in court because she was certifiable now, tagged with crazy papers for life. But you don't put a foot to Billie Faye's neck without her biting your leg, so she grabbed Michelle and ran. The hell with the courts. She ran for Michelle and for herself and for women wronged, and only when Michelle developed gonorrhea did she come out of hiding, certain the courts would believe her now about what a pervert Roger Jones was and what fools they all had been. But they didn't. And Michelle was lost to her again.
Do you want more? Do you want the whole skinny on the depth of Faye Yager's rage? The second husband was a nut job too. A monster. He held a gun to her neck, threatened her, played with her, and when she finally told him to go to hell, he pulled the trigger and shot himself in the head.
Faye, who has segues like nobody else, married her dead husband's doctor. Howard Yager drove a Rolls-Royce and lived in a big house, and he and Faye have four children and live as normal a life as can be expected when sexually abused fugitive children may show up at the breakfast table and members of the Montana militia may call saying they know an attorney who can spring one of Faye's wronged "Sallys" from lockup.
"I told Howard he wasn't marrying no Donna Reed," says Yager.
She likes saying that as much as she likes saying she's been to hell and back, but she's got the burns to prove it. And there is one more squiggle to her story that explains everything.
That first husband, Roger Jones, became a hunted man, suspected of molesting countless children. In 1990 he went on trial in Florida for abusing a 13-year-old girl. Faye was there, wearing a black veil, to watch with icy glances sharp enough to castrate the bastard. And Jones, who earlier had become the first person ever to make the FBI's ten-most-wanted list for sex crimes involving children, was convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a child, and will die in jail.
Now you know two things about Faye Yager. You know why she is good at rescuing women from beastly men and corrupt or incompetent courts, and you know why she is bad at it.
Every case is her own all over again.
The courts are far from perfect, says John Rabun of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But they're not as bad as Faye claims. And turning children into fugitives, ripping them away from friends and family and home, can be "a cure worse than the ailment." In several of Faye's cases, mothers have been found, prosecuted and jailed, creating horrible new problems for the children.
"I happen to like Faye as a person. I like her spirit. But in all honesty she has set herself up as a social-service agency, except that unlike a social-service agency, she doesn't do her homework. She takes at absolute face value what the complainant says."
Yager started Children of the Underground in the late '80s when she parted ways with another underground, based in Mississippi and run by Lydia Rayner. Like Rabun, Rayner loves Faye's passion and deplores her methods. Hiding children is discreet business, but Faye is a moth after the hot lights of news and talk shows. Geraldo, Sally Jessy Raphael, you name a show and she was there in Fabulous Faye getups, ranting not just about pervert dads but at times including homosexuals, Masons, judges and satanic cults on her list of unholy conspirators. She once said 70% of her cases involved cults.
"When she did media, some of the things she said were exaggerated," Rayner says. "Like extremely exaggerated, and I said, 'You can't do this, Faye. You can't say something that's not true, then change the story. You have to have credibility.'" Faye says Rayner's exaggerations, not her own, got them in trouble.
A bigger concern, Rayner says, echoing Rabun, was that Faye took on cases indiscriminately, and as a consequence the organization drew lashes from screaming dads, the FBI and attorneys who slapped huge lawsuits on them. It was important, Rayner says, that they harbor only women and children in the most obvious cases of horrible sexual abuse and judicial malpractice. About 350,000 cases of in-family abductions are reported each year in the U.S.--nearly 1,000 a day--and almost every one of them is a complicated mess that can't be easily judged by anyone, as Rayner sees it. Not even by the best-intentioned, well-trained professionals. Certainly not by Faye Yager.
The two clashed repeatedly before Faye departed. "A couple of times she actually had a molester in hiding," Rayner says. Faye doesn't deny that, but says she turned the bad apples in when she learned the truth about them.
Scattered across the country now are childless fathers who claim they were wrongly accused, and they are absolutely flabbergasted that despite her public boasts of aiding in the disappearance of their children, Faye Yager isn't behind bars. She has been sued a dozen times by her count and never lost, and in a 1991 trial, one mother said that while she was under review for flight Faye kept her children from her and coerced them into lies about their father. But that case was a mosquito at her neck. Faye slapped it and walked away clean.
The FBI and U.S. Attorney's offices say there is a warrant out for the arrest of Ellen Shah and that an investigation is under way. They won't comment on whether Yager is a target or whether her public statements about helping Ellen Shah constitute criminal liability. But Faye says they haven't come knocking at her house, where there's an eagle on the doormat and an American flag on the porch. (Several weeks ago, a subpoena server sent by Bipin Shah did come knocking; Faye's dog attacked him.)
In a French documentary on Faye's underground, two lines stand out. Asked how she helps women, she says, "Basically, I give them a course on how to break the law and get away with it."
Asked if running is a solution to a family's problems, she says, "No. It's not the solution. It's an option. And it's a lot better than a penis in the mouth."
The question posed to Faye at a sit-down in her kitchen is: Why Ellen?
There was never any allegation that Bipin Shah harmed his children in any way. There was only the allegation, without proof, that he beat his wife. Even if it's true, does Shah deserve to never see his children again? And should Faye Yager--who has never met Bipin or the girls, never heard their story out of their mouths--be the one to make it happen?
Faye has a hell of an answer. It's articulate, dramatic, compelling. And entirely nonresponsive. As if on rewind, she is telling her own story again.
No, Faye. Why Ellen?
"This is a woman who was in danger," she says, arguing that her own experience allows her, magically, to read other women. "I'm absolutely certain she was scared of her every move, like he was an earthquake about to go off. She was aggravated and terrified, and every agency she went to advised her to leave. She took a stalking-education program they have up there because he was stalking her. This is not something she invented. This is real."
Ellen Dever Shah's family says Ellen was telling the truth, but they refuse to speak about it publicly, claiming fear of reprisals by Bipin Shah. The family issued a four-sentence statement to TIME saying that Ellen feared for her life, then asked that it be retracted. Family members say they themselves don't know where Ellen is.
Faye says Ellen gave her copies of tapes in which Bipin left threats on her answering machine. In one case, she says, he threatened to kill her.
O.K., let's hear it.
Faye plays two tapes, and Bipin is indeed on them. He tells Ellen he's going to drag her through the courts, she can't win, and she's going to end up penniless. It's sad, ugly stuff, but there is no physical threat. No reference to killing her.
"I think Ellen took that tape with her," Faye says. "She had that one in her pocketbook."
Fine. Let's get hold of Ellen and get a statement from her.
"I can't do that."
"I don't know where she is."
Technically, that's so, but Faye's no fool; it's likely she knows exactly how to track down any of her clients in about two minutes.
Faye says she's upset that after all the good work she's done, all the suffering women and children she has saved, this case is what brings TIME magazine to Atlanta. The Bipin Shah case.
Clearly, she does not consider it her best work.
"Bipin Shah agitates me," Faye says. "Do you know why? Because when you throw a $2 million bounty on a woman and her two kids, there are crazies out there who aren't going to worry about her safety. He's not going to pay it anyway. He wouldn't pay $35 for ballet lessons."
But the bounty isn't what really agitates her. What really agitates her is this: if there's anyone as stubborn and passionate as Faye, it's Bipin. And he has got more money and more time than anybody who has come after her. He also has well-connected attorneys in both Philadelphia and Atlanta. Faye declared bankruptcy years ago, and by her own admission, she transfers all her property into her husband's name for protection from civil judgments against her. But Albert Momjian, Shah's Philadelphia attorney, says that won't save her.
"We think Howard Yager is complicit, and we have some things that would suggest that. Ultimately his deposition will be taken, and if it confirms our belief...we're going to sue him too." Howard's only comment, passed on by Faye: "He's told me to get out of this for years."
So Faye Yager is dug in and ready in Atlanta. The next visitor she expects is a U.S. marshal with that same subpoena that she and Will, her "mean-ass Dalmatian," turned away earlier.
Bipin Shah? He started a new company last April but doesn't go to the office at all. He spends 12 to 15 hours a day in the war room, working the phones. Sometimes, when he looks at photos of the girls, or at their finger paintings in the kitchen, he breaks down. Maybe he'll buy newspaper ads and billboard space around the world, he says. If he wasn't stalking Ellen before, he's stalking her now. That lead from France, by the way, evaporated, like thousands of others.
There is one question that Bipin has no good answer for. If he didn't beat Ellen, why did she give up everything and run?
He has three theories: she thought he'd win his custody fight; her alimony was scheduled to dry up soon; and we shouldn't try to understand the thinking of a delusional woman.
But everyone in this story is a little deluded. And the saddest part--the part Bipin and Ellen and, yes, Faye all have to answer for--is that the victims of those delusions, somewhere on the run with their mother, are those two little girls, who never asked for any of this.