Every Year dozens of children are taken out of Australia illegally
Keith Schafferius Private eye, is annoyed. In the shamus business he has a reputation to uphold and the child snatch that went wrong last year in far off Yemen gnaws at him like a rat at a piece of cheeses. But ts more than hurt pride; this one is personal. He knows it shouldn’t be, but, what the hell, that’s the way it gets you sometimes. The case is about a little girl with a sick heart and her brother, their young and beautiful mum who has cancer, and the sleaze of a father who kidnapped the kids and ran off to that god-awful corner of the world where he’s surrounded himself with AK-47-wielding madmen.
Schafferius rummages through his desk drawer and drags out the file, a thick, yellow folder stuffed with papers and photographs that detail the $400.000 recovery turned bad. Here’s the script for the bogus movie he and his team were using as a cover- Return To Aden, a camel and gun-play epic; here’s a letter from Al Gore, you know, the Vice President, saying the US Government was ready to throw the books at punk parents ho kidnap kids; and somewhere-Schafferius just cant find it at the moment-is a letter from Yemen’s Minister for the Interior giving the “film crew” free passage through the country where everybody has their hands out for a piece of the action. Schafferius calls it his “don’t f…-with-me letter”. He laughs and adds:”We fooled the whole country. They all thought we were there to make a movie” Asked what happened to the Minister taken it by the teams’s audacious sting, he suggests: “They’ve probably chopped his head off by now.”
Yeah but what about the kids? Schafferius sighs, his big hands working through the mounds of documents that make up the file:” They’re still there. And I tell you that’s very frustrating.”
HE IS A VERY UNPRTVATE private eye. While most of his kind, be they real-life scroungers or the stylised anti-heroes of pulp fiction, remain anonymous, Schafferius puts it all on show, He tools around his home town of Brisbane on a customised Harley-David- son motorcycle” its throaty roar announcing his arrival like a cannon shot in the night. When he wants to be low key, he climbs out of his leathers and into a black Mercedes 300 coupe. complete with gold-plated three point star on the bonnet.
As we prowl the humid streets in air cooled comfort, his two-way radio crackling with the intrigue of his 24 operatives, he points out an advertising billboard: “Private Investigators, 24 Hours, Seven Days, International Detection Service.” This is a Schafferius company, as are Stealth Domestic Investigations and Internal Investigations. All three, which operate out of the same city office, occupy prime positions in the Brisbane yellow pages phone directory. Sounding more like a real estate salesman than a P.I., Schafferius says there are three things that bring clients to his door – position, position and more position. Eighty per cent of business comes through the yellow pages and his companies’ names must be to the fore. He makes no bones about it: “You play one against the other when people are looking for quotes and it’s good to know when people are window shopping for a quote.”
Now he is about to go a step further. The next yellow pages will feature his smiling photograph in an advertisement offering his expertise in international child retrieval, a growing and controversial field of investigation, Schafferius says parents caught in highly emotional tug-of-love disputes are often left with nowhere to go, especially if the place where the child has been taken is not a signatory to The Hague convention, which governs the return of minors spirited across borders – and that includes the majority of countries: “They go to the courts, they go to lawyers, and before long they’ve used every dollar they’ve got but they haven’t got a result. Now they’re starting to see it’s probably better to come to someone like me who will go in there, not worry about court procedures, and get the child back for them.” He has lost count of the number of child retrievals he has carried out.
In Australia, it is close to a hundred; overseas,he thinks it is 12 cases involving 17 children taken from countries such as the Philippines, Spain, Italy and the US: “It’s something that came naturally with the business. Going back 20 years, I did a lot of recoveries here, tracking rather than go through courts we’d simply go and bring the kid back.” These days the Family Court, aided by the Federal Police in particular, is better able to enforce custody orders locally. There fore, overseas is the growing end of the business. Last year, for instance, about 80 children were taken out of Australia illegally; from the US, it was 500. At the moment, Schafferius has about half-a-dozen international retrievals under consideration. Aged 52, married with two teenage children, he has a shock of grey hair, forever mobile dark eyebrows and startling pale eyes that have a way of looking into and through you. He is a big guy, gone to seed a bit, but he looks like he could still handle himself in moments of extreme prejudice.
In case you doubt it, he tells you: “I don’t fear anyone or anything.” Indeed, he knows how to drop the quotable quote, how to tell just enough of a story to leave you intrigued, if not incredulous. He is a natural performer who is well-known in Queensland but his profile is starting to develop south of the border and that can only be good for business. He is now funding some of his child retrievals by pre-selling the stories to tabloid television and women’s magazines, both here and in the US. Be it the showman in him or the intrigue of the case – probably a bit of both – Schafferius has a way of making his retrievals sound like the plot of a Jack Higgins thriller: “It’s not a matter of just going to a country and bringing the child back. It can be two or three months or even longer so we don’t foul up with the law. If we can’t get the necessary documentation we have to look for escape routes arid that can mean getting in or out illegally. There are two areas we are of these small countries with the parent who wants the child back, the parent who has taken the child would be alerted by relatives who work at the airports. So we’ve got to come in over a beach or a border, somewhere without documentation.” He is always accompanied by the parent who has hired him: “I can’t go and simply abduct the child. I must have at the moment of pick-Up the custodial parent or the parent I’m working for.”
His wording, of course, raises the question … doesn’t he always work for the parent who has been granted custody? The answer could be no: “Before I act on a case I like to see all proceedings that have been before the court, if it has been before the court, all affidavits, and come to my own conclusion to know that I’m doing the right thing morally by that child, not working for a client, not just getting their dollars. Those children come back next year or in 10 years’ time and they’re pleased it happened, they’re pleased I rescued them. It’s a great feeling and it’s almost like being a hero.” Asked if it’s more like playing God, Schafferius seems surprised by such a suggestion: “When you see the documentation presented to the court, and we regularly get involved in surveillance of families, you almost know which way the court will make a decision. But sometimes you feel they make the wrong decision. On the day it can be who gets up and tells the biggest lies.” He has mixed feelings about the Family Court and its brand of justice: “Quite often the judges only get to know one side of it.” While his actions could lead to contempt charges, Schafferius claims he has yet to act . for a non-custodial parent in Australia: “But I’ve acted against custody in other countries the mother or father has been granted custody there. So, okay, we break the law of that country or its contempt of court”.
He claims he has been approached twice by non-custodian parents overseas wanting to smuggle their children Out of Australia: “I could not get them out but I wouldn’t be doing the right thing morally because they’re in the best care where they are, I’m not going to send the kids to a Third World country where they still dig a hole in the crap in. So those children will stay here and I’ve also the parents here that there has been an attempt to recover so they can have an alert put out at the airports.” This raises the specter of the much-publicised Gillespie case where a Malaysian Prince, Raja Bahrin Shah, illegally took his two children Iddin and Shah, out of Australia while on an access visit in 1992. Their mother jacqueline Gillespie, of Melbourne, has since been fighting unsuccessfully for their return.
Then news of the case first broke, Schafferius talked briefly to Mrs Gillespie and offered his services to retrieve the children: “But at that stage she thought the Australian Government would be right behind her and help.” He now thinks there is little to no chance of getting them back:”The only way would be a real commando raid.” You’d have to have a helicopter standing by and someone would get killed,” He sees the case as being typical of many international disputes – a clash of cultures and, often, religion: “Basically, he did to her what she did to him. The kids were born over there, there was custody over there, she smuggled them out and brought them here,, he waited for his chance and took them back.”
Schafferius believes when custody is granted in Australian courts there should be an intermediate and ongoing alert posted on immigration computers at all gateways out of the country: “It should be flagged. If those children are to leave the country without consent of the other parent there should be an alert and they should be stopped. As it currently stands, the custodial parent has to take the order to the Federal police or Immigration who put it on their computers for three months, It then has to renewed by the parent every three months. If it’s not, the other parent can get a passport or a copy of a passport and leave.”
ALTHOUGH HE HAD BEEN involved in overseas retrievals since the mid-seventies, Schafferius’s most dramatic success came in late 1992 when he spirited two children, Adrian Wawrzynski, then aged seven, and his sister, Jessica, nine, out of Poland. They had been taken there illegally by their Polish-born father, Roman, more than a year earlier. As the months went by, they gave up any hope of seeing their mother, Mirella, who lives in Brisbane. How ever; after getting nowhere through the courts, she was directed to Schafferius and accompanied him on the trip to snatch them back. “The father had told the little girl all sorts of nastiness about the mother,” the PI. recalls, “She became hysterical when she saw her even though she loved her.” This forced them to leave the girl behind, but they managed to get the boy out. A month later they went back for the girl, snatching her off the street. Schafferius says it was touch and go: “I couldn’t risk going out on a flight. I didn’t have a passport for her. When we flew back we were alerted there might be a war- rant for my arrest.
Schafferius and Clarke then went in under the guise of location scouts for an adventure movie: “We set up a company, Hollywood Capers Film Productions, with a telephone number back in California . When you rang through the call was diverted to Logan’s house and his wife would answer. While we were in Yemen there were, I think, four phone calls trying to gauge our authenticity.” The pair had also sold the exclusive rights to their increasingly fantastic story to the American tabloid television show, Hard Copy, and were video- ing events as they unfolded.
While the mother stayed hidden in their hotel, the pair plotted an escape route from the house in Aden, where the children were being held, to the beach and waiting boat, a journey of 15 minutes. “X’hat we were going to do was pick up the kids, drive to a point where we’d change the vehicles in case we were being chased,” explains Schafferius. “While there, we’d neutralise anyone who was following, get into the next vehicle and take off for the next point where we’d change vehicles again and go to the beach where we’d get in the boat and head off across the Red Sea.” Eas- ier said than done, or so it turned out. When it came time to snatch the children, they could not gain access: “When we got to the house we couldn’t get to the people we needed to see. They wouldn’t speak to us. They were paranoid that if you were a foreigner, especially American, you might have something to do with the children.” The only access to the building was through a steel door: “We were met with guns, we were surrounded by people who were suspicious of us.
There were old AK-47s which every second person over there seems to have.” After the weeks of planning collapsed, the mother became hysterical and threatened to commit suicide, Her outburst was duly videotaped for television. The story became even more over-the-top when it was decided she would stay hidden in Yemen to start a hunger strike. Videotape of her, supposedly growing weaker by the day, would be smuggled out for the television show.
Schafferius says this was a last-ditch attempt to try and force the American government to intervene. Somewhat dramatically, he says: “She was going to die in front of the camera. It would have wrenched the heart of every American.” But three weeks later, she had to be smuggled out after suffering recurring pain. She was eventually evacuated to the US where Schafferius says she has since undergone surgery for cancer: “She was a nice person and I felt very sorry for the kids. Your emotions can get carried away after a while.” With Logan Clarke still pushing hard, the case continued to receive tabloid TV exposure in America and eventually the investigators received a letter from Vice President AI Gore pointing out the Clinton Administration had made international child abduction a federal felony late last year. However, there was no offer to intervene in this particular case.
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Certainly, the P.I. business is not as rough and tumble as it used to be. Going back years, Schafferius was slashed with a knife and shot at. He recalls a local heavy offering his services which were declined and a price list to break bones and limbs: “I can’t remember exactly how much, but it was something like $500 for fingers, a couple of grand for an arm, three or four for a pair of legs. I asked him how he broke legs and he said, ‘I knock ’em out, lay ’em across a gutter and jump on ’em’.” He pauses for appropriate effect and adds: “Now that would make your eyes water.” A third-generation farmer’s son of German and Polish descent from Laidley, west of Brisbane, Schafferius came to his calling by a circuitous route. He joined the air force as a cook and was eventually re-mustered as a military policeman. After leaving the service he did some peripheral work for ASIO before setting up a private eye business in 1969. In those days, before the advent of no fault divorce, much of the work was “bums in beds”, catching people with their pants down, literally. It had a way of producing farcical moments. He remembers once hiding in bushes outside a house in readiness to take the all revealing pictures.
Then a neighbor started to water the garden and Schafferius spent the next 20 minutes being soaked, unable to move, unable to protest. In another case, he was trying to obtain evidence of a wife having an affair with the leader of a religious sect in which she had become involved. He hid under the makeshift altar before which the sect held its rituals. At the end of the ceremony, the sect leader and the woman had long and enthusiastic intercourse on top of the altar which the unsettled PI. hoped wouldn’t collapse on him. It didn’t. Today much tamer insurance fraud and compensation are the major interest of private detectives: “While the economy is down it’s an easy dollar to feign a crook back or neck and put in a claim. We do a lot of video surveillance of that. The other area that is growing is what I’d call AIDS awareness. If a wife comes in she’ll want to know not so much who her husband is with but whom his partner has been with. We’ve had a number of cases like that in the last couple of years. “Surveillance is footwork and time, being there and waiting, but a lot of our investigation is now done by computer and through data banks which recognise defaulters or others having problems.
Naturally, there are areas we can’t look at or can’t get legal access to. For example, police or social security files. There is a lot of footwork to get around those.” Then he suggests, enigmatically: “Well, it’s who you know in this business and where they are.” By now, it’s early evening and lightning cracks the sky outside as a storm gathers. We are drinking beer and tying up the loose ends from our day of interviews and storytelling. And the biggest loose end, of course, is … why? Why would anyone go to these countries and put themselves in desperate situations for little or no return) Schafferius claims to still be owed $40,000 for the aborted Yemen retrieval, money, that like the kids involved, he has little hope of seeing. He answers directly: “People get their kicks in all sorts of ways. It might be fast cars, women or yachts. I get satisfaction out of bringing these kids home. The harder the retrieval, the more satisfaction there is. One day I might get injured, one day I might get killed. But I’ll go down doing what I enjoy. I’m not scared of dying. Live your life to the full, do what you enjoy.” What a guy, what a quote – even Philip Marlowe would reach for the rye bottle and salute that one.
This article was originally published May 1994 in The Australian Magazine by Mike Safe.