IT IS DAY 6 OF STATE OF GEORGIA V. Billie Faye Yager, a trial pitting the tenacious and outspoken founder of the Children of the Underground, which shelters victims of child abuse by hiding them in safe houses scattered throughout the United States, against some of the very people she insists she was trying to help. The little Marietta, Ga., courtroom is packed, for Yager, 43, is a celebrity of sorts. She often appears on television talk shows to speak out against child abuse; in fact Geraldo, who has interviewed several children she has assisted, is expected to testify on her behalf.

As the lights go down, a hush comes over the courtroom as exhibit A appears on a TV monitor. It is a video Yager made two years ago to help document a case of abuse. On the screen, then 8-year-old Alecia Watts appears. She is sitting in Yager's home, clutching a Bible. Yager's voice, with its West Virginia twang, is relentless: "You don't know very much, do you?" she snaps. "You gonna tell me what happened to you?...Has anybody told you to lie? Have I told you to lie?...If you don't tell the truth, you're going to be hurt." Finally the little girl says that her father put his "private" on her bottom.

The tape reveals much about the style of Faye Yager, a onetime heroine of the underground movement, whom some members currently see as a liability. Now facing charges of kidnapping, interference with custody and "causing cruel and excessive mental pain" to children, she could, if convicted, spend up to 60 years in jail. For her part, Yager claims that since 1987 she has saved more than 1,000 parents and children from abusive homes and an indifferent judicial system. She maintains that her network is an island of last resort in a sea of entangled custody battles and embittered relationships. "If you're a whistle-blower, you have to expect this," says Yager of the charges brought against her. "Look what happened to Martin Luther King."

But former colleagues and experts on child abuse question her tactics and flamboyance, as well as her tendency to see sexual abuse and Satanic witchery lurking in every shadow. Says a leader in the underground movement: "I hope this [trial] puts her out of business, but I don't want to see her go to jail." John Rabun Jr., vice president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Arlington, Va., says, "Faye is a zealot driven by her own sense of mission. She is godlike in her own mind. She is the judge, jury and executioner. " She is also, he believes, "motivated by her own victimology."

That is because Yager has experienced the failure of the court system firsthand. A coal-miner's daughter desperate to escape the poverty of Beckley, W.Va., Billie Faye Wisen married Roger Jones, son of a department-store owner, at age 17. When she caught him molesting their 2-year-old daughter, Michelle, in 1971, Jones claimed she was hallucinating and placed Yager in a psychiatric hospital. Even after doctors discovered that the little girl contracted gonorrhea, a judge rejected Yager's pleas to revoke Jones's visitation rights. Instead the judge awarded custody to Jones's parents, and Jones, whom Yager divorced, continued to visit his daughter. Sixteen years later Jones made the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List for sexually molesting two young girls in Florida. He was eventually apprehended. Michelle, who now lives in Atlanta, battled substance-abuse problems until last year.

Faye had a second daughter, Janelle, in 1974, with her second husband, John Durham, a real estate broker who shot himself in 1976, she says, because he felt like a failure after the doomed custody battle for Michelle. Yager didn't become a crusader for abused children until 1987, when, married to her third husband, Howard Yager, 55, a wealthy Atlanta doctor with whom she has three children—Heather, 13, Zachary, 12, and Joshua, 7—she read about a Mississippi mother jailed for hiding her abused daughter from the girl's father. Yager was galvanized—"I saw myself in this case," she says—and joined the fledgling underground movement and then eventually cofounded her own network.

The events that brought Faye Yager to court this month are in dispute. As she tells it, on April 10, 1990, Myra Watts, a Florida waitress and battered wife, came to Yager with her two children, Alecia, then 8, and Jarrod, 10. While Watts stayed with Jarrod at a nearby motel, Alecia stayed at Yager's home for four days.

The prosecution claims that Yager had permission to keep Alecia for two hours, not four days, and that she browbeat false accusations of abuse out of her. Myra Watts testified at a preliminary hearing in May 1990 that Yager "began telling me my daughter and son were involved in witchcraft. She told me my children were poisoning me with cyanide. At this point I realized I was dealing with a crazy lady." For her part, Yager denies having raised the issues of witchcraft and poisoning, and she claims that Watts had access to her children at all times.

The trial is expected to last several weeks, and Yager is confident she will be found not guilty. Though years of battling the system have taken their toll on Yager's family—her husband, Howard, says wearily, "We support Faye, but if she comes through this, I hope that she will stop this activity [the network]"—she is a woman haunted by her past. "When I get down," says Yager, "and this past weekend I really just began to shake with terror, I look at this picture of Michelle, and that reminds me I'm doing the right thing."

BETSY GLEICK
GAIL WESCOTT and JANE SIMS PODESTA in Atlanta

  • Contributors:
  • Gail Wescott,
  • Jane Sims Podesta.