A Father's Long, Bitter Search for His Children Ends at the Doorstep of the U.S. Government

updated 01/08/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/08/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

Later this month in federal district court in Buffalo, N.Y. an astonishing 11-year-old imbroglio will finally come to trial: the case of Tom Leonhard, a 39-year-old cement mason who has sued the U.S. government for $10.5 million in damages for depriving him of the right to "raise, rear and nurture his children." Leonhard's bizarre, Kafkaesque tale is already a book, titled Hide in Plain Sight, and actor James Caan is directing and starring in the movie of the same name. But no dramatized account could match Leonhard's chilling real-life battle with an unlikely enemy—the U.S. law enforcement apparatus—in order to see his son and daughter, who disappeared in a limousine in June 1967.

A year later Leonhard would learn that he was a victim of the witness protection program, under which 2,700 government witnesses, most of them in organized crime cases, have been relocated and given new identities. Leonhard's first wife, Rochelle, divorced him in 1966 to marry one such Mafia informant, Pascal "Paddy" Calabrese, a small-time heist man in Buffalo. With him and her three children (one of whom apparently was Calabrese's), she fled underground eventually to a new life in Reno, Nev. But on that June afternoon 11 years ago, all Tom Leonhard knew was that when he arrived for his Sunday visit with his son Mike, 7, and daughter Karen, 6, no one answered his knock at the door. Rochelle's relatives said that she and the children had "gone away for a while," but they didn't know where. "I told myself I'd wait awhile," he recalls, "that they couldn't just disappear without anyone knowing their whereabouts. Later I went to the Buffalo police, and they insisted they didn't know anything. The FBI told me to wait, be patient." Finally the newspapers reported that Calabrese had been relocated with his wife and children.

What followed, Leonhard says, was "one big runaround." When he confronted Buffalo police, an officer told him bluntly, "Leave well enough alone. Don't meddle. This is a government thing." Having gone bankrupt because of large credit card debts left behind by his former wife, he was unable to get a lawyer or investigator to help him. "They all shied away from the case," he says bitterly. "They said it would be a long, expensive battle, and I didn't have the money to finance it."

In 1968 Leonhard remarried, and he subsequently decided to adopt his new wife's daughter by a previous marriage. The lawyer who drew up the papers was a former public defender named Salvatore Martoche, who had just gone into private practice. When Leonhard told him what was happening with his own children, "Sal just shook his head," he recalls. "He didn't believe me." Finally Martoche agreed to help.

Together they managed to pry loose the name of a man who knew where Calabrese was—Thomas Kennelly, then head of the U.S. Organized Crime Strike Force in Buffalo. Refusing to break his vow of secrecy, Kennelly did agree to forward letters from Leonhard to his ex-wife. Rochelle ignored 12 of them, and then, in February 1971, sent Martoche a reply to the 13th. "I am writing this letter in regards to your client," she began. "It seems he is concerned about his children's health and welfare. Please inform him that it is excellent. Also inform [him] that in no way shall I ever allow him to see them...I shall not read nor answer any more letters."

Leonhard's progress in court was no better. A New York State court awarded him custody of the two children, but repeated attempts in federal court to force the government to produce them failed. One court said it would take "the wisdom of Solomon" to decide the case, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review it. Leonhard at one point considered some dramatic gesture to call attention to his plight—taking a hostage or hijacking a plane, "but I knew I could never do anything like that," he says. "I was confused, bewildered. I felt my government had let me down. I was angry that the government was taking care of Paddy Calabrese, a criminal, while I was struggling to find my children. I was beginning to think it was hopeless."

Then the case took a sudden dramatic turn. Early in 1975 Rochelle and Calabrese separated, and she apparently had a change of heart. "I'll never forget that July Fourth," says lawyer Martoche. "The telephone at my home rang, and a voice on the other end said: 'Hi, Sal, this is Ro. I made a terrible mistake. I just told the kids who their real father is.' " Two weeks later Tom Leonhard and his second wife, Joanne, were on a plane to Reno for a tearful reunion with his children.

But it was not the happy ending Tom had envisioned. "When I saw them," he remembers, "they had grown up. It tore me up inside. I had lost all those years." Perhaps understandably, the children chose to remain with their mother in Reno (although they have visited Tom on several occasions since 1975), and he has not pressed his right to custody. "We have not been able to recapture what we lost," he says. "The children were raised differently from the way I would have raised them, with different values. The eight years are gone and can never be replaced, and the government can never make things even." He leaves the larger point to his lawyer. "The whole thrust of this case is abuse of power by the government," says Martoche. "We want to establish the precedent that government agents can't interfere with the rights of parents and children to be together. If it could happen to Tom Leonhard, it could happen to anyone."

From Our Partners