Going Beyond the Law

updated 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Nothing in her Niceville, Fla., upbringing could have prepared Cathy Mahone for this moment. Seven thousand miles from her Dallas home, seated in a car jolting slowly along the dust-brown streets of a Jordanian city, she suddenly found herself gaping in shock at a familiar face. Instantly she recognized her Arab ex-husband, Ali Bayan, 34, the once-gentle lover who had ultimately caused her unimaginable pain. Almost three months earlier, in November 1987, Bayan had kidnapped their 7-year-old daughter, Lauren, in Texas and spirited the child to this provincial city of Jarash, 25 miles north of Amman, the Jordanian capital. Unable to live with the possibility of never seeing her again, Cathy, 32, had committed herself to a daring plot to rescue Lauren with the help of a shadowy team of former commandos.

Sighting Ali meant that Cathy was close to finding her daughter. "But I was so frightened, I was speechless," she says. Though well disguised in the veils of an Arab woman, she was desperately afraid Bayan might see her, and she shrank down in the seat of the car. Cathy had found Bayan's home, but several seconds passed before she was able to share the news with her companions in the car, a group of ex-Green Beret security experts who had been hired for their knowledge and muscle.

Three days later, Cathy and her commandos had accomplished their mission: Mother and daughter were joyfully reunited in a car bound for the safety of the Israeli border. Cathy had risked imprisonment by the Jordanians—or worse—but the abduction was a desperate last resort, and obviously she had no regrets. "I made my will out before I left," she says. Earlier, she had exhausted all legal remedies and learned that the U.S. government was powerless to help—that Lauren was one of at least 500 American children trapped in apparently unresolvable international custody battles. "I knew this was the only way I could have my child," says Cathy. "My life was worthless without her, and I was prepared to lose it to get her back."

Cathy met Ali Bayan when she was 19 and waitressing in Dallas to pay her tuition. "Here I was, all alone in a strange city," she says. "I'd never even dated before." Bayan, a young Jordanian engineering student and part-time busboy, was a romantic suitor who came courting with bouquets of wildflowers. "He was a very nice, very gentle, sweet man. I guess I was happy to have someone care for me," says Cathy. In June 1976, eight months after they started dating, they were married in a small, Christian service. "My family and friends just loved Ali," says Cathy. "And his family loved me." Cathy traveled to his hometown of Jarash, where she met his parents and 23 brothers and sisters (including 12 half-siblings from his father's first marriage). A child of the American middle class, Cathy suffered a severe case of culture shock in Jarash. "There are no toilets there," she says. "They use these ceramic holes in the floor." Far more disturbing to her was the subordinate role of women. "The men just tell the women what's going to happen," she says. "And the older men just rule like dictators."

Back in America, though, life with Ali seemed almost idyllic. Cathy started in the real estate business; Ali continued to work in restaurants. Then, soon after Cathy became pregnant, her husband visited his native country again, and this time he stayed two months and came back transformed. "It seemed to me he'd been brainwashed over there," recalls Cathy. Without discussion, he told Cathy they were moving to Jordan. But Cathy resisted: She didn't like the Middle East, and she wasn't going to raise Lauren as a Moslem. The couple fought constantly, says Cathy, and "when the baby was just a few weeks old, I knew we would have to get a divorce." She did, in 1980, and was awarded custody of Lauren.

On their own again, both Cathy and Ali seemed to blossom. She opened an employment agency and prospered. Ali opened a restaurant with his brother, married an American woman of Middle Eastern descent and had two children by her. For four years, scrupulously observing the terms of the custody agreement, he was also a doting dad to Lauren. "He was a wonderful father," admits Cathy. "I had no reason to suspect he would ever try to take her to Jordan."

But by last fall, Ali had fallen victim to the nose-diving Texas economy, losing his business and his home and, not surprisingly, was taking it badly. "He began to act strangely," says Cathy. "I heard that he was praying all the time and had started wearing caftans." On Sunday, Nov. 1, Ali picked up Lauren from a friend's house for a two-day visit. The next day, when Cathy went to pick up her daughter at school, she learned that Lauren had been absent. "My gut told me exactly what happened," she says. A quick phone call to the Royal Jordanian Airline confirmed her worst fears: The night before, Ali had absconded to Jordan with their daughter.

Cathy was devastated. "I was violently, physically ill," she says. "I would lie on the floor, doubled over with cramps." She dragged herself to the Dallas district attorney's office, and what she heard there made her feel even worse. Jordan had no formal extradition treaty with the U.S., so Ali could not be forced to bring Lauren back. Indeed, under Jordanian law, in divorce cases the father is granted custody of any child. The U.S. State Department provided no comfort either. "They told me there were many other parents with the same problem," says Cathy. "That really made me feel great."

Soon she was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and was unable to eat or to sleep. Reaching for straws of hope, she began hatching wild schemes. A certified scuba diver, she even thought of somehow using her underwater skills to rescue Lauren. "My friends talked me out of it," she says. "Too dangerous." Despite discouraging news at every turn, she also kept working the legal system. And a week after Lauren's disappearance, that seemingly futile strategy began to pay off, though in a quite unexpected way. After hearing Cathy's testimony, a Dallas County grand jury returned an indictment against Ali on custody violation charges. The action was meaningless, of course, since Ali could not be compelled to stand trial. But the jury foreman, Al Zapanta, 47, was touched by Cathy's story. "She tried to keep her emotions under control," he says. "But you could see the hurt and the depth of her feeling." Zapanta gave her his business card and told her to call if she needed help.

That was the turning point. A wealthy oil-company lobbyist, Zapanta is a colonel in the Army Reserves, a former Green Beret who was awarded the Silver Star in Vietnam. When Cathy called him a week later, he put her in touch with an organization called Corporate Training Unlimited in Fayetteville, N.C. "They felt right," says Cathy. "They were all family men with children." They were also all former members of the Delta Force, the U.S. military's elite hostage rescue unit. For a fee that may come close to $200,000 (the money came from Cathy's substantial business profits, but no one involved will give the exact sum), they agreed to try to bring Lauren home. But first Cathy laid down a couple of ground rules. There would be no guns, she insisted, and she was determined to go along on the rescue "so that Lauren wouldn't be traumatized at being snatched by strange men." CTU agreed and began to put together a game plan.

Step one involved a classic deception ploy. Over a period of five weeks, Cathy phoned the Bayan household in Jarash and spoke to Ali's aunts. "I would call them and act weepy and hysterical and ask how my baby was," says Cathy. "I didn't want them to think I was capable of planning anything to get her back."

Step two began during the second week of January, when four CTU men flew out to the Middle East. Cathy was to stay in Cyprus until they located Lauren. Each night, they phoned in. "We had a code," she explains. "If they had seen her, they would say, 'The sun is shining.' " After seven long days, the call finally came. "The sun is shining," Cathy was told. She took the next plane to Amman.

One of the CTU men had spotted a little girl on a school bus. Although the child had long dark hair and olive skin like her schoolmates, she also had Cathy's distinctive gray-blue eyes. The eyes were such a giveaway, in fact, that when the CTU men asked Cathy to verify that they had pinpointed the Bayan family home, they were afraid she might be spotted by one of Ali's relatives. They told her to lower her gaze. As they drove by the house, Cathy saw Ali standing outside.

The rescuers briefly considered breaking into the house and grabbing the girl, but concluded that someone might get hurt. Instead, they decided to take her off the bus she took to school in the morning. But first they had to prepare an escape route. For the next two days, Cathy and the ex-Green Berets dressed in gaudy American tourist clothes, stopped at all the checkpoints on the way to the Israeli border and cheerfully chatted up the guards. They wanted the guards to remember them and to pay no attention when they returned with Lauren.

January 28th dawned dark and foggy. In Amman, nervous and shivering, the rescuers slipped into their tourist garb, which they then concealed beneath caftans. They drove to Jarash in tense silence and waited for Lauren's bus on a mountain road. "All of a sudden, I had to go to the bathroom," says Cathy. "The guys laughed. They told me it always happens on missions like this." The bus appeared at 8:30 and turned into a narrow driveway. Blocking the bus from backing out with their car, the CTU men sprang into action. One man grabbed the driver, took his keys and flung them out the window. Another followed Cathy onto the bus while she searched for Lauren. As luck would have it, the little girl was sitting by the door. "She looked right at me," says Cathy. "Her eyes were as big as saucers, like she'd seen a ghost." (Later, Lauren would explain, "Mommy, I thought I was dreaming!") Cathy scooped the child into her arms. "Come on, baby," she murmured, "let's go. It's Mommy." A woman chaperone on the bus tried vainly to stop her. "But these guys trained me how to deal with that," says Cathy. "I just hit her away from me." Back in the car, she recalls, "Lauren was completely in shock. She didn't say a single word. The guys said that's how people in a hostage situation often react. I just kept my arm on her and told her it would be all right and not to make any noise."

The group's getaway was flawlessly executed. Smiling border guards waved the ridiculously dressed American tourists through every checkpoint, and as their car came down out of the hills near the Israeli border, the oppressive fog suddenly lifted. "The sun was shining, just like our code word for seeing Lauren," says Cathy. "It was an incredible moment."

Cathy and Lauren returned to Dallas Jan. 31. Since then, they have changed their names and assumed new identities to make sure that Lauren is not stolen again. "The saddest part of all this," says Cathy, "is that Lauren and her father are not going to have any relationship at all. She has lost her daddy." But in the process she has been restored to the country of her birth, and to a mother who would search for her to the ends of the earth.

—By Jack Friedman, with Anne Maier in Houston

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