Elizabeth Morgan

updated 12/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

In some ways it seemed that Elizabeth Morgan's drama had reached its denouement on the rainy night in September when she walked past the gates of the District of Columbia Jail, where she had spent the longest 25 months of her life. Imprisoned for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of her young daughter, Hilary—who, Morgan says, had been raped repeatedly by her ex-husband, Eric Foretich—the 42-year-old plastic surgeon had won a battle that only a zealot could have waged. It was in August 1987 that Morgan had sent Hilary, then 5, into hiding rather than comply with a judge's order that the child continue unsupervised visits with her father. As the months passed and Morgan remained behind bars, her case had become a national cause célèbre: a mother jailed for trying to protect her child. In the eyes of her supporters, she had been martyred by the very system from which she had sought justice. In the end, Morgan was freed by a federal law—passed by Congress on her behalf—that put a one-year limit on jail sentences for civil contempt in the District of Columbia.

Since her release, however, the pitch of the drama has only heightened. In October, less than 12 hours after it was reported that Hollywood producer Linda Otto had agreed to pay an estimated $250,000 for the rights to Morgan's story, a mysterious fire severely damaged the empty Fairfax County, Va., home that belonged to her parents, William and Antonia, who disappeared along with Hilary in 1987. (Said Morgan: "Whoever set it is out of control in a big way.") Days later, one of Foretich's previous wives, Sharon Sullivan, filed a $2 million civil suit alleging that he had sexually abused their daughter, Heather, now 9, as well as Hilary.

Foretich, 46, a Virginia-based oral surgeon who adamantly denies molesting his daughters, immediately fired back. He held a press conference announcing the formation of the Help Hilary Home Trust to finance the search for his daughter. He also presented his case on Donahueand later took his crusade to England, where he believes Hilary is living with her grandparents.

Morgan will not immediately return to the thriving practice she abandoned when she went to prison; instead she will concentrate on working on the TV film with Otto—herself an outspoken survivor of sexual abuse—and on funding her costly legal battles. She must fight three libel and conspiracy suits filed by Foretich, and her lawyers are pressing the courts to block his access to their daughter. "My job is to find money to keep the war going until Hilary is home," says Morgan, who is writing a book about her imprisonment. Aside from helping to bankroll her legal campaign, she is hoping that Otto's docudrama will bring public pressure on D.C. Superior Court Judge Herbert Dixon, who, after hearing conflicting testimony from expert witnesses on both sides, refused to end Foretich's unsupervised visits with Hilary. "The movie is part of getting Hilary protected," she says. "If the courts had done that, there would be no need to tell her story."

These days, Morgan's greatest source of comfort has been Federal Appeals Court Judge Paul Michel, 48, a divorced father of two to whom she became engaged in the spring of 1987. On Dec. 2, Morgan wed her "knight-defender," as she calls him, in a quiet ceremony at St. Alban's Church near their apartment in Washington. In the front pew were Hilary's favorite toys—two stuffed rag dolls and a plush serpent—that served as her stand-ins. Says Morgan: "It's a safe assumption that she approves of the wedding. She feels safe with Paul. He's the father she always wanted." Morgan makes no secret of the fact that she is in indirect touch with Hilary, but that contact, she admits, is bittersweet. "I want to be with her enormously. I really ache for her," she says. "The dream of my life is to be able to walk up to her, put my arms around her and say, 'You can come home now. You're safe.' "

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