The Little Girl in the Middle

updated 03/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

At the age of 7, Hilary Foretich has already seen the world—probably too much of it. As the object of the most desperate custody battle in memory, she has spent the past 30 months on the run with her grandparents, touching down on three continents and traveling 15,000 miles. On the morning after authorities finally tracked her down, in a motel room in Christchurch, New Zealand, Hilary did what came naturally—she made a tent of blankets and crawled inside, trying to escape the bewildering adult world that has been so unrelenting in its pursuit of her.

But for her there is no place to hide. The sensational news that Hilary had been found set legal machinery grinding on both sides of the Pacific. It also released emotions that had been building for years. In August 1987, Hilary's mother, Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, sent her into hiding after charging in court that her ex-husband, Dr. Eric Foretich, had sexually abused the child. The first phone call between mother and daughter after 2½ years was almost anticlimactic. "I told her I missed her and loved her and wanted to be with her," says Morgan, 42, a Washington, D.C., plastic surgeon who spent 25 months in jail on contempt charges for refusing to turn over her daughter for unsupervised, court-mandated visits with Foretich. "She just wanted me to talk and tell her that everything was all right."

Meanwhile, Foretich, 47, who had launched an international search for Hilary, rejoiced that his daughter had been found—and once again vehemently denied the allegations of sexual abuse, reminding reporters that he has never been charged by police with any improprieties against his daughter. "I am a good father trying to find my child," he told a reporter before flying to New Zealand to shape legal strategy with his attorneys last week. "I am tired of being portrayed as a latter-day Jack the Ripper." Unfortunately public accusations have been an ugly hallmark of the case from the beginning. Last week's target was William Morgan, 79, who along with his wife, Antonia, 75, was responsible for spiriting away granddaughter Hilary. Following several intemperate outbursts from William while being hounded by the press—at one point he called Foretich "a psychopathic pedophile pervert"—the outside attorney appointed in 1986 by a Washington court to represent the child characterized the elder Morgan as an "extremely unstable" man whose presence could pose "a danger to Hilary's best interest."

Now, however, both sides have the chance to resolve the case once and for all—though not before what promises to be an acrimonious court fight. A judge in New Zealand has granted temporary custody of Hilary to her grandparents and imposed a gag order. The proceedings may drag on for months and will be conducted in secrecy. Even as they prepared for the showdown, both Foretich and Morgan were expressing confidence that the process would be fair.

Whatever the outcome, the long, bizarre flight of Hilary and her grandparents is over. From the day Elizabeth handed over the little girl in the parking lot of a Virginia diner, Antonia and William, both retired psychologists, carried out their mission with determination and cunning. During World War II, William had served as a major in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, and that gave him more than a passing familiarity with clandestine methods. While on the run, the couple used only cash, never checks or credit cards, to avoid leaving a paper trail. Yet they always traveled under their own names, to avoid later allegations that they had broken the law. (According to her mother and grandparents, Hilary insisted on being called Ellen in an effort to distance herself from the pain they say she was leaving behind.)

Their first months on the run were hectic ones. After remaining briefly in the Washington area, the Morgans flew to Nassau, in the Bahamas, and set up house in a beach cottage. Within three months, the high price of island living sent them packing for Toronto. There they rendezvoused with their son Jim, 44, a New York City investment banker, who drove up one night with $30,000 in money orders to pay their expenses. Their next stop was Vancouver, where they stayed for several days in a downtown hotel. The city looked inviting, but Antonia worried about being so close to the U.S. border, where publicity about the Morgan case threatened constantly to give them away.

According to the Morgans, those first few months were the most traumatic for Hilary, who suffered from nightmares and screaming fits. Occasionally she seemed almost suicidal—a result, her grandparents insist, of her alleged molestation, not of her disrupted life. "One time she stabbed herself in the thigh with a fork," Antonia told PEOPLE. "She would also try to cut herself with scissors." Elizabeth's brother Jim maintains that on his trip to Toronto he saw plentiful evidence of Hilary's psychological turmoil and the toll it was taking on his elderly parents. "She was a hyperactive, crazed child," he says. "It was extremely tough for them."

If so, Hilary appears to have made a remarkable recovery by the time she and her grandparents reached their next destination, Great Britain. (Antonia, who was born in London, holds both British and U.S. passports.) After stopping over briefly in Glasgow, they settled in a two-bedroom apartment in a suburb of Plymouth in November 1987. Hilary enrolled in the private Beechfield College school, where she studied ballet, among other subjects, and started to pick up a British accent. By all accounts she seemed normal and content. "Hilary—or Ellen, as we knew her—was a well-adjusted little girl, a bubbly, lovely little girl," says Reginald Broad-Kemp, the landlord of the Victorian row house where the Morgans lived. The Morgans' housekeeper, Barbara Pengelly, recalls that Hilary especially loved going to school. "The only occasion I ever saw her upset was when she had tonsillitis and had to stay home," says Pengelly. "She loved her smart little uniform."

Meanwhile her mother was wearing the burnt-orange outfit that is standard issue at the District of Columbia jail. While serving time, Elizabeth says she never attempted to contact her daughter directly, for fear of unwittingly disclosing Hilary's location. Instead she relied on relatives to bring her news of the child. "I desperately wanted to talk to her," says Elizabeth, "but she knew that one day we would be together, when she was safe."

Although the Morgans felt secure in England, Antonia feared Foretich might trace them to her native land and after eight months convinced William that they should head for New Zealand, which she had visited two years earlier. Their two-bedroom apartment at the Diplomat Motel in Christchurch was far from sumptuous, but cozy enough. It was also less than a minute's walk from Selwyn House, the prestigious girls school where Hilary enrolled in kindergarten. Once again she took root and seemed to flourish, boasting to her grandparents about her growing circle of friends.

The motel apartment became a kind of haven dedicated to providing Hilary with a normal childhood. There was a goldfish bowl and a dollhouse, plus piles of toys scattered throughout the five rooms. The Morgans brought in a music stand, and Hilary and Antonia practiced playing the recorder.

Even so, the Morgans never let down their guard. Until last May, only a few people knew their secret. And Hilary never seemed totally secure; she insisted that her grandmother sleep in the same room with her. Meanwhile the Morgans had spent some $200,000, most of it from their own savings, to finance their flight. (Elizabeth's legal bills have put her nearly $2 million in debt.) One unanticipated result of the ordeal was that it brought William and Antonia closer. The couple had separated in 1980 and divorced in 1986. Thrown together again by the effort to hide their granddaughter, they decided just over a year ago to remarry.

Despite their determination to protect Hilary, the Morgans realized that they couldn't keep running forever. "You know the blow is going to fall sometime," says Antonia, "but you fear it." Their anxiety increased last May when a New Zealand television station broadcast a documentary on celebrated child-custody battles. One of the children featured was Hilary. Several Christchurch acquaintances saw the program and recognized the little girl in the pictures. Instead of turning her in, they offered their help and support. "People were wonderful," says Antonia. "They would ask if they could do anything."

But by that time, the private detectives Foretich had hired to find his daughter were starting to close in. Last December they got a break after a British television show aired its own program on custody fights, with a photo of Hilary. Within weeks Foretich's detectives had traced Hilary to Christchurch.

Despite Hilary's U.S. citizenship, the New Zealand family courts now have jurisdiction over her case. Already the presiding judge has taken steps that the Morgans believe will help their cause. While returning Hilary to her grandparents, the court immediately appointed a neutral child-abuse expert to examine Hilary and determine the credibility of her accusations. Elizabeth Morgan had vainly asked the District of Columbia courts to do just that, rather than rely on the contradictory testimony of experts hired by her and her ex-husband. The judge also named a lawyer to represent Hilary's legal interests and barred Foretich from even seeing his daughter face-to-face until it can be determined whether she will agree to such a visit and whether it might be psychologically detrimental to her.

More critical to Morgan's case may be the fact that her lawyers will be able to introduce testimony from Heather Foretich, 9, Eric's daughter by a previous marriage, who claimed, in court documents, that he molested her as well. (Eric has been denied visitation rights with Heather, but he has never been charged by police with sexually abusing her.) Judge Herbert Dixon, who presided over Hilary's case in D.C. Superior Court, had previously declared those allegations, which Foretich strongly denies, inadmissible as evidence in Hilary's case. For the moment, the Morgans seem to be hoping that they can do in New Zealand what they failed to do in Washington: win an outright victory, depriving Foretich of all visitation rights. If so, they might persuade the District of Columbia to reopen the case by threatening to keep Hilary in New Zealand indefinitely. Last week Elizabeth was trying to get back her passport, which Judge Dixon confiscated three years ago to prevent her from fleeing the country. She planned to join Hilary and her parents, with her hopes high but prospects uncertain. "I don't try to predict what might happen," she says. "The unpredictable has always happened to me, so why make predictions?"

—Bill Hewitt, Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C., Carl Robinson in Christchurch and Jonathan Cooper in London

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