Lost and Found
Beau's unnurtured life began to take a turn for the better when, in 1992, his neighbor Kandy Slack, a gregarious video-game technician with two teenage daughters, took him under her wing—feeding him, letting him sleep over in her tidy house and paying him to do odd jobs around her father-in-law's convenience store. Happy to play foster mother to "an incredible kid who never complained," she never asked Beau whether he was in touch with his mother. Derrel claimed that his wife had walked out when their son was a baby, and Beau never questioned the story.
But on Sept. 15, 1995, when Beau was using Slack's computer to explore the Internet, something happened that would alter his life. Through a chain of events that began with a chat-line comment to a cyberpal who contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va., he made the startling discovery that he had been abducted as an infant during a custody dispute. The FBI had spent nearly 12 years trying to find him. More than a year later, the boy who seemed so lost is adjusting nicely to hot showers, food in the fridge and loving discipline from the mother with whom he is now reunited. His father, whose real name is Vaughn Arceneaux, is appealing a five-year sentence for simple kidnapping. And his mother, Rebecca Comeaux of New Iberia, La., can't stop hugging the son who for 12 years she had thought of as a chubby-cheeked 15-month-old—and who, on Dec. 20, 1995, appeared before her as a scrawny teen.
"It was strange," says Becky, 41, now married to third husband Rickie Comeaux, a computer consultant, and mother to Vaughn's half sister Cali, 11. "I carried him on my hip when he left, and when he showed up he was about my height. Sometimes I look at him and I just can't believe he's back."
But as Beau settled into his new life with his family—and moved into his own bedroom in the ranch-style house that is now his home—Becky's disbelief began to fade. Not only has her son returned, he's blossoming—and learning to live with a measure of fame-Beau's an honor-roll student at New Iberia Freshman High School and was named poster boy for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in January. He visited Arlington with Becky, to open a Web site (www.miss-ingkids.org) designed to aid in the 5,423 still-active cases involving children, some of whom have been missing since 1984. "Beau's a hero," says Ernie Allen, the Center's president. "When we saw his case, we were struck by the power of the Internet. There's no question he's the stimulus for this expansion on the Web."
In many ways the Internet had become a lifeline for the boy who disappeared from Becky's life on Sept. 13, 1983. His parents' 10-month marriage was disintegrating when Beau Dylan Arceneaux was born on June 7, 1982. Vaughn Arceneaux was manager of the Clover Farms dairy co-op in Opelousas, La., when he met Rebecca Ann Skinner, a bookkeeper, and had weathered two divorces by the late 70s. Becky, raised near Lake Charles, the daughter of a gas pipeline worker, was no stranger to emotional strife herself—marrying at 15, divorcing at 21 and losing a bid for custody of daughter Christi, now 25. Though there was "no big fight," as she remembers it, she and Vaughn—whose lawyer has refused to allow him to comment—were often at odds and short of cash. After leaving the co-op, she says, he worked sporadically, so she took a bookkeeping job to help support Beau.
In June 1983 the two separated, and Becky won provisional custody of Beau. Though "we tried to work things out," she says, an attempt at reconciliation in August failed. A month later, Vaughn came to her sister's house in Erath, La., to take their infant son for a Sunday afternoon visit and never returned.
Ignoring court orders to relinquish Beau, Vaughn was eventually charged with simple kidnapping. "It was like a nightmare," says Becky, who "started writing mean letters to senators, judges, just anybody I could think of." Frantic, she registered Beau's description with the FBI and various agencies including the National Center. "Airports, malls. Anytime I saw a blue-eyed baby, my heart would stop," she says. There were updates from the FBI and child search agencies, but as the leads dwindled she moved on with her life, settling in Denver, then returning to Louisiana. "I knew they would find him one day," she says. "But you just can't live with it and talk about it every day."
For his part, Beau seldom wondered why he had never seen his mother. "My dad told me there was a divorce and that she didn't want custody at all," he remembers. Going underground and taking odd jobs in Canada, California and, finally, Austin, Vaughn evaded the FBI by taking an alias and counterfeiting a birth certificate for Beau. He put less effort into raising his son: By the time Beau was 7, he was a latchkey kid accustomed to short rations and cold-water baths. Though he showed up for school, he rarely studied. "I didn't have time to sit down and say, 'Oh, how do you do this math problem?' " he remembers. "I wondered, 'Where do I get food tonight?' I just thought that was my life. That's all I ever knew."
The escape for Beau was his friendship with his Austin neighbor Slack. "She took me in one night when my dad threw me out," he says. "I woke him up and asked him to sign a permission slip for a field trip, and he told me to get out. I'd go over there when I got hungry. And I learned about the Internet by playing" on her computer—I met her friends in a chat room."
On the day his life changed forever, Beau linked up on the Internet with Kandy's pal Colleen Lorenson, a packaging engineer for Campbell's Soup in Camden, N.J. "I wish I had a momm," he typed. "I haven't seen or talked to her in 12 years." "Bummer, sorry," wrote Lorenson. "Sux," he replied.
Suspicious, Lorenson alerted cyber-pal Joni Whiting, a grandmother in Jordan, Minn. Lacking a detailed description, Whiting was brushed off when she reported to the FBI she had made contact with a child on the Internet she believed had been kidnapped. She persuaded Slack to alert the National Center. "I was having a real hard time with it," says Kandy. "What if his mother's a junkie somewhere? But Joni said, 'You have to call.' "
Slack's call prompted Beau's case manager Charles Pickett to place a call to the FBI, which began investigating Beau's school records. One month later, Arceneaux was arrested at the Austin pizza house where he worked. Meanwhile, back at Slack's house, Beau heard his mother's voice for the first time. "He got on the phone and said, 'Hi Mom,' " says Becky. "I told him, 'I'm coming to get you. I love you.' " Now she says, "We were lucky. Because of nothing more than the grace of God and these three women, he was found."
Though Beau has put hard times behind him, some things he will never forget—or forgive. "I don't blame anybody except my father," he says. "My mother lost 12 years with me that we'll never get back." There is nothing he would like more than a quiet life—which may be difficult after a CBS drama about him is aired next December. Still, he knows how quickly life can change. "When I first got back to Louisiana, everyone was saying, 'There's the kidnapped kid,' " Beau reports. "Now I have a group of friends. They don't call me the kidnapped kid anymore."
JOSEPH HARMES in New Iberia and JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington