Twin Tug of War

updated 02/05/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/05/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

For both couples there had been so much heartache. Failed fertility treatments. Adoptions gone awry. But last fall Richard and Vickie Allen of San Bernardino, Calif., and Alan and Judith Kilshaw of Wales each thought they had found the answer to their prayers: twin infant girls. On Oct. 10 the Allens met Tranda Wecker, 28, the twins' birth mother, at an airport outside Los Angeles. "Tranda," says Vickie Allen, a student-loan advisor, "handed them over to me and said, 'This is your new mommy.' " Two months later Wecker talked the Allens into permitting her one last visit–then disappeared with the girls. Over the next week she drove with the Kilshaws to Arkansas, where the couple obtained an adoption before flying back to Wales. "They are legally adopted," insists Alan Kilshaw.

Now the twins' custody battle has turned into an international spectacle, with charges of abduction and baby-selling ricocheting across the Atlantic. Caught in the glare of the media spotlight, both couples seem to grow more unsavory by the day: Vickie Allen has a criminal past; Judith Kilshaw a disturbed present. On Jan. 18 Welsh officials took the infants into custody, pending investigations by British and U.S. authorities. Further complicating the picture, Wecker, a receptionist with three other children and a criminal record, has now decided that she wants to keep the twins. "We've got Arkansas law, Missouri law, California law, British law, international law," says Lynn Lisk, the Allens' Arkansas lawyer. "They're all mixed into this mess."

For the Allens the legal tangle is a second devastating setback. Last spring they took an infant girl into their home and hearts–only to have the birth mother change her mind two months later. Hope was rekindled Oct. 1 when the couple responded to a posting about the Wecker twins, born June 26, listed by Caring Heart Adoption of San Diego on its Web site. Like Richard, 49, a plumbing contractor, and the couple's adopted son Andrew, 2, the girls were of mixed race. "I thought to myself, 'Those are my girls!' " says Vickie, 40.

Five days later Tina Johnson, an adoption facilitator who matches children in need of homes with homes in need of children, phoned with joyous news: The couple had been selected by Wecker to adopt her 4-month-old daughters. Johnson told the Allens that they had to pay fees of $8,500. On such short notice, the couple said, they could come up with only $6,000. Vickie sold a 2-carat diamond from her wedding ring to cover travel costs for Wecker, who was flying the twins from St. Louis. "Even though it wasn't an accredited agency," says Vickie, "I didn't think anyone in the adoption world would not have the kids' best interests at heart."

Returning to their $450,000 four-bedroom house, the Allens reveled in their new daughters, whom they called by their given names: Kiara and Keyara. "Friends and relatives and even strangers pitched in to help us out," says Vickie. Then in late November, Wecker phoned, asking to take the girls for a final weeklong visit. "It wasn't in anyone's best interests," says Richard, who has two grown sons by a prior marriage, "but there wasn't much we could do." Under California law Wecker had the right to rescind the placement within 90 days. Even so, says Vickie, "I trusted Tranda." Three days after Wecker drove off with the girls, Vickie recalls, facilitator Johnson telephoned. "Didn't she tell you?" Johnson asked. "She changed her mind."

But why? The Allens believe that Johnson wanted a higher fee. No, says Wecker. In an interview with the British tabloid The Sun, she insisted that when Johnson told her one of the Allens' adoption checks had bounced, "I began to think that these were not fit parents."

Until then, there had been no indication that Vickie's past was a factor. Richard says that Wecker, who is on probation for the misdemeanor crime of stealing, knew that Vickie had been convicted of grand theft 15 years ago and spent 45 days in jail. "We revealed this as part of the full-disclosure statement when the adoption was registered in California," he says. "Tranda knew about this. It wasn't ever a problem." It is not clear if Vickie also mentioned her other felony conviction for grand theft (anything more than $400) in 1988 or the civil suit, now in the discovery phase, that her former boss filed last June alleging that both Allens embezzled nearly $300,000 from his real estate management firm.

By the time the Allens learned of Wecker's doubts, the twins were already at a San Diego hotel with the Kilshaws, a couple every bit as desperate to adopt. The parents of two grown daughters by the first of Judith Kilshaw's three marriages and of two young biological sons of their own, the couple decided to adopt after in vitro fertilization failed. But, says Alan, 45, a lawyer, given Britain's stringent adoption laws, "we thought, 'Well, why not try the U.S.A.?'" Johnson first hooked them up with a woman who turned out not to be pregnant. Then in late November they learned about the twins.

The Kilshaws arrived in San Diego on Dec 1. Two days later Vickie Allen's brother confronted them at their hotel and demanded the babies back. The Kilshaws claim that until that moment they knew nothing of the Allens. Quickly they left the state. Over the next week they drove with Wecker and her daughter Nala, 3, to St. Louis to get the twins' birth certificates, then to Arkansas, where adoptions can be handled in as little as 10 days. On Dec. 22 the adoption papers were completed during a five-minute hearing. By Dec. 29 the Kilshaws and the twins–renamed Kimberly and Belinda–had returned to the tiny Welsh town of Buckley, where the couple share their seven-bedroom farmhouse with Judith's younger daughter, their two sons, six dogs, more than a dozen cats, two ferrets, a horse, a pony and two potbelly pigs.

The Kilshaws themselves ignited the ensuing furor by contacting The Sun to complain about Johnson's alleged double-dealing. Then neighbors all but lined up to denounce the couple as slovenly and Judith as aggressive and foul-mouthed. "They buy animals on impulse and it's the same with those poor twins," says Peter Shone, who owns the farm behind the Kilshaws' rundown property. "The inside of their house is disgusting." As the fracas heated up, British Prime Minister Tony Blair condemned the twins' plight as "deplorable" and pledged new legislation to make domestic adoptions easier. Judith, meanwhile, had a terse response to critics who charged her with black magic: "They can rot in hell."

The outcome is anything but clear. Johnson, who has disappeared from view, is under investigation by British authorities and the FBI. "Nothing illegal took place," says her publicist Jennifer Coburn. "The fees involved were simply the anticipated costs of presenting families to potential birth mothers." Wecker, for her part, told CBS, "I really want my girls back." Her estranged husband, Aaron, meanwhile, filed a petition in Missouri circuit court Jan. 22 seeking to gain custody of the twins and to bar Tranda from contact with them (Terri Butler, a former neighbor of the Weckers, says Tranda once told her that Aaron "was not even accepting that the babies were his"). The Kilshaws, who plan to apply for British citizenship for the girls, have been negotiating a movie deal. "I want to see the story put straight," says Judith. And the Allens are mounting a legal challenge to the Arkansas adoption. "I can only hope the truth will come out and we'll get them back," says Richard Allen.

Lisk, the Allens' attorney, says that if he can establish that neither the Kilshaws nor Wecker lived in Arkansas for 30 days, as that state's adoption law requires, "the chances of the judge setting aside the adoption are pretty good." As for the twins, they are now in their fourth home in seven months. "I represent the Allens," says Lisk, "but I'm more concerned about the children's welfare. They're the real victims in all of this." Obviously.

Jill Smolowe
Ron Arias in Los Angeles, Pete Norman and Esther Leach in Buckley, Kate Klise in St. Louis, Steve Barnes in Little Rock and Jamie Reno in San Diego

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