Mom pleads not guilty to abducting daughters in 1985

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A woman accused of abducting her two daughters in Warwick more than three decades ago and taking them across the country faced a judge on Wednesday.

Elaine Yates, who legally changed her name to Liana Waldberg, was arraigned on one felony count of abduction of a child prior to a court order. She pleaded not guilty to the charge. Cameras were not permitted in the courtroom.

“He told me he felt it was not in the interest of justice,” court spokesperson Craig Berke said of the judge’s decision. “This is a family that needs to heal, and he did not want to exacerbate the situation with a host of cameras.”

Acting on a tip after 31 years of searching, authorities went to Yates’ home in Houston on Monday and arrested her.

Police said Yates, now 69, took her two very young girls – Kelly and Kimberly – from their father, Russell Yates, in August of 1985. A warrant for her arrest was issued in 1999, after Mr. Yates filed for and was granted legal custody of the children.

Investigators believe she left because of a domestic dispute.

“She left for an excellent reason, believe me,” said Carol, a childhood friend of Yates who attended her arraignment. “I wish she could have stayed free.”

Other friends and family members outside court said that Yates had fled due to domestic abuse. Russell Yates himself told the Providence Journal in 1988 that he had struck his wife during an argument about his infidelities shortly before she fled. Tuesday, he spoke to reporters about the discovery of his daughters but walked away when asked if any violence occurred.

Laws were not on the books in Rhode Island in 1985 to protect domestic violence victims, according to Deborah DeBare, the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“Prior to 1988, the landscape was much different for someone who was being battered in Rhode Island,” DeBare said Wednesday. “If a woman was being abused, she could not turn to law enforcement or the criminal justice system for help….it was not uncommon for victims of domestic violence to leave their homes with their children in order to stay safe, often going out of state and even changing their identities to protect themselves and their loved ones.”

No one answered Mr. Yates’ door on Wednesday in a fresh attempt to get his side of that story.

Kimberly was three years old at the time of her disappearance while Kelly was just ten months. The daughters are now in their thirties and have different names and their own families, police said.

The judge allowed Elaine Yates to return to Houston on personal recognizance, though she must surrender her passport. He also said she doesn’t have to appear at upcoming hearings in Rhode Island unless ordered to do so.

The one felony charge she faces carries a maximum of two years in prison.

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