State takes daughter of captured fugitives

PORTER COUNTY: Mother, manager say custody hearing will be held Tuesday
2005-07-02T00:00:00Z State takes daughter of captured fugitivesKEN KOSKY AND RUTHANN ROBINSON
Times Staff Writers

The daughter of the fugitives captured and returned to Porter County Jail recently after 17 years on the run has been removed from the home of the man who has known her for years and who manages her musical career.

On Thursday, the Iowa Department of Human Services took 17-year-old Mandy Halberg away from manager Ed Smerud and placed her in foster care, Smerud told The Times.

Smerud said Halberg suffered a blow when her parents were arrested, but he has known her for years and was able to soften the blow by offering her a sense of normalcy at his family's home. But now that's gone.

He said he talked to Halberg on Friday and "she's pretty upset" about the move.

"It's not working out really good with her in the foster home," Smerud said.

"This is unacceptable to me."

Smerud said he's hiring an attorney and plans to seek custody of the girl. He said Halberg wants to live with him in New Albin, Iowa, or, as an alternative, would live with her father's cousin -- a woman who lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Karen Tjossem, a social work unit supervisor for the Iowa Department of Human Services, told The Times she can't comment about a specific case.

But if the state has reason to believe a child is in danger or there is a potential for danger, it can seek immediate custody, Tjossem said. If this action is taken without a court hearing in which the other side is represented, a court hearing is set within days so a judge can determine whether or not a danger exists, Tjossem said.

Smerud and Halberg's mother, Kathy Rhowe, both told The Times a hearing is set for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in Allamakee County, Iowa. The clerk's office there said it couldn't confirm that date because child service matters are not public record.

Smerud said state officials were fine with him taking care of Halberg last week, but then changed their minds. He wonders if some relatives in Indiana are trying to gain custody of Halberg.

"We're trying to figure out what's going on," Smerud said.

"Her parents wanted us to take care of her. She was really happy here."

Rhowe called from Porter County Jail on Thursday to complain that jail officials won't let her call her daughter or Smerud. She threatened to go on a hunger strike if denied access.

Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy David Lain said the phone system used by inmates at the jail allows only collect calls, and phone companies in some areas of the country don't allow collect calls. This is the case with calls she placed to Iowa.

Lain said Sgt. Timothy Emmons, public information officer, made special accommodations for Rhowe to use another telephone to make calls shortly after her June 14 arrest. But Emmons has been on vacation this week and won't return until Tuesday, Lain said.

Rhowe also complained that some mail is not getting through. Lain explained that one 10-page letter wasn't passed along because it had no return address. A 25-page letter also didn't get through because it violated the 10-page maximum, he said. He said inmates are made aware of the mail rules.

Rhowe and her common-law husband, Roger LaBarge, have been behind bars since being tracked down by Porter County police June 14 in Harper's Ferry, Iowa.

LaBarge was convicted in August 1987 of child battery. The state said Rhowe's 3-year-old daughter from another marriage had a ruptured bowel that became infected. It required surgery. Authorities took custody of the girl and her two older brothers.

The injury is listed in court records as being caused by a severe belt beating administered by LaBarge. He was out on bond when the jury convicted him. Prosecutors presented evidence that LaBarge was a habitual offender during a second phase of the trial -- a charge that would add another 30 years to the eight-year sentence he faced for battery.

LaBarge had several convictions for burglary and theft -- crimes he said he committed to feed his heroin addiction. Crimes he readily admitted to.

But LaBarge said he did not beat the little girl.

While the jury deliberated on the habitual offender charge, LaBarge absconded. Rhowe followed and gave birth to their child, Mandy, Oct. 21, 1987.

Mandy will turn 18 this year, and at that time no longer be under the state's care.

Rhowe had also been wanted since 1987 for failure to appear on a neglect of a child charge.

The couple and their daughter stayed a step ahead of authorities for years and their case was eventually forgotten until a Times story on missing children led the Sheriff's Department to renew the search.

Sgt. Michael Krawczyk used his assignment to the U.S. Marshal's task force to search federal databases. Within minutes he found Rhowe -- who had never changed her name, birth date or Social Security number -- living in Harpers Ferry, Iowa.

LaBarge was living as Roger Halberg -- a well-known guitarist who entertained crowds playing river music with his partner and daughter, Mandy Halberg.

Now, LaBarge and Rhowe will appear in court to face the old charges.

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