08/05/2003 By BEN GOAD, MIKE KATAOKA and BARBARA HERNANDEZ / The
Acacia weighs approximately 30 lbs. and is 30″ A fugitive mother who
kidnapped her daughters amid a custody battle in Texas has been arrested
in Blythe, after 16 years in hiding with the help of a religious
underground network, authorities said.
Catherine Walker, 48, used false Social Security numbers, took several
names and went to great lengths to stay hidden from everyone but a few
confidants, according to Texas investigators and Riverside County
Walker raised her daughters on the road, traveling in a recreational
vehicle and working as a missionary on Indian reservations.
Two years ago, she took a job as editor of a newspaper in Blythe, a small
desert town in eastern Riverside County.
Her daughters, now 22 and 19, have moved to Washington.
Two days ago, Walker was pulled over for driving with expired Colorado
license plates, Riverside County sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Carney said. Though
her driver license identified her as Lyn Johnson, it still carried the
original number of Walker’s license.
She was arrested on an outstanding warrant listing her as the suspect in
the abduction of her two daughters, then ages 3 and 6. As Walker sat
Monday in an Indio jail cell awaiting extradition proceedings to take her
back to Texas, news of her arrest spread quickly through the town where
she had surfaced and to those who had spent years pining for her arrest.
“We’re glad she was caught,” said Walker’s ex-husband, Doug Harwood of
upstate New York. He had legal custody of the two daughters.
Some who knew her in Blythe expressed their support of Walker. “The
people that I know are very supportive of her,” David Conejo, chief
executive officer for Palo Verde Hospital, said. She “has a great heart
and is a very caring person,” he said. “I hope she’s able to get it all
After the daughters, Becky Johnson and Elizabeth Johnson found their
birth certificates, the two young women tracked down their father and
their sister, Theresa DeNatale, in upstate New York, Harwood said. They
were flown in for a family reunion in February. “The reunion was great. I
think they always knew I existed,” he said.
He learned from his daughters that they lived a nomadic existence in an
RV, traveling from state to state and living, at times, on Indian
reservations where his former wife did missionary work. “They said they
didn’t have a bad life,” Harwood said.
Becky has plans to get married in two weeks, he said. DeNatale created a
Web site dedicated to finding her sisters, who were last seen in August
1987, at their home in Gilmer, Texas. “He’s an awesome dad. She’s evil,”
According to court records in Upshur County, Texas, Walker was found to
be in contempt of court for violating child visitation orders in 1987 and
falsely accusing Harwood of not meeting financial obligations. “As soon
as she’s sentenced, it will bring some closure,” Harwood said.
Life on the run
Attempts to track Walker in the years after her disappearance yielded few
results. “She took the girls and went into hiding,” Carney said. Private
investigator Tim Mullis, who picked up her trail in the late 1980s,
outlined his findings in a 1990 report to Upshur County District Attorney
O. W. Loyd.
Walker had bought a 1982 Chrysler Wagon before she left, but never
finished paying for it. In 1990, the car’s seller received a letter from
Walker saying that she wanted to resume payments. Mullis presumed in his
report that Walker was trying to avoid getting pulled over for expired
Mullis traveled to the South Carolina address from where the letter had
been sent and found Walker’s sister, Tandy Collier. Collier informed
Mullis that her sister had joined an Atlanta-based Christian network.
“These people are very sincere in their belief in this group or network,
and would do almost anything to protect it,” Mullis wrote in the 1990
report. “Tandy told us that she expected the police to be out to put her
in jail anytime. She also told us that she would go to jail before she
would give up her sister.”
Emerges in Blythe
Walker, as Lyn Johnson, came to Blythe about two years ago, Carney
recalled, though it was unclear whether either daughter was still living
with her. She worked at the Palo Verde Valley Times as an editor but also
reported on crime.
In the visible position, she was both well-loved and disliked by many in
the town of about 22,000.
Dr. Hossain Sahlolbei, a general and vascular surgeon in Blythe, said he
had problems with Walker’s editing and reporting tactics. He felt he was
portrayed with such negativity that he took out a restraining order on
Johnson after she appeared in the room of one of his patients, Dr.
“She’ll push you around to get what she wants,” Dr. Sahlolbei said.
Jacqueline Bonine, who works at Palo Verde Valley Times, said Monday she
considers Lyn Johnson to be a friend. Bonine said she wasn’t going to
pass judgment without all the facts of the case.
“Any mother is going to do what she has to do to keep her kids safe,”
Bonine said Debbie White, publisher of the twice-weekly newspaper, had
less to say. “I haven’t got any comment now,” she said. “We’ll have a
story in this Wednesday’s edition.”