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Family on the run apart for first time

June 17, 2005
By admin

By RUTHANN ROBINSON / Lee Newspapers
June 17, 2005
.
VALPARAISO, Ind. — Two years ago, Mandy’s identity changed.
That’s when her parents sat her down in their Harpers Ferry, Iowa, living
room and told her she wasn’t Mandy Halberg.

And her father wasn’t Rob Halberg, her guitar-playing, river-music
partner. He was Roger “at-large” LaBarge, convicted felon on the run from
Porter County, Ind., since August 1987.

Mandy, now 17, has been on Indiana’s missing children’s list as Mandy
Simmons from about the day she was born — the second longest run in the
state. She didn’t have a birth certificate and the reason they moved so
often was because for years they were keeping just one step ahead of the
authorities.

“It was shocking. I wasn’t upset, though. It didn’t make me mad at them,”
Mandy said Wednesday during a break from waiting tables at the Harbor Inn
in Harpers Ferry.

Porter County Sgt. Michael Krawczyk picked up her parents just hours
before, and Mandy stepped into her mom’s waitress job hoping to earn
enough money to bail her out.

As Mandy’s voice came over the speaker phone at the Porter County Jail,
her parents, Kathy Rhowe and Roger LaBarge, stood by smiling like any
proud parents.

This was Rhowe and LaBarge’s one phone call. Krawczyk sat nearby, having
spent the previous six hours Wednesday driving the pair back to
Valparaiso.

He had to stop three or four times to allow Rhowe to hang her head out of
the car to vomit.

The nausea from having her past catch up to her, she said.

Krawczyk tracked the couple down after The Times of Northwest Indiana
asked about the case for a National Missing Children’s Day story.

Rhowe and LaBarge sat in an anteroom of the Porter County Jail to plead
their case.

LaBarge said he grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, became a successful
musician, an Amateur Athletic Union boxing champ and a heroin addict.

He spent time in prison for theft and burglary — habits he picked up to
feed his habit.

In between stints in prison, LaBarge said he honed his guitar playing
skills in the 1970s at places like Nashville’s George Jones’s Possum
Holler Club and even cut an album. LaBarge billed himself as “the
original riverboat gambler.” But he kept returning to Cedar Rapids, Iowa,
and heroin.

Until he moved to Valparaiso and caught the eye of a cocktail waitress at
The Court while he played at open mike night.

The waitress, Rhowe, the mother of two boys and a girl, was just ending a
bad marriage.

The pair fell in love and moved in together.

“I told her all about myself,” LaBarge said. “I wrote her poems. Her kids
just loved me. They asked her if they could call me dad.” But one night
when he was taking care of the children while Rhowe worked, her
3-year-old daughter started vomiting bile.

She had a perforated bowel — caused, doctors said, by a punch to the
stomach.

Authorities took the three children and charged Rhowe with neglect and
LaBarge with battery. By now, Rhowe was pregnant with Mandy.

“They wanted me to plead guilty, but I wouldn’t because I didn’t do it,”
LaBarge said.

A jury thought he did.

LaBarge sat outside the courtroom next to an eight-months-pregnant Rhowe,
waiting as the jury decided whether to convict him of being a habitual
offender.

His past had caught up with him.

“They say I’m guilty. This is the end of my life,” LaBarge said he
thought.

“While they go to deliberate, I go back out and sat with mom,” he said,
nodding to Rhowe. “When she went to the bathroom I walk calmly down the
stairs, get into the van and drive away. I was scared to death.”

Rhowe said she came out of the bathroom and thought court officials took
LaBarge away. She took a taxi back to the Portage farmhouse they rented.

When she awoke the next morning, she said, “Cops were everywhere looking
for him.” The landlord kicked her out, and she got permission to leave
the area to stay with friends.

LaBarge said he drove up the interstate to Michigan City, ditched the
van, stayed in a hotel and called Chicago friends for help. He went to
Nashville, then to Colorado and hopped a train to Oregon.

Rhowe gave birth to Mandy on Oct. 21, 1987.

“It was in Chicago Heights, but I don’t remember the name of the
hospital,” she said.

Two weeks later, LaBarge called her. Rhowe packed up Mandy and flew to
Portland. Within days, they heard a knock on the door. Knowing it was
federal agents, Rhowe and LaBarge grabbed Mandy and the diaper bag and
crawled out a bedroom window.

They went back to Chicago Heights, then to Minnesota and landed in
Harpers Ferry three years ago.

Rhowe never changed her name, Social Security number or birth date. When
she enrolled Mandy in schools, officials never asked for a birth
certificate, she said.

LaBarge got the name Halberg from a friend just weeks after walking out
of the Porter County Courthouse.

“He had a Social Security card with the name Halberg,” LaBarge said. “He
just gave it to me.”

When someone knocked on their leased A-frame house built into a hill in
Harpers Ferry on Tuesday, the family of three was taking an afternoon nap.

“I saw the sheriff’s car,” Rhowe said. “I didn’t answer the door.” The
officers left and called her from the phone at the Harbor Inn with some
story about her husband possibly being a witness to an accident.

They knew it was a ruse, but decided it was time to stop running.

“There was no time to do that,” LaBarge said. “There was no way I was
going to do that anymore. I’m 56. I’m tired. It’s been hard enough on
Mandy seeing it, let alone dragging her through it.”

“(Mandy) just flipped and started bawling” when the officers came,
LaBarge said. “She was screaming and crying and hanging on to me saying,
‘Daddy, I can’t do this by myself.’”

But, maybe she can, Rhowe said, as Mandy told her over the phone that she
just took her first order.

“Two half-chicken baskets and a popcorn shrimp basket,” Mandy.

“That should be about a $4 tip,” Rhowe said, before urging Mandy to stay
strong, then hanging up.

LaBarge and Rhowe hugged and kissed before Krawczyk led them to separate
cells.

“This’ll be the first night in years we’ve spent apart,” LaBarge said.

Ruthann Robinson is a reporter for the Times of NW Indiana newspaper in
Muncie, Ind. Justin Post also contributed to this report.

How they were found

The Times of Northwest Indiana, working on a story about missing
children, inquired about Mandy. She was second in terms of tenure on the
Indiana Missing Children Clearinghouse list. She was born in 1987 to
parents on the run from the law.

Porter County, Ind., authorities took another look at the case and
discovered her mother, Kathy Rhowe, was living in Harpers Ferry, Iowa. A
sheriff’s deputy used her Social Security number and federal databases to
find her.

Although Mandy’s father, Roger LaBarge, took the alias of Rob Halberg, a
name from a Social Security card he said he got from an acquaintance,
Rhowe never changed her name, birth date or Social Security number. .

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