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A decade later, questions linger in Mary Nunes abuse case

Genevieve Kelley had to step away from a 2003 video of her daughter talking about alleged sexual abuse.Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe

In the grainy police video, the girl toys nervously with her long, dark hair and fidgets with a fluorescent yellow Slinky.

It was Dec. 11, 2003, and 7-year-old Mary Nunes was being interviewed at the Littleton police station, in a small New Hampshire town 10 miles from her home in Whitefield.

By 2005, her face was familiar to many. Mary smiled from missing posters, and the story of her disappearance — spirited into Central America by her mother and stepfather, Genevieve and Scott Kelley — was told on national television.

When they finally resurfaced, the Kelleys had been on the state’s most wanted list for a decade, accused of absconding with Mary in an effort to keep her away from a court- ordered sexual abuse evaluation and from her father, Mark Nunes.

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But on that day in December, a year before she disappeared and more than a decade before she suddenly reemerged at the US Embassy in Costa Rica, Mary Nunes was just a little girl.

She bobs in and out of the video frame, climbing over her chair and rattling off the names of her many pets. She offers shy, one-word answers to the strangers in the room, a social worker from the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families and two Littleton police officers.

Eventually she tells the investigators that her father, Mark Nunes, touched her genitals while giving her a bath, and exposed himself to her after a shower. After 85 minutes, the interview ends.

The caseworker that day deemed the girl’s accusations unfounded — the product, many came to believe, of her mother’s alleged attempts to poison Mary’s relationship with her father.

Nearly 11 years after they fled the country in what they maintain was an effort to save Mary from abuse, they returned to New Hampshire and were arrested. Facing trial, they pleaded guilty last week to charges of interfering with custody rights and face months behind bars.

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Despite the legal resolution, the case remains clouded by unprovable allegations and opposing perspectives — an example, some who study similar situations say, of a confounding Catch-22 in the nation’s courtrooms, where justice may be served but the truth remains elusive.

Mary is, in many ways, still missing, silent at the center of the tangled tale. But the question at the heart of the case is no longer where the girl was hiding. It’s whether she was saved or stolen away.

A screenshot of Mary Nunes' missing poster on missingkids.com. (missingkids.com)missingkids.com

Leaving with two suitcases

In a rented two-bedroom condominium in Colorado in November 2004 — a year after that day at the police station in Littleton — Scott and Genevieve Kelley packed up what was left of their old lives.

A few changes of clothes for each of them, and twice as many for Mary. A Monopoly game that she loved to play. Kelley, a doctor, brought her stethoscope.

The things they carried into their decade-long career as fugitives fit inside two suitcases.

They were headed for Central America, but the path that brought them there began years earlier.

Genevieve San Martin and Mark Nunes met while serving as Air Force doctors in California, and married in 1991. The marriage was rocky from the start, inflamed by “heated and volatile arguments over money,” according to their 1998 divorce decree.

Even before the divorce was final, they argued about Mary — disputes that continued as both remarried. Mary, who in 1996 was delivered two months premature due to fetal distress, suffered from some developmental delays.

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Several weeks after an August 2003 visit with Mark, Kelley said in a recent interview at a New Hampshire hotel, Mary told her that her father had touched her inappropriately. Kelley called police.

As they waited for the date of the police interview, Kelley said, the girl began behaving bizarrely. She would strip off her clothes and go to the bathroom on the floor, Kelley said, and she tried to hurt the family’s cat.

“We felt like, all of us, felt like, ‘She’s going to tell the police, and everything is going to be OK,’” said Kelley. Instead, the claims of sexual abuse were deemed unfounded.

That was the first time that the justice system failed her daughter, Kelley said.

A court-ordered independent evaluation of Mary at a facility in Maine turned things upside down again, Kelley said. On the way back from the first of two parts of the evaluation, “she deteriorated,” Kelley said. “She unplugged her seat belt, she started taking off her clothes. . . . She couldn’t sleep at night.”

Weeks passed, and Mary’s behavior appeared to improve. But then the date for the second part of the evaluation loomed, and Kelley and her second husband made a decision.

“I was thinking, ‘How many times is my daughter going to be brought to the brink for a system that’s not even protecting her?’” Kelley said.

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And so with their two suitcases, they set out for a place where they hoped they would never be found: a remote Honduran village. Kelley knew of it because someone she knew was doing charity work there.

Among the few belongings they brought were four sets of maternity clothes: Kelley was pregnant.

Mark Nunes, left, with Mary.Nunes family

Video shift suspicions

In the months before she disappeared, a second video of Mary upended the way many viewed the case.

In this video, recorded by the Kelleys in 2004, the girl does far more than fidget.

She hides in a cupboard. She runs naked down the hall. She urinates on the floor.

“As a father, I can’t tell you how incensed I was,” said Nunes, who saw both videos after the Kelleys gave them to a court-appointed guardian ad litem.

Intended to prove Mary was suffering from the effects of abuse, these videos instead led police to suspect that Kelley might be the one doing her daughter harm.

Kelley peppers Mary with questions — “Haven’t I kept you safe?” — and after some prompting, according to notes Nunes took at the time, the girl repeats the allegation that her genitals were touched.

Former Whitefield police chief Wayne Rioux, who reviewed the tape at the time, told CNN that “throughout the tape all I saw was this bizarre, strange conduct by the mother . . . who was absolutely brainwashing the daughter and trying to get the daughter to say things against her daddy.”

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A court-appointed guardian who worked with the family to arrange visitation over several contentious years, Abbie Teachout, said she gradually came to believe that Kelley was alienating Mary from her father.

When the sexual abuse allegation surfaced, Teachout said, “I was not surprised.” Such allegations are common in hotly contested divorce cases like this one, used as a tactic by parents who don’t get their way.

But some who study such cases say courts often punish parents who raise abuse allegations in good faith.

Parents who report that their children have alleged abuse “are very apt to lose custody, or to leave the allegedly abusive parent with unrestricted, unsupervised access to the child,” said Eileen King, executive director of the nonprofit Child Justice, which advocates for and provides services to children who have been victims of abuse.

Greg Jacob, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who takes such cases pro bono but was not familiar with the particulars of the Kelleys case, said family courts are ill-equipped to deal with allegations of abuse. When abuse, which is difficult to prove, can’t be proven, courts often find the counterargument — parental alienation — persuasive.

“Frequently the mother will have lost custody of the child, because the court ends up agreeing with this alienation picture that has been painted by the other side,” said Jacob.

Visits with Nunes were abruptly stopped after the allegation against him. Nunes, a pediatrician who remarried in 2000, was interviewed by police.

But when the second video surfaced, authorities shifted suspicion away from Nunes, who soon filed for temporary custody.

By late 2004, when Genevieve Kelley missed a hearing and her lawyer could not locate her, New Hampshire authorities realized the family was gone.

The Kelleys were indicted in absentia. Custodial rights were transferred to Mark Nunes. He had not seen his daughter in more than a year.

“It was a moment of utter despair,” Nunes said of the day he learned his daughter had disappeared.

In the years she was gone, Nunes occasionally posted videos to YouTube.

“You’re our missing princess,” he said in a 2011 video, shot on a roadside bench. “It’s hard to think of you as being twice as old as the last time we saw you, but you are.”

Hiding in plain sight

Mark Nunes in one of the YouTube videos.

Traveling under their own passports, the Kelleys said they first crossed into Canada and caught a flight to Guatemala, where they spent three days in a hotel. They told Mary they would not be going back.

The culture shock was extreme. The small village was deeply impoverished, Kelley said. Sewage lined the streets. The carcasses of horses, dead from starvation, lay in the open.

“It’s like being picked up from one world and dropped into another,” said Kelley, who volunteered at a clinic while Scott taught at an area school.

“In spite of everything we tried to have some kind of routine,” Kelley said.

After a difficult pregnancy, she gave birth to a son: John.

But hunted by US marshals who knew they were looking for a family with a newborn, the family lived on the run, moving between apartments and hotels in Honduran towns and villages.

Marshals tracked their passport activity, and soon the Kelleys got word that the search was closing in. With little notice, they packed and moved again.

A combination of luck and savvy kept them hidden in Honduras over the years, but by 2009, it was clear they had to leave the country. A coup had deposed the country’s president; a nationwide curfew was in force. Highways and airports were closed.

“That’s when my husband said you’ve got to get out of here,” Kelley said.

Kelley, Mary, and John had acquired Honduran birth certificates, citizenship cards, and passports with fake names. Kelley was now Jenny Benitez.

With their new identities, they made their way to Costa Rica. Life improved there. The kids went to school and the Kelleys worked as teachers. Hiding in plain sight had become normal.

“What you do is, you just don’t contact your family. You don’t go on the Internet. You don’t use credit cards,” Kelley said.

When Mary’s 18th birthday approached, the Kelleys decided to return. Kelley said she believed that her son, John, had cystic fibrosis, and she wanted to seek care in the United States.

Stepfather Scott Kelley (left) and Mary nunes with their lawyer, Alan Rosenfeld, after they turned themselves in at the US Embassy in Costa Rica.handout

Mary speaks out

Kelley turned herself in at a New Hampshire courtroom last fall.

Tests soon determined that John didn’t have the disease.

Scott Kelley followed with Mary in April, emerging at the US embassy in Costa Rica and flying to Atlanta, where he was taken into custody. He’ll start a 5-month sentence on Monday. Kelley will start a 10-month sentence when he is released.

Mary, now 19 years old, was not subject to any custody proceeding. She was interviewed briefly and sent on her way.

In a notarized motion filed with the court in April, Mary spoke publicly for the first time since her disappearance. She wrote that she was “the victim of sexual abuse inflicted on me by my biological father,” and “the reason why my mother took me in to hiding was to protect me.”

She signed the document “Mary Kelley.”

“She’s been told her entire life that the sky is green,” said Nunes, who said he had hoped a trial might be Mary’s first and only chance to hear his side of the story, what he calls the blue-sky story. Now, with the guilty pleas having made a trial unnecessary, that chance may be gone.

The Kelleys say they saved Mary, and were willing to go to prison for it; Nunes says they robbed her of the rich life she once had with his family.

Mary is not missing anymore.

But one way or another, the little girl is gone.


Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.