The lost boys
Shane Caldwell fell in love with a beautiful, mysterious Israeli woman. Then she abducted their children and fled the country, and his nightmare began
Shane Caldwell is haunted by the memory of the last time he saw his sons Ryan and Darren.
It was a little more than three years ago, on the evening of Jan. 3, 1999, a Sunday. Shane was at home in his Paradise apartment with the boys and his Israeli-born wife Michelle. Ryan, who was not quite 3 years old at the time, and little Darren, just 14 months old, were playing with toys on the floor.
Shane and Michelle had been fighting. She was berating him about their finances, going on and on about the lack of money and the bills piling up. He tried to ignore her. He was doing the best he could. After all, he had a full-time job, as a welder at Transfer Flow, in Chico. They weren’t rich, but they weren’t going hungry, either.
After being badgered for more than an hour, Shane says, he finally cracked, yelling back at her and angrily kicking a toy that Ryan had been pushing around with his tricycle.
She kept at him, as if trying to provoke him into something. Finally, his anger got the best of him. Standing up, he forced Michelle to the front door and pushed her out of the house, telling her not to come back until she’d calmed down. He’s a big man, over 6 feet tall, so it wasn’t hard to move her out the door.
It was just what she wanted him to do. He didn’t know it, but she was carrying out a well-devised plan. “You pushed me!” Michelle exclaimed loudly. “You pushed me!”
She then went next door, asked to use the phone, and called the Paradise police. When they arrived, she played back for them a tape recording she’d secretly made of the fracas using a microcassette recorder hidden in her pants pocket. She also charged that Shane had kicked a toy out from under Ryan’s tricycle. Though it didn’t prove abuse, it was enough for the police. They came to Shane’s house and handcuffed and took him away, as his boys looked on. He wasn’t able to say good-bye, much less give them a kiss or hug.
He didn’t know it, but it was the last time he would see them.
And it was the beginning of a nightmare effort not to lose his children forever to a woman who always seemed to be one step ahead of him. It’s the story of Shane Caldwell’s search, here and in Israel, for his sons, and of local and international legal systems that, despite finding that the boys’ mother had illegally abducted them, could not stop her from getting away with it.
Michelle Gali Amrami Edelstein was the most exotic, alluring woman Shane Caldwell had ever gotten close to. She was beautiful and charming, he says, and the few pictures he still has of her indeed portray a woman with a confident awareness of her sexual allure.
Part of her appeal lay in her very mysteriousness, a perception she deftly fostered by weaving a fabric of tales about her past. Born in Israel in 1966, she told Shane that her father was a rich businessman named Amrami with connections to the Israeli government. She’d been married once before, she said, to a wealthy man named Bernard Edelstein, from whom she stood to get some $350,000 in a divorce settlement. How much of this was true, and what was left out, Shane was never sure.
They met in 1994 at the Los Angeles area nightclub where he worked as a bartender. He was 23 at the time, five years younger than she. At first it was great fun. Shane was making good money, and she seemed to have a lot of it, too. They thought nothing of dropping $150 at a restaurant or blasting off to Las Vegas for a weekend. “She was very sweet, tender and loving” at that time, Shane says, but it didn’t last long.
Another side of Michelle began to emerge. She angered easily, and little things set her off. She fretted about money but refused to work. One day she’d push Shane away, the next she’d draw him back. Her temper was a frightening thing.
Ryan was born on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, in 1996, when they lived in an apartment in West Hollywood. He was a sweetheart of a boy, Shane says, and both parents fell in love with him, but unfortunately that didn’t do much to increase the love between them. It did make it harder for Shane to think about leaving, however.
Then Michelle became pregnant again. She told Shane she didn’t want another baby, that she wanted to get an abortion. That’s good, he told her. We shouldn’t have another child. We don’t get along well enough right now.
Then she told Shane, to his surprise, that she wanted to get married. She said she’d feel better about not having another child right then if she felt more secure in their relationship.
Shane went along with her, convinced, he says, that the most important thing was not to have another child. So they went to Las Vegas, where they married on April 9, 1997.
Then Michelle changed her mind. She wanted to keep the baby. Shane was skeptical. “I could see we weren’t going to make it,” he now says, “so why bring another child into the world?” But Michelle was too powerful for him, and again he went along. Darren was born later that year, on Nov. 4.
Shane was able to prevail on one important front, however. For a long time he’d desired to leave Los Angeles and return to Paradise, where he’d grown up. He wanted his boys to be closer to their grandparents and other relatives in his extended family and to live in a safer community, and he also wanted to live where he knew he always would find support.
Both of Shane’s parents own businesses in the area. His mother, Gail Caldwell, owns a small women’s clothing store in Paradise, and his father, Jim, owns Sierra Manufacturing Co., which is located at the Chico airport and makes equipment for food processing companies. As a teenager Shane had worked in his dad’s shop, learning welding, and in a pinch, he believed, he could always do so again.
Michelle was resistant. Paradise just wasn’t her kind of place. Later, in a court deposition, she would insist that she “never intended to live in Butte County,” that “it was always my firm intention for our family to reside in the Los Angeles area where I have very strong religious and ethnic ties with the Jewish community.”
As a Los Angeles court later would determine, however, she did in fact move to Paradise, arriving there in December 1997. But things went wrong from the beginning. Michelle didn’t like the apartment Shane’s parents had found for them, so the furniture went into storage and Shane and Michelle and the boys stayed with Jim and Gail until mid January 1998, when they moved to an apartment at 5632 Jewell Road.
The couple enrolled Ryan at Sunny Acres Day Care. Michelle obtained a credit card at a Paradise branch of Bank of America. She signed up for cellular phone service. And, for a brief time in late 1998, she operated, with a partner, a small clothing store on The Skyway called Unique Clothing.
But she wasn’t happy. She and Shane weren’t getting along any better, and she didn’t much like his parents—or anyone else in his family, for that matter. She had no interest in visiting them, and she wouldn’t allow both of the boys, who loved their many relatives, to be at their grandparents’ house at the same time.
Unknown to Shane, Michelle was concocting a plan to leave and take the boys with her. As her ultimate fallback, she was prepared to flee to Israel with them. She’d even convinced Shane to allow her to get them passports, saying that someday she would want to take them to visit her parents. Shane didn’t like the idea, but his sense of fairness overrode his suspicions. “I couldn’t tell her she couldn’t visit her parents, could I?” he now says plaintively.
As investigators later would discover, all the time Shane and Michelle were living in Paradise she had a secret life in Los Angeles. She’d kept her apartment in West Hollywood and was fraudulently receiving welfare payments there, money she apparently was using to pay the rent.
In Paradise, she took up with a man named Steve Cramer. She told Shane he was helping her set up her clothing store, doing repairs and such, but there was more to it than that, as Shane later would learn. She’d also contacted a Sacramento moving company, telling it to be ready to go at short notice.
When Paradise police arrested Shane on the night of Jan. 3, 1999, they slapped a temporary restraining order on him. He was not to go to his house for seven days, not even to get his clothes. He stayed at his parents’ house instead.
A few days later, his mother went to his house to get some of his things. It was locked and dark. And, as she saw through a window, empty.
Shane went to the house, defying the court order but not knowing what else to do. Michelle had cleaned it out. There was nothing to indicate where she and the boys—and Steve Cramer, as he later learned—had gone.
He reported the boys’ disappearance to the police and, on Jan. 12, filed a temporary custody order and alerted the county District Attorney’s Office to the abduction.
As it turned out, Michelle already had been there. On Jan. 8, she came into the office’s Child Abduction Unit and spoke with Investigator David G. Martin. She told him she was planning to move to West Hollywood with the boys. Martin explained that, if she had “good cause” to remove the children—if their father posed a threat, for example—she could do so legally, but she had to obtain a court order upholding her action within 30 days.
According to an official summary later prepared by Deputy District Attorney Leonard Goldkind, by this time Michelle was charging that, on the night of their fight, Shane actually had kicked Ryan off his tricycle and injured him. Over the course of two days, Jan. 4 and 5, she subjected the boy to a series of seven examinations, including a CT brain scan, at Enloe and Feather River hospitals as well as in private doctors’ offices, in an effort to confirm that he’d been injured. No such evidence was found.
Later, in Los Angeles, she continued to allege physical abuse of the boys, and again investigating agencies could find no evidence of abuse other than her own statements.
Her charges of abuse, however, were reported to Children’s Protective Services, as the law requires. Michelle refused to cooperate in the CPS investigation, Goldkind reported, instead becoming angry because Shane wasn’t being charged with felony child abuse.
In the meantime, local law enforcement officials decided not to press charges against Shane. Michelle, they realized, “was not a credible witness,” according to Goldkind’s report.
Indeed, everyone who knew Shane and Michelle testified that he was always the most loving of fathers and that the boys adored him.
Shane’s suspicions that Michelle, Ryan and Darren were in Los Angeles weren’t confirmed until after Jan. 19, when she filed for custody and he was served with papers. He still did not know exactly where they were staying, however.
Then began a court battle for jurisdiction. Both Butte and Los Angeles counties had granted temporary custody orders, so they had to decide which court would decide on permanent custody. Eventually both courts agreed that Butte County had jurisdiction, as the couple had lived here for the three months prior to separation. The courts stressed that the children were not to be taken from California without court permission.
This was the beginning of a flurry of legal activity—and of expenses that added up quickly. Shane hired a Chico lawyer, Les Hait, to represent him locally but also had to pay for a lawyer in Los Angeles. Fortunately, Hait’s brother practiced law there and was able to appear in court on Shane’s behalf.
Still, it wasn’t cheap. Shane didn’t have the money to pay all of it, so his parents came to his aid. It hurt him, he says, to ask them for so much money, even though they always were willing to help.
On March 16, Butte County Superior Court Judge Ann Rutherford issued her first ruling on the case. Michelle and Shane were to attend mediation at the Family Court Services office in Oroville on March 29. Before that, at 1 p.m. on March 20, she was to meet him at the West Hollywood sheriff’s substation and hand the boys over into his care until March 29. She was also to surrender their passports within 48 hours. And neither parent was to take the children out of the state.
By this time, Investigator Martin later learned, Michelle had contacted a worldwide shipping and moving company and arranged to have her belongings transported to Israel when she gave the go-ahead.
Shane drove to Los Angeles on March 18 and stayed with a friend. At one point he went by the West Hollywood apartment where he and Michelle had lived. A Little Tykes car that he recognized as Ryan’s was on the balcony, but otherwise the apartment was dark.
Martin later would learn that Steve Cramer, who he says was “totally in love” with Michelle, had driven her and the boys there.
On March 20 Shane drove to the sheriff’s substation, filled with anticipation of seeing his sons. Michelle wasn’t there yet, but that didn’t surprise him. She was often late. But when she hadn’t appeared 90 minutes later, he knew he’d been stood up.
He drove back to Paradise feeling deeply worried, almost despairing. “I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to win, even when I was winning [in court],” he says. He was letting the legal process do its job and watching it fail him.
On March 29, Shane again waited for her and the boys, this time at the Family Court Services office in Oroville, his heart pounding again. And again Michelle didn’t show. “I couldn’t believe she’d thwart the system two times in a row,” Shane says.
A week later, on April 6, Rutherford awarded Shane full legal and physical custody of the boys and ordered that Michelle immediately return them to Butte County. She also referred the case to the Child Abduction Unit for enforcement.
Investigator Martin, a veteran of more than 15 years in the unit who has since retired, got right on it, using his many law enforcement connections to trace Michelle’s steps—only to find, after many days’ work, that it was too late. Michelle had fled the country, perhaps as early as March 17, leaving a trail of unpaid bills—her attorneys, the Sacramento moving company, even the international shipper—behind her.
“She’s highly manipulative,” Martin says. “It took me a while to figure it out.”
At first the tendency was to believe her accusations of domestic violence, he says. But, as inconsistencies in her stories began to appear, the tissue of lies became apparent. Anyone who knew this about her could listen to the Jan. 3, 1999, tape recording of her fight with Shane and hear that it was staged, that she was making comments—"You pushed me! You pushed me!"—just for the recording.
“We couldn’t figure out how she could keep all the lies straight,” Martin says. “It’s testimony to her intelligence.” Among other things, he discovered that Bernard Edelstein was not rich after all. He’d inherited $100,000 when his father died, and “she went right through it, then divorced him.” He’d had a breakdown afterwards. Martin located him in an Israeli mental hospital.
He also found out that Michelle had been married at least once before, in Los Angeles. Shane knew nothing about this relationship.
And he discovered that Michelle had been in this country illegally for seven years, since her two-year student visa expired in 1992.
She was also “an incredible con artist,” he says. “She could get money out of a rock.” He’s still amazed that she was able to talk the international shipping company into transporting her goods to Israel with no money up front, something such companies never do. “It was approved by a vice president,” he says with amazement. “It must have cost $10,000, at least.”
One trick she used, he says, was to show them brochures of Jim Caldwell’s company, embellishing them, saying the company had 800 employees and that Shane was half-owner. She acted as if she was rich, and people believed her, here and in Israel.
Eventually Martin was able to trace Michelle’s route. Despite a red-flag border alert to be on the watch for her, she and the boys slipped into Mexico, then flew to France and finally to Israel, where she arrived on March 21.
Shane’s effort to see his boys, much less be reunited with them, had gotten much more difficult.
The first thing he did, heeding Martin’s advice, was to file a Hague Convention application. The Hague Convention Law is an international treaty among 38 nations, including the United States and Israel, designed to deal with international child abductions.
This brought the U.S. State Department into the picture. The department alerted Israeli authorities to the abduction, and the Israeli police located Ryan and Darren in the city of Hod Hasharon, near Tel Aviv.
The State Department also helped Shane locate, hire and pay for a Tel Aviv lawyer with expertise in custody cases. The process was slow, however. By this time it was December. The children had been gone nearly a year.
The case dragged on. Documents had to be translated from Hebrew to English, which took time. But most of the delay was foot-dragging on the part of Israeli officials. “They did everything they could to keep the Hague from working,” says Martin.
Then, on April 9, 2001, more than two years after the abduction, Martin visited Shane at work. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” Martin said. The good news was that Shane finally had a court date in Israel. The bad news was that it was in two days.
Once again, his parents came to his aid, and off he went, arriving in Tel Aviv on April 10. The next day he met with his attorney and went to court. Michelle was there, but not the boys. Neither he nor she took the stand, and the proceedings were entirely in Hebrew, of course. Shane wasn’t sure why he was there. “It was almost as if the judge just wanted to see what I looked like,” he said.
The next day he flew back to the U.S.
Things dragged on over the summer. Then, in August, he was called back to court in Israel. This time the State Department paid for his trip, and he stayed for six days.
Michelle’s case for abducting the children was based on charges that Shane was violent, that the judicial system in Butte County was biased in his favor, and that living there denied the boys access to their Jewish heritage. She told the court she was afraid of Shane and asked that a guard be present. The judge then ordered a sidearm-carrying uniformed guard to stand next to Shane at all times. “That was scary,” he now says.
Shane and Michelle both spent several hours on the stand. His testimony was spread over three days, and by the third day Michelle had fired her lawyer—something she’d also done several times with her California attorneys—and was questioning him herself.
Shane was astonished: “It was very bizarre,” he says. “I just thought, ‘What nerve. Who does she think she is?'” Michelle asked only a few questions, most having to do with the events of Jan. 3, 1999, and then the hearing was over. Shane came home the next day. He never saw the boys.
The judge’s decision arrived a few weeks later, 70 pages in Hebrew. But it contained good news. The judge had ruled almost entirely in Shane’s favor. Ultimately, he’d had no choice. The evidence was clear: Michelle had left the U.S. in violation of court orders that she was well aware of, and there was no indication that Shane’s parenting was sufficiently bad to justify Michelle’s abduction of his children. The judge ordered the children returned to California so that Michelle could fight for custody in court here, but with several onerous conditions attached.
One was that Shane lease for a year and pay for an apartment in Los Angeles for Michelle and the kids. Another was that he provide her with $12,000 for her living and legal expenses. The total amount came to around $20,000.
Shane did not have the money. “That just wasn’t going to happen,” he says.
Instead he decided to offer Michelle a deal. He was thinking of Ryan and Darren, he says, who by this time—it had been almost two years—hardly knew him and probably no longer spoke English. He didn’t want to disrupt their lives, he says, and besides he thought this was the best he could get. So he offered to let the boys stay with her, as long as she allowed him plenty of time to visit with them.
She jumped at the offer, even going so far as paying to fly him and their Israeli attorneys to New York the weekend of Aug. 20-21 to draw up an agreement.
Under its terms, he would be allowed to visit the kids in Israel for a month in late 2001 and she would bring them to California for four weeks in July 2002. In 2003 and ‘04 he was to visit them in Israel, and then in years following they were to spend summers with him. Michelle would pay all expenses.
Back in Paradise, however, when Shane called Michelle to make arrangements to visit the boys, she hung up on him. He’s been unable to reach her since.
When he contacted his Israeli lawyer to tell him that she wasn’t abiding by the terms of the agreement, he said fine, we’ll go back to court. But first I need $5,000.
Shane turned to the State Department, only to be told that because he’d signed an agreement with Michelle, his Hague Convention case was considered closed.
Shane doesn’t have $5,000. His parents would give it to him if he asked, but he doesn’t want to do that. Not yet, anyway. He figures it would just be more money down a sinkhole.
And that, he says, is why he brought his story to the News & Review. Maybe by getting it out there, where people can see what he’s up against, he’ll have better luck. He hopes.
There are at least two sides to every story, of course, and it’s unfortunate that Michelle Caldwell can’t give hers. The best we can do is try to imagine what drove her to flee with to Israel with her sons.
Even those who have almost nothing but negative things to say about her acknowledge that she loved her boys and took reasonably good care of them.
Obviously, she was determined not to lose custody of them, even if it meant depriving them of all contact with their father and his family. Her sister Viva, who lives in Toronto, once told Shane that Michelle “would die before she’d give up her children.”
As the California courts began deciding in Shane’s favor, she clearly became desperate. Convinced she could not prevail in Butte County, and perhaps thinking that without custody of her kids she’d be vulnerable to deportation, she decided to flee the country. Certainly there are many other mothers who can understand her decision, even if they don’t approve of it.
But the fact remains that what she did was wrong. And it seems further evidence that she was someone who would stop at nothing to get her way.
David Martin, for one, is convinced that she had children with Shane because she thought his family was rich and also to secure her future in this country. “I’m sure if Shane had lots of money, she’d still be here,” he says. “She loves money, she absolutely loves money.”
“Shane was a wonderful father to those kids,” says his attorney, Les Hait. “He never did anything bad to her or their kids. It’s a big loss to them not to have their father and his extended family.”
That leaves Shane Caldwell to mourn the loss of his boys. He hasn’t given up on being with them, and he’s looking for the $5,000 for his lawyer. But he’s in a new relationship now, with a woman named Keri Huff. They have a new son, Harrison, who’s 11 months old, and she has a daughter from a previous marriage, Myah, who’s 6.
It’s a nice family, but it’s a young family and still fragile, Shane knows. If he focuses on his lost boys too much, psychologically or financially, it threatens the family’s stability. Keri knows how important it is to him to have a relationship with his boys and supports his efforts, but naturally he worries that he’s hurting the family he has.
Meanwhile, Michelle and the boys have moved lately, and Shane doesn’t know where they are. He worries that, with Israel virtually at war with the Palestinians, they are in danger.
His Israeli attorney assures him, however, that they can be found, if only because Ryan is in school and a record exists. He says now that Michelle has broken the couple’s agreement, she’s especially vulnerable. Just send the $5,000, he says.