These Irish eyesare smiling again

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 25, 2004

Over the past four months, Dylan Benwell missed his parents and his five brothers and sisters. He knew that they were about to move to Suffolk from Chicago, and looked forward to getting started in his new school and neighborhood. Living with his grandparents Tim and Ethel Blake in his mother’s hometown of Cobh, Ireland, the nine-year-old learned about his heritage and the country’s cultures, all the while wondering why he wasn’t allowed to talk on the phone when his mother Serena called.

He never knew that he’d been abducted. He didn’t know that Serena was fighting to get him back, and that it had been the second time she’d had to do so. He didn’t know that he’d become the center of an international custody battle, one that still wouldn’t end when he came home in early November.

According to Serena, her parents’ nightmare began decades before Dylan was born.

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&uot;When I was two days old,&uot; she said in her South Quay Road home, &uot;my mother told my grandmother that she didn’t want me.&uot;

While her grandmother raised Serena, &uot;(Ethel) popped in every once in a while, but she never took me to the doctors, or gave me a birthday party.&uot;

When Serena was 11, however, her grandmother died, and she went to live with her parents.

&uot;It was a nightmare,&uot; she said. &uot;She was in and out of mental institutions. He was drinking, and people like that don’t think that they’re wrong.&uot;

She left school at 14 to take care of her two sisters, and got married at 17, taking them with her.

&uot;I had no teenage life,&uot; said Serena, a mother of four by age 28. &uot;I raised my sisters; they’d call me Mommy. My parents always wanted to take the kids. They’d ask me if they could have one of them.&uot; When Serena’s husband – Dylan’s father – died when he was a month old, Serena forbade her parents to see their grandkids, and they threatened to call social services.

In March of 1997, the Benwells moved to Chesapeake (Serena’s new husband John is in the military). Three years later, on a Friday, Serena went to pick up Dylan from the school bus stop. He didn’t get off.

She called his school, and was told that his grandparents had picked him up. Later, she found out that they had come over from Ireland without telling her, called an attorney, and claimed that Dylan was being abused. He’d told them to go and get the child.

That Monday, Serena had to go to a hearing, and her parents didn’t show. She was awarded full custody of her son.

The next year, the family moved to Chicago, and her parents began sending letters and making calls. Sometimes they’d beg her to let them see Dylan; others would threaten her if she didn’t. In the summer of 2003, Serena’s two sisters, both of whom still live in Ireland, came to visit, and told her that her parents had expressed sorrow for how they’d treated her.

&uot;We thought it would be nice to finally have a family,&uot; she said. &uot;I’d never forgive them, but maybe they could die in peace.&uot; In January, her father called and said that he was terminally ill with cancer, and wanted to make things right before he passed on.

Then, last July 17, what would become the worldwide custody battle began.

Tim and Ethel came to America, and stayed in a hotel. Five days later, they asked if they could take Dylan out for lunch and shopping. Wary of their past, Serena demanded their passports. At about 1 p.m., they left, with promises to return Dylan an hour later.

At 2 p.m., Serena and her oldest son started to get worried. At 3, they went to the grandparents’ hotel room, and found a note saying that they’d gone to dinner. While her son searched through nearby stores and restaurants, Serena convinced a hotel employee to let her into the room.

&uot;Everything was there,&uot; she said. &uot;Their bags, their false teeth, two cases of Budweiser, everything.&uot; As the hours passed, she began to call local hospitals to make sure that Dylan hadn’t been in an accident.

When that didn’t work, she started calling the local taxi services. Two calls in, she found a horrible answer.

&uot;Someone told me that they’d picked up three people fitting their description, and taken them to O’Hare Airport.&uot; Serena called the police, and an Amber Alert went out on Dylan. At 7 a.m., the local media was at her house, and she pleaded for her son’s return.

But it was too late; authorities found out that Tim and Ethel had purchased duplicate passports and booked several flights to avoid capture.

About to move her family to Suffolk, and with her husband already gone, Serena didn’t know what to do.

&uot;I told the family that was buying our house what had happened, and they let us stay there for a little longer,&uot; she said. &uot;I wasn’t leaving Chicago without my son.&uot; With her furniture already in Virginia, they had to sleep on futons and make do with only a few articles of clothing.

Over in Ireland, the Blakes went to court and repeated their claim of abuse against Serena. She’d call them, and they would either not answer or tell her that Dylan didn’t want to speak to them. The case got pushed into a backlog, and didn’t come to light until late October. Serena, now suffering from panic attacks, headed to her home country for a Nov. 2 court date. By this point, the Blakes, knowing that they had no case or legal right, were already offering a deal.

&uot;They said that they’d turn over Dylan if I’d let him visit every summer,&uot; she said. That wasn’t happening.

In court, the Blake’s attorney said that his clients had not shown up. The judge gave him another day to produce them and the proof that they had a right to Dylan. The next day, the truth came out, and Serena had her son back. But things weren’t over.

Five days later, Serena and Dylan waited in Dublin International Airport for their plane back to America.

&uot;We were in line to drop off our baggage,&uot; she said. &uot;My father came running up.&uot; As Serena smelled alcohol wafting off of him, Tim began to shout and cuss, she said. Two of his friends came up behind Dylan and grabbed the crying youngster, trying to pull him outside.

Serena’s temporary bodyguard from the American embassy called security, and she and Dylan were whisked to a hotel overnight. The next day, they were driven in a bulletproof van back to the airport, and surrounded by guards as they walked toward the plane. But Tim still wouldn’t give up.

&uot;He ran up, and he was crying,&uot; Serena said. &uot;He was saying ‘Dustin, you’re my life! I’ll die if you leave!’&uot; They finally got on the plane, and Serena spent the entire flight looking behind her, fearing that Tim and Ethel had found a way onboard.

On Nov. 8, they got back to America, and held a press conference, thanking all those that had helped them. A few days later, Dylan saw his Suffolk home for the first time.

&uot;I missed my mom and everyone, because I didn’t get to see them,&uot; he said. &uot;I knew she missed me and that she cared about me a lot. (My grandparents) treated me all right when I was with them, but I missed my mom.&uot;

He’s back in school, and Serena and her other kids are starting to adjust. But the Blakes, who have been indicted on aggravated kidnapping charges and are fighting extradition, are still around.

&uot;They still call and leave abusive messages,&uot; she said. &uot;I had to put my address on our court documents, so they know where I live.&uot;

Serena still wakes up in the middle of the night to check on Dylan. Last week, she realized that she’d forgotten her daughter’s birthday.

&uot;We’ve got a long way to go yet,&uot; she said. &uot;We still live in fear. I’m hoping and praying that they’re extradited. I’m going to start calling the FBI every week.&uot;

Dylan sounds a bit better.

&uot;I’ve been helping my dad,&uot; he said. &uot;I enjoy staying with my parents, because they’ve always been nice. They’ve never done anything bad.&uot;