Wives' Tale

More than one ex-spouse has had problems with Manuel Saavedra

When Debra Schmidt met Manuel Saavedra in 1991, he was not yet divorced from his first wife, a woman he regularly described in unflattering terms to the new Mrs. Saavedra, who eagerly adopted her husband's opinion. But a decade later, through a bizarre set of circumstances, the two women are bound together against their former spouse.

"We've had our differences," Marsha Molina, Saavedra's first wife, says about Schmidt. "But we worked through them and decided it was in the best interest of the children. She's an excellent mother."

Through his lawyer, Manuel Saavedra refused to be interviewed for this story. Some who know him describe Saavedra as a handsome man of medium stature, intelligent, charming, and often funny. But his ex-wives say he has a mean temper and will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Court records show that Saavedra moved from his native Chile to Los Angeles in 1984 and worked in a factory, despite advanced education. (He'd majored in English at a university in Chile and taken a translator's course sponsored by the Chilean Navy.) After a few months, he moved to San Francisco, where he met Molina in a bar. They married in 1985, moved to Livermore, and had twin daughters the following year. But the marriage ended in 1991 with a custody battle.

At first, Molina and Saavedra shared joint custody of their daughters. In fact, after Saavedra married Debra Schmidt, the girls regularly stayed with them -- until Saavedra was convicted in connection with the 1992 molestation of Schmidt's niece.

Following the molestation, Saavedra quickly became embroiled in two custody cases simultaneously: one in San Joaquin County involving Schmidt and their baby daughter, and another in Sacramento County regarding Molina and their twins.

Molina says Saavedra's visiting privileges with the twins stopped after he refused to participate in or pay for court-ordered counseling after the child molestation conviction. Finally, court records show, in July 1996, Saavedra agreed to the extreme step of terminating all parental rights to his then-10-year-old twin daughters. In exchange, Marsha Molina gave up any claim on $37,000 Saavedra allegedly owed her in unpaid child support, as well as any future support payments. A court order prohibits Saavedra from attempting to contact Molina or their daughters.

"My daughters and I have lived in fear for 10 years," Molina says. "He's repeatedly made threats to kidnap his daughters and take them out of the country. My daughters think their mother is extremely overprotective and a little bit paranoid. It's for good reason."

Schmidt has expressed the same fear in court filings. Unlike Molina, however, she decided to strike first, taking her daughters and moving to Texas. Next week, she's set to stand trial in Alameda County for criminal child abduction -- perhaps with an unlikely ally. Marsha Molina says she's ready to take the stand on Schmidt's behalf. "I wouldn't be sticking my neck out if I didn't believe her," Molina says.

 
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