Off corridors that seem to go on forever is a series of rooms where inmates see and speak with visitors, by telephone, from behind a glass partition. A guard escorts Schmidt into one of the rooms and locks her in. A slight woman clad in thongs and a mustard-yellow inmate jumpsuit -- a color indicating that she's housed in medium-to-maximum-level security -- Schmidt hardly looks threatening. Her face is framed by short layers of blond hair that look surprisingly stylish given her present living situation, and she appears a bit younger than her 43 years, except for the lines on her face that make her look permanently tired. Without even saying hello, she motions to wipe off the telephone receiver before picking it up. The implication is clear: "Don't put that thing up to your mouth, you don't know who's been using it."
Schmidt has notes on a yellow legal pad; dates and court actions and major points that she wants to remember to make. It's clear that Schmidt has gotten used to talking to the press. That aside, Debra Schmidt seems an entirely ordinary woman who has, by her own admission, made a lot of bad judgment calls, most of them involving men, the legal system, or both men and the legal system.
During the last several years, Schmidt has become entangled with a host of public and private characters -- including prosecutors, judges, and even a couple of governors (one of whom went on to become president) -- in an epic child custody war over the meaning of the most basic aspects of family, law, and family law. At the heart of the matter is Schmidt's belief that her two youngest daughters are not safe with their father, a convicted sex offender to whom the California courts have, sometimes in apparent violation of the law, granted a variety of supervised and unsupervised visitation and custody arrangements. Her concerns seem eminently reasonable; public records show the father has exhibited a variety of anti-social behaviors, including child molestation and alleged spousal abuse.
Through a series of strategically ridiculous moves, however, Schmidt has managed to turn the legal tables upon herself, and to at least temporarily invalidate the agreements that are the foundation of interstate law and order. After fleeing to Texas with her children, Schmidt was able to gain the backing of authorities there -- but in doing so, she sparked the ire of California family courts and a prosecutor who has filed child abduction charges against her.
The cross-jurisdiction custody battle became so heated that one-time Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his successor, Rick Perry, refused to extradite Schmidt to stand trial in California -- a transfer that is ordinarily a matter of routine legal courtesy. Eventually, a federal judge forced Texas to hand Schmidt over, and now a mother who claims her only interest is to protect her children from a sex offender waits to stand trial in Alameda County next week on a felony child abduction charge.
The fate of her children remains unclear.
A Texas court has ordered that the children not leave the Lone Star State, where they currently live. A California court is demanding the children return to the state of California. Neither state seems willing to budge, and no one seems to know the way out of a legal stalemate that better serves the needs of large legal egos than the interests of two girls, aged 7 and 9.
Even in jail and half a country away from her children, Schmidt says that she would do it all over again. "The California courts put me in the position of having to protect my children," she says, utterly sure in her naive belief that because she is in the moral right, the legal system will eventually be on her side, too.
Debra Schmidt was married to her first husband, Lee Schmidt, for seven years. They lived in Santa Clara County and had three children who are now grown. In 1988, she had another child with a man named Mitchell McKenzie, who would later oddly become her biggest supporter in the battle for custody of her children. Schmidt and McKenzie married, but divorced after less than a year. "Mitch and I have been best friends for years," she says. "But we should have never gotten married."
By 1989, Schmidt had moved to California's Central Valley; she met Manuel Saavedra in a nightclub in Tracy. Schmidt remembers that he was handsome and his Chilean accent made him seem suave. He also appeared to be very kind. "He's charming, he's attractive, he's fooled everyone," she says.
The two dated briefly and married in March 1991, in the back yard of Saavedra's home in Livermore, where they lived. There was trouble almost from the start; during the next five years, the couple would break up and reunite repeatedly. Most of this activity is memorialized in custody orders, restraining orders, and even two criminal cases in San Joaquin County. Amid the turmoil, Schmidt and Saavedra had two daughters, Lora and Eliana, who would eventually become the focus of labyrinthine legal battles.
In 1995, the couple broke up for good. Schmidt and her three youngest daughters moved to Manteca, and the court battle over the custody of Lora and Eliana heated up. The battle has never really stopped, at least in part because although there are few things Debra Schmidt is afraid of, Manuel Saavedra is among them.
Debra Schmidt and Manuel Saavedra have beaten a not particularly pretty path through the Family Law Department of the San Joaquin County Court. A review of court filings shows that the decade-long custody fight between them was building to a crescendo well before the battle over Lora and Eliana was fully engaged.