Faye Yager's Crusade The Atlanta Socialite Runs An "Underground Railroad" For Abused Children. Many Of Them, She Says, Are Victims Of Satanic Cult Rituals. But Not Everyone Thinks She's A Saint . . .

Posted: July 19, 1990

ATLANTA — The first thing a visitor notices inside Faye Yager's 17-room Tudor mansion is the art. Not the elaborately framed Renaissance landscapes hanging in the Victorian-style parlor, but the crayon drawings scattered across the dining room table.

Piled almost a half-inch high, the pictures show robed stick figures in forests or dungeonlike rooms, with cages, whips, cameras or fancy candelabras around them. Adults in the drawings appear evil, their eyes slanted and their mouths in a frown. The children have tears popping from their eyes. The titles on the pictures read like horror movie titles: "When I Killed the Baby," or ''The Rape of Jennifer," or "When Daddy Hurt My Bottom."

Yager, who for three years has operated an illegal underground network to help parents hide children from alleged abusers, said the gruesome drawings are evidence that she has tapped into a dirty secret with horrible ramifications: a nationwide increase in cult-related child abuse.

"Look, I didn't want to believe this stuff," Yager said, shaking her head, "but when you get little kids saying they've killed a baby because the devil told them to do it. . . . I don't care if you don't believe it. It's true."

Yager's critics and the law enforcement agencies that have charged her with felonies as a result of her activities say her network is not only wrong, but potentially dangerous to children she claims to help.

And at least one adversary says Yager has taken her crusade too far: that she is leading children to spin elaborate tales of satanism and cult abuse to support her efforts.

Until now, the society-matron-turned vigilante has been the image of a heroine. She has been presented as a well-mannered renegade, a sort of charmed outlaw riding the moral high ground.

For three years, the wealthy Atlanta socialite has opened her home - and her bank account - to help parents who believe that the courts have failed to protect their children. Usually Yager is called by desperate women claiming that their children are abused and that a court has refused to keep the abuser away.

Yager helps them disappear.

She sends them into a network of underground "safe houses" to skirt the police. The runaways get new names, forged identification papers, dyed hair and a new life.

Yager claims that she has hidden hundreds of children, and that only a few have ever been found.

But in April, Yager, 42, was arrested by police in Atlanta at a Holiday Inn near her home. She was charged with the felony crimes of kidnapping and cruelty to a child after a Florida woman who had sought Yager's help told police that Yager had kidnapped her 8-year-old daughter and held her for four days.

The mother also said Yager forced the girl to tell tall tales - in front of a video camera - of ritualistic abuse.

Yager said the mother gave permission for the girl to stay with Yager while Yager sought medical advice and conducted interviews. She has denied the charges and is free, pending an indictment hearing.

If convicted, Yager could face up to 60 years in prison.

Then in October, four Pottstown children, whom Yager kept underground for four months, said Yager had coached them to lie about abuse. The children's father, Louis Behr, had taken the children from his former wife, Patricia, who had legal custody. Louis Behr claimed that Patricia Behr and her boyfriend were involved in satanism and ritualistic abuse of the children.


Patricia Behr saw Yager and her own former husband on a television talk show and contacted police. The FBI arrested Louis Behr in Atlanta and returned the children to their mother in Montgomery County. The children told Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Karen Colletta that Yager had coached them to lie. A jury found Louis Behr not guilty of interfering with custody.


Yager has become active at a time when child-abuse experts agree that the legal system is not protecting children as it should.

A report presented to Congress last month by the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse concluded that child abuse was a "national emergency" and the system in place to protect children was "near collapse," said Howard Davidson, vice president of the board.

The report, funded by Congress and compiled by a panel of 15 experts, found that courts were overloaded and "the system is not providing justice to the children or anybody," Davidson said.


David Levy, president of the National Council for Children's Rights, said that he believes Yager is sincere, but that he objects to her methods.

"We're against parental kidnapping, straight out. Kids are not pots and pans to be picked up and moved secretly," said Levy, whose Washington-based group publishes research reports on child-abuse prevention.

"The courts are not perfect in how they handle abuse, but we don't know of any system that's better."

Yager, in her thick West Virginia drawl, dismisses all arguments against her. "If I can get a child away from an abuser for a few weeks or months, those are weeks they aren't hurt. They'll never forget that time they were safe," she said.

She said the authorities, tired of her outsmarting them, are harassing her.

"It's easier to believe one woman's crazy than to believe all this is true. They have to discredit me somehow," she said recently as she filled a 14-hour day driving a van through Atlanta's back streets to meet secretly with mothers who have fled with their children.

"I never tell anyone to run," she continued. "Lots of times I've arranged for medical examinations they can use in court, or I arrange for private detectives to help them. But if they have to run, I'll help them."

Yager said she requires fleeing parents to present her with some sort of medical evidence or reasonable testimony of child abuse. If she suspects the runaway parent of abuse, Yager said, she informs police.

"If you'd ever been in this situation, you'd understand. It's very difficult for me to put down the phone and say I won't help."

Petite, slim and always dressed in expensive clothes, Yager fits in with elite social circles. She looks like a woman who should be attending charity luncheons instead of running to budget hotel rooms to talk with fugitives or making clandestine calls from pay phones because she's convinced that her home phone is bugged.

She does try to fit a normal life in between her underground activities. On a recent afternoon, she drove one of her four daughters to her summer ''candystriper" job, picking her up late, as usual.

"I'm sorry, Jannelle, I forgot about you," Yager said to the 15-year-old, as she sped through her tony neighborhood.

"You always forget about us," muttered the daughter. But Yager didn't hear the complaint; she was already planning how and where to meet another runaway mom. Later in the day, Yager said she was trying to devote more time to her family.

Yager wasn't always this way, but her past seemed to lead her right to it. She was born a West Virginia coal miner's daughter, one of 11 children. Eager to venture beyond the hills, she married at age 17 and moved to Atlanta.

Several years later, Yager said, she saw her then-husband sexually molesting their 2-year-old daughter, Michelle. She became hysterical, she said, and her husband placed her in a psychiatric hospital.

Yager said she had medical proof of the molestation but couldn't get a doctor to testify against her husband, so she lost custody of her daughter. The judge ruled she was unfit because of her psychiatric hospitalization.

Yager had four more children with her current husband, Atlanta physician Howard Yager. In 1986, Michelle showed up on Yager's doorstep, pregnant and frightened. That same year, Yager's first husband, who was living in Florida, was convicted of sexual abuse after federal authorities found videotapes of him molesting neighborhood children.

In 1987, Yager learned about a child abuse case in Mississippi very similar to that involving her daughter. She hooked up with other housewives to help the mother and child run away from the alleged abuser. That case led to another, and then another, until Yager's name became synonymous with a parent's last chance.

Yager said the stories of satanism and ritualistic abuse had cropped up in the last year. She said more and more children are telling her they've been forced to kill animals, and to watch rapes and even murders performed by cults.

Dona Washburn, a housewife from the outskirts of Macon, Ga., who sought Yager's help last year, said she didn't believe in ritualistic child abuse either, until her own children said they were involved in it.

Washburn left with her four children in 1988 after her children told her of cult meetings in which their father made them kill animals and perform sex acts with adults.

"If you've never heard this before, I know it's too much to take in. When my children were telling me this, I couldn't believe it, either," said Washburn. "How can children make up these things . . . places and dates? I mean, I never even took my kids to the movies. I'd only let them watch The Cosby Show on TV because I thought other shows were too violent."

After a court hearing in Macon this spring, the father, Derrell Washburn, was given custody of the children, and Yager is helping Dona Washburn prepare for a new custody trial.

Atlanta psychologist George Greaves, sometimes called to testify in cases concerning Yager, said he does not dispute the validity of the crayon drawings of cult abuse that Yager has shown him, but he doubts that all the stories of cult abuse are true.

Greaves, who has seen some videotapes of Yager's interviews with children, said she does not use professional techniques when talking to them.

"I would describe what she does as very heavy-handed. The children are confused and torn," he said. "That's part of the irony. In the interest of preserving child rights, she's violating children's rights by her interrogations."

Amy Neustein, a New York sociologist who said her own studies in child abuse also show an increase in cult-related incidents, believes Yager.

"About a year ago, she called me up to talk about a common pattern she'd seen. The Faye Yager I know didn't start out saying, 'I'm going to find ritualistic abuse and I'm obsessed with this,' " said Neustein, who has studied Yager's "underground railroad" for about two years.

Yager will not say how many cases she is handling, but she said 80 percent of them are connected to cults.

Cult-related cases generally make up about 5 percent of abuse cases nationally, Neustein said, adding that she believes Yager gets a disproportionate number because "she gets the most severe cases in the country."

Yager said she's convinced that time will prove her right.

"They said I was crazy 15 years ago, and then they found the videotapes of my ex-husband," she said.

"The American public isn't ready to believe it. But I'm here to find the truth, and the truth is painful."

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