Woman admits her disappearance was no kidnapping

Posted: July 16, 2003

EVESHAM — She wasn't kidnapped. She wasn't coerced. Contrary to what Barbara Staudt initially told police, her disappearance involved no foul play.

Staudt, the 37-year-old Marlton mother of four who caused a local frenzy when she vanished from a Berlin Township Taco Bell late Saturday, ran away with a man with whom she has been romantically involved, police said yesterday.

She was found Monday evening walking along a highway in upstate New York after, police said, she had second thoughts and left Wayne Morris, 66, a Moorestown man she had met through a bowling league.

It is a different story from the one Staudt allegedly told New York state troopers, who found her wandering near Elmira, about 200 miles from her home and about 50 miles from a trailer owned by Morris in the Poconos. She has been charged with making a false report after telling troopers that a man and a woman had abducted her and that the man had tried to rape her.

New York state police said yesterday that she had recanted that story and replaced it with one more in line with what Berlin Township police described.

"She left voluntarily" to be with Morris, said Detective Sgt. Leonard Check of the Berlin Township Police Department. "After a period of time, she missed her family and wanted to come home. That's pretty much it."

New York state police said she would have to appear in court to face the charge, which carries a sentence of up to three months in jail.

Staudt, described by friends and family as a devoted mother, arrived home about 4:30 a.m. yesterday. Purple ribbons still hung at the Colonial, on Tinder Box Lane, as a symbol of hope for her safe return.

Just after 7 a.m., when her husband of 14 years, Donald, emerged from the house to speak briefly to reporters, Staudt stood in the background, crying.

About 3 p.m., she reemerged, appearing tired and drawn, in a white T-shirt and purple shorts, to read a statement that thanked police and the community for their concern. But it was silent on the details of her disappearance or the charge against her.

"I'm very thankful to be home safe and sound with my family," she said, her voice quiet and shaking. "I want to thank this wonderful community for all their love and support for my family and me. Their support kept my family going through this trying time."

No charges have been filed against Morris, who, police said, initially did not cooperate with them when contacted on his cellular phone Monday.

Police said Morris, who is married, was still believed to be in the Poconos yesterday afternoon. Calls to his Moorestown home went unanswered yesterday. Neighbors said this week that Morris, retired from PSE&G, was a good man.

Friends and family have described Staudt as a friendly and fun-loving mother who doted on her four children, ages 3 to 11, and threw herself into their activities, including soccer and swimming.

The day she disappeared, the family had spent a "great day" together swimming, said Donald Staudt's mother, Mercy.

And as far as Donald Staudt knew, his wife was indulging a late-night craving for fast-food Mexican after a long day when she headed for the Taco Bell in Berlin Circle Plaza about 11 p.m. Saturday.

But police said she had planned for a long time to meet Morris at the fast-food restaurant, about eight miles from her home. Family members say the pair had met on a bowling team for PSE&G, where Donald Staudt works.

About an hour after his wife left the house, Donald Staudt began worrying and drove to the restaurant, where he found the family's blue minivan in the plaza parking lot with his wife's keys and purse in it.

Police said Barbara Staudt had driven with Morris to his Poconos trailer and then on to Elmira, where they got a hotel room. That is where Staudt had her change of heart and slipped out of the hotel Monday morning, Check said.

When New York state police found her that evening, she was "emotional and confused," Check said.

It's nothing the family wants to talk about publicly.

"Anything further is really a family matter," Donald Staudt said yesterday. "She's alive and OK, and she's under a lot of stress right now. We want to come together as a family and let it stay that way."

Contact staff writer Jennifer Moroz at 856-779-3810 or jmoroz@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff photographer Elizabeth Robertson contributed to this article.

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