August 29, 2002

Gunmen Abduct California Boy, 9, From Home


Two gunmen forced their way into a home early this morning, beat the man living there, abducted his 9-year-old son and sped away in a sport utility vehicle, the police said.

The abduction, in Palm Desert, some 120 miles east of Los Angeles, was the latest of a spate of recent child kidnappings that have occurred around the country but been concentrated mainly here in Southern California.

The victim this time was Nicholas Michael Farber, a brown-haired boy described as standing about 4 1/2 feet tall and weighing 55 pounds. He was clothed only in his underwear as his kidnappers made off with him from the house where he had recently begun living with his father, on a quiet palm- and oak-lined street not far from desert resorts.

Police officials urged the kidnappers to drop the boy off in a safe place, like a hospital or a firehouse.

Otherwise, ''we would like to tell the people who took the child that with the F.B.I., the Highway Patrol, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and other allied agencies, we will find you,'' said Capt. Patrick McManus of the Sheriff's Department.

The police said the kidnappers, one wearing a nylon stocking as a mask, struck about 2 a.m., forcing their way into the white single-story home and assaulting Nicholas's father, Michael Farber, who had to be treated for cuts and bruises at a nearby hospital.

Mr. Farber, a 47-year-old manager of a Mexican restaurant, reported having seen people other than the gunmen in the S.U.V. that carried his son away, the police said.

Although the case is being handled as an abduction by strangers, investigators are also trying to determine whether a custody dispute between Mr. Farber and his estranged wife, Nicholas's mother, played a role. Though Nicholas had been in the physical custody of his father for at least two weeks, permanent legal custody was in dispute, Captain McManus said.

The police are trying to locate the boy's mother, Debra Rose, 38, of Colorado Springs. Ms. Rose was arrested in the Colorado Springs area two weeks ago on charges of violating a restraining order, and tonight The Associated Press, citing records released by the Fourth Judicial District Court there, said the order had been obtained by a former husband of hers, Stanley Rose. The order required her to stay away from Mr. Rose and their two children, The A.P. reported.

Late this afternoon, the Riverside County sheriff-elect, Bob Doyle, appealed to Ms. Rose to contact the authorities, and provided a description of a Colorado-registered pickup in which she might be traveling, a 2002 extended-cab GMC.

''Debra, please contact us,'' Mr. Doyle said. ''We need to talk to you. You are not a suspect at this time, but we need to talk to you.''

Reporters pursued leads that Ms. Rose might be vacationing in Hawaii. Asked at a news conference whether she had threatened to come to California and take the boy there, officials would say only that they were exploring many avenues.

Ralph Pierce, whose niece owns the house where Nicholas and his father were living, said Mr. Farber went to Colorado two or three weeks ago to get the boy, after Stanley Rose called and asked him to come pick Nicholas up. That was about the time Ms. Rose was arrested there.

Last week, after Mr. Farber had returned from Colorado, a California court granted him temporary custody of Nicholas. A hearing on his request for permanent custody was set for Sept. 5 in Orange County, where he lived until moving to Palm Desert about a year ago.

A regional alert to law enforcement agencies was issued for the boy today, but the authorities stopped short of a full Amber Alert because they did not have a license plate number for the light-colored S.U.V. used in the abduction and so did not want to activate message boards along the freeways. To activate the signs with so common a vehicle description and no license plate number would only have caused confusion and a flood of false sightings, said Capt. Jeff Talbott of the California Highway Patrol.

The police released a composite sketch of one gunman, and described him as a possibly Hispanic man in his early 30's, 5-foot-8, 175 pounds with a medium build. He was said to have a goatee and to be wearing a dark sweatsuit.

The other kidnapper, who wore the nylon mask, was described as larger: over 6 feet and perhaps 250 pounds.

Erin Gallagher, who has known Mr. Farber for 20 years and rented him part of the house where he and Nicholas lived, said she was stunned. ''I don't believe he was looking over his shoulder for anything,'' she said.

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