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Morgan vs. Foretich Twenty Years Later

At home, things are as normal as can be. Dr. Elizabeth Morgan brings in a tray carrying a single cup of coffee, a sugar bowl and her favorite creamer. The creamer is shaped like a cow, with a looped tail forming a handle. It doesn’t work that well, she explains as milk slops out, but she loves it.

Her daughter, now called Elena, laughs as she finishes snacking on a cracker, checking her teeth for crumbs in a mirror. She’s wearing tight jeans and a baby-blue tube top, is ebullient and bouncy, and seems younger than 26, closer to the teen pop-music audience she’s wooing.

But Elena has her mother’s eyes and the same burning moral outrage that propelled them both into the global spotlight in the 1980s. It’s been so long that Elena and Elizabeth have begun entirely new lives, landing in the town that has turned epochal personal remakes into a local industry.

“When you’re an only child raised by a single parent, you have a special bond with them,” says Elena — an assumed name she began using after returning to the U.S. from New Zealand, where she went by the assumed name Ellen. “My mother and I get along very easily.”

The term “special bond” would be an understatement. In the late ’80s, Elena, whose given name is Hilary Foretich, rocketed along with her mother, into the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and New York Times and made news regularly on ABC, CBS and NBC, fighting an ugly custody battle against Hilary’s father, Dr. Eric Foretich.

Dr. Morgan alleged that Foretich, whom she had divorced before their daughter was born, had sexually abused their little girl, and today estimates that she spent $1 million to prove it and to protect Hilary. When D.C. Superior Court Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr. dismissed the civil case against Hilary’s father, oral surgeon Foretich, in 1987, Morgan defied his court orders giving Foretich visitation rights.

She spent two years at the D.C. City Jail for illegally whisking 5-year-old Hilary out of Foretich’s — and the court’s — reach.

Hilary Foretich lived secretly in New Zealand with her grandparents, who plunged her into obscurity by renaming her Ellen Morgan. In jail, Elizabeth Morgan refused to divulge her daughter’s location, but the defiant mom was freed in 1989 — by an act of Congress, no less. Then in 1996, Congress passed yet another custom law for the duo, the Elizabeth Morgan Act, which allowed them both to return home to Washington, D.C.

About a decade ago, Hilary Foretich/Ellen Morgan changed her name again, to Elena Mitrano — a nod to her grandfather’s Italian heritage.

Today, mother and daughter live in Los Angeles, the city of ultimate do-overs. In their second year here, they share an apartment that overlooks the posh Four Seasons Hotel adjacent to Beverly Hills. Because of the location, they get a Beverly Hills view, explains Mitrano, now a beautiful young woman, but with an L.A. rent.

Mitrano recently reached No. 26 in the New York music charts with the title song from her debut album, Rescue Me, produced by L.A.-based company the Heavyweights.

Upbeat and catchy, her pop vocals are popular in New York’s club scene, while ballads like the autobiographical “Voiceless” add weight to her fan base. Whenever she’s at a loss for lyrics or rhythms, Mitrano says, she looks to her idol and asks, “What would Cher do?”

Inevitably here in Tinsel Town, a record deal is in the works. “In a lot of ways, I have been very, very fortunate,” Mitrano says. “My family on my mother’s side loved me and supported me and gave me a tremendous childhood. But there are so many children who aren’t as lucky as I had been, and I wanted to do something for them.”

She got a degree in journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., but found that her voice was more powerful as a creative force, and with her mother’s help she began producing music. “I think it’s high time pop music addressed people’s need to just smile,” Mitrano says.

Her brainy mother, now 61, is getting a master’s in public health at UCLA — adding to her biology degree from Harvard, M.D. from Yale and psychology degree from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

Mitrano has performed at the Roxy, Molly Malone’s and Tangier — and is preparing for a tour. With dates yet to be set, she hopes to visit 10 U.S. cities as part of the Rock Your Fashion Tour with Sledge Clothing Co. When Mitrano moved to L.A. to further her singing career, within months, and at Mitrano’s behest, her mother followed.

“Anything for Elena,” Morgan says. In fact, Morgan was an icon to U.S. mothers two decades ago because she would do anything for the then-named Hilary. But Morgan was also accused of being a fraud and a psychopath who would do anything for her daughter.

 

Some family psychologists and other experts, like law professor Susan B. Apel, have repeatedly suggested that Mitrano suffers from “false memory” syndrome, and that no abuse actually took place.

Foretich, who rebuilt his life, which was ruined for years by their allegations, and who is a successful oral surgeon now living in Virginia, claimed that Morgan was a “pathological liar” who fabricated details in order to retain sole custody of the little girl. Some critics have even suggested that it was Morgan, not Foretich, who was the perpetrator.

Mitrano’s jaw stiffens at such suggestions today. She sits upright and places her hands in her lap.

“My mother was made out to be a liar,” she says. “She was made out to be crazy and vindictive and a woman who was just trying to spear her ex-husband and make him look bad and steal his daughter from him. ... My mother was trying to save my life.”

It all seems incredibly distant from 1987, and it is. Morgan has term papers to write. Mitrano has glitzy Hollywood events to attend. But they always make time to play gin rummy together each weekend.

Their apartment is made homey by a plush purple chaise, welcoming furnishings and fully stocked bookshelves. But there are no photographs from Mitrano’s early childhood.

“Life is good now,” says Morgan with a red-lipped smile, nodding and interlocking her fingers. “But looking back can be kind of a downer.”

In the summer of 1987, temperatures in Washington, D.C., soared above 100 as a crime wave gripped the city. The D.C. jail was full of murderers, carjackers and rapists jammed in a pink-toned building. The Washington Post described it as “plagued by chronic sanitary conditions.” Rats scuttled along the corridors. Flies buzzed around puddles of who-knows-what.

On a Friday that August, an unusual guest checked in, a Harvard graduate and plastic surgeon with more than 20 years of schooling. “I think that’s the most I’ve ever seen,” a guard told the media of Morgan’s education as he checked her paperwork. She had refused — once again — to tell Judge Dixon where her daughter was.

“Either you tell me where your daughter is, or you go to jail,” a weary Dixon had told her.

Morgan replied, “That’s not a problem. I’ll go to jail.” She was escorted from Dixon’s courtroom, strip-searched, hosed down and given a jump suit. “It wasn’t so bad,” she now tells L.A. Weekly. “At least I got to read a lot of books.”

The Morgan vs. Foretich case was a white-hot news story. She remembers being harangued in her cell by a journalist from the Washington Post, who, Morgan claims, suggested that her jail venture was a stunt to aid her plastic-surgery business.

“Isn’t it true that they’re letting you out to see patients?” the journalist asked.

“If you think that’s true,” Morgan replied, “why don’t you ask my guard?” As Morgan tells it now, the guard looked at the Post reporter in disgust.

Quietly whisked to New Zealand, Mitrano remembers growing up afraid of being found by her father or New Zealand officials. Says Mitrano, “I felt that looming feeling as if someone was always standing behind me.”

Someone was. When Interpol discovered the little girl’s location, the police in Christchurch, New Zealand, began accompanying her to swim meets and sometimes tracked her schoolmates — purportedly in case her father showed up and nabbed the wrong girl.

Mitrano’s grandparents tried to protect her from TV images of her jailed mother. With her pale skin and long brown hair, Dr. Morgan was a photogenic inmate and international media sensation. The press loved to have her pose with her delicate hands wrapped around prison bars. But on day 759, she was freed by Congress — thanks to its District of Columbia Civil Contempt Imprisonment Limitation Act, limiting contempt-of-court terms to one year. She had served almost two.

Time has padded the sharp edges of the past with protective cushioning. Eric Foretich is more than 2,500 miles away practicing dentistry in Virginia, his office confirms. He is living in an alternate dimension as far as the mother and daughter are concerned.

Under law, Mitrano had until age 21 to file criminal charges against her father, but she decided to leave the past alone. In 1987, when the threat of having to visit her father was highest, the little girl was suicidal, according to Mary L. Froning, her therapist at the time, who testified in court in 1989.

Since she arrived in Los Angeles, and began climbing steadily up through the competitive, creative music scene here, her demons started to grow quiet. “I remember a lot,” Mitrano says. “And I still get sad sometimes.” Her brown eyes glisten as she sits in the sunlit living room with her mother.

 

But for 20 years, some journalists, psychologists, researchers and lawyers have been skeptical. Eric Foretich passed three lie-detector tests in court — two administered by police. He has consistently filed lawsuits against media outlets, including ABC for portraying him as a pedophile in the 1992 TV movie The Elizabeth Morgan Story. ABC paid him a settlement, but Foretich has nearly gone bankrupt fighting the media, according to his attorney, Jonathan Turley.

He also tried many times to contact his daughter, and after a detective traced her and her mother to New Zealand, Foretich flew there and appealed to the courts. “He tried to plead his case as the ‘good father,’” Mitrano says with a sarcastic tilt of the head. “They sent him back with his tail between his legs.”

Foretich also tried to see his daughter during a court hearing in Washington, D.C., when she turned 18. It didn’t go well. Mitrano was furious and demanded that Foretich leave the courtroom. She recalls, “I remember screaming and telling him to get away from me.”

“She got a chance to give him a piece of her mind,” Morgan says. “He left immediately.”

The two women have been as consistent as Foretich in telling their version of what unfolded. Says Morgan today, “Before the visits began, she was a really happy baby. And then once the visits began, she was really unhappy. It was not subtle, I mean, something bad was happening.”

She would throw fits when her father came to pick her up for a visit and came home acting “like a zombie,” Morgan recalls. On the one occasion that Morgan asked her daughter to “act out” what was going on during the visits, the child, she says, began inserting objects into her genital area.

Mitrano says she remembers feeling unsafe, and trying to fight being taken to her father’s house. “There’s a certain kind of screaming that kids make — a certain type of scream— that I remember in my own head,” she says, and pauses to hold back tears. “It’s bone-chilling. It really is. It’s not a normal cry. It’s a child in mortal danger. And kids will tell you.”

Why, then, did the judge side with Foretich, ordering a two-week unsupervised visit to make up for his lost time with his child? There is no clear answer. According to Morgan, because it was a civil case and not a criminal one, the burden of proof lay with her.

A lot of men, among them similarly accused spouses, think otherwise. Jake Morphonios, the North Carolina coordinator for the fathers’ rights organization Fathers-4-Justice, writes in his Web column, the Liberty Tree, that in civil-court battles between parents, “constitutional safeguards are abandoned. The burden of proof falls upon the accused to prove a negative, or to conclusively show that an alleged event never occurred.”

According to Judge Dixon in the District of Columbia, the evidence offered against Foretich was “in equipoise’’ — an even split between evidence suggesting guilt and that which suggests innocence.

Foretich was contacted by L.A. Weekly, but declined to comment. According to online reviews, his small McLean, Virginia, dental-surgery practice is respected by patients and locals. His last official contact regarding the case was on December 16, 2003, when the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the Elizabeth Morgan Act, declaring it unconstitutional because it singled out Foretich and inherently accused him of the crime.

His attorney, Turley, a professor at George Washington University in D.C., at the time called it “a wonderful day of vindication.”

Courts now are frequently faced with allegations like those in Morgan vs. Foretich, hard to prove and even harder to dispel. The fathers’-rights movement now makes a point of warning fathers to prepare for abuse allegations.

“The mere accusation is sufficient to strip the father of all his custody rights and launch a criminal investigation,” Morphonios says.

Accusing Foretich of a crime would have been a big step for Judge Dixon, who saw the evidence as a draw. Morgan says of Dixon, “Since I was the squeaky wheel, he thought that all he had to do was get rid of me and the problem would disappear.”

And the problem did disappear, eventually.

“I visited my dad for the last time when I was 5,” Mitrano says. She takes a deep breath. “It’s a long time between 0 and 5. I think the biggest question that I had was, ‘Why wasn’t I safe sooner?’”

It’s a warm Friday night at the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Hollywood, and Mitrano stands under the glow of stage lights with a microphone in hand. She is surrounded by the buzzing, glittering life of a church carnival. Children with painted faces and parents pushing buggies stop in front of the stage and sit down.

 

Mitrano closes her purple-shaded eyes and sings: “For unheard anguish and for uneased pain — this is for the voiceless.”

In the audience, her mother sways to the soft ballad. Her diamond earrings sparkle. She sings along — fumbling the first few words but remembering the rest. “For senseless sorrow, for their stories never told — this is for the voiceless: You’re not alone.”


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