A woman charged with abducting her two daughters from their father in 1985 fled the state following an argument between the couple that turned physical, at a time when domestic violence wasn't a crime.
Elaine Yates pleaded not guilty Wednesday and a judge allowed her to be released and return to her home in Houston. She said little during the brief arraignment in Kent County Superior Court in Rhode Island on an abduction charge, but she referred to herself as Liana Waldberg, her legal name since 2009.
An anonymous tip two days before Christmas led authorities to Kimberly and Kelly Yates and to Waldberg, their 69-year-old mother, state police said. Waldberg was arrested Monday.
Kelly was 10 months old and Kimberly was 3 years old when they disappeared. They are now in their 30s.
The case raises questions about Waldberg's motivations. Friends who attended the hearing suggested outside the courtroom that there was a pattern of domestic violence by her husband. The girls' father, Russell Yates, didn't attend. At his home in Warwick later Wednesday, Yates acknowledged hitting her during an argument. He described it as a slap and said she left because he had an affair.
"We had one argument where I ended up slapping her, but it was nothing major like they're trying to build it up to be," he said.
When asked whether there was more than one argument, he said they "never had battles."
Domestic violence wasn't criminalized in Rhode Island until 1988. Until then, society viewed it as a private matter, said Deborah DeBare, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. DeBare recalls that police officers called to a home would take the aggressor outside and tell him or her to walk around the block and cool off. She described help for victims then as "bare-boned."
"It was not uncommon at the time for victims who were in serious danger to feel they had no option except to flee," she said Wednesday. "It was also not uncommon for victims to go underground and even change their name. It's a world of difference today."
George Rapier, who said he divorced Waldberg in 2005 after five years of marriage, told The Houston Chronicle he had the impression that Waldberg's ex was abusive and that's why she left him.
He told the newspaper he was shocked that the "very nice person" he knew had been a fugitive and that his marriage to her might have been bigamy.
Magistrate Judge John McBurney set bail for Waldberg at $50,000 personal recognizance and will allow her to return to Houston to live and work with a requirement that she sign a waiver of extradition and surrender her passport. He set hearings for Feb. 1 to determine her attorney and Feb. 15 for a pretrial conference.
Amy Kempe, a spokeswoman for Rhode Island's attorney general, said that she couldn't speculate on how any allegations of domestic violence could factor into the case and that the office would review the facts.
The daughters live in the Houston area and are in good health, according to state police. Court records show that Kimberly Ann Yates sought to legally change her name to Melissa Lynn Waldberg in 2010, but then didn't pursue the request.
Police gave them contact information for their father. Russell Yates said Wednesday he still has not heard from his daughters and he doesn't know what they've been told about him. Yates said the affair is his biggest regret.
"I'd like to apologize to them for how I treated their mother," he said.
Russell Yates said after their disappearance that his wife had discovered he was unfaithful to her and that she had threatened to move out in the middle of the night with the children. He acknowledged punching her while they argued. A few weeks later, on Aug. 27, 1985, he came home after work around 2 a.m. and they were gone.
Rick Archer, who ran a dance studio in Houston, said he knew Elaine Yates as Liana Waldberg for the last 14 years and danced with her many times. He described her as a "decent, kind, warm person."
Archer said while he didn't know many details about Yates' background, he never thought of her as a "suspicious person."
"There was nothing in her behavior that would make one suspect she had a secret. But I guess we all have secrets. Hers was just bigger than most," he said.
Over the years, the case was featured on "America's Most Wanted," and police received tips from all over the country.
Russell Yates said he doesn't think Waldberg should be prosecuted because it won't help anyone or bring him closer to his children.
Associated Press writers Juan A. Lozano and Michelle R. Smith contributed to this report.