Danny Moran has lost his children and his freedom and spent a decade as a fugitive. But during 20 years of legal battles, the former Mesa resident has never surrendered. That could change today in Maricopa County Superior Court.
Moran said he is considering pleading guilty to abducting his daughter in 1996. If he does, the concession would come one year after his arrest. But a guilty plea would not end Moran’s quest to obtain custody of the girl, now 13 and living in Philadelphia with her biological mother.
“Once this bogus criminal prosecution is done,” Moran said, “I’m going to Pennsylvania and tear down the courts there to get my daughter back.”
Courts have consistently rejected his legal claims, which are based on his religious belief that men are the “natural custodians” of their children. The girl’s mother, Helen Braun, just sighs when she hears of Moran’s plan, which she expected. But she said she isn’t going to keep her daughter from her father if she wants to go with him.
Meanwhile, Braun struggles to establish a relationship with the girl who was 2 when she was taken from her. Braun’s also trying to tend to the teenager’s emotional well-being after she was forced to leave a comfortable family setting with her father and another woman she’d known as her mother for as long as she could remember.
Moran said he could probably win an acquittal at trial if he had a good lawyer, but his lawyer of eight months recently withdrew after they butted heads. He also believes the justice system is corrupt, so he’s preparing to return to prison.
“I’m so discouraged at this point, I’ve contemplated not going to trial,” Moran said.
If Moran gets another day in court in Pennsylvania, then he’ll be there with a record of losing every case in which he’s been involved.
His first wife wrote in a letter to Judge Stanley Goldfarb in 1987 that Moran’s character and lifestyle changed in 1980 when he began following a “cult” movement.
“He is not one you can reason with,” Carol Moran wrote.
She wrote that she tried to put up with him, but his domination in their home became too destructive, so she left him and took their sons, ages 7 and 9.
She wrote that she allowed the boys to see Moran, but he refused to return them on May 10, 1986.
“I told my wife I wasn’t going to let them come home,” he said.
The FBI found them in Las Vegas on Sept. 4, 1986.
He claimed at trial that biblical doctrine was the ruling law of the nation until the early 1900s, and “fathers were the natural custodians of their children, a biblical responsibility that couldn’t be removed by the state.”
Goldfarb said Moran “acted simply to enforce his own opinions of his own male superiority over his wife.”
Goldfarb was amazed that numerous women attended Moran’s trial and “nodded in unison and indicated approval at his claim of male superiority.”
Goldfarb found him guilty in a bench trial on two counts of custodial interference and sentenced him to the maximum 1.9 years for each.
He met Helen Braun after his release from prison in 1989.
They entered into a private marriage contract in March 1992 that said the marriage was structured on “the Patriarchal Laws of Holy Scripture” and the husband’s authority couldn’t be challenged by any civil authority.
Courts later ruled that the marriage was invalid because they never got a license, which was the key point in the custody dispute after the relationship fell apart.
Rebekah Davina Moran was born in September 1993, and Moran filed his first legal papers in January 1994, claiming he deserved custody of her based on the marriage contract and alleging Braun was unfit.
Braun left and returned to Moran several times, sometimes living in women’s shelters to escape abuse. Once, she even checked into a mental hospital.
“I never hurt my baby,” Braun said. “She was always fed and clean.”
Moran claims today that Mesa police and Arizona Child Protective Services never followed up on his reports of child abuse and neglect, and the courts didn’t properly follow the law.
“After 2½ years of my daughter being abused, I took her,” Moran said.
Moran said that on Feb. 24, 1996, he waited outside Braun’s Tempe apartment and phoned her as she locked the door to leave.
He grabbed Rebekah as she waited outside while Braun went inside to answer the phone. He told Braun he had her as he drove away into the darkness.
ON THE RUN
Moran said he didn’t go far at first.
He lived in a house in Paradise Valley under an assumed name with Lillian Pitts, a woman he hired as a livein caretaker who eventually became known to Rebekah as her mother.
“My dad says that, like, within a couple days, I was calling her mom,” Rebekah said with a Southern drawl in an interview with a Tempe police detective. “I’ve always known her as my mom and I always will.”
Moran told Pitts he had legal custody of the girl and showed her the marriage contract to prove it, he said.
Moran continued to file motions in his pending court cases even as police looked for him. The Arizona Court of Appeals rejected his legal arguments in August 1996, and none of the higher courts would hear them.
He left the state within a few months, moving to California, Utah, Texas, Virginia, Iowa and South Carolina.
Pitts and Rebekah took assumed last names, and Moran worked as a computer consultant, moving every six months to two years, more out of necessity to find work than to elude authorities.
Moran told his daughter they used aliases to prevent her biological mother from finding her, Rebekah said.
Rebekah said their last four moves were in South Carolina, and they were preparing to move to North Carolina when the FBI came knocking in June 2006.
During the last two years on the run, Moran lived in Virginia while his daughter and Pitts lived in South Carolina, visiting her every few weeks.
He declined to say why they were separated.
Rebekah said Pitts and Moran had no friends they socialized with.
“I approached those 10 years with a lot of prayer and a lot of divine guidance,” Moran said.
Moran said he blew his cover by becoming “selfish” and dating again.
The adult children of a woman he was dating recognized him from a missing child poster and turned him in.
When authorities caught up with Moran, Rebekah was packing for another move and excited because she was going to learn how to train a horse.
Pitts home-schooled her, and she got horseback riding lessons. In her room she kept treasured horse figurines, a computer, a chemistry set, microscope and dissection kit.
“I was like spoiled, especially when it came to learning,” she said.
In an interview with a Tempe detective, Rebekah cried as she worried aloud about her dad dying in prison. She said she dreaded meeting her biological mother and said she only wanted to return to Moran and Pitts.
She also disclosed what Moran told her about her biological mother.
“He said he didn’t think she was fit. She was like on anti-depressants and stuff,” Rebekah said. “My dad said she was like on welfare or something.”
Dr. Juliet Francis, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., who consults on the family reunification process for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said children in Rebekah’s situation become confused because their sense of trust has been violated.
“That can play real havoc on a child’s mind,” Francis said.
Going through the normal growing pains of being a teenager can compound the emotional trauma, Francis said.
“It’s going to be difficult to accept mom,” Francis said. “She’s going to have a sense of disloyalty to mom.”
Braun feels they’re learning to accept each other, but Rebekah doesn’t share her feelings. “I think she shut down emotionally,” Braun said.
The girl’s grades and social life haven’t suffered, though.
Rebekah scored high on an IQ test and is an honor student, excelling not just in math and science but also the arts, Braun said.
“I knew from the time she was 2 she was gifted,” Braun said.
Braun is girding for Moran’s return, fearing that he may try to take her away again.
She doesn’t want to deprive them of each other, and she doesn’t want the girl deprived of knowing her extended family.
“I can’t force her to stay with me if she doesn’t want to,” Braun said.
May 10, 1986: Danny Moran abducts his two sons, ages 9 and 7.
Sept. 4, 1986: FBI finds Moran and children in Las Vegas.
1988: Moran begins 3¾-year sentence on two counts of custodial interference.
1992: Moran enters into a private marriage contract with Helen Braun, spurning a marriage license.
1993: Rebekah Moran is born.
1995: Moran loses custody battle in Maricopa County Superior Court.
1996: Moran abducts Rebekah in front of her mother’s Tempe apartment.
2006: Moran arrested and Rebekah returned to Braun.
Today: Status conference in Maricopa County Superior Court.