The case of Benoit v. Gilson was back in court on Wednesday, with Judge Kathleen White setting an October trial in a bizarre case where the mother, who has fled to Europe with her kids, will be allowed to be deposed and then to testify via Skype.
Claire Benoit, then a Davis resident, took her four children on a visit to France in the fall of 2015. She had full custody at the time. Eric Gilson, father of her two toddlers, was allowed only supervised visits after a hearing in September of 2015 regarding allegations of domestic violence
Mr. Gilson asked for an ex parte hearing and Judge Kathleen White awarded him unsupervised visits on November 2, despite his history of violence.
At that point, fearing for the safety of her kids, Ms. Benoit “disappeared” into Europe, seeking what turns out now to be a failed asylum in the Netherlands.
In an email exchange in January, Deputy DA Tiffany Susz, who appeared on Wednesday, warned Ms. Benoit that she was in violation of a judge’s order when she did not return to Yolo County with her kids.
Ms. Benoit wrote back, “Please forgive me for protecting myself and my children. Please allow me to again remind you that this man is on probation for attempting to murder his ex-wife in front of their children. And also please allow me to respectfully remind you that my youngest child by him is the documented product of rape.”
Ms. Susz on Wednesday reported that the People have not heard from Ms. Benoit in some time and do not know where she and her kids are. She said that she did receive a communication from the State Department that their asylum claim had been denied in March.
Attorney Kim Robinson, representing Ms. Benoit in absentia, told the court that Ms. Benoit has no intention of being here and that they need to find another solution, other than getting her here, to allow Mr. Gilson to pursue his custody matter.
Judge White made it clear that she is unhappy that Ms. Benoit has refused to comply with lawful court orders in this case. However, she is also mindful that there are serious allegations involving domestic violence and sexual assault that have been raised – allegations that Ms. Susz has previously acknowledged in court to have validity.
At the same time, Mr. Gilson has the right to due process and she said that the court cannot be held hostage by Ms. Benoit’s refusal to participate. She has issued protection for Ms. Benoit should she return, which would include a no contact order and other protections.
However, the DA’s office has previously refused to commit itself to not prosecuting Ms. Benoit, and Judge White on Wednesday indicated that the consequences for her non-compliance with the court have not been determined yet.
At this point, Kim Robinson offered that Ms. Benoit could participate by Skype. Judge White responded that, while she did not know the legality of proceeding that way and that it is not ideal, she would look into it as Skype would be better than no participation at all.
At this point, she set a one-week trial for October 11 through October 14. Judge White ordered that Mr. Gilson, who is not represented by an attorney and cannot afford one, would have to depose Ms. Benoit before he could be deposed. However, she allowed Ms. Robinson to conduct normal discovery in this matter prior to a July 15 deadline for Ms. Benoit to be deposed.
Ms. Robinson wants access to psychiatric and other records which would allegedly show that Mr. Gilson has a long criminal history and suffers from bi-polar disorder.
In the meantime, Deputy DA Susz warned the court that the statute of limitation for a Hague Petition runs out in October. Under the terms of the Hague Convention, an application can be made when a child is taken across an international border without the consent of a parent who has rights of custody.
The complicating matter is that the court has not ruled on whether Mr. Gilson has rights of custody at this point, and, given the allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault, he may be stripped of any rights altogether by the court.
But the statute for that is one year, and that will have run about the same time the trial is conducted. As Ms. Susz pointed out, if that timeline remains, the statute will have run and it will limit Mr. Gilson’s civil remedies.
It was Mr. Gilson who asked for an ex parte hearing seeking visitation and potential custody with his children. That started a long string of events that has now culminated in a custody trial set for October.
He then reported Ms. Benoit to the Child Abduction Unit of Yolo County for taking the children.
At a second ex parte hearing on November 16, the Ms. Susz was present, but did not bring Mr. Gilson’s violence to the attention of the court. Surprisingly, this time Judge White gave Mr. Gilson full custody of the toddlers when she was unable to reach Ms. Benoit by phone.
The judge ordered Ms. Benoit to return to the U.S. to appear for the next hearing.
But, according to Ms. Benoit, it was a fear of domestic violence that made her concerned about returning with the children. Ms. Benoit told her attorney that “the children will be unsafe if left with the father, he is a dangerous man.”
At the January 8, 2016, hearing, Deputy DA Susz brought Mr. Gilson’s extensive criminal record to the attention of visiting Judge Thomas Warriner, explaining that “some of the allegations by mom have been corroborated but we are still investigating this case.”
Court records showed a conviction of felony domestic violence, causing corporal injury on a spouse, and felony stalking by Mr. Gilson involving his ex-wife. He is on probation for those convictions in another county.
Judge Warriner stated at the time, “I can’t ignore those convictions.”
Ms. Susz requested an order for Ms. Benoit to return but Judge Warriner refused to make any order until the mother was contacted.
The attorney for Ms. Benoit explained that “the mom has concerns of mental health illness and Mr. Gilson has not been taking his medication. Your honor, she has a legitimate cause to keep her children safe.”
“We are only asking for a verifiable address for her and the children,” the DDA stated. She told the court that the district attorney’s office had tried to contact her, but Ms. Benoit had not responded.
“We asked her to check into a U.S. Embassy and call us,” stated the DDA.
Ms. Susz said they have offered to pay for her safe return and to put her in protected housing. But Ms. Benoit will not comply, asserted the DDA.
The attorney for Ms. Benoit told the court that her client is frightened they will arrest her if she goes to the U.S. Embassy for verification of her address, which she had already provided to the district attorney.
Meanwhile, in a letter to Judge Kathleen White from early 2015, Ms. Benoit noted that she had petitioned the court to establish paternity so that her youngest son by Mr. Gilson could receive financial benefits, and she was not expecting any conflict.
She alleged that her son was “the product of rape” but was told by Judge White that “rape was irrelevant to our children as it was an abuse of me – ‘not the kids.’”
She further noted that Judge White required that she “only share abusive incidents that were ‘less than three months old.’” She explained in the letter, “I felt totally defeated as I had expressed in the court that my children and I had not heard from Eric for more than four months preceding my petitioning your court – therefore I truly was left with ‘nothing’ to substantiate my fears before you.”
She added, “I wish I’d have taken the time to procure the right counsel but as Eric had been mostly absent from our lives and as most abuses have relative documentation – I was naive in assuming that I didn’t need any. I do believe had I have gotten professional advice, I’d have not made these mistakes that left my children wide open for rulings that have placed them in imminent danger. I am begging you to afford me the opportunity to present my side of this story by phone in hopes that you will modify your recent custody order that threatens the lives of my children by Eric.”
The DA’s position remains that there was a lawful order for Ms. Benoit to return to Yolo County and make an appearance on March 14.
The DA wrote, “It appears from your declaration that you do not intend to appear at that court date. Will you please confirm this?”
Ms. Benoit responds, “Please review my declaration again before going to the judge. The recant you just shared is inaccurate.”
Ms. Susz added, “The January 27, 2016 court order has provided you with sole legal and physical custody of your children without visits to Mr. Gilson. The court also noted that it is only contemplating supervised visits with Mr. Gilson. Additionally, we have offered safe shelter for you and your children, which you have refused. We have offered you and the children a financial means to return to the jurisdiction, and safe housing upon your return, yet you have chosen not to return.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting