By Sophie Marconi and David Greenwald
Vanguard efforts to open the courtroom were dismissed by Judge Arvid Johnson on Thursday, although eventually the courtroom was opened. Claiming that he had no other recourse, Judge Johnson ruled that Mr. Gilson would have full custody, nominally but not physically, of the children in an attempt to force Ms. Benoit to return from where she has been in Europe with the children since the fall of 2015.
The primary cause of Ms. Benoit’s “disappearance” was due to a ruling made by Judge Kathleen White, which awarded Mr. Gilson unsupervised visits on November 2, 2015, despite his history of violence. Following this ruling Ms. Benoit left for Europe, being perhaps in various locations including France, Netherlands and Rome, in an apparent effort to protect the children from Mr. Gilson.
Ms. Benoit has explained to the court that Mr. Gilson is a convicted felon with a history of severe mental illness and is not capable of properly caring for the children. She has also stated that, because of her experiences with domestic violence with Mr. Gilson, she considers him a serious threat to the physical and emotional health of the children. Ms. Benoit has also expressed that she will not return to the United States until “that man” leaves her alone and has only supervised visits with the children indefinitely.
At this point, Ms. Benoit is in violation of court orders as she has failed to appear in court. While Ms. Benoit has been in contact with the US Embassy in Rome, she has not provided the Embassy with proof of current residence.
There is a CPS investigation pending against Ms. Benoit, as the court considers her removal of the children from the country to be harmful for the children. Ms. Benoit is also in violation of anti-abduction orders, which further complicates the issue.
As of now, the court has not decided whether Mr. Gilson will have the opportunity to have supervised visits with his children when or if they return. The court has decided that, in the circumstance that Ms. Benoit and her children do return, she will be provided compensation for flight costs and will be provided with safe shelter.
Judge Johnson has told the DA to take all steps to ensure the return of the children, and has stated that he feels as though Ms. Benoit is manipulating the court system to benefit herself, while simultaneously putting her children’s welfare at risk.
John Meyers, a professor at McGeorge School of Law, has been appointed as counsel for the children and will be doing the case pro bono.
Paul Boylan, representing the Vanguard on the open court issue, filed a brief with the court, arguing that the closure and expulsion of the Vanguard from the August 2 hearing are in violation of open court laws. Johnson did not review the brief and closed the hearing for three minutes to discuss something with CPS.
Mr. Boylan implored Judge Johnson to make a finding, but he said, “I did: I find closing this is in the best interests of the children.” The Vanguard intends to take the matter to the appellate court, arguing that this is not a juvenile case and that the judge did not go through proper process required before closing the hearing to the public.
The appellate court summarily denied the writ by attorney Kim Robinson, representing Claire Benoit in attempting to recuse Judge Johnson for bias. Ms. Robinson will now file a petition with the California Supreme Court, which is due on August 19.
During the hearing, the judge expressed frustration with Ms. Benoit’s refusal to return to the US and allow the court to appropriately decide the matter. However, in so doing, he summarily undid Judge White’s orders, which would have allowed for Skype depositions and a court hearing on the fitness of Eric Gilson.
While he has ordered Ms. Benoit’s return and allowed the DA’s office to proceed with criminal proceedings, the October trial date remains in effect.