By Setarah Jahid
On February 14, 2017, the case of a woman, who left the United States with her four children, reconvened. Claire Benoit, whose whereabouts are unknown, was not present in court, but her former partner Eric Gilson, father of the two youngest and against whom Benoit has alleged abuse, was present. Attorney Kim Robinson was representing Ms. Benoit, while Mr. Gilson represented himself. Deputy District Attorney Tiffany Susz was also present, and she has filed potential parental abduction charges against Ms. Benoit.
There were two other individuals in the courthouse as well – Professor of Law John Meyer, representing the two children who were allegedly abducted, and a worker from the Child Abduction Unit from the District Attorney’s Office.
Judge Sam McAdam had two options, to either trail the case for tomorrow, 9 a.m., in Department 3, or to vacate the trial and allow the orders already in place for Ms. Benoit to stay in full effect.
Mr. Gilson began by stating the trial should be vacated for the time being, until his wife returns. He claimed there was an order from previous court hearings on this matter that did not allow the trial to go forward if Ms. Benoit was not present. He urged the court to wait until she is apprehended, then the trial can begin.
Ms. Robinson was set on going forward, because “there is enough evidence for domestic violence.” However, Judge McAdam reasoned that there is an outstanding warrant on Robinson’s client, therefore going forward is difficult without her presence and with the warrant standing. Judge McAdam then asked why Robinson’s client never filed a restraining order against Gilson. According to Robinson, “He was not involved in her life, she did not bother to.”
Gilson, who appeared agitated, interrupted. “I had the children all the time, your honor …”
“You will get your chance to speak Mr. Gilson, I’m with Ms. Robinson right now.”
Ms. Robinson brought up the threat of the children falling into the defendant’s hands at some point if the matter is not resolved today, and Judge McAdam assured her that previous judges on the case had set up protective measures to prevent that from happening, in any event.
The worker from the Child Abduction Unit shared that they have contacted Ms. Benoit, and have asked her numerous times to return to the United States.
“She just doesn’t trust the court system,” the worker explained.
Judge McAdam ultimately came to the decision of vacating the trial date, and to have all existing orders remain in full effect.
It has been over a year since Davis resident Claire Benoit took her four children, over whom she had full custody at the time, on a visit to France in the fall of 2015 and did not return. In March of 2016, Deputy DA Susz sent an ominous email, that the Vanguard received a copy of, to Claire Benoit, warning her that she is “in violation of the Yolo County Superior Court Judge’s order. The court’s order from January 27, 2016, required you and the children to return to Yolo County by today’s date. It is now 5:32pm and you have not returned to Yolo County with the children.”
With Ms. Benoit refusing to return, a fall trial was vacated by visiting Judge Arvid Johnson in August, who 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.
In a June hearing, Judge Kathleen White had set a path forward after 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.
Mr. Gilson asked for an ex parte hearing and Judge 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 June, Kim Robinson had proposed that Ms. Benoit could participate by Skype in a deposition. Judge White responded that, while she did not know the legality of proceeding that way and that it was 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.
At another hearing last year, DDA 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.”
At this point, Judge McAdam, not wishing to proceed without the presence of Ms. Benoit, has not set any more court dates.
David M. Greenwald contributed to this report.