CORALVILLE — The passport photo of a chubby baby with a sweep of brown hair was Dan Wilson’s only link to a daughter abducted by her mother and kept in hiding until the girl turned 18.
Wilson, of Coralville, worried his daughter, Ashlyn, would get sick or injured and, because her mother was a fugitive, she wouldn’t seek medical help. He also feared the girl’s mother’s family would get tired of hiding them.
“Would we find them in a shallow ditch somewhere because they were too much of an embarrassment to their family?” Wilson said. “It turned me inside out to think of that.”
All those years not knowing Ashlyn’s location ended in May when Tara Wilson, Ashlyn’s mother, turned herself in to Oregon authorities. By then, Ashlyn was an adult who believed her father was a rapist.
“It’s a travesty,” said Kim Ell, a retired Oregon cop who worked Ashlyn’s case for years. “This poor Ashlyn grew up in a cult environment. She was sheltered from the world and had no father figure.”
Love in the orchard
Dan Wilson, 51, remembers the first time he saw Tara Wilson. It’s just coincidence they have the same last name.
It was August 1993 and Dan, then 31, was sacking apples at his family’s business, Wilson’s Orchard, north of Iowa City. He noticed a tall blond with thick wavy hair. When Tara and her mother came to the cash register, Dan saw the name “Wilson” on the personal check.
“It’s our long-lost relatives from Oregon!” he joked.
Tara, then 21, had moved to Iowa City to work toward a Master’s degree in music performance at the University of Iowa. She returned to the orchard a week later to ask for a part-time job.
“There definitely was a mutual attraction,” Dan said.
Dan learned Tara belonged to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which observes the Sabbath on Saturday and emphasizes an imminent second coming of Christ. Her faith prohibited eating meat, dancing, watching movies and wearing make-up or jewelry, Dan recalled.
“By Thanksgiving, we decided we wanted to marry each other,” he said. They started having sex just before Christmas 1993.
But when Dan flew out to Oregon to visit Tara and her family, Tara told him not to stand too close and, under no circumstances, kiss her. “They don’t know that we’re dating,” Tara told him.
In March 1994, Tara started acting strangely, Dan said.
“Something was really affecting her,” he said. “I bluffed it and said, ‘How long have you known you were pregnant?’ and she just hung her head and said she had known for about two weeks.”
Dan renewed his proposal of marriage, to which Tara again said “yes,” he said.
But when Tara’s family learned in May of the pregnancy, they were not supportive. Tara’s mother came to Iowa in July 1994 and took Tara back to Oregon.
Tara told Dan in a letter she wanted to be with him but wasn’t sure it was God’s plan.
“Dan, I love you. Can’t wait to be in your arms again,” she wrote. “Please pray that I’ll be strong and that things will go well. Thank you for your unfailing friendship and love. You are my biggest blessing.”
The letter implored Dan to come to Oregon, which he planned to do. A few weeks later, Dan got a box in the mail from one of Tara’s sisters that contained a Wilson’s Orchard sweatshirt cut to shreds and a note saying “This is what you did to my sister.”
Dan immediately called Tara, who apologized and demanded her sister tell Dan she was sorry.
“Something had happened”
Dan started his trip to Oregon in August 1994. When he called Tara from Colorado, she told him not to bother coming further.
“Something had happened,” Dan said.
The realization hit Dan that Tara had never told her family the truth about their relationship. Or she had constructed a different version that made Dan the bad guy. Either way, Tara chose her family over the father of her child.
In late August, Dan got a letter from Tara’s father, Dr. Gayle Wilson, who accused Dan of forcing Tara to have sex. Dan was served with a restraining order in October 1994 alleging he had raped Tara.
“Here I was, thinking we would be co-parents together for the rest of my life,” Wilson said. “I was really, really blown away by this turn of events.”
Dan hired an Oregon attorney to fight the allegations. A court date was set for December 1994.
Meanwhile, Ashlyn Ceri Wilson was born Nov. 20. Because Tara left Dan’s name off the birth certificate, he had no rights until he proved paternity.
Dan, still living in Iowa, attended a series of hearings in Oregon. But Tara failed to appear. A judge said Dan could have visits with Ashlyn until a final court hearing on custody.
Dan arranged for these visits, only to have the family back out of the plans. In March 1995, Dan’s lawyer happened to be in line behind Tara as Tara applied for a passport for herself and Ashlyn. Tara said they were going on a mission trip to Mexico.
“That passport photo was the first and only photo I’ve ever had of her,” Dan said.
The morning of an arranged visit with Ashlyn, Tara’s aunt came instead, announcing Tara had left in the middle of the night with the baby. The local district attorney tried to file criminal charges, but Dan still hadn’t had a paternity trial.
In September 1995, an Oregon judge gave Dan full custody of his daughter, a 10-month girl he had never seen, but was desperate to find.
Searching for Ashlyn
Dan reported Ashlyn’s abduction to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in January 1996.
“We see about 2,000 reports each year of children missing in family abduction cases,” said Maureen Heads, supervisor for the center’s missing children division.
The center distributed posters across the region that showed Ashlyn’s photo and provided descriptions of her and Tara. The center later posted age-progression images of Ashlyn. Tips that came in about Ashlyn’s whereabouts were routed to the Polk County (Ore.) Sheriff’s Office.
Various Polk County investigators were assigned to the case over the years, with Detective John Williams taking over in 2011. He knows previous investigators pored through Gayle Wilson's bank and phone records to try to figure out whether he had contact with Tara.
“They found nothing,” he said. “There was no indication where in the world she was.”
Kim Ell, a retired police officer working for the National Missing Children Locate Center in Portland, agreed to investigate the case.
A former receptionist in Gayle’s office led Ell to another woman who admitted driving Tara and the baby to Eugene, Ore., on the night they disappeared. The receptionist also described occasions when Gayle would leave town for four or five days with strict orders not to tell anyone he was gone.
“Clearly, he was driving to these places to visit Tara,” Ell said. “There was no way she had the means to take care of herself.”
FBI agents who got involved in the case believed Tara and Ashlyn lived at different times in Montana, California, Washington state and Canada, likely using aliases and homeschooling Ashlyn to avoid discovery. But investigators were always one step behind.
Meanwhile, Dan’s life in Iowa was on hold. He hoped every day he would get the call saying “We found your daughter. Come and get her.” He dated women, but never really felt like he was ready to put aside his past and start over.
Dan sold real estate for a few years and worked at the orchard until his family sold it in 2009. He became a rural Johnson County mail carrier in 2003. Dan was delivering mail to Amish farmsteads and rural businesses on May 13 when he got a call from the FBI.
Tara Wilson turned herself in to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office May 13 on a contempt of court charge from 1995. Jailers called Detective Williams, who was shocked to see his cold case come back to life. He went to talk with Ashlyn.
“I asked her if she was happy with her life and she said ‘yes’,” Williams said. When he asked where Ashlyn had been all those years she said “In God’s hands.”
“I know it upset Dan that I didn’t take her into custody, but I can’t do that legally,” Williams said. “If she had been 17 -- a whole different story. I would have delivered her to Dan.”
Tara pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree custodial interference and was sentenced Oct. 31 to 75 days in jail and 240 hours of community service. She did not speak at the sentencing or at a brief civil trial, invoking her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.
Tara’s attorney, Tim Park, told the court his client took full responsibility for her actions. She maintains that Dan raped her.
Dan has always believed Gayle orchestrated Tara’s disappearance and helped her stay away from law enforcement. Gayle bolstered those beliefs during an Oct. 31 hearing in which he said he supported Tara’s decision to flee.
“I felt she had probably done the most honorable thing,” Gayle testified.
Gayle said he never told Tara a judge had awarded Dan full custody of Ashlyn. “She had suffered enough,” he said. “To award a nursing child to a rapist would be called immoral.”
He testified he saw Tara in Bend, Ore., and Washington state, but then invoked his Fifth Amendment rights.
Dan was devastated Tara got such a short sentence. Others involved in the case agreed.
“I was a little surprised by the penalties at the state level,” said Mike Kitsmiller, an Iowa-based FBI agent who assisted with the case over the years.
If Tara had abducted her child in Johnson County, she likely would have been charged with violating a custodial order, a Class D felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a maximum $7,500 fine, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said.
Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton did not return several calls from The Gazette for this story. The Gazette’s calls to Gayle and Park, Tara’s attorney, also were not returned.
It’s Felton’s decision whether to file aiding and abetting charges against Gayle, a move still under discussion, Williams said.
Oct. 29 was the first time Dan saw his daughter, a willowy blond with a child-like voice. She left the courtroom rather than hear her father speak, but returned to make a statement in support of her mother.
“The first two things I remember knowing are that Mama loved me and that Jesus loved me and I was safe,” Ashlyn said.
Tara gave her daughter a good education that included lessons in piano, violin, guitar and recorder, Ashlyn said. Tara sacrificed for her child, once giving up food so her daughter could eat. Tara also told Ashlyn she could live with her father at any time, but Ashlyn chose her mother, she said.
“She gave up her whole life, her plans, her dreams for the future, to do what she thought was best for her baby,” Ashlyn said.
Those words haunt Dan. Not only does Ashlyn blame him for her mother’s hardships, but the teen will likely be shielded from the photos and letters Dan considers evidence that Ashlyn was conceived in love.
Dan deals with these demons while building a new life. He married Shelly Hansen in 2011 and now has two step-daughters, Lydia, 14, and Krista, 9. Photos of family reunions, gymnastic receptions and a Disney vacation posted show Dan making up for lost time.
He hopes one day Ashlyn will be curious about her father. He plans to post photos, court documents and correspondence online so Ashlyn or her friends can see his side of the story. Until then, he’ll do what he’s done for nearly 20 years.