PAXTON – Following 90 minutes of deliberation, a jury of eight men and four women on Friday found a former Ford County sheriff’s deputy and sheriff candidate guilty of child abduction.
Michael Hari, 35, dressed in black and sporting a full beard, stared straight ahead at the jury as his verdict was read.
Hari had taken his two daughters, Mollie Hari, 15, and Allene Hari, 13, to a Mennonite colony in Central America when he feared he would lose custody of the girls to his ex-wife, Michele Frakes of Peoria.
After Hari and the girls were missing for 10 months, television personality Dr. Phil McGraw and an investigator who works for McGraw’s syndicated television show persuaded Hari to return to Illinois.
Hari faces up to three years in prison. His sentencing was set for Nov. 14.
Testifying on his own behalf on Friday, Hari admitted taking the girls to Mexico and Belize on April 1, 2005. Four days later, Judge Steve Pacey awarded custody of the girls to Frakes, his ex-wife.
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“It was a continuation of four years of constant strife with my ex-wife,” he said. “We didn’t have the opportunity to raise the girls the way we wanted to.”
Hari said his daughters were unhappy at Paxton-Buckley-Loda. Both Hari and Frakes had agreed in November 2004 that the girls would attend public schools unless both parents agreed on an accredited Christian school.
Hari belonged to a religious sect, called the Old German Baptist Brethren, that believes that girls should have no formal education after the eighth grade.
“The girls were miserable,” he said. “They got mocked in school. The children would cry and refused to go (to school).”
Hari said a minister in Elmendorf, Minn., Peter Hoover, gave him the names of people who might be able to assist him in Mexico and Belize if he wanted to leave Ford County.
An investigator for the Dr. Phil show told jurors how he tracked Michael Hari to Central America.
Harold Copus, a former FBI agent, said he learned that Hari had become friends with Hoover. Following an episode of the Dr. Phil show in which Hoover appeared, Copus said he asked Hoover if he knew the whereabouts of Michael Hari.
“Hoover told me he had counseled Michael Hari to run and take the girls with him,” Copus said.
Copus told Hoover it was wrong for him to advise somebody to run from the law.
Three weeks later Hoover e-mailed Copus asking for money to look for Hari.
While Copus refused to give Hoover any money, he agreed to take the Minnesota minister with him to search for the former sheriff’s deputy in February.
They found a Mennonite colony in northern Mexico where Hari and the girls had lived for at least 21 days.
“Hari thought the police were after him, so one night they packed up and crossed the border to Belize,” Copus said.
Since neither Hari nor the daughters had passports with them, they climbed into canoes far from immigration checkpoints and crossed a river to Belize.
Copus and Hoover then tracked Hari another 180 miles through Belize to the Pine Hill Colony, a settlement of 240 Mennonite believers.
“They didn’t have electricity, and they did all their farming with horses,” Copus said.
Copus stayed at the colony for five days without finding Hari. Finally Copus was able to arrange a meeting with the elders of the community.
After Copus explained that there was a warrant for Hari for the abduction of the girls, one of the elders brought Hari to him.
“Michael wanted some assurance the girls would be allowed to practice their religion,” Copus said.
According to Copus, McGraw and his organization paid for the airline tickets to fly Hari and the girls to Miami. Then McGraw interviewed both Hari and the girls, and the daughters were reunited with their mother.
The girls currently live with their mother in Peoria, but Hari said he remains close to them.
“I have a very good relationship with my daughters,” Hari said. “We enjoy spending time together, and we share the same interests.”
Pacey rejected five e-mail requests by the Dr. Phil Show to film the trial. Pacey cited Illinois Supreme Court rules that prohibit cameras in the courtroom.