Alese Reichart planned on being in a Tucson courtroom this morning, legally adopting her mother's maiden name - Taylor - as her own last name.
Alese is the daughter of Joli Taylor Peters and Michael Reichart, and the three were a Chicago family once upon a time - before the escape and the drama and the TV cameras.
During a bitter divorce, Peters accused Reichart of sexually abusing Alese, and when the allegations didn't result in a quick prosecution, Peters took her little girl and went on the run, eventually landing in Tucson.
Ten years later, the law caught up to mother and daughter, and they were hauled back to Illinois for Peters to face kidnapping charges.
Reichart was granted sole custody of Alese after the disappearance - if she and her mother were found.
No one imagined their return would come so much later, when Alese was a teenager who came to her father and her birthplace as a virtual stranger.
Alese became a ward of the state while authorities decided what to do with her.
The little girl who was the focal point of two court cases, a federal manhunt, and the national news media is not a little girl anymore.
Now 18, Alese can speak for herself.
"A lot of people ask me if I was in agreement with my mom when we ran, and of course, yes I was," Alese said from her Tucson home this week.
"You can't keep a kid quiet for 10 years unless I wanted to be."
Alese said her time in Illinois was like a black hole in her life, sucking out her spirit as she languished in the state's care nearly 2,000 miles from anything familiar.
Alese is trying to finish high school via correspondence courses and wants to pursue a career in forensic anthropology - which she thought was cool even before the TV show "CSI" became popular.
She wants to keep writing the poetry that has been her outlet during trying times, and she hopes to write a book.
Alese is serious for 18, and has noble reasons for wanting to speak out.
But as she scans the TV news for images of herself, the teen-ager comes out:
"I just wanted to see if I looked fat," she said, grinning.
When she receives word she'll be on several newscasts, she does a little dance in the hall of the Tucson condo where she lives with her mother and stepfather, Dan Peters.
Painful custody fight
Alese recounts her childhood, stopping only for tears and questions. She says she's been having painful flashbacks of events when her parents were fighting for her custody in Chicago.
Their divorce began in 1988.
Around the same time, Peters accused Reichart of sexually abusing Alese, and Reichart accused Peters of being mentally unstable and unfit to parent.
Joli Peters and her daughter left Illinois in 1991.
Alese said the beginning of their time on the road was difficult, as mother and daughter dodged federal agents and lived in shelters.
But Alese said it was easier than the painful custody exchanges in restaurant parking lots.
"I was fine on the run," Alese said.
Alese said she thought she was on vacation for a while, because the pair would stay in motels with cable TV.
"We moved from place to place, changing our identities," Alese said.
Some court experts in Illinois contended Peters "brainwashed" Alese into thinking she had been abused, but Alese said her memories are her own.
"Anything she knows, I told her, not the other way around," Alese said.
Reichart has repeatedly and vehemently denied the allegations of sexual abuse.
Police and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services cleared him of the initial allegations. Later allegations, made when Alese was old enough to speak more extensively with doctors, were never tested in court.
Reichart said he would never hurt his daughter.
"If there was any validity to that, it would have been brought up back then," Reichart said at the final court hearing in December 2001. "She never showed up to press them."
A Chicago police report shows police and doctors were planning to present reports to prosecutors in November 1991 to decide whether there was sufficient evidence against Reichart, but Peters never showed up.
She and Alese were already headed out of town.
After months of driving around the country, Alese said, she and her mother first settled in Bullhead City, Ariz., where Alese started kindergarten over.
That put her a year behind for her age.
She went by the name Nicole Jordan, and her mother found a good job as "Tina Jordan," Alese said.
The job necessitated a baby sitter, though, and the baby sitter's husband molested Alese.
During the Chicago custody battle years later, authorities pointed to the Bullhead City case to show Alese was prone to casting allegations of sexual abuse.
But in the Bullhead case, the abuser confessed to molesting several victims, was convicted and went to prison.
Alese said her research has shown victims of abuse are more likely to be molested again.
"I felt like I had a big old "vulnerable" sign on my forehead," she said.
Alese and her mother moved to Tucson, where Alese finally found a school she liked and began to flourish.
By eighth grade, Alese said she "got a lot better," overcoming anxiety and depression.
It was a good time for her.
"I had an active social life. I went to school every day. I had written a play. I had a solo in chorus.
"I was eating right and I had all kinds of friends. For the first time since I was 3 years old, I did not need a therapist."
"And then someone wanted to see me in the office."
Law catches up with pair
In November 2001, Alese and her mother were holed up at a friend's place for two weeks, deciding what to do about police and missing persons experts who, operating on tips, were beating the bushes for them in Tucson.
"We knew they were coming. We saw the little 'Have You Seen Us?' card. Yeah. We had seen us," she said.
When their photos were featured on the postcard, Alese and her mother went into hiding to devise a plan.
In Alese's eighth-grade classroom, Alese's desk was empty.
A friend who knew a little about Alese's past thought they might have already been caught, and she burst into tears, worried sick for her friend.
Her sobs caught the attention of a school administrator, who questioned the girl until she confessed what she knew about "Nicole."
The administrator called police.
When Alese decided she didn't want to run anymore, she went back to school.
"I thought, I have worked these 15 years to make my life better, and in many ways I have succeeded and I am not going to run away from it anymore," she said.
Alese was back in school for two days before she was called to the office, where federal agents and a hostage negotiator were waiting.
Alese said accounts of her and her mother's "capture" were widely misreported.
Alese said she does not blame her classmate at all, and felt terrible that news accounts consistently credited the classmate with turning them in.
"Poor girl," she said. "It was not her fault."
Alese said she was prepared to live with her father against her wishes. She was prepared to live in foster care for the rest of her teen years. But she did not expect to be in limbo for so many months in Chicago while lawyers fought over semantics and she waited.
"They treated me like a chess piece in a chess game. They only let me talk to people who had a predisposition not to believe a word I said."
Alese feared she would never leave "limbo," and she became depressed.
She wrote dark poetry, including a verse where she describes herself as a case file on a desk instead of a person.
"My opinion was invalid," she said.
Alese said she had no desire to meet with her father when she first came back to Chicago.
She did meet with him during supervised visits at the encouragement of her lawyers and counselors.
After Alese was allowed to move back to Tucson, she was supposed to spend holidays with her father until her 18th birthday.
"I was supposed to have six visits. I had one."
Alese said Reichart's wife, Melody, had to be with her at all times because her father was not allowed to be alone with her.
Alese said whenever she was alone with Melody, she told her that Reichart had sexually abused her and frightened her and threatened to kill her mother if she told anyone.
Those conversations may have led to the early termination of the visits.
"We mutually agreed that the visits should stop," she said.
Both court cases are now resolved, with the most severe charges against Peters dropped.
Peters was sentenced to two years of probation, which she was allowed to serve in Tucson.
All parties agreed Alese should return to Tucson with her mother.
"Now I've just been living with the aftermath of all this," Alese said.
'I lost a lot'
Alese is pretty and smart and well spoken, but she said her personality has regressed.
"I lost a lot. It's like I'm back at the place where I was to begin with," she said.
"Not only did they take away nine months of my life, but they took away my teenageness. I matured too much."
"I couldn't just come back and hang out at the mall. It just didn't sound fun anymore."
Alese said many of her friends couldn't handle what had happened and faded away.
Alese said she doesn't want to meet new people now because she always thinks about how much more fun she used to be and doesn't want to make new friends until her personality is back it to what it used to be.
"I fought and I fought and I fought to get back here, only to get pushed back further than I was in the first place," she said.
"I just know that something really needs to change in the system because this should not be happening to children," Alese said.
Although her case was unique because of how long she and her mother remained undetected, Alese said children are in the middle of abuse allegations and custody disputes all the time.
"My main motive for speaking out is for all those children. They can survive and they can have a better life if they just hold on.
"I just want kids to know that there are others out there who have been through what they're going through and that they can survive if they keep trying.
"My prayers go out to all of them."