On the bad nights of their childhood, the sisters would huddle together on the double bed they shared and try not to hear the angry adult voices that shot through the house like shards of glass. Nicole, who was 6, would pull her legs up under her nightgown and begin to cry. Angela, 10, would wrap her arms around her baby sister’s shoulders. “It’ll be okay,” Angle would whisper as she stroked the younger girl’s hair with her own small hands. “It’ll be okay.” But it wasn’t okay. Too often the arguing escalated into screams, sobs, threats of violence, and the dull, pillowy sound of hitting. At those times, the girls knew they had to be quiet as mice or the rage and the hitting might be turned m their direction.
In the daytime, their lives almost seemed normal. After school, the sisters would play together in the front yard of their tract house in San Antonio. They had what they called The Kisses Club, named after Angie’s dog, Kisses. Activities consisted mainly of playing tag, hopscotch, and hide-and-seek. But at night, things were different. At night, Jean Paul Gabor, Nicole’s father and Angle’s stepfather, unleashed his demons.
When Nicole was 11, she started keeping a diary. The entries, which date from July 26, 1994, to March 5, 1995, are written in a neat girlish script and depict the world of a child living in her own personal war zone. “Dear Diary,” Nicole writes, “Tonight my dad beat me up…and on my left leg there’s big red bumps. It really still hurts my leg, but my face just had a big red handprint…” “Dear Diary, My mom left me alone when my dad was drunk, so I just waited downstairs until 10:15…” “Dear Diary, Today I just went to school and I didn’t see my dad today, thank God, ’cause he’ll say mean names to me and threaten to beat me up…” “Dear Diary, I didn’t get to have dinner because my dad says I’m too fat to eat…” “Dear Diary, When I got home, my dad was drank so he slapped me.”
Nicole’s dad is a darkly handsome, volatile Rumanian who married the girls’ mother, Claire, when Angie was 3 and her older brother, Robert, was 7. The couple met in 1982, when Claire was still married to Angie’s father and the family was living in New Orleans. Jean Paul was with another woman at the time, but Claire quickly became convinced she’d found true love with the tall, dashing emigre. And with his job as a banquet coordinator, he seemed more successful than her husband, John “Buddy” Howe, whom she viewed as an inconsistent provider. Within two months of meeting Jean Paul, Claire had packed up her children and moved to San Antonio, where she soon became pregnant with Nicole. Almost two years later, another child, Stephen, was born.
In December 1993, the family moved from San Antonio to Hollywood, FL. But Angie, then 14, stayed behind in Texas–partly to finish out the school year, but mostly to get away from Jean Paul. “I’m not going to live under the same roof with that man ever again,” she told her mother. The move was disastrous for Nicole, who suddenly had to cope with her Father’s abuse without the protection of her sister.
When he wasn’t hitting his children, Jean Paul displayed a general pattern of sadistic behavior: smashing a scalding-hot baked potato on Stephen’s forehead; pushing Nicole to go deeper and deeper into the water at the beach after she screamed that she was frightened; making the whole family get out of the car on the Florida turnpike, then driving away without them.
Scarier still was the way Jean Paul would threaten Nicole. “He would stand really close to me and spit into my eyes,” she remembers. “And he’d say, ‘I’m going to punch you in the face. I’m gonna tear your jaw apart…you little b—-” Nicole, now 14, blinks uncomfortably as she talks. “See, a couple of years ago, I got hit by a car, and my jaw was broken and my chinbone was shattered. So I have a metal plate in there.” She touches her chin to illustrate. “So my dad would sometimes use that as a threat. He’d tell me he was going to make my face worse than it was.”
Nicole also tells of being awakened at night by her father’s “slobbery kisses.” Then the next day he would berate her in sexually demeaning terms. He also threatened his daughter’s life. “I guess my worst fear wasn’t just that he would kill me,” she continues slowly, “but that it would be really painful. Or he would try to kill me, and I would end up in a wheelchair or retarded.”
Not only did the children’s mother fail to protect them, she was often the target of abuse herself. “You know,” says her younger daughter, “he’d tell us how he would kill my mother worse than O.J. Simpson killed Nicole.”
Angie, meanwhile, spent the next two and a half years moving around. First she stayed with a San Antonio family to whom her mother paid a monthly fee. When that didn’t work out, she moved to Baltimore, where her biological father was living with Angie’s brother Robert. Angie was installed in an apartment above the garage and mostly left to fend for herself.
Homesick and lonely, she returned to Texas, where things finally started to look up. She began dividing her time between the home of longtime school friend, Eileen Herrera, and the home of a family friend, Ann Toepperwein, who had known both sisters from the time Nicole was born.
Though Angie was made to feel welcome in both places, she was tortured by the thought that she had deserted her sister and brother. “I had to get away from Jean Paul to survive,” she says now. “But I used to just cry all the time because I was so scared about Nicole and Stephen. Especially Nicole.”
On February 16, 1997, her fears reached critical mass. It began at 1:20 A.M., in Ann Toepperwein’s home, when Angie was jolted from sleep by the worst nightmare of her life. In the dream, she came upon a crime scene where she saw police wrestling with a sinister man who had murdered a young girl. With horror, she realized that the murdered girl was Nicole.
The terror of the dream stunned Angle into wakefulness. She wished she could just reach to the other side of the bcd and reassure herself of Nicole’s safety, as she used to. Shaking, she went across the hall to wake Ann. Then, before Angle could speak, the phone rang. She watched fearfully as Ann picked up the receiver.
“He tried to kill me! He tried to kill me!” The voice at the other end of the line belonged to Nicole, who was crying so hard she was barely able to get the words out. “He said he was going to push me over the balcony! If I don’t get away from him,” she sobbed, “I know he’s going to do it.”
Ann tried to calm Nicole, then told her to call 911. After Nicole promised she would, they hung up.
Nicole had telephoned Ann’s house, crying hysterically, on plenty of other occasions. In fact, the calls became so numerous that Ann put in an 800 number especially for Nicole. Angie did her best to give her sister comfort and advice long-distance.
This last call sounded particularly ominous to Angle: “Nicole really believed if she didn’t get out of there soon, he’d kill her. I believed it too. Because I knew how bad Jean Paul cold be. And we all knew he was getting worse.”
Still, Angle was unsure of how to go about rescuing her sister. After all, she was just a senior in high school with no home of her own, and no income except for the little money she made working part-time at the local supermarket. She talked all through the night with Ann about what to do. “All I knew was, I had to get my sister out of there,” she says.
Ann had met the Gabor family through her own daughter, Lynette Munson, who’d worked with Claire at a local savings and loan. When Claire told Lynette she was looking for someone to baby-sit her kids, Lynette volunteered her mother. Over the next ten years, whenever Claire had to work late, or when there was a Family crisis, she would drop the kids off at Ann’s house in the rural suburb of Helotes. The girls and Stephen welcomed the refuge of sanity offered by Ann and her contractor-husband, William, who became like surrogate grandparents.
“I knew things were not well in that family,” Ann says now. “But, looking back, I can see I was in denial. I didn’t want to know how bad they were.” After Nicole’s anguished phone call, she continues, “I told myself that the girls were exaggerating, and said as much to Angie.”
“You’ve never had to live in that house,” Angie remembers replying. “You don’t know what it’s like for my sister. If I don’t get her out, I’m going to lose her!” The desperation in Angie’s voice genuinely scared the older woman. Before the night was over, Ann agreed they had to find a way to help.
Over the next few months the two agonized over various alternatives. Appealing to local Florida authorities no longer seemed an option. When Jean Paul had hit his daughter on previous occasions, Angie and Ann had telephoned Child Protective Services (CPS), asking the agency to intervene. Although CPS had, on a few occasions, sent an official to the Gabor apartment, nothing ever seemed to change. The police had proved similarly ineffectual.
In the summer of 1997, Angle made a bold, and in some ways frightening, decision: With the help of Ann and San Antonio lawyer Lawrence Garcia, she would file suit for legal conservatorship of her younger sister.
Now 18, Angela Howe is everything parents pray for in a daughter–a brainy, beautiful, bighearted girl with a confident, athletic walk and a heartbreaker’s smile. Despite the incredible upheavals in her life, she was a 4.0 honor student at MacArthur High School in San Antonio, as well as a talented player on the girls’ basketball and soccer teams. In her spare time, in addition tie working at the supermarket, she managed to help out at a battered women’s shelter and at Meals on Wheels, which provides food to the elderly. When she applied to college last year, she was offered a hefty scholarship package from every university that accepted her. (She was also awarded seven independent scholarship prizes amounting to some $9,000.) Angie settled on Rice University in Houston, where she plans to major in political science. Her goal is to become an attorney with a specialty in international law.
Angie threw herself into school at an early age, she says, because once Jean Paul came into her mother’s life, home was a scary place to be. “I remember realizing when I was four that Jean Paul wasn’t like other fathers,” she says. “I saw it in all kinds of stuff. If I started to cry, he’d put his hand over my mouth tightly and say, `Don’t breathe! Don’t breathe!’ Or he’d show me the muscles in his legs that were really big because he worked out all the time. And he’d say, `C’mere so you can see how strong my legs are so I can kick you.’ He wanted us to be afraid him.
“That’s why I loved my days at school,” she explains. “They were a salvation from my nights.”
Though her own childhood was bad, Angie always felt more concern for her sister. “I was better at staying out of his way,” she says. “But when Nicole was growing up and developing her self-perception, Jean Paul was there every day to beat her down.”
Like her older sister, Nicole Gabor is a big-eyed, pretty girl with golden-brown hair and a captivating smile. But where Angie’s features are well defined, Nicole’s face has a blurry quality, as if perpetually swollen from crying. And while Angie possesses an almost preternatural calm, Nicole is fidgety, alternating between an eagerness to please and the kind of shut-off defiance common to abused children.
When Nicole describes the balcony incident she does so with an air of nervous detachment, as if it were a scene in a movie. After talking to her sister and Ann, Nicole says, she called the police. When they came, her mother tried to minimize the severity of the situation, telling the officers that she and Nicole would go to a hotel to spend the night and refusing to press charges. (Stephen was staying with a friend.)
Instead, they spent the night in the car, according to Nicole. “The next day, my mom changed the lock on the front door, but she told us to let Jean Paul in whenever he wanted. And then he just took my door key and made one of his own. So it looked to the police like my mom was doing something. But it was all for show.”
Claire Gabor doesn’t appear to be the kind of woman who would sacrifice her daughters in order to stay with a man who beats her. For more than 20 years, she has made a good living in the field accounting, and she is reportedly well liked by her co-workers. Her clothes are neat and conservative. Her hair, bleached the color of corn silk, is short and professional-looking. She has a pleasant singing voice and for some 14 years has enjoyed performing with various Sweet Adeline groups as a hobby. In fact, she met Jean Paul at a Sweet Adeline convention, where he was working as a banquet manager.
In her years in San Antonio, Claire did her best to present herself as a happy wife and mother. But Ann and other friends saw disturbing cracks in her mask. “She would get depressed and sleep for hours on end, not even bothering to get up to fix dinner for the kids,” says Ann. “And she’d go for weeks and weeks without doing the laundry, to the point that Stephen and the girls had nothing even remotely clean to wear.” There were alarming incidents like the time she took the children shopping, then left to go to the movies by herself and never came back to get them.
And, of course, there were the braises, for which Claire always had an explanation. “She’d come into work with a black eye or black-and-blue marks up and down her arms,” says Ann’s daughter, Lynette. “After awhile one of our colleagues would just roll her eyes and say, `What do you think her excuse is going to be this time?’ I mean, how many doors can you walk into?”
“For years Claire had me fooled,” says Christine Herrera, Eileen’s mother. “I mean, she looked like Little Miss Priss. But then one time, when Nicole was still in kindergarten, I heard from her teacher that Claire came to school and she had this black eye. The teacher asked her if her husband gave it to her,” Christine continues. “Claire nodded yes. So the teacher asked why she stayed with him. All Claire would say was ‘Because I love him!’ I’ll never forget it. `Because I love him!’ How can you love someone who does that to you and your kids?”
Claire’s answer to the question is simple: According to her, most of the incidents her daughters describe just didn’t happen. “If my husband was abusive to me or one of the children,” she says, “I’d leave him. But I don’t feel he’s been that way. Angie doesn’t have any evidence. After all, she hasn’t lived with us for almost five years.”
As for Nicole’s allegations, Claire chalks them up to “a discipline problem. She was hanging around with the wrong people, and we cracked down. She didn’t like that.” As she talks, Claire’s voice begins to break. “All this is very unfair to us,” she says tearily. “We have a good marriage, and what these girls are doing is putting undue pressure on it.”
A conversation with Jean Paul produces a similar defense. “Angle would like me to be her real father, but I am not,” he says. “She is frustrated because I never spent enough time with her, and she resents it.” As for Nicole, Jean Paul says, “This girl will say anything to get more freedom. I am not a maniac. I am not abusive. What do I have to gain by abusing the children under my roof?” Asked if he thinks he has a bad temper, he snaps, “Absolutely not. I am just a hardworking immigrant. And we are just a simple family that has been treated very badly.”
Despite his assertions to the contrary, Jean Paul Gabor’s violent behavior has been well documented by both state and Federal law-enforcement officials. In 1984, when Angle was 4 years old, two FBI agents came to the Gabors’ house in San Antonio to investigate reports that Jean Paul had made threats on the life of former Vice President Walter Mondale. When the agents knocked on the door, Jean Paul lunged at one of them with a knife. The agent shot him in the abdomen. Jean Paul was tried and convicted for the assault, but the five-year sentence was suspended–in part because it was a first offense.
Two years later Jean Paul was arrested for violating the terms of his probation. He had beaten his wife with a kitchen cutting board to the point that she required treatment at a hospital emergency room. As a result, Jean Paul was sent to Federal prison in Oxford, WI, for three and a half years.
The next probation violation occurred in .July 1991, when the Family was on vacation in California. Stephen, who was 6 at the time, said he needed to go to the bathroom, and Jean Paul pulled the car over to the side of the road and let him out. According to Nicole, the boy became too nervous to relieve himself. “So then my father grabbed him and started hitting him and kicking him,” she remembers. Stephen’s nose was split badly enough to need stitches. At the hospital, officials reported the injuries, and again Jean Paul was found in violation and sent to prison, this time for 18 months.
But most of the time, both sisters contend, the violence was not reported. “My mom always wants to protect him,” says Annie. “I kept telling her,” adds Nicole, “`He’s sick in the head. We have to get help.’ And she’d say, `I married him in sickness and in health.’ I think she was afraid that no one else would take her.” On occasion, Nicole reported incidents to school counselors, but Claire would meet with them later and say her daughter had lied. “Some of my counselors were sympathetic,” Nicole reports, “but no one really did anything to help me.”
AFTER THE GABOR FAMILY MOVED TO Florida, Ann Toepperwein would send Nicole an airline ticket each summer so she could return to San Antonio for a visit. Now Ann and Angie focused on Nicole’s upcoming trip, in July 1997, as the time when their rescue plan would be set in motion.
In the months prior to Nicole’s arrival, Angie wondered if Nicole would have the emotional strength and maturity for a court battle in which she would have to accuse both her mother and father of severe abuse and neglect. Nicole reassured her sister. “I told her I was scared,” she says, “but I was ready.”
Before she left home, Nicole also made a last-ditch effort to persuade her mother to leave Jean Paul and mend the family. Nicole says that Claire responded by offering to put her daughter in a home for girls. “But I hadn’t done anything wrong,” says Nicole, “so I didn’t understand why I was being punished.”
Nicole arrived in San Antonio on July 21, and Angie and Ann quickly took her to meet with Lawrence Garcia, the lawyer, It was he who had first suggested that the best way to keep Nicole in Texas was for Angie to file for conservatorship.
The case was difficult, he explained, because the State of Florida–not Texas–had jurisdiction over Nicole. And Garcia believed that CPS in Florida was unlikely to support the conservatorship. “These people mean well,” he says, “but if they don’t see cigarette burns on a child, they tend to send her back into the home. And, in either state, a nonparent has a pretty strong uphill battle to get custody of a child.” Although Angie, as a blood relative, had legal standing, Garcia said he knew of no other case–in Texans or elsewhere-in which a sibling so young had filed for custody, much less gotten it.
“Mrs. Toepperwein was still a little worried about going forward with it all,” Garcia recalls. “But not Angie. During the whole process, she never wavered once. There’s no question in my mind that she would have done anything necessary to help Nicole–even if it meant she had to put off college and work fulltime to support her sister.”
Now Garcia advised the three to do nothing until August 20, the date Nicole was due to return to Florida. On that day, the lawyer called her parents and notified them that both girls had signed affidavits stating that they feared for Nicole’s life if she returned home anti that she had elected to stay in Texas.
The Texas Family Code dictates that if a child is in residence in the state for six months, then Texas may claim jurisdiction with regard to the child’s welfare. For Nicole, the required six months would be up on January 21, 1998. On October 27, Garcia had Angle file for temporary emergency conservatorship of her sister. Basically, the move would enable Nicole to stay legally in San Antonio for another three months. Garcia hoped that if Claire or her lawyer failed to file writs or motions before the deadline, Texas jurisdiction would kick in, and the first battle would be won.
If they did file, Nicole would have no choice but to go back to Florida. Otherwise, Angle and Ann could conceivably face criminal charges. In December, Claire called and said that she would be in Texas on the date the emergency order expired and that she was going to bring Nicole back home.
Garcia was worried. At his suggestion, the sisters called a reporter from the local paper, the San Antonio Express-News, hoping a story about their dilemma might embarrass Claire into backing off. A long article appeared on January 18, complete with photos and text from the affidavits detailing the abuse. The reporter also talked to Claire, who described her younger daughter as “rebellious and manipulative.”
The newspaper story produced one immediate benefit: It inspired several San Antonio residents to send contributions to partially offset the sisters’ growing legal bills. But the publicity also served a more vital purpose: Claire did not come to Texas in January. Even more important, her lawyer did not file a writ until February 24.
In the meantime, Garcia had filed a second suit asking for joint conservatorship of Nicole by Angle and Ann–hoping that the combination would prove even more persuasive in court. This new maneuver required a hearing before a judge, which was set to take place in !ate February.
“It still surprises me that these people did so little to get their daughter back,” Garcia says of the Gabors. Other friends wondered aloud whether Claire was conflicted about her daughter returning to Florida.
Claire finally arrived in San Antonio on February 22, 1098, two days before the conservatorship hearing was set to take place in the elegant old red-brick County Court House. The trial was a daylong affair, presided over by Judge David Peeples, a staunch Republican known for his support of family values. Peeples listened stone-faced as the attorneys made their opening remarks.
But when the sisters each got on the stand and testified about the vulgarities, the threats, and the beatings, the judge’s demeanor changed. Nicole testified first. She cried at times and glanced uneasily at her mother as she answered the lawyers’ questions. But she did not fall apart, and the judge seemed discomfited by her painful testimony.
Angie was up next. She calmly told about her fears for her sister and the frightening days and nights of her own childhood; about the dozens of times Claire and the kids had slept in the car or in hotels to escape Jean Paul’s drunken fury; about how she didn’t want her sister to grow up in constant fear of her father’s violence. “I lived my childhood in…fear,” she said, looking at the judge, “and I don’t want her to go through that.” Peeples leaned forward while Angle spoke. According to Garcia, “he listened to Nicole, but Angie’s testimony was the turning point.”
Claire took the stand at the beginning of the hearing, then again at the end for rebuttal. She told the judge that Jean Paul had “turned around quite a bit” but did little to refute the sisters’ accusations. After denying that she and the children had ever slept in the car (she conceded only that they had “waited” there), Claire did virtually nothing to counter the more serious allegations of abuse. Her testimony was surprisingly damning, more because of what she didn’t say than what she did.
Nonetheless, when the judge called for a brief recess in the afternoon, Angie panicked. “My mom and her lawyer both seemed so confident,” she says. “And at the recess my mother said to me, `Tell Nicole to pack her bags.’ She just was so sure she would win.”
Angie winces at the memory. “My rational side kept telling me there was no way a judge would make my sister go back into that environment. But I didn’t know. So it was really, really scary.”
Just after 4:00 P.M., Peeples handled down his ruling. He announced that he had “serious questions concerning the situation back in Florida” and was granting “temporary managing conservatorship” to Angie and Ann Toepperwein.
Stunned, Claire began to cry. Then she walked over to hug Nicole. “I never knew you were so unhappy,” she told her daughter. Nicole stood with her hands at her sides for a moment before giving Claire a quick hug back. “I tried to talk to you,” she told her mother, “but you wouldn’t listen.”
Claim now ,says she was “devastated” by the verdict. Then, when asked if there were any moments over the last few years she would change, she replies, “Nothing. I would change nothing. Because we’ve done nothing wrong.”
The girls gave short interviews to local TV news reporters, walked quietly out of the courthouse, and made their way to Garcia’s office. Only then did they allow themselves to feel relief. “We did it,” Angle said, smiling tentatively as she put an arm around her sister. “We really did it.”
THESE DAYS NICOLE HAS A ROOM OF HER own at Ann’s house, with a pretty blue-jean comforter on the bed, new clothes in the closet, and a TV propped up tin the dresser. This month, she’ll start attending Sandra Day O’Connor High School, where she’s already signed lip for the pep Squad. She has spoken to her mother several times since the hearing and says she hopes to have a better relationship with her one day.
Angie is getting ready to begin her freshman year at Rice University. She plans to come home to San Antonio once a month and provide sisterly advice by phone between visits. “I do my best to let Nicole know there’s something special inside her,” she says, “and that even if bad things happened to you, you can still make your own future. That means never giving up or letting sadness and depression control you. I made that decision for myself when I was really young.”
People who have known Angie for years say that she seems freer now. “She’s always held herself in,” says Ann’s daughter, Lynette. “Now she can finally smile, laugh, and have a good time–and not feel guilty about it.”
“I do feel different,” Angie admits. “Before, I was always worrying about Nicole no matter what else I was doing.” She takes a breath. “Now there’s still Stephen,” she says. “But all we can do is go a step at a time.”