Sept. 16, 2007: Grandparents ‘have a sizable burden’ in challenging father for custody of children
Paige Birgfeld's parents fight for custody of her children while hoping against hope she will walk through the door
After more than two months of searching, tears and endless media interviews, the days now bleed together for Frank and Suzanne Birgfeld, who literally stopped what they were doing when their daughter, Paige Birgfeld, inexplicably disappeared in late June.
Twenty minutes after getting the call from the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department that their 34-year-old daughter, a mother of three young children, was missing, they headed west across the mountains from their Denver home, headlong into a nightmare from which they can’t awake.
Although the couple prays their daughter is still alive, the Sheriff’s Department has long since ruled foul play was likely in Paige’s disappearance, though no suspects have been identified.
Paige, a vivacious woman whom friends describe as a fantastic mother and tireless worker, still hasn’t walked through the door of her sprawling home at 2512 Oleaster Court. It wasn’t until after her disappearance that authorities learned she ran an escort service and gave topless massages, which exponentially increased the complexity of the case as the number of possible suspects skyrocketed, Sheriff Stan Hilkey has said.
The days since Paige’s disappearance turned into weeks, then months, and now, Frank and Suzanne Birgfeld pad around Paige’s home, crammed with memories of their daughter, and try to determine what to do next.
Frank played golf last weekend, something he hadn’t done since he started his search for his daughter. Just having fun, he said, made him feel a little guilty.
On the practical side, Frank has been court-appointed as his daughter’s conservator, charged with paying her bills and balancing her financial picture. Should he sell the furniture or the minivan or the two rental homes on the Front Range? What if she returns?
“It’s hard for me, because in my heart I want her to walk through the door,” Frank said.
“I feel like I’m being two-sided. At some point, I have to cross the threshold, but I’m not there yet.”
Now the parents fear their last connection to their daughter may be slipping away.
Exactly three months from June 28, the last day anyone saw Paige, the couple will head to court to fight for what’s left of her, the custody of her children, ages 8, 7 and 3.
The “dead last thing” Paige would have wanted was for Rob Dixon, Paige’s second husband and the children’s biological father, to have custody of the children, Frank Birgfeld has said. And Paige succinctly echoed that fear of her children’s dad in blog entries before she disappeared, according to Web site postings in her name.
But the grandparents may be facing an uphill battle. The court generally concludes that children of a missing parent should be placed with their other parent, said a Denver lawyer who specializes in family law and often represents men in divorce proceedings.
“The grandparents have a very sizable burden,” said Mark Chapleau of the law firm Bloch & Chapleau, speaking in general about the case based on limited information. “They have to show there’s some kind of endangerment to the children. In any case, the grandparents have a number of strikes against them. If they don’t prove in this hearing that (Dixon’s) responsible for (Paige’s) disappearance, they’re not going to get the kids.”
Chapleau said the Birgfelds would have to provide specific evidence that Dixon would be a danger to the children. He said the law has recently been strengthened in support of parental custody rights being granted first before grandparents are allowed to step in. However, Chapleau added Colorado statutes for grandparents’ visitation rights are lenient.
“You want the law to be this way,” he said. “It shouldn’t be easy to take children from their biological parents.”
The Birgfelds’ attorney, Drew Moore, didn’t return a call for comment, and Dixon’s attorney, Amy Hand, has said she cannot comment on the case. A phone number for Dixon did not work.
Magistrate Stephanie Rubinstein is set to hear the case Sept. 28 in Mesa County Court.
A former attorney for Dixon, Scott Robinson of Denver, said he is appalled that his former client’s credibility is being challenged in the custody case.
“He is absolutely the right person (to have custody),” he said. “There shouldn’t be any doubts about his sincerity. He’s a very good father, and I think it’s a shame that this is occurring.”
Robinson wouldn’t comment on Dixon’s whereabouts or his plans for housing and taking care of the children.
“He wants to make a suitable home for the children, and that’s all I’m going to say,” Robinson said.
Paige’s friend, Andrea Land, said she’s heard that Dixon has moved the children three times since taking them from their Grand Junction home, to family in Texas and Colorado Springs, and two of the children have not been placed in school. Land said the children would have support from a wide circle of mothers in the MOMS club, of which Paige and her children were a part. Land said she’s witnessed Dixon’s anger and worries about his ability to be a good parent.
“He’s someone with no coping mechanism and demonstrated no ability to hold a job,” she said. “Paige would be heartbroken. She would be horrified that the kids were not being taken care of in her own home and not going to school.”
Land said Paige directly told friends in the MOMS group about her fear of Dixon harming their children. And Land said she puts a lot of weight on messages Paige wrote in a blog about how her children question if Dixon would kill her.
“She isn’t the kind of person to say those things flippantly,” Land said.
In October 2004, Dixon reportedly threatened to kill family members after Paige called authorities from work and asked them to check on her children. Mesa County Sheriff’s Department deputies responded to the Oleaster Court home as Dixon was attempting to leave in his Ford van with his youngest child and a dog. Deputies determined Dixon was no danger to himself or anyone else and escorted him from the area.
Earlier this year, in a March 24 posting on the chatroom http://www.chefsuccess.com, Paige, using the name ChefPaige, expressed her fears of Dixon visiting their children.
“Oh man! My children would ask me if Dad was going to kill me. I can’t imagine what they were thinking life would be like after he killed me,” she wrote on the site. “Thank God he is far, far away! I would gladly sacrifice every penny of child support if he would stay away!”
Dixon could see the children whenever he wanted, which was about “three times in the last two years,” she wrote.
Birgfeld wrote in a posting a few months later that she felt uncomfortable after Dixon got a job in Durango.
“I’m thinking this is a bit close for my comfort — he could theoretically hang up the phone and be waiting at my house before the kids and I return from errands!” she wrote June 17.
Dixon, 37, was the center of controversy surrounding the finances of the Grand Junction Rural Fire Protection District when it was discovered he invested $3.24 million of public money into an Internet service provider, a company in which he may have owned stock. Dixon also donated millions of dollars in financed fire equipment to Grand Junction and fire districts around the state and then defaulted on thos e loans, according to an investigation by the city .
Frank Birgfeld said he has concerns for his grandchildren, because he doesn’t know whether Dixon has a home or a job. The last time he saw the children or Dixon was the day the couple filed a petition for guardianship in mid-August. At that time, Dixon reported to the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department that Suzanne had kidnapped the children when she took them to a MOMS Club outing and out to Dairy Queen, Frank said. He said Dixon cut off electricity and attempted to cut off the water to the home.
Frank said a number of doors around the home, including the garage door, had to be replaced or repaired over the years after Dixon kicked them in anger.
“With Rob, there’s a good Rob and a steer-clear Rob,” Frank said. “When they first married, we only really saw the good Rob, and we loved him as much as our daughter-in-law. As time went on, and it may have been the deterioration of his financial situation, we started seeing a person who was easily angered to the point of exploding in rages to where you felt physically threatened.”
Frank said that if he and Suzanne gain custody, they may all move back to their Denver home, situated in a neighborhood bustling with other children. Or they might decide to stay in the Grand Junction home. But that’s all speculation until the court rules.
Back at the house, Paige’s female German shepherd, Pup, keeps tight security, giving visitors generous, unsolicited doggie kisses. On every mantle and bookshelf sit smiling photos of the children, accompanied by their artwork and love notes to mom. The yard has turned brown, and the weeds are winning because it’s the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.
In the first couple weeks after Paige’s disappearance, the Birgfelds were busy in a flurry of activity in searches and media appearances. Now, the searches, led by the Abby and Jennifer Foundation, whose tireless volunteers have scanned hundreds of miles, are called when there’s a really good reason, Frank said. Reporters, too, come calling less often.
Authorities have called off official searches, but the Birgfelds process every local report of a possible body found in the river or suspicious incident, eager for more information.
Although Paige is missing, life continues, as do the bills. The task of stepping into someone else’s life without a road map gets sticky, Frank said. Only recently, the Sheriff’s Department returned Paige’s computer. Although that might be helpful in figuring out which bills she paid online, the family has no idea what her password might be to turn on the machine.
“Now,” Frank said, “I have to go door to door to pay certain bills, and people won’t even talk to me because they don’t know who I am.”
Frank said when people ask how he’s doing, he can usually answer with any number of words that begin with the letter D: despair, dejected, deflated, defeated.
He yearns for a reason to feel differently and hopes against hope there can be an outcome for his daughter other than the one he fears the most.
His daughter’s disappearance revealed shocking details of her life that Frank never knew, and those details of her secret life as an escort made a national splash. But his answer to one question reveals there is nothing he has learned that he wouldn’t forgive, even if he didn’t condone it.
In the numerous interviews he has granted the media during these trying times, Frank Birgfeld said he was once asked whether he would be angry if Paige did indeed walk through the front door.
“I think the last emotion I would have is anger,” he said. “I’d hug her.”