Take Highway 65 north from Chillicothe about eight miles; then go east on Highway K about four miles and you will come across a little town called Chula, Mo.; population 210 citizens and is home of the Bobcats.
Chula neither welcomes nor shoos strangers away. A single paved road rolls by mostly one-story houses, many with lawn ornaments. The post office is connected to a dilapidated shell of a building with weeds visible through the broken windows.
A town such as this seems like the perfect place for a fugitive kidnapper.
In such a small town, one might expect everyone to know everyone, but residents of Chula knew next to nothing about Sandy Hatte.
In September of this year, police issued a warrant for Sandy Hatte, a 60-year-old woman with stringy blond hair and long fingernails stained yellow and brown. The probable cause statement, signed by Detective Eric Menconi of the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office, says Sandy Hatte brought a minor into Missouri without consent from the child’s legal guardian; legally, it is child abduction, a class D felony.
“The entire town was alarmed,” said Richard Orona, a local business owner.
Sandy Hatte’s story reads like countless other crime dramas sensationalized by the media.
But something seems off about this production.
“He was as courteous as can be. I’d see him running behind the old man in the wheelchair, waving at everyone. You couldn’t tell he’d been through what he’s been through,” one woman said of the child victim, named J.H. in the probable cause statement, and an elderly disabled man who lived in the same house.
The house in which Sandy Hatte and J.H lived, 4(1)0 Constant Street - the middle number in the address missing, having never been replaced - might appall most people.
The outside of the house is the islands of lost toys, trinkets and technologies. An old Chevy sits in the driveway. Off to the right, the shed looks as if it got drunk on moonshine and vomited its innards onto the driveway.
And this is not even the worst place Sandy Hatte and J.H. ever lived.
According to neighbors, before the two met a man known by them only as Louis, the owner of the house, Sandy Hatte and J.H. lived in a van in the parking lot of Bristol Manor, the retirement community where Sandy Hatte once worked. Bristol Manor claims to perform background checks on all prospective employees.
Louis’s significant other worked there with Sandy Hatte. Neighbors say the two women lost their jobs as a result of a state audit that discovered discrepancies in the facility’s paperwork. Following that, Louis’s significant other offered Sandy Hatte and J.H. a place to stay.
“The kid creeped me out, honestly,” a neighbor said. “He was always asking to help do things, mow the lawn, whatever. I think because he’d never had a chance to do those things. They said he had a second grade reading level, but he was 14.
“How would you be if you’d grown up with your strange grandmother in a van, always moving around, believing your mother was either dead or didn’t want you?”
John Hatte, J.H.’s biological father, claims that in late 2000 Sandy Hatte parked a moving van in front of his Florida home and the next day she, and J.H., were gone. John never doubted who took his son. Menconi spoke with J.H.’s biological mother, who claimed she neither had custody of J.H. nor knew of any document giving custody to Sandy Hatte.
When Sandy Hatte tried enrolling J.H. in school, Livingston County school official Jocelyn Meservey was suspicious. Sandy Hatte claimed to be his mother, but couldn’t provide the documents needed to give the school permission to intervene on J.H.’s behalf in the event of a medical emergency. Meservy contacted Livingston County Sheriff Steve Cox and the lights, the cameras and the action ensued.
“I think Sandy tried to enroll him in school because she was tired of running,” another neighbor said.
This sounds like a reasonable assumption, but the devil is in the details, as they say.
Sandy Hatte wasn’t hard to locate when the search started. People involved in the case knew she was somewhere in Putnam County, Mo. A bit of serendipity and a public records search pinpointed her location. Sandy Hatte received a citation during a traffic stop for driving without proof of insurance sometime in late January, but quickly managed to invalidate the citation. Record of the citation appeared online for a brief time, just enough time, in fact, to provide interested parties with an address.
When law enforcement contacted Sandy Hatte, she fled to Iowa, where a meeting took place. Present at this meeting were law enforcement agents, other family members, and Sandy Hatte. However, no arrests were made and J.H. remained in his grandmother’s care.
Then, Sandy Hatte returned to Missouri, stopping in Chula, which gave law enforcement what they needed to formally charge her. Police used a state charge to bring her into custody. One would assume Sandy Hatte’s case qualifies for a federal charge - law enforcement claims she kidnapped a child and spent 12 years moving from state to state - but she now sits in the Daviess-Dekalb County Regional Jail.
Menconi described John Hatte’s search as “extensive,” claiming the father hit a dead end Sept. 5, despite the lapse of more than 12 years since the case began. During which time law enforcement referred to this case as a civil matter, which might explain why no record of this case appears in the National Database for Missing and Exploited Children or the FBI, and why Bristol Manor’s background check on Sandy revealed nothing alarming.
According to one source, a Florida law enforcement official said Sandy Hatte would be charged with interference with custody, not kidnapping or child abduction, if the state were to press charges.
John Hatte and J.H. reunited shortly after Chillicothe police arrested Sandy Hatte and the story hit the national airwaves. The father and son returned to Alabama and no statements from the family are available at this time.
Sandy Hatte’s bond sits at $25,000. Her preliminary hearing is Oct. 23.
When given the opportunity to present her side of the story, she defended her innocence and claimed law enforcement and the media falsified the information being shared with the public.
“God knows the truth, I know the truth, and my grandson knows the truth,” Sandy Hatte said.
What that truth is, however, remains a mystery for now, and police consider the investigation ongoing.
“A lot of people are going to have to answer a lot of questions before this is all over,” said a source with knowledge of the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity..