The Lost Boy

The graduate: Griffin at preschool graduation last June.Photo: Courtesy of the Colvin family.

On the morning of July 8, Camille Colvin woke her sleepy 4-year-old, poured him his Froot Loops, and packed his little shoulder bag for preschool with his lunch and his Legos. It was a perfectly normal day except that Camille, who is usually unflappable, couldn’t stop trembling. “Don’t worry – it’ll be okay,” said her husband, Bob. The couple, who both work for PricewaterhouseCoopers, had married just three months before, on a mountain in Sun Valley, Idaho; wedding gifts in big blue Tiffany boxes still sat in a pile in their Upper East Side living room. “I’m just so nervous,” Camille whispered. “These visitations drive me crazy.” “Babe, don’t worry,” Bob assured her, but he was really trying to convince himself. What if? What if this was the day Camille’s ex-husband made good on his threats to take Griffin away from them forever?

With the three of them holding hands, they walked Griffin to preschool before heading to their midtown offices. They decided to wait till the end of the day to tell Griffin that he was going to see his “China Daddy” that night. Too many times, China Daddy hadn’t shown, and Griffin would cry himself to sleep or wet the bed. His preschool principal would remember that last morning vividly. Griffin kept running back to Bob Colvin, whom he called Daddy, and jumping in his arms. “He had a separation problem; you could see that,” says the principal. “He kept saying, ‘Please don’t leave. I will miss you today so much.’ “

Griffin was always an extremely affectionate child, the kid who in the middle of class would walk up to his teacher, tug on her skirt, and say, “I love you.” When it rained, he’d instruct the adults not to fret: “The sun has gone in for lunch,” he would say, “and the clouds have come out to play.” His teachers would later remark that he was such a funny, happy kid – magical, really – they had no clue of the trauma he’d been through, how he’d been spirited out of China, with the help of the U.S. Embassy, at the age of 21⁄2, when Camille left Guo Rui, her husband of nine years.

That day, the teacher took the kids to the park. Griffin couldn’t stop giggling as he skipped through the sprinklers in his I LOVE NY T-shirt.

At 5:30 p.m., his mother picked him up. She said she would take him anywhere he wanted for dinner; he picked McDonald’s. She also told him he was going to see his China Daddy. “China Daddy has the smoothest face in the world; Daddy’s is scratchy,” he replied. And Camille had to laugh. At the same time that Griffin was eating his Happy Meal, Bob Colvin was meeting with a private investigator in a coffee shop several blocks away. The Colvins weren’t taking any chances. Patrick Colgan, a retired FBI agent, had his orders: Under no circumstances was he to let Griffin out of his sight. If Guo Rui made one step in the wrong direction, Colgan was to rescue Griffin by “any means possible.” Camille Colvin had been though family courts from Boise, Idaho (her hometown), to San Jose, California, to New York City, imploring various judges to listen to her: Guo Rui (who was known as Grey) had made numerous threats, she’d told the courts. She was convinced he would steal Griffin and take him back to China. Yeah, lady, right. Even Colgan would later say he didn’t really think the guy was going to snatch the kid. He saw his role more as a security blanket for Camille; she needed a “comfort zone.”

At 6:30 p.m., the designated meeting time, Camille and Bob sat on the floor in the children’s section of Barnes & Noble at Second Avenue and 86th Street, reading books to Griffin. Colgan hovered between the shelves, “getting a sense of the kid.” China Daddy was half an hour late, which struck Colgan as pretty odd “for a guy who hadn’t seen his kid in four months.” But when he finally showed up, bearing Chinese “white rabbit” candy, Griffin ran to his father. Camille pulled her ex-husband aside and in fluent Mandarin gave Grey his instructions: “No buses, no subways, no taxis.” She insisted he stay in the blocks around the Barnes & Noble, as the two lawyers had agreed. “And just to remind you,” she added, “this visit is being supervised.” Grey gave her an icy glare, but she was used to that.

“Bye, Mommy. Bye, Daddy,” said Griffin. And then Grey took the boy out into the streets. Colgan followed about a half-block behind – watching the kid in the I LOVE NY. T-shirt, green cargo shorts, and a shoulder bag full of Legos. Colgan watched as China Daddy took Griffin into the Häagen-Dazs store – one of the preapproved sites – and bought him an ice-cream cone. Grey spoke very little English, and Griffin had lost most of his Mandarin, though his mother had pushed him to use it. “Pleeese, Mommy, don’t make me speak Chinese anymore,” he’d say.

But Colgan could see that however they were communicating, “they seemed to be laughing and enjoying each other.” Then Grey stopped at a phone booth and made a ten-minute call. This was strange, thought Colgan; why blow all this time on the phone if you’re so eager to see your kid? Finally, Griffin, says Colgan, “put his arms around his leg, like ‘C’mon, Dad, get off the phone.’ ” And Grey reached down to rub his child’s head.

A few minutes later, at 7:40 p.m., Griffin and China Daddy headed south down Third Avenue and turned east on 82nd Street. What was unusual now was that Grey just stopped and stood there on the quiet street, holding Griffin in his arms. Colgan, concerned about being “made” if he turned the corner, kept walking down Third. “About twenty seconds later,” he says, he turned around, “and they were gone.”

“Hey, I’m on the job. Did you see the Chinese boy with the Chinese guy?” Colgan asked, rapping on the window of a Chevy Suburban with a two-way radio that was parked smack in front of the spot they disappeared from. As Colgan had already figured out (“I’ve been doing this 28 years”), the driver of the vehicle was yet another undercover guy, a U.S. marshal, who was doing an entirely different surveillance (guarding a judge). “Yeah, they were standing right there a couple seconds ago,” said the marshal. “Yeah, where’d they go?” asked Colgan. Damned if he knew.

At 8:30, Bob and Camille returned to the children’s section of Barnes & Noble to pick up Griffin. A few minutes later, Pat Colgan walked in by himself. “I lost them,” he said.

Griffin's mom Camille ColvinPhoto: Nigel Parry

Camille had known that something like this was coming. She just didn’t know how or when. So while Bob was filled with rage (and Colgan with guilt: “I feel professionally and personally terrible,” he says), Camille shifted into action mode, with a calm determination that was unsettling even to the cops. There was no time to fall apart. No time for blame. She knew what Guo Rui was capable of – this man she had once loved, who had also once agreed, in court, to relinquish his parental rights in exchange for $60,000. And felt she knew what this was really about. It was about punishing his ex-wife, who had brought shame to him and his family. And it was about a boy. Camille’s child, yes, but also the only son of an only son in China. The cross-cultural world she’d built for herself still held her tight – could she ever escape?

That first night without Griffin, as she sat quietly weeping in his empty room with the stars glued on the walls and his favorite things – his red-tinted sunglasses, his plastic fireman’s hat, his little peace-sign necklace – in her lap, she remembered the thought she’d kept trying to push out of her mind the night in China when Griffin was born: If he had been a girl, she would never have to worry about losing him.

Her odyssey with Guo Rui began in mainland China in 1990. She had just turned 24. It wasn’t her first time living in Asia. As a fresh-faced 18-year-old out of Catholic school in Boise, Camille Elliott had spent six months after high school in Taiwan, teaching English. Her parents, “open-minded, middle-class liberals,” Camille says (her father was once an attorney for Boise Cascade; her parents now run a business revamping vehicles for the handicapped), strongly encouraged their four daughters to travel. “All of us were basically given an ultimatum after high school,” says Camille, “that we would go somewhere abroad and hopefully do something meaningful.” A few years later, as a student at Portland State University in Oregon, she spent a year in central China and learned to speak Mandarin. Her parents were delighted with her growing fascination with Asia, and to Camille it was inevitable that once she graduated, she’d go back. “I just fell in love with the people,” says Camille, “and the antiquity. Just the way things were done. There was this overwhelming sense of roots – that because it had been done that way for 2,000 years, it was the right way. The strength of that is quite amazing.”

She returned to Asia in 1990, this time to Zhengzhou in the province of Henan in central China, one of the most rural and conservative provinces. There were other Americans there, but most were missionaries, whom she found tedious. “I wanted to meet more artists,” she says, “more people in political circles.” She met Guo Rui on a blind date in August 1990 and was instantly enamored of him. “My parents thought it was because I was so desperately lonely,” she says, but she still disagrees. A sculptor and artist with a degree from one of the best art institutes in China at a time when contemporary Chinese art was reaching new heights of popularity, Guo Rui stood out in other ways as well. Tall and athletic, he had a charisma that was magnetic, much like the son he would one day have.

He lived with his parents (who worked for the official state-run bookstore) in government housing, which meant a tiny three-room space with concrete floors and hospital-yellow paint. The night they met, he served her a steamed-fish dinner in his room while his parents sat in theirs. Camille remembers how they talked all night in Mandarin.

She married him four months later. Though she was in love, her quick decision had more to do with the cultural mores of China than with her own desires. There was pressure from what Camille calls “the little-old-ladies brigade,” a group of old women in the village whose business was everyone else’s. They specialized in “family planning” – making sure that the men married the right women at the right time. “In Chinese, it’s called wan hun wan yu,” says Camille, “which means ‘late marriage, late pregnancy.’ ” Which helped to enforce the law on having children. “You got one,” says Camille, “preferably a boy.” Late-term abortions of girls were common practice, though if a Chinese man married an American, he was no longer subject to the one-child policy.

Guo Rui’s parents also applied pressure. “They were certainly concerned as to what my intentions were,” says Camille. The fear was “that I would be dating Grey while he should be seeking a wife. So we either had to cool the dating thing or make an open commitment. I loved them and didn’t want to let them down.”

What she didn’t realize then was that for a Chinese man to marry a Western woman “was very much a prize.” While the Chinese looked down on American men who came for Chinese brides, when the opposite occurred – and it was very rare – it was considered “marrying status.” As Camille’s husband, Grey would have the freedom to travel from Communist China, and untold economic opportunities.

The two were officially married in December 1990, and Camille moved into the tiny apartment with Grey and his parents – though she hadn’t yet told her own parents. “Maybe I had concerns myself about the quality of the decision,” says Camille.

Five months later, in May, their wedding banquet was held in Zhengzhou. Camille assumed her role as a subservient Chinese wife starting at the banquet with a ritual in which she had to go from table to table and light everyone’s cigarette as a sign of respect.

Grey’s art career, which had seemed so promising, quickly stalled. And his resentment of her grew in tandem with his reliance on her. “Tao says, ‘Do as I say,’ ” he would tell her when she disagreed with one of his edicts.

For the entire nine years of their marriage, Camille was the breadwinner. She held various jobs – from teaching to running tour groups to, finally, taking a job at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she was a human-resources manager. Twice they moved to the States, once in ‘91 to live with her parents in Boise (“a disaster,” says Camille; “worse than a disaster,” says her mother, Carol) while Camille worked as a campaign manager for a pro-choice group alongside the Clinton-Gore ticket in 1992. “I knew from the minute they stepped off the plane that Cammy had made a huge mistake,” says Carol. “He didn’t love our daughter – you could see it in his eyes. My husband saw it, too. He said, ‘Uh-oh, we’re in trouble.’ “

In 1993, they moved to San Francisco, which Camille thought would be the perfect place for her husband to flourish as an artist. She got a job with a tour-group company that sent Stanford alumni on fancy trips to China. She was making good money and enrolled Grey in classes so he could learn English. But that never happened. Neither did the art. “I think he knew it was in his best interests to spend more time controlling me than making himself successful,” Camille says. “Because if he actually became successful, then I would feel comfortable leaving him. The pity factor played pretty heavily.”

It was in San Francisco that she left Grey for the first time. He wasn’t pleased. “There was a lot of stalking,” she says quietly. Eventually, he persuaded her to reconcile, and in late 1996, she began applying for jobs that would get them back to China and his parents. “I felt beholden to them, or responsible for them,” says Camille.

In January ‘97, she started her PricewaterhouseCoopers job in China. Three weeks later, she discovered she was pregnant with Griffin. And when it turned out to be a boy, his family was overjoyed. When Camille returned to work, her in-laws, as is customary in China, took care of the baby.

In the beginning, Camille looked at this like the American girl she still was: “We didn’t have to worry about day care,” as she puts it. But the culture she so loved was becoming suffocating. Every night, Griffin slept with his grandparents, because that was the way it was done. In a sense, her infant son made her realize how wide the gap was between her own culture and her adopted one. One night, she and Grey had a drag-out fight over whether Griffin should have a high chair. Grey refused; that wasn’t how things were done. “I felt more and more marginalized – from my own child,” says Camille.

Then she got pregnant again. Camille desperately wanted another child; Grey did not. The threats began: If she didn’t abort this child, he would kill it for her. He would take Griffin away. How could she ruin their lives like this? He already had his son. What more was there?

Dual daddies: Griffin with Guo Rui, "China Daddy," in July 2002, the day before Griffin was kidnapped.Photo: Courtesy of the Colvin family.

On June 16, 2000, she aborted the child. Seven days later, she fled China for good, with Griffin. “I realized through all of this that Griffin was suffering,” she says. “He became very clingy, very fearful.” And it dawned on her: “Fighting to keep this unborn child was one thing. But I needed to pay attention to the child that I had.”

The U.S. Embassy put through the paperwork. Her mother met her in Hong Kong to help bring Griffin back to the States. For days, she had quietly been taking things from the apartment to prepare for the trip: clothes for her and Griffin, some of his toys. She pretended she was taking them to the dry cleaner, or to work. From Hong Kong, she called Grey: “Griffin is safe. But I’m not telling you where we are.”

When she got back to Boise, “I exhaled,” says Camille, “then told him where we were.” A month later, Guo Rui called to say he wanted to come visit. Camille’s parents paid for his ticket and a week in a hotel so he could see his son. But in fact, he was there to see her. He wanted to reconcile and to bring her back to China. On his last night in Boise, the two went out to dinner. “Forget it,” she told him. She wanted a divorce. Then she started reading from a list she had prepared: the separation of their assets.

Back in China, Grey persisted. In November, he faxed a heartbreaking letter to Camille, asking her to translate his Chinese words for her parents: “Mom and Dad, no matter what, you are still my parents. I would like to apologize to you first… . I am starting the process of correcting my mistakes and changing my ways. I know I really hurt Cammy regarding the pregnancy, that was not my intention. I only wanted to make sure that we had a good life… . I was there for her when she was sick. I did not laugh at her when she could not speak Chinese… . We can make it through any difficulty, the two of us… . Cammy knows that my parents love her like their own daughter… . I want for me and Cammy and Griffin to have a happy family.”

Camille knew that she’d delivered a powerful blow to Guo Rui and his parents. “He will never do anything to upset his mother,” she says. “Losing his son was the worst thing he could do to them.”

Later that month, Camille moved to California to work in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ San Jose office. But first she went back to China to tie up loose ends and meet with Grey. “If you’ll give me a divorce now,” she told him, “we can do it in China.” He told her he didn’t want a divorce; he wanted her back. “You’re crazy,” said Camille.

The following January, she paid for another trip, so he could see Griffin. Moments after he checked in to his hotel, there was a knock at the door: She had him served with divorce papers. He, too, had a surprise for her: He had decided to move to San Jose. Camille says that the one time in San Jose that she let him have Griffin for an overnight visit, he called her within hours. “Griffin’s crying,” she remembers him saying. “He wants you. I can’t do this.”

From that point on, Guo v. Guo played itself out in an ugly battle in the courts. Camille said that Grey had made clear on numerous occasions that if Camille didn’t return to him, he would take Griffin to China and she’d never see him again. Her court pleadings were like a broken record: “I am concerned that Respondent may decide to remove the child from the United States… . I fear losing Griffin forever.” Her lawyer in San Jose, Susan Emlet Crandall, knew that if Griffin was taken to China, the Chinese government would provide no help, since China was not a signatory to the Hague Convention or the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act, which allow warrants issued here to be enforced overseas.

But to Grey, it was Camille who had kidnapped their son. “Mr. Guo was absolutely stunned,” his lawyer, Cheryl Brown, wrote in court filings in San Jose, when “Ms. Elliott spirited him out of the country last year.” She added: “In fact, Ms. Elliott’s current requests before the court are, in essence, requests that Mr. Guo not do what Ms. Elliott did, i.e. steal the child away from the other parent.”

Griffin was certainly not unscathed by his parents’ divorce and the flight from China, according to a court-ordered psychologist’s report. “Griffin was confused as to why she didn’t love his daddy any more when daddy loved her and him,” the psychologist wrote. “There was also the loss of the relationships with Griffin’s paternal grandparents. Through play he was able to express his feelings that people leaving him felt like a death.”

By the summer of 2001, Camille had fallen in love with another man, who planned to marry her and adopt Griffin. Bob Colvin, a finance director for PricewaterhouseCoopers, had met Camille in China when both were working for the firm. Both were in tumultuous relationships, and they cried on each other’s shoulders. When Camille was pregnant the last time and Grey told her to get rid of it, Bob was the person she called first.

When Camille moved to San Jose, Bob was transferred to New York, and they began an intense e-mail and telephone relationship. In April 2001, Bob invited Camille to New York for Easter. “We both knew if anything happened, it would be all or nothing,” says Camille. It was all. On September 7, two nights after her divorce from Grey was final, Bob proposed. By that point, Grey had been clued in. Several times in San Jose when Grey had a court-ordered visitation with his son, Bob Colvin was present. To Grey, his once-obedient wife was in control, and even had a new lover. “I know it was emasculating,” says Camille.

As the divorce was being finalized, both sides tried to work out a custody agreement. Crandall remembers a marathon negotiation in the corridors of the county courthouse during which it became clear, she says, “that he could be bought.” “I think we started at $10,000, and it escalated from there.” He was asking for $1,000 a month in alimony for five years. Crandall suggested they give it to him up front – $60,000 – in exchange for his “relinquishing his parental rights.” Grey signed the agreement, but the deal ultimately fell apart. One of Camille’s stipulations was that Grey turn over Griffin’s passport; Grey claimed he had “lost it.” She wasn’t giving him the money without the passport. “Basically, Camille got cold feet,” says Crandall.

In October 2001, Camille got a transfer to the New York office, and she and Griffin moved in with Bob. The following February, Grey moved to New York. That month, he had two supervised visitations with his son. During one of them, he realized that Griffin had taken to calling him China Daddy, while Bob was called Daddy. (Later, Camille would learn that that same month, Grey had gone to the Chinese consulate and obtained a visa in Griffin’s name.) In April, Bob and Cammy got married in Sun Valley, Idaho. In June, they were back in court, this time in Queens, where Guo Rui was renting a room. To make a living, he was working as a street artist in Times Square. He had not seen his son since February, because, Camille says, he kept insisting on unsupervised visits. “Then take me to court,” she told him. Then she pushed the envelope further, asking in court papers for child support. Guo Rui was ordered to pay $100 a week. With his wife and her new husband ensconced in a fancy building on the Upper East Side, this was too much.

On June 12, less than a month before he took Griffin, Guo Rui filed a motion in the family court of Queens “seeking an immediate order” to have visitation with his son. “I am a good father and I love my son very much,” he wrote in his affidavit. “I miss my son so much.” He went on: “She changed my son’s name from Guo to her new husband’s last name.” He wrote about how disturbing it was to hear his son call him China Daddy. “It breaks my heart to see all this.”

The lawyers, in an attempt to placate Guo Rui, encouraged Cammy to play nice, to give him a chance to see Griffin, and a visit was arranged on July 8. At the end of June, with the visit looming, Guo Rui called a Chinese-speaking travel agent on Canal Street in Chinatown, looking to buy two one-way tickets to China. The agent, who spoke to New York under the condition that her name not be used, says that he specifically wanted to fly on July 8 and intended to pay in cash. She got him great rates on Northwest Flight 17 from JFK to Beijing ($525 for his ticket, $425 for Griffin’s), but the flight left at 2:50 p.m., which seemed to trouble him; she booked the flights for him but never heard from him again. Later, when she saw a story in a Chinese newspaper about the missing boy, she recognized him immediately. “The name Griffin,” she explains, “is very unusual in the Chinese community.”

On the night of the abduction, two officers from the NYPD – Detective Thomas Ryan and Sergeant Vincent Gough – headed out to Queens, where Guo Rui rented his room. There was no sign of father or son, just a mattress on the floor and some clothes strewn about, along with a giant pile of court documents, divorce papers, and correspondence from Camille. “For him to just leave that after all those years of saving it seemed odd,” says Gough. “Unless he didn’t need them anymore,” says Ryan. They went straight from the apartment to the airports. But the most they could do was hand out flyers. “The airlines have their own bureaucracy,” gripes Gough. And since Guo Rui was a legal alien and Griffin’s biological father, neither Customs nor the INS was very helpful. Gough, however, was reasonably certain of what had happened. “If I were in his shoes? I’d get to China fast,” he says. “To the Chinese government, he’ll be a hero.”

The Colvins were spinning in circles. The red tape was overwhelming. The D.A.’s office wouldn’t sign a felony warrant for Grey’s arrest unless there was proof that he had left New York. The FBI couldn’t call him a fugitive without a warrant. The NYPD was still trying to get Verizon to tell them whom he made the phone call to. Then there was the cultural barrier. “They’d hear Chinatown and China,” says Camille, “and go, ‘Oh, shit.’ “

Camille spent her days canvassing the streets of New York’s Chinatowns in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, often accompanied by family. Bob Colvin’s dad, whom Griffin called Big Bob, will always remember the black cop in Chinatown who, when shown a flyer and asked Have you seen this little boy?, started laughing: “Buddy, take a look,” the cop said. “They all look alike.”

Often, Camille had Chinese reporters in tow. She was getting crucified in some of the Chinese papers, which made her more determined to ingratiate herself. “This isn’t about punishing Guo Rui,” she kept repeating in Mandarin. “It’s about finding Griffin.” She didn’t want to do anything that would drive him further underground. At night, she would call her in-laws in China. “We haven’t heard a word,” they told her.

Playing out the possibilities became excruciating. Who was taking care of him? What if he couldn’t speak English to anyone? And what did Grey tell him? That his mommy didn’t love him anymore? That his mommy was dead? All he has is his Legos.

For a while, Camille hoped that Griffin had no idea he was kidnapped, that he thought he was “on some great adventure with China Daddy. And he’d come home to Mommy and Daddy soon.” But as the weeks passed, that hope gave way to a darker thought. “He has to be in fear,” she says. “He has to feel that we let him down, that we abandoned him. Why?”

A few leads came in from the early newspaper articles. Two different people claimed to have spotted them on the A train on July 9 and 10. One of them recalled how the little boy was sleepy and kept falling on his father’s shoulder, and that the father would push him away.

In August, the Colvins hired a top criminal lawyer, Scott Greenfield, to help them navigate the justice system. But after hearing their story, he had a different idea: “Forget the felony warrants,” he said. “Let’s find the kid.”

Private sources turned out to be better at getting information. By early August, flight manifests obtained by Greenfield showed that on July 10, Guo Rui and Griffin – using their own names and American passports – flew Air Canada from Toronto to Vancouver to Beijing.

“Finding him was the easy part,” Greenfield says. “Now what?” Camille and Bob had reached a new crossroads. Just what were the options? Should they try to negotiate with Grey? How much money might he demand? Should Cammy fly to China? Was there a way for them to undo in China what Grey had just done in America? But whatever course they chose, it wasn’t going to be easy. “In China, Guo Rui holds all the cards,” Greenfield says. “We’re left to our own devices.”

At his school, his cubby, where he kept his Yankees hat, is empty. But the teachers refuse to erase the name he left: GRIFFIN COLVIN.

“The only thing that gives me peace,” says Bob’s mother, Jan Colvin, “is knowing that he has a grandmother over there who loves him. Initially, my prayers were that Grey would do the right thing. Now my prayers are for the grandmother to stay healthy so she can take care of Griffin. As time goes on, we have to face the fact that he may be happy over there. We have to start to think, What’s right for him?”

Camille still wonders about what she could have done – or not done – differently. “It drives Bob nuts,” she says. “But I do still feel responsible.”

She pauses and lets herself cry. “I don’t like to talk about this,” she begins, “but every night after I left China, when I put Griffin to bed, I used to make a promise: ‘You are safe now, and I will keep you safe.’ I haven’t kept my promise.”

The Lost Boy