District judge lets mom get kids

By Marty Roney
Montgomery Advertiser

WETUMPKA -- For the second time in a week, prosecutors are crying foul over the actions of Elmore County's district judge.

They say Judge Maura Culberson signed an order giving a woman accused of running a nationwide adoption scam custody of her twin infant boys, who were the scam's bait.

Cherish Tarbox, 20, was charged in April with three counts of theft by deception by the Wetumpka Police Department. She is charged with her mother, Jenny Lodge, 42, of 116 Hillside Drive in Wetumpka.

Authorities have documented four couples who were seeking to adopt children as victims in the scheme, said Sam Partridge, chief assistant district attorney. Tarbox was released from Elmore County Jail on May 13 after posting a $30,000 bond, court records showed.

"Judge Culberson signed the order Tuesday without giving us any notice at all," Partridge said. "Cherish Tarbox is the subject of a grand jury investigation. Judge Culberson no longer has any jurisdiction in the case. Once a case is forwarded to the grand jury, it comes under the power of a circuit judge."

Cherish Tarbox had 72 hours to travel to Florida to get her children under a bond modification order signed Tuesday by District Judge Maura Culberson. Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds ruled Thursday afternoon that Culberson did not have the authority to issue the modification order. Reynolds revoked Tarbox's bond, and ordered her to report to the Elmore County Jail immediately upon her return to Wetumpka.

Culberson could not be reached for comment. She did not return phone calls and a Montgomery Advertiser reporter went to her office Thursday afternoon but no one answered the door.

Culberson's order sent prosecutors scrambling to stop Tarbox from getting the children, who are living with one of Tarbox's relatives in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

The state requested an emergency bond revocation hearing Thursday afternoon before Chilton County Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds in the Elmore County Judicial Complex. He ruled Culberson did not have the authority to modify Tarbox's bond to give her 72 hours to travel to Florida and get the children. Reynolds did not deal with custody issues.

Florida authorities had the Tarbox children in custody for several hours Thursday, but released them to Tarbox because they didn't have any reason to deny custody.

Now prosecutors are concerned Tarbox is a flight risk.

"When she finds out her bond is revoked and she gets those children, what does she have to lose by fleeing?" Partridge asked. "All we can do is cross our fingers and hope she comes back to Wetumpka."

Clyde Bailey, Tarbox's attorney, is confident she will return. A stipulation in Culberson's order is that Tarbox is to stay in the physical custody of her bail bondsman, Mike Daniels. Daniels made the trip to Florida with Tarbox and her stepfather. The presence of the bail agent ensures she will come back, Bailey said.

"My client never gave up custody of the children, she just allowed a paternal great aunt to care for them," he told Reynolds. "While the children may have been subject to the charge facing her, that gives no reason why she shouldn't have her children."

In the adoption scam, Tarbox and Lodge allegedly told prospective parents they could adopt the boys if they paid for medical and other expenses. Many of the couples hired local attorneys to handle the transactions. The scam continued even after the boys were born in November 2003, arrest reports show.

In another case involving Culberson that prosecutors find troubling, an Elmore County woman had her domestic violence case dismissed in district court because she never received notice to appear for trial.

Culberson wouldn't reinstate the case last week. Dana Coker filed the misdemeanor assault charges March 1 against her ex-boyfriend, Paul MacIsaac, courthouse records show. Coker never received her subpoena for her first court appearance, so Culberson dismissed the case, said Partridge. The state requested the case be re-instated, but Culberson didn't comply. The domestic violence case will go before the next grand jury.