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Fugitive father's odyssey ends

Winston Powell, who spent a month hiding out with his two daughters because their mother was accused of trying to poison them, was arrested Thursday after a routine traffic stop.

His capture by Ocala police was not easy.

Powell sped away from an officer trying to ticket him for speeding in a school zone, then led police on a chase along residential streets where dozens of children were walking home.

His own two children _ 8-year-old Rachel and 7-year-old Rebekah _ were sitting in the car with Powell as he drove to a minister's house where he intended to seek refuge. After a short struggle, police said, Powell was handcuffed as the two youngsters watched.

"I schized out," Powell said later from the Marion County Jail, where he was held without bail. "As a matter of fact, I really got unnerved when I saw the cop come up behind me. I knew it was all over."

Indeed, a month of staying with friends and avoiding two arrest warrants came to an end less than four hours after a hearing in Hillsborough Circuit Court, where a custody battle has loomed over the children.

Powell wants the two girls and their 10-year-old brother, Jonathan, to live with him instead of their maternal grandmother. The grandmother, Barbara Taylor of Tampa, was awarded temporary custody of the children after their mother was accused of trying to kill them.

Saying that Ms. Taylor was allowing the children to continue seeing their mother, Powell refused to bring back the two girls after picking them up for a day of visitation Sept. 25.

"I don't have any regrets about taking the children," Powell said Thursday. "I don't like where I'm at right now. But I feel like God gave these children to me, and I have to look out for them."

In letters and telephone calls to the governor's office and to other state officials, Powell has said the grandmother has left the children alone with their mother, who is free on bail awaiting trial on attempted murder charges.

Pamela Powell, 35, is accused of putting bags over the children's head and making them inhale propane. Records say Powell, 35, also broke thermometers and poured mercury into cherry-flavored slush drinks for the children.

"I wish somebody would really take me seriously about this stuff. These children do not belong with their mother," Powell said. "I've sat down and talked to people until my lungs have fallen out of my chest."

At least two warrants have been issued in recent weeks, charging Powell with interfering with a custody order and with contempt of court. As of late Thursday, he also faced nine new charges.

Among them: fleeing police by speeding away, resisting arrest, assaulting an officer, neglecting the children, carrying a concealed knife in his car and driving with a suspended license.

Police originally stopped him for speeding in a school zone, but Powell drove off as the motorcycle officer who had stopped him leaned into the car.

"I knew there was an outstanding warrant for my arrest," he said. "I knew they would take the girls."

Dozens of schoolchildren were on sidewalks as Powell's 1984 Mercury reached speeds of 50 mph with two police cruisers and the motorcycle officer behind him, reports say.

Powell stopped a few blocks away at a minister's home.

Powell said he told his two daughters to run into the house. But as he tried to run in, officers grabbed him. "I struggled but I didn't hit anybody. I made it inside the house, and they pushed me to the ground and handcuffed me."

The Rev. Richard Mooneyhan said he had not been expecting Powell and the children on Thursday. He was surprised when they rushed into his house.

"I had told him that the only out was for him to go somewhere else and place the kids where HRS cannot find them, and come back here to fight HRS," said Mooneyhan, who had offered Powell sanctuary at his church in Citra, outside Ocala, if police tried to arrest him.

He said he kept the two girls in his house, away from police, until an officer asked whether they could say goodbye to their father. "They actually tricked me," he said. "I let the girls go outside to see their father and HRS came walking up the driveway to get them."

The state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services had custody of the girls late Thursday. Ellen Ostman, a Tampa lawyer representing the grandmother, said the family was relieved to learn the girls would be coming home soon.

The grandmother was making arrangements to get the girls and reunite them with the brother, Ostman said.

"I was beginning to feel very forlorn," she said. "There were too many places for them up there to hide. I was very frightened that it was going to be a long time."

From jail Thursday, Powell said he, too, was relieved.

"I'm not glad I got caught, but I'm glad it's all coming to a head," he said. "There's no question it was worth it. I feel like I've got light shed on my whole issue."