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Runaway teens weave a tangled tale

For parents, it can be their worst nightmare: their underage children decide living on the streets with no job, no income and no home is better than living with them.

They leave the house and don't look back. And their parents are left to wonder why.

Through years of media saturation _ watching TV shows ranging from Adam 12 and NYPD Blue to Cops _ parents may think they know what comes next; you notify the police, the school and every other authority and wait for the hunt to start.

Wall-to-wall media coverage of sensational stories such as the Cheryl Ann Barnes saga _ a Sumter County teen who vanished from her home one day, only to turn up in New York City weeks later _ simply reinforces the idea: When a child disappears, the whole world stops to help.

But in reality, most of the 55,000 or so teenage Floridians reported as runaways each year never get much attention from the news media. Or from the rest of us.

Just ask Cindy Zdarko.

Her son, Michael Ryan Zdarko, walked away from his Tampa home nearly a year ago _ on April 12, 1996, to be exact _ and hasn't seen his mother since. Unless you've seen one of the fliers printed up by volunteer organizations on his mother's behalf, you've probably never heard of him.

But his mother hopes that will change at 9 p.m. Monday, when NBC airs its made-for-the-small-screen drama Born Into Exile, a story about runaways that, in some ways, mirrors her own plight. The show airs locally on WFLA-Ch.8.

During the show, actor Talia Shire (Rocky, The Godfather) plays a mother whose stormy relationship with her daughter (played by Gina Philips) prompts the girl to run away with an older boyfriend (Saved by the Bell's Mark-Paul Gosselaar). Once on the road, her daughter realizes how tough life as a homeless teen really is, and when she sees her picture included in a music video about runaway kids, she decides to come home.

Taking a page from the modern rock band Soul Asylum, who included pictures of real runaways in its music video for Runaway Train, the producers of Born Into Exile will include photos and information on real missing teens during the movie _ including Michael Zdarko.

"Somebody at the network said, "What if one of these kids comes home before this airs?' As if it was a problem," says Exile executive producer Brian Pike. "Nothing would make me happier than to announce at the end of the show, "Don't worry about this kid here . . . he's been found.' "

Pike and others involved with the show hope life will imitate art, with the pictures sparking a lead that brings a child home. Cindy Zdarko will also appear on the Sally Jesse Raphael talk show Monday (10 a.m. on WTSP-Ch. 10) with stars from Exile, hoping for similar results.

It's the kind of warm fuzzy that's become a de rigueur conclusion to issue-oriented TV movies. But in truth, the story of Zdarko's decision to leave home is a complicated tale spurred by conflicts with a parent and the influence of peers, made worse by the inability of most institutions to help.

In the real world, Michael Zdarko is just one more teen who left home with a grudge. And the most startling fact may be how typical his story truly is.

THE PARENTS

Before he ran away for the second time, Cindy Zdarko thought they were back on track.

Her son, Michael, had his problems. She'd been raising him alone since he was 3, when she left his father. He'd used marijuana and acid _ brought it into their home, even _ and fallen into problems severe enough she'd had him committed to Charter Hospital on several occasions.

Paired with his best friend from school, Dustin McCune, Michael had plunged into a so-called "alternative" lifestyle: wearing lots of black, getting his nose pierced, dying his hair black and shaving it on the sides and in the back.

When he first ran away, Michael headed for Ybor City, where a group of his friends were living hand-to-mouth, crashing wherever they could, living a life free from school, teachers and parental authority. But Cindy eventually tracked him down, got him arrested and sent back home.

"When he got back, we talked and he was perfectly fine _ pleasant," she says now. "Three days later, I came home to find a note saying he had to leave."

She hasn't seen him since.

Cindy blames her son's disappearance on the crowd he was running with in Ybor City, including 17-year-old Dustin McCune and Vaughn Sarasen, a street vendor in his twenties. McCune and Sarasen had been working with several other street people to rent an abandoned, three-story church at 11th Avenue and Lowe Street.

They said it was going to be an artists' commune and flophouse; a haven for homeless travelers looking for a cool, safe place to spend a night or two. Cindy says it was the focal point for a cult that convinced her child and several others to run away from home.

"I think Vaughn was working through Dustin to get the kids out," she says, calling from her new home in Phoenix. "It's a cult, called the Rainbow Gathering (also the informal name for a festival held annually by the Rainbow Family of Divine Light, a loosely knit counterculture clan). They pull the kids out, tell them this group is all about nature and free love and then use them for panhandling and prostitution; they live off the children. It's not just one or two kids disappearing."

"I've had several people accuse me of being a cult leader, but I had nothing to do with (Michael Zdarko) leaving," Sarasen counters later. "Suburban parents . . . they have nothing better to do than talk s_- about other people."

This theory is something Cindy has pieced together from shards of evidence: statements from three other teens who ran away at about the same time, including Dustin; a telephone call from a student at the University of Knoxville (Tenn.) who says she housed Michael for a short time last year; bits of information from the police and volunteer organizations such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Her most recent evidence is three telephone messages left by Michael on her home's answering machine in Phoenix while she was at work, indicating he could only call her at select times. "What if he can't get away from whoever is keeping him?" she says, the emotion making her voice shake. "I don't know if he knows how to get out of there, if he wants to."

To her, it's a clear-cut case. And she can't understand why the police haven't done something.

"They've admitted it to me . . . they have too many cases," says Cindy, who blames the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department's Juvenile Operations Section for indifference, taking too long to follow up on leads and an overly hostile attitude in interviewing runaway children and their parents.

Sgt. Rob Bullara of the Juvenile Operations Section declined to discuss Cindy's allegations, saying, "It's a confidential, ongoing investigation. All I can say is that we're working the case as a runaway that has left the area."

Bullara admitted his office's caseload is hectic _ about 500 investigations per month, handled by three officers. "We close about 90 percent of those cases," he says. "In most cases, the child just comes home."

That's not quite what happened in Dustin McCune's case. A neighbor and best friend of Michael's, he left his own Tampa home for the 11th Avenue church weeks after Zdarko disappeared _ only to be arrested by police after smashing out every window in the church building.

Like Michael, Dustin's parents had him placed at Charter Hospital to battle drug problems that included dalliances with marijuana, acid and angel trumpets, a poisonous flower known for its hallucinogenic qualities. Now his mother, Kathy, isn't so sure they did the right thing.

"They go in there (Charter) and they meet other kids and learn more about how to use drugs," says Dustin's mother, who shows her own lack of drug savvy by asking, "Do you take crack through a needle?"

Robert Mead, a spokesman for Charter, declined to comment specifically on Dustin's case, saying, "The adolescent treatment programs we offer at the hospital are well-regarded. We stand behind our programs."

In the end, weekly counseling and occasional three-day sessions at Charter Hospital only convinced her of one thing. "I could see the kid was going to do what he wanted to do," she says.

Kathy believes Michael and Dustin sparked off each other, inspiring greater acts of rebellion than either might attempt alone. "I still wonder how this could have happened," says McCune, who works in the office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court in Tampa. "I read books and went to classes . . . did everything a mother is supposed to do with kids. In eighth grade, he just gave up. Now I can't tell him anything."

She, too, has problems with how the police handled their case. "Sometimes they would insult me, or blame everything that happened on how we raised them," says Kathy, who has been married for 22 years to her husband, Gary. "The first thing they ask is "Are you a single parent?' They're looking for where to put the blame. But those aren't the issues _ it's "Now that we're here, what do we do?' "

Cindy Zdarko knows she faces similar scrutiny. No organization or authority has fully substantiated her claims of cult activity. It takes a while for her to admit her son's own problems with drugs to a reporter. And some have questioned her decision to move to Phoenix in July, a job transfer she had planned months earlier to remove Michael from the influence of his friends.

"It was through a lot of contemplation and torment that I made this decision," she says. "I knew at the time that (Michael) was out of state and that he knew I was supposed to move to Phoenix. So would he think I'm in Phoenix or back in Tampa? I got away, so that when I found him, we could make a fresh start."

THE TEENAGERS

Sitting down with Dustin and his pal Vaughn Sarasen, the effect their appearance has on others is immediately apparent. Decked out in tattered black clothing, lots of earrings, the occasional tattoo and jet black hair, they're a jarring addition to the atmosphere of a Clearwater diner where the interview starts.

Before long, a manager comes up, insisting everyone order a meal or leave; making it plain that requests for coffee and Cokes won't be enough. What he really wants, it seems, is to get this odd-looking pair out of his restaurant.

Dustin and Vaughn just shrug; when you live on the street, it's a reaction you get sometimes.

With a youthful candor that balances Sarasen's streetwise caginess, Dustin sums up his friend Michael's situation simply. His mom kept putting him in programs at the Charter Hospital, so he decided to leave.

"In some ways, she was overreacting," he says of Michael's mother. "The whole cult thing is an imagination. Mike has called me collect a few times, and with him saying he can only call at certain times . . . I wouldn't be surprised if he was in jail."

Tracing a finger along his lipsticked lips, Dustin continues. "People like Mike and me don't fit in well with the normal suburbia kind of thing. We were always forced down . . . always bored. We were mutually bad."

It started years ago when the two began reading horror comics together, huddling in a shut-down restaurant they'd converted into an impromptu clubhouse, Dustin says. Before long, they were experimenting with drugs and on-the-edge fashions, eventually meeting Sarasen while hanging out in Ybor City, he adds.

In town from New York City by way of Atlanta, Sarasen had dreams of renting the three-story church to present concerts, parties and establish an artist's commune. While talking with the owner about renting it, Sarasen and his friends broke in and began hanging out there.

Now the church stands as an ugly eyesore in a poor neighborhood, with skeletons of old cars, torn sofas and busted televisions littering its expansive yard. With its rapidly deteriorating fence and wide-open windows, it's a neighbor's nightmare _ but a squatter's dream.

"I figured it would be a haven," says Sarasen, who originally declined to reveal the location of the church, saying he still hoped to rent it. "Travelers could have a place to stay and not worry about some crackhead rolling them in the night."

By the time Dustin and Sarasen and their crew had raised enough money to lease it _ Sarasen says they had about $2,000 _ their nest egg was stolen during a raucous party. When Dustin heard the news, he went ballistic, smashing enough windows to draw the police and get arrested.

Though his parents questioned how a minor could live in an abandoned building for weeks without someone intervening (Tampa police had searched the building once, but Dustin hid in the attic, Sarasen says), the trustee overseeing the property, Paul Harris, says he was misled about his group's fiscal resources.

"I had not met them _ we talked mostly by telephone," says Harris, who was at his home in North Carolina when first contacted by Sarasen. "When I finally saw them (after Dustin's arrest) they looked like a bunch of street people. They're not people I would have any further dealings with."

Parents suspected Michael Zdarko lived a little while in the church, but Dustin and Sarasen say Michael left the state weeks earlier after running away from home the second time; leaving with a friend from school, Lindsey Welch, and two other people.

"He (Michael) was going to leave town with a stupid group of gutter punks," offers Welch, now age 16, who says she dated Sarasen briefly before he met Michael and Dustin. "I told him, "I'll save you the trouble. Just come with us.' "

Welch, who says she was kicked out of her home in May, went with Michael to New Orleans and Chapel Hill, N.C., among other places, and their partnership began to erode. "I had a lot of respect for him (Michael) before we left," she says. "Then he'd start taking stuff of mine and sell it for a bag of weed, but when I asked him for $2 to get cigarettes, he'd say no. Eventually, I told him to get the hell out."

About two months after they'd left Florida, she left Michael in Chapel Hill. A month after that, she was spotted by a New York City police officer in Grand Central Station and sent back to Florida. Now Welch, who says she tried to get Michael to call his mother while they were traveling together, says she still may help reunite the two.

"I think right now, if I made a few calls, I could find him," says Welch, who _ like Dustin _ was interviewed by the police once she returned home. "I know his mom is probably going through hell _ especially since it's still going on . . . people are still talking about it."

A devotee of ancient Celtic religions, Welch says she, Dustin and Michael dabbled with studies of Buddhism, Daoism and other religions, a possible source for the allegations of cult activity. "(In school) we all virtually looked the same, we all listened to the same music and me and Mike studied the occult for a while," she says. "From an outside perspective, I suppose it does look like a cult."

Both Welch and Dustin McCune now live at home, an uneasy truce called with their parents. Dustin is deciding on whether to go to college, while Welch works on getting a G.E.D. and emancipation from her parents. They know some adults may never understand the freedom they felt on the streets; freedom that _ with all its pitfalls _ may be what keeps Michael Zdarko from going home even now.

"When you're living on your own in that kind of situation, it's not as bad as you might think," says Dustin. "It's not about worrying where your next meal is coming from. It's about being free. It's an experience."

Coping with a runaway

If the unthinkable happens, and one of your children runs away from home, experts at volunteer organizations dealing with runaway issues offer some advice:

Be realistic in what help you can expect from police.

Because of the number of runaway reports _ one study estimates about 1-million youths run away each year _ police trying to find missing children find themselves deluged in cases.

"Every day across this country, thousands of runaway reports are recorded," says Deborah Brady, case manager at the National Center for Missing and Explouted Children, volunteer organization founded by America's Most Wanted host John Walsh. "With that amount of activity, it becomes difficult to give any case the attention is deserves. Any agency would be swamped."

Contact volunteer and government organizations that can supplement police efforts.

Groups such as the National Center and the Missing Children's Help Center are nationally organized groups that can distribute posters, fliers, photos and information nationwide to law enforcement groups and other volunteers. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement also has a clearinghouse for runaway cases offering similar services. Most will register a missing child with a telephone call and a case number from the police.

Remain calm _ the first 24 hours are most important.

Parents should contact friends, school officials, neighbors, relatives, police and runaway hotlines as soon as possible after their child's flight is discovered. Often, when a child is on the road, quick response is essential.

Realize it can happen to anybody.

Despite some popular myths, statistics compiled by Family Resources indicate more than 70 percent of runaways come from upper and middle income families nationwide. In Pinellas County, about 73 percent are white, while 27 percent are from minority races. Only about 43 percent on the runaways who used their services _ just more than 1,500 youths during the 1995-96 school year _ were from single-parent homes.

Numbers that can help:

Missing Children Help Center _ (800) USA-KIDS

National Runaway Switchboard _ (800) 621-4000

Florida Dept of Law Enforcement Runaway Tipline _ (888) 356-4774

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children _ (800) 843-5678

_ ERIC DEGGANS

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