To escape her husband, Cheryl Hinson fled more than 800 miles with her two young children, slept in shelters and legally changed her name to Margaret O'Brien.
After seven months, she thought she was free from Terry Hinson, a convicted murderer whom she accused of beating her and the children.
She was wrong.
In August, Clearwater police officers knocked on her apartment door and arrested her on a Tennessee warrant for interfering with her husband's custody of the children. Jarrett, 5, and Grace, 2, were taken into state custody.
Since then, family members from Tennessee to Florida have fought over where to keep the children while their mother remained behind bars at the Pinellas County Jail.
On Wednesday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Raymond Gross decided to send the children back to Tennessee.
They will remain in state custody until a judge can sort out all the allegations and determine whether either parent should have the children.
Ms. O'Brien, wearing an orange jail uniform, sobbed after the judge's decision, clinging to her mother and stepfather before she was escorted from the courtroom.
"Say anything you want about Cheryl, but she has always been a wonderful mother," said Pauline Andrus, Ms. O'Brien's mother. "She was trying to save herself and her children. This is one of those things that never should have happened."
Mrs. Andrus, who lives in Mount Dora, said her daughter told her in January that she was leaving the family's home in Hohenwald, Tenn., because Hinson had abused her and the children for years. She also told her mother that Hinson had threatened to kill her.
No evidence of the allegations was brought up in the hearing, but Gross said he was concerned and would not give the children to their father.
"In light of the allegations, I'll be very cautious here," the judge said. "My hands are tied. This is a fight that has to be fought in Tennessee."
Maria Padoan, a child protective investigator with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, recommended that the children be kept away from their father. When it appeared that might not happen, she resigned.
At one point, she said one of her supervisors was leaning toward having the children placed with the father in Tennessee.
"They wanted me to write in a report that the children be either placed in the father's custody or in a (state) shelter up in Tennessee," Padoan said earlier in the week.
"I resigned. I said "the job's not worth it,' " she said. "I just feel, what's the sense of learning all this knowledge about child protective investigations and not being able to apply it?"
Kim McQueen, a victim advocate at an Ocala shelter where the family stayed for several months this year, said the children suffer from nightmares, insomnia and the fear of being alone because of their father's abuse.
Court records show Terry Hinson, 41, spent 13 years in prison for killing Richard Magoon on Oct. 14, 1978. Hinson, who will be on parole until 2043, could not be reached for comment.
The Hinsons met while he still was in prison, Ms. Andrus said. The two began writing letters back and forth after Ms. O'Brien answered an ad in the newspaper.
She didn't know her pen pal was in prison at first because his mother mailed his letters for him. She later agreed to marry him before he was released from prison, Mrs. Andrus said.
In April, Hinson filed for divorce and for custody of their children. Ms. O'Brien said she didn't know that because she already had left Tennessee and should not be penalized for taking the children.
But she faces criminal charges in Pinellas County for interfering with her husband's custody.
_ Times staff writer Curtis Krueger and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.