RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Melody Bannister, the 34-year-old Stafford County mother who led U.S. Marshals on a nationwide manhunt and was captured in Indiana, has been extradited back to Virginia.
For the first time, she’s speaking out to 8News about why she disappeared with her children. She says she ran because her kids were being abused.
Bannister was extradited back to Stafford County to face charges with abducting her children, violating a court order and filing a false police report. According to her lawyer, she remains in custody at Rappahannock Regional Jail. She was arraigned in Stafford County Circuit Court Monday and denied bond.
The Stafford mom had been on the run with her kids for eight months. U.S. Marshals caught up with her at a gas station in Indiana with her four children. They were found safe in the car.
Talking to 8News from the Hendricks County Jail in Indiana, Bannister said she reported to the Stafford County, Virginia Sheriff’s Office that her children were allegedly being sexually abused by a family member and his friends as part of a sex trafficking ring.
“They were being beaten and raped. They were forced to perform oral sex on groups of men,” Bannister told 8News.
Bannister said she told the Stafford detective on the case she would be heading out of town on a planned family vacation after filing her report.
“I knew that there was a chance that my children would be in danger as soon as we went to the police,” explained Bannister. The Stafford County Sheriff’s Office confirmed to 8News the allegations were investigated by them and child protective services but they were determined to be unfounded.
Then when a judge ordered custody of the children to her husband, that’s when the Stafford mom took off across country with the children in tow. Bannister said, “The highest priority was always, always to keep the kids safe. I could not return to Virginia because it was not safe.”
While on the run, Bannister blogged about the alleged abuse and journey. She claimed they were well cared for, fed and housed by a network of supporters.
“You know, the concept of the underground railroad is not lost,” Bannister said. A Change.Org petition to help Bannister has more than 46,000 signatures. While in Alabama for a bit, Bannister secured attorney Samuel McLure.
“I think any mother that gave a salt about her kids and would have done the exact same thing,” McLure said.
McLure had Bannister and her children evaluated by nationally known forensic psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman. She concluded three of the children had been abused physically, sexually and emotionally.
“Unlike Child Protective Services in Stafford County, who did a 15 minute interview, Dr. Lieberman spent over eight hours with these children,” McLure told 8News.
Hope for Justice, a global anti-human trafficking non-profit has also joined the case. An investigator with the group believes he found evidence supporting Bannister’s claims, as well as writings and artwork from the kids revealing the alleged abuse.
Yet, others say Bannister is a false victim, the writings and artwork produced while on the run. They claim she’s unstable, brainwashed the kids and that this was nothing more than an interstate custody battle in a sophisticated plot to leave her husband.
Bannister denies that. She says, “This was 100 percent, I need to get my kids safe.”
In the meantime, Bannister with the help of her attorney has filed a civil complaint in Alabama alleging human trafficking against several Virginia residents.
“I think the truth will come out in time,” said McLure.
8News spoke to Bannister’s husband and he said he couldn’t say much with the ongoing case and that it was not in the best interest of his kids. He did tells 8News the children are with him and are doing fantastic.
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