Attorney abruptly withdraws from custody case

Published: 1/9/2010 12:00 AM

BENTON -- An expected resolution to a dispute over a boy allegedly hidden by his mother, often in a crawl space behind a wall, short-circuited when the woman's attorney abruptly walked off the case, calling her client "very hostile" while questioning her mental fitness.

Despite claims by an attorney for the boy's father that Shannon Wilfong may be stalling, Franklin County Circuit Judge Melissa Drew rescheduled her decision on the matter for Feb. 19, warning Wilfong that there would be no more delays.

The custody case has been stewing since at least late 2007, when authorities say Wilfong began hiding her son, now 7, at her mother's house near Royalton, stashing him in a crawl space -- roughly 5 feet by 12 feet, about the height of a washing machine -- whenever visitors came.

The home's windows were blocked off with shades or other items, and Drew has found that the boy was deprived of contact with peers, medical care and education. Testimony showed the boy was allowed outside only at night or in a fenced-in area not visible to passers-by.

Authorities raided the home in September, found the boy, and arrested Wilfong and her mother, Diane Dobbs. The boy remains in another relative's custody.

Wilfong's attorney, Susan Burger, appeared to catch the judge and other attorneys off-guard Friday with her push to withdraw from the case, claiming in a written motion that Wilfong didn't return "numerous messages" and "has not kept in communication."

Later, as the attorneys huddled around Drew at the judge's request, Burger called Wilfong "very hostile," adding that "I even have questions about her fitness. She just doesn't seem to understand."

Wilfong later told the judge that Burger told her at a December hearing that her case was "unbeatable"; Dobbs said afterward that her daughter meant to say "unwinnable."

Fred Turner, an attorney for the boy's father, Michael Chekevdia, had argued against postponing a resolution and questioned whether Wilfong was bent on delaying the proceedings. But Chekevdia told reporters afterward that giving Wilfong time to find new counsel was "totally fair."

Wilfong ignored reporters' questions.

During last month's hearing, Drew concluded that Wilfong's hiding of her son for two years amounted to neglect.

Wilfong, 30, has been charged with felony abduction. Dobbs and her boyfriend, Robert Sandefur, both 51, are accused of aiding and abetting the alleged crime. All three have pleaded not guilty and are free on bond.

Dobbs contends Wilfong fled with the boy to protect him from abuse by Chekevdia. Chekevdia has rejected their allegations of abuse, as have state child welfare officials.

Chekevdia, a former police officer and an Illinois Army National Guard lieutenant colonel, won temporary custody of his son shortly before the boy and his mother -- Chekevdia's former girlfriend -- disappeared.