Mother gets five-year sentence, $10,000 fine for kidnapping son

Alexandra Berzon

Express-News Staff Writer

NEW BRAUNFELS - A jury Friday sentenced Suzanne Kearns-DeWalt to five years in state prison and a $10,000 fine a week and a half after they convicted her of kidnapping her son.

In October 2002, after losing a child custody case in the same New Braunfels courthouse, Kearns-DeWalt fled to Mexico with her 4-year-old son, where they lived for three years. Kearns-DeWalt claimed in that earlier trial that her ex-husband, Navy pilot Mike DeWalt, and two other men had abused her son, Jeremy, then 3, on a family trip to Florida. Those allegations were never proven and Mike DeWalt won the custody battle over his son. Kearns-DeWalt left the courthouse that day and escaped with Jeremy and her mother shortly after.

She now says she did not get a fair trial in that case after her lawyer missed a deadline and was barred from presenting key witnesses to the jury.

As the jury read its verdict Friday, Kearns-DeWalt stood with a blank expression. Her lip quivered slightly when she realized she had not been granted probation as she and her family had hoped. Her father, Edward Kearns, said he was "devastated" by the verdict.

Kearns-DeWalt has served eight months of her sentence and will be eligible for parole in two years. The jury could have given her life.

Edward Kearns said the family is resolved to appeal the case. "This isn't over. There has been so much reversible error," he said. Both he and his late wife served time in jail for aiding and abetting the kidnapping.

The DeWalt family said they were pleased with the verdict. "Justice was served," said Mike DeWalt, who attended the trial in his Navy uniform.

"It says a message," said DeWalt's mother, Char DeWalt. "Other parents are going to think twice before they do something like this. We don't want another little boy to go through what Jeremy went through."

In the sentencing phase of the trial, the prosecution tried to portray Kearns-DeWalt as a psychologically imbalanced, manipulative mother and ex-wife who exaggerated her son's claims of abuse in an effort to gain full custody of her son.

The defense sought to show that regardless of whether or not Jeremy's father molested him, Kearns-DeWalt had good reason to believe he had, and made the fatal but understandable mistake of escaping with her son when she faced losing him to his father.

In the sentencing phase of the trial, the jury heard the details of the abuse claims for the first time.

Both the prosecution and the defense showed the jury a series of heart-wrenching videos depicting young Jeremy, who reportedly came back from the trip with his father with a stutter he didn't have before, describing horrible acts of sexual abuse that allegedly occurred on that trip. Both the FBI and the Navy investigated those claims but no charges were brought. Mike DeWalt denied the claims and reportedly passed multiple polygraph tests.

Jeremy, now 9, lives with his father at an unknown location. Kearns-DeWalt, along with members of her family, have been barred from seeing him. He did not testify at the trial.