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General News of Tuesday, 20 November 2001

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A Bizarre tale of death, divorce and abduction

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By BRENDEN SAGER Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

A bizarre tale of death, divorce and abduction will take a 25-year-old Griffin mother to Ghana this week to collect her two children, whom she hasn't seen for eight months.

If all goes as planned, 4-year-old Ashanti Head Johnson and her 3-year-old sister, Faith, will be brought from a rural African village to the U.S. Embassy in Accra, where they will be reunited with their mother, Valencia Head.

Head knows almost nothing of how her children have been living since her ex-husband, 43-year-old Tony Johnson, took them on a routine visit April 20 and never returned. Early this month, a call came that Johnson had died of malaria.

The Ghanaian family Johnson was staying with told officials they couldn't assume responsibility for the youngsters. Now the children are coming home.

Head said she cannot wait to see her daughters, but her enthusiasm is guarded. She has talked to her children just once, briefly, since her husband's death. She's not sure what they will look like, how they will act.

During that phone call, Head said, the girls didn't seem to recognize her voice, and their voices had changed.

"They didn't sound like the little babies who left. There was no more baby talk."

Head is traveling to Ghana with her new best friend, Consuello E. Brown, victim advocate in the Griffin Judicial Circuit district attorney's office. Brown has assisted Head since she reported her children missing -- part investigator, part counselor.

Brown said she never expected a trip to Ghana would be part of the deal. "I never even imagined that," she said.

Head's daughter Ashanti will turn 5 the day after Thanksgiving. Faith celebrated her third birthday in an African village.

Their mother's trip to collect the children is -- to put it mildly -- still uncertain. Details seem to change by the minute.

Victim advocate Brown has traveled outside the United States once -- to Canada. Head has only been as far from home as California. Brown has been trying to figure out how the children would reach Accra from their village, in a country that couldn't be more foreign to the two Georgia women.

"I have been, I tell you, on the phone since" Nov. 8, Brown said. "I want everything to be a smooth transition."

When Head's ex-husband didn't return the children in April, Head called Griffin police. She feared the children and their father had been in an accident. When no word came, Head said, she concluded Johnson had abducted the children.

"I cried for two weeks," she said.

Police referred the distraught mother to the district attorney's office. Weeks later, authorities told her Johnson had gotten the children passports, possibly in Miami.

Head heard nothing for months. On Nov. 5, her mother died from cancer. As her family was making funeral arrangements, Johnson died of malaria in Ghana, officials said.

"My mind was blown. I couldn't have dreamed this up, thought it up or anything," Head said.

Her ex-husband had never talked about Ghana and had no family or friends there that she knew of, she said.

Through calls relayed from Accra to Washington to Griffin, Head learned her ex-husband and her daughters had been living with a family in a village a day's journey from the nearest phone.

She had no idea how to bring her girls home.

Brown stepped up again. She worked with local churches and businesses to raise money for the trip. She worked with Rep. Mac Collins' office and the State Department to expedite getting a passport and visa for Head. She also decided she would fly with the young mother to Accra. She said she'll figure out the rest when the women arrive in Ghana.

"This is a learn as you go situation," Brown said.

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