Minnesotan accused of abandoning 11-year-old son: 'I never thought I'd broken the law'Steven Alexander Cross said he was in a state of shock when he drove out of Minnesota, leaving his 11-year-old son alone in their Lakeville home, soon to be lost in a foreclosure. The next thing he remembers, he said, is his Ford Windstar van entering North Dakota.
By: Maricella Miranda, St. Paul Pioneer Press / MCT
Steven Alexander Cross said he was in a state of shock when he drove out of Minnesota, leaving his 11-year-old son alone in their Lakeville home, soon to be lost in a foreclosure.
The next thing he remembers is his Ford Windstar van entering North Dakota.
"I don't have any real memory," Cross said during an interview Wednesday. "I was worked up and upset."
The 60-year-old single father said he drove onward for four days to California, where he hoped to reconnect with a grandfather and find work.
In the interview, an often tearful Cross recalled that trip and what led him to flee.
Cross, who faces a charge of gross misdemeanor child neglect, left his son July 18 in their home and drove to California where he was later arrested and extradited to Minnesota.
Buried in bills and a mortgage payment, Cross said he had survived for two years off savings, his 401(k) and unemployment checks until only $1,000 was left. Cross then decided to leave and wrote letters to his son, Sebastian, and their neighbors asking them to care for the boy.
Cross said he was too emotional to tell his son he was leaving.
"Through it all, I tried to keep everything as normal as I could for Sebastian," Cross said. "I wanted it to be as close to a normal day for him. I didn't want to make it a big deal."
But once Dakota County Social Services heard about his departure, county prosecutors charged Cross with child neglect and put the boy in child protective services. Sebastian
lived with neighbors for a month and then with a maternal great-aunt.
Cross' road trip ended in August with an arrest in California. Today, Cross lives with neighbors across the street from the house he lost. Cross remains unemployed as an architect but said he's focused on meeting court requirements to see his son again.
"All I want to do is talk to my son," he said. "I feel helpless that I can't talk to him."
Child still in protective custody
Not everyone is eager to see him reunited so soon with his son. Last month, a judge denied a motion by Cross to end the child protective services.
Sebastian remains in child protective custody.
His mother, Katik Porter, 38, lost visitation rights in 2002. In the letter Cross left for his son, he told the boy his mother was alive, contrary to what he had told him previously. The boy has since had visits with her.
Last month, Dakota County District Judge Richard Spicer said Cross could see his son if recommended after a psychological evaluation. Dakota County Social Services also must agree, he said.
Cross said he's in the process of meeting those requirements. Porter also had to meet those requirements.
Porter's attorney did not return messages Wednesday for comment.
Cross tried to stop child protective services by arguing that the county didn't meet "it's burden of proof" showing that Sebastian was abandoned and needed help when he left the boy with neighbors, John and Joanne Pahl. But Spicer disagreed.
Sebastian has always been a part of the Pahl family, Cross said Wednesday.
"I never thought I'd broken the law," he said. "I thought I was leaving Sebastian with the Pahls."
That's why on the day he left for California, he packed his van and wrote letters to his son and the Pahls, he said. He told the boy about his unemployment and foreclosure and sent him to the Pahl home.
In other letters, he asked the couple to take care of his son or find another family that could. Cross also offered them money by selling the rest of his belongings.
Living in his van
Cross said he remembers driving past the Mills Fleet Farm store in Lakeville.
After that, he claims he blacked out until he saw the North Dakota highway sign. In Montana, he drove through the Painted Canyon and the Big Sky area.
He met a fisherman along the way, and stopped to catch trout with him.
"I thought I'd died and gone to heaven there," Cross said.
Then he continued west. On the border of Utah and Nevada, Cross said he took a break at a casino, where he gambled a bit and met a woman from St. Paul.
When he reached Carmel, Calif., Cross said he called an ex-girlfriend and asked her to check on Sebastian, which she did. He was fine, she
later told Cross.
Cross began searching for relatives. He discovered his grandfather had died, and he found no other surviving relatives. His drive down the Pacific coast ended in Cambria, Calif., an oceanside artists' colony.
There, Cross persuaded the owner of Soto's Market to give him a part-time job making deli sandwiches and salads. He lived in his van. Some days, Cross said he had 15 cents in his pocket. "I'd sit down by the beach, and I loved it," Cross said.
Denies suicide risk
But he couldn't escape the criminal case back in Minnesota.
A former girlfriend and another friend back home told Cross the story of him leaving his son had made news nationally.
Soon after, a San Luis Obispo County sheriff's deputy arrested Cross near the deli, on a "self-endangerment" warrant and the child-neglect charge.
Authorities said they considered Cross a suicide risk because of the notes he left his son and the email he later wrote from California to his ex-girlfriend.
In the email, Cross said: "... I probably only have a couple of days. ... No one I called would help me. ... I didn't know what to do. I am scared and hopelessly depressed."
Mental health officials interviewed him at the jail, authorities said, adding they could not comment on Cross' mental health evaluation because of state privacy laws.
On Wednesday, Cross denied he had been suicidal. He said that in the message to his ex-girlfriend, he was referring to his email account closing in two days because he hadn't paid the bill.
Cross spent about a dozen days in the San Luis Obispo County jail. Inside, the guards put Cross on lockdown because of death threats from inmates, gang members who heard news reports about Cross abandoning his child, he said.
Cross said he was "blown away" that the local and national media were interested in his story.
He said he believes his story touches other people facing home foreclosure.
"I think a lot of people don't want to talk about it," Cross said.
The last steady job Cross has had as an architect was in 2009.
Like others he had worked for, the company downsized because of the economy, he said. He was self-employed after that. Court records show Cross owed nearly $35,000 to financial companies since 2007.
A bank bought his home at a sheriff's auction for $336,925 in January, property records show.
Cross said he went through an earlier bankruptcy and foreclosure, in 1992.
Possible year in jail
Cross said he fled to California to re-establish himself, find a job and a new place to live and eventually bring Sebastian with him. Instead, he returned to Minnesota a criminal.
Maybe someday Sebastian will use the experience in a college essay, Cross said tearfully. Maybe the experience will lead Sebastian on a special path, he said.
But first, he said, "I want to make sure he's OK."
Cross' next hearing in the criminal case is Jan. 4. If convicted of child neglect, he could spend up to a year in jail.
The next child protection hearing is Dec. 21.
How to help
A fund has been established to help Steven Cross. The "S. Cross Family Fund" is at TCF Bank.
Distributed by MCT Information Services