For more than two years, Eva Ruiz-Gomez insisted she was innocent of charges she abducted her son, took him to Mexico and deprived the boy's biological father of visitation rights.
She earned the sympathy of dozens of supporters on the Peninsula, where the Mexican immigrant made her home on-and-off since she was a girl.
On Friday, a Monterey County judge dismissed the charges against her, prompting tears and blown kisses from her supporters to Judge Larry Hayes.
"It's a great victory," said Helen Rose, one of those who have stood by Ruiz-Gomez's side.
The case hinged on three orders issued in family law court relating to the custody of the boy, who is now 15 years old.
In 2002, Ruiz-Gomez obtained court permission to take him to Mexico by the end of the year, a trip that was delayed. In the meantime, the boy's biological father, Ram-n Muñoz, requested visitations, which were granted by a second order.
Ruiz-Gomez and her family left for Mexico at the end of 2003. In court declarations, Muñoz said he attempted to find out where Ruiz-Gomez moved, to not avail. He got a third court order in 2004 that gave him partial custody of the boy.
The order was not properly served, but was the basis for Ruiz-Gomez's felony charges.
Ruiz-Gomez returned to Monterey County in 2009, and more than a year later was charged with intention to deprive custody, which is a felony.
Ruiz-Gomez maintained her innocence and refused plea offers that would have lowered the charges, but would have stained her record, she said. As the process moved toward trial, Ruiz-Gomez's pro bono attorneys fought to get a new hearing to consider whether the charges were valid.
On Friday, Hayes said the two valid court orders were confusing, to the point that even prosecution investigator Manuel Infante admitted Ruiz-Gomez possibly had permission from the court to go to Mexico. If the orders could confuse a law enforcement official, Hayes concluded, they surely could confuse the boy's mother.
Hayes said it was Muñoz's obligation to contact the family law court to mediate for visitations after the family was in Mexico. Instead, Muñoz asked Ruiz-Gomez's friends and family about her whereabouts.
Hayes said there was not sufficient proof that Ruiz-Gomez acted maliciously.
In previous proceedings, "the court stated in part she could go to Mexico by a certain time and then set up visitation services to Mexico," Hayes said. "But that's not what the order said. It was the father's obligation to contact family court to set up visitations."
A District Attorney's Office investigator contacted Ruiz-Gomez in 2004, and even after he found her, Muñoz did not make attempts to visit his son in Mexico, Hayes said.
"In my own review of the orders in question, I see clearly the 2002 order gives sole legal custody to the mother," Hayes said. The 2003 order "is completely silent whether she can no longer go to Mexico. Mom took the petition (to mean) that she still had the authority to go to Mexico under the court orders.
"At the very minimum, the two orders are confusing, they're not clear, and it's the prosecution's burden to prove intent of the parties and intent of the judge at the time the orders were made to clarify."
The best place to have resolved the issue would have been family court, Hayes said. Because the case was brought to criminal court and there was no proof of malice, he dismissed the charges.
Prosecutor Todd Hornick left the courtroom in a rush after the charges were dismissed.
Ruiz-Gomez's family and friends — about 20 — were ecstatic. They said they felt Hayes took the time to really read the documents and give an impartial opinion, unlike Judge Mark Hood, who they believe was biased against Ruiz-Gomez.
"Such a good, measured judge," said Carole Erickson, a retired nurse who has attended many of Ruiz-Gomez's hearings.
Ruiz-Gomez broke down crying after Hayes' ruling. She embraced her husband, the Honorary Mexican Consul Blanca Zarazua, her mother and all her supporters waiting outside the courtroom.
"I'm extremely happy," Delia Gomez, Ruiz-Gomez's mother, said in Spanish. "It's finally over. The suffering will stop."
Ruiz-Gomez said she was happy to see the ordeal over but was resentful about what she had to endure.
"I lost the opportunity to be in Mexico," she said. "They took my child from school. I want them next time to look at the entire case. It can't be so easy for them to take a child from their mother. He was traumatized by that. Also, he cannot leave Monterey County. It's like being on house arrest."
Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at
753-6755 or firstname.lastname@example.org.