Michelle Gibbs at her sentencing hearing on Wednesday, June 1
Frank Cowan / Santa Maria Times

Last spring, Michelle Gibbs and her two young daughters disappeared. They vanished after a court hearing where Gibbs’s ex-husband was granted visitation rights in the midst of a bitter custody dispute. All efforts to find the Orcutt mother and her children failed, so Santa Barbara County law enforcement issued a media advisory seeking the public’s help, including toothy yearbook photos of the girls and a DMV picture of Gibbs. Detectives said Gibbs — a county planner and biologist from 2004 to 2011 — did not have a history of violence, but they had reason to fear for the safety of Gabriella, 6, and Cassidy, 4.

Six months later, Gibbs surrendered herself and her daughters to the U.S. consulate on the southern tip of Baja California Sur. She was extradited back to Santa Barbara, where prosecutors charged her with felony child abduction. Little more was said about the case that had generated so much public attention and become a priority for the Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices. Authorities declined to release details on their investigation; Gibbs’s motivations remained a mystery.

As part of a plea deal, Gibbs, 44, was sentenced last Wednesday to three months of probation and 120 days of either electronic monitoring or participation in the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program. If she complies with the terms of her probation, the felony charge will be reduced to a misdemeanor. Though many facts of the case remain irresolute, newly released court documents start to explain why Gibbs, in her own words, “absolutely panicked” the day she filled her car with belongings, pulled the girls out of school, and fled to Mexico.

According to a pre-plea report filed in April by the county’s Probation Department, Gibbs’s daughters confided in her on Christmas Eve 2014 that their father had been sexually abusing and threatening them. They repeated the accusations a number of times over the coming months, sometimes in front of Gibbs’s parents, and began acting out in disturbing and violent ways. One afternoon, Gabriella tried to run in front of a moving car.

Gibbs reported the allegations to the Sheriff’s Office and Child Welfare Services (CWS). An investigation was launched, and Gibbs filed for a temporary restraining order against her ex-husband, whom she had divorced a year and a half earlier. During their marriage, she worked while he was a stay-at-home dad. In her written statements to the court, Gibbs described him as a “good person” and an “excellent father,” except when he lost his temper.

Sheriff’s detectives conducted two forensic interviews with Gibbs’s daughters, but they didn’t repeat their accusations. At the time, their father refused to take a polygraph test. Soon after, the girls disclosed to a counselor with CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation) that they were being harmed. They drew detailed pictures depicting where and how. At a court hearing on February 19, 2015, to uphold or deny the restraining order, Gibbs’s attorney subpoenaed the CALM counselor to testify, but she declined, invoking her “privilege of confidentiality,” according to court records. In a written declaration, Gibbs’s father, who had allegedly heard some of the girls’ incriminating statements, expressed surprise and frustration that investigators had not interviewed him for his corroborating testimony.

Gibbs’s ex-husband has continually and forcefully denied his daughters’ allegations. He has not been charged with any crimes in the case, and the investigation — which included a polygraph test he later agreed to and passed, as well as multiple interviews with coworkers, family, and friends — has been closed. His attorney, Daniel Murphy, said in an email, “This matter has been dealt with in the courts. Judge [Timothy] Staffel found no evidence to corroborate or substantiate Ms. Gibbs’s allegations against Mr. Gibbs.”

When Gibbs learned during the February 19 hearing that the restraining order would likely be lifted the following week, she said she was terrified. “I felt [my daughters] had slipped through the legal cracks and that no one was going to be able to protect them,” Gibbs wrote in a statement in the probation report. “I made a decision to protect them and that I would not let them be put in harm’s way.”

On February 26, after the restraining order was lifted for lack of evidence, Gibbs spirited south with the children. They drove 1,300 miles to Cabo San Lucas, where Gibbs rented an apartment. She enrolled her daughters in a bilingual school and made a modest living as a freelance travel writer. She planned to remain until the girls turned 18. She told them their father had died.

But as the months ticked by, Gibbs’s “guttural fear” gave way to logic. She realized her choice to flee would mean living illegally in Mexico for the rest of their lives. “Therefore, I made the decision to return, which was the hardest decision I ever made in my life.” In her statements to the court, she expressed remorse for her actions and said she would abide by the decision of detectives to close the case against her former husband. “I know that I am not above the law,” she wrote. “I was just consumed by fear and confused by the law.”

Upon their return to Orcutt, Gibbs’s daughters were placed in the sole custody of their father. She now sees them once a week during supervised visits. They have made no further accusations against him and appear to be doing well, Gibbs noted, and they participate in regular therapy sessions. She told the court she is seeing a counselor herself and finding constructive ways of moving forward with her personal relationships and career. And she said she trusts the “fair and cautious” investigators who remain abreast of the case. Nevertheless, she noted, “I am watching the girls closely.”

In his own letter to the court ahead of Gibbs’s sentencing last week, her ex-husband asked for a much stiffer penalty than what was ultimately handed down. He said Gibbs deserved at least six months in prison, “the amount of time she fled to Mexico with the girls when no one knew where they were.” He claimed her actions destroyed his and his kids’ lives. “I want the DA to enforce the law and to prosecute to the fullest extent, because if the shoe was on the other foot, I would be going to prison no matter how much you try to convince me you treat everyone equally.” Probation officials argued Gibbs’s case didn’t merit a prison term, considering her clean record, positive psychological reviews, and the circumstances of her crime.

“Ms. Gibbs has done an incredible job dealing with an impossible situation,” said her attorney, Danielle De Smeth this week. “She left everything behind to do what she believed necessary to protect her daughters.” De Smeth acknowledged that Gibbs shouldn’t have fled, but she said her client is now working hard to “make the most of a tragic situation.” In July, Gibbs will apply for unsupervised visitation with her daughters. The eventual goal, De Smeth said, is to get back to shared custody.


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