Bitter custody battle sends mother, children into hiding as father continues frantic search

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For nine months, Niagara County law enforcement have come up empty-handed. Some believe they aren't doing enough.

A Niagara County mother and her two children vanished nine months ago during a bitter custody trial.

The father, who lives in Massachusetts, has not seen the children in almost a year and has hired a private investigator to help find them.

Niagara County Family Court Judge Erin P. DeLabio continued the trial without the mother present. And on Feb. 15, the judge made a rare decision to give the father, Peter Diarbakerly, full custody of the two children, 9-year-old Olivia and 2-year-old Mason.

The judge also issued a protective order for the children against their 34-year-old mother Katie Riford.

The challenge now is finding the children.

The judge ordered law enforcement in both Massachusetts and New York to assist the father in reuniting him with the children through any legal means possible.

But some are questioning whether Niagara County law enforcement officials are doing enough.

For example, law enforcement officials have not alerted the local community that the children and mother are missing. Nor have they used the press or social media to help get the word out to locate the missing children.

No Amber Alert has been posted ostensibly because this case does not meet the criteria.

“I believe the system dropped the ball,” said Diarbakerly, the father, in an exclusive interview with News 4 Investigates.

Niagara County law enforcement officials declined on-camera interviews with News 4 Investigates to discuss the case.

The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office has an arrest warrant out for the mother, Katie Riford. But they have no evidence she has been served with that warrant or the custody order.

“We’re not ignoring it,” said Niagara County Sheriff James Voutour.

Law enforcement has conducted occasional surveillance and made visits to a home in Wheatfield at which some believe the children may be staying. But they were shooed away by family members, and law enforcement agents say they lack probable cause to get a search warrant.

“The health and safety of the Riford children is a top priority of our office, the County Attorney, the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office and Child Protective Services,” said District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek in an emailed statement.

“Daily joint efforts are made to locate these two young children.”

Meanwhile, the missing mother’s siblings are alleging that Diarbakerly is abusive, which he strongly denies.

Christina Little and Kevin Riford, the mother’s sister and brother, are featured on a website called “A story of Misplaced Power & Corruption” that accuses the judge, private investigators and law enforcement of working against their sister in the custody battle.

“I would describe it as a family being terrorized by people in power in this city,” said Little, who is Riford’s older sister.

“There’s the optimist in me who thinks she’s somewhere safe. And it’s better than being in a situation where her children are being abused and they’re being completely ripped apart from the only parent they’ve known their entire lives, and then there’s the realist in me who says I just don’t know if it’s possible for a mother who’s never lived outside Buffalo, New York, except for school, to be on the run this long and be safe.”

Long distance parenting

Peter Diarbakerly, 29, of Lincoln, Massachusetts, met Katie Riford in 2008 at a summer camp at the Gow School, a college-prep boarding school in South Wales.

They hit it off, started dating and over the next year Katie Riford got pregnant.

Their relationship remained a long-distance one and they never married. Visitations varied once Olivia was born.

But within the past few years their relationship began to fizz out.

So, in 2017, Diarbakerly filed for visitation rights in Niagara County Family Court, setting off a contentious, heart-wrenching 18-month custody battle.

The Rifords told News 4 that their sister was not pleased with how the family court case was evolving. Katie Riford had already fired an attorney and she didn’t seem happy with the efforts of her second attorney, the family said.

Due to the allegations of abuse, the attorneys for both parties agreed to have supervised visitations with the father.

During those supervised visits, Katie Riford made more allegations that Diarbakerly was abusive to her and the children, alleging that Mason was “dehydrated and lifeless” during a visit and that he “forced” Olivia to “walk a long distance in the heat, despite [her] asking for breaks to rest” due to her asthma.

Diarbakerly denies that he was ever abusive and said Katie Riford refused to facilitate reasonable access to the children, by both telephone and in person. He accused the brother, Kevin Riford, of harassing him in front of the children. And he said Katie Riford would file incident reports with police, “making false and fraudulent allegations” against him.

According to court transcripts, the supervisor mistakenly sent Katie Riford a text message that was meant for Diarbakerly, in which she referred to the mother as “Miss Miserable.”

“… what she thinks about Ms. Riford or whatever, I don’t find that to be important enough, as opposed to her as a social worker here reporting to me what she’s supervised or observed as a father interacting with his children. Okay?” the judge said.

Then on Feb. 15, Katie Riford filed an affidavit in opposition to a motion for default in which she informed the court that she was “forced into hiding” and alleged the judge was biased against her. Her affidavit included eight pages of complaints and allegations against the judge, the child visitation supervisor, Diarbakerly, and the attorney for the two children.

Judge DeLabio did not return messages seeking comment.

Judge DeLabio continued the trial without Katie Riford. The judge awarded Diarbakerly full custody of the two children. The order directs law enforcement in both Massachusetts and New York “to assist the father, Peter Diarbakerly, to the extent legally authorized” in regaining custody.

A week later, the judge approved a temporary order of protection for the two children, against the mother.

Katie Riford vanished in February, along with her two children

Katie Riford and the two children have not been seen since.

“She knew that those kids were going to be sent to Boston no matter what,” said Little, the older sister.

Since then, Diarbakerly hired private investigator Peter Vito to help find the children.

Police shooed away

Peter Vito told News 4 that he did a full background check on Diarbakerly before he agreed to accept the case and found no credible allegation of abuse or any other red flags.

Vito’s firm has conducted surveillance of the Rifords’ home in Wheatfield, where some believe the mother may be hiding the children. They have visited Little’s in-laws asking for them to help and suggested Little was the “ring leader” in the debacle. They’ve reached out to law enforcement, including the district attorney, asking them to put more effort into finding the children.

Peter Vito, a private investigator hired by the father

Vito said soon after the mother and children disappeared in February, he inquired with Niagara County law enforcement about registering the case with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office didn’t approve the request until months later in July, Vito said.

“With the technology that’s available today and the resources that are available today, these children should have been reunited with their father immediately,” Vito said.

“I mean, the fact that we had to wait this long is an embarrassment to the system.”

Wojtaszek, the district attorney, said in her prepared statement that she is in almost weekly contact with Diarbakerly, the father. 

“All efforts made to date and into the future must be made within the confines of the law,” she said. 

“It is our intention to do everything within our legal power to locate these children and bring them home safely.”

Some, including Vito and the father, believe the children are staying with the Rifords at the family home in Wheatfield. But there’s little evidence to suggest their hunch is correct.

Due to the lack of evidence, law enforcement officials have not sought ought a search warrant. However, they have visited the family home on several occasions.

Christina Little and Kevin Riford are siblings of the missing mother

On Feb. 27, a Niagara County deputy was greeted at the door by Kevin Riford, the brother. A video of the encounter is posted on misplacedpower.org, the website that features the Rifords telling a tale of corruption by those in power.

“How can I help you?” Kevin Riford asks the deputy

“I’m here to see Katie,” the deputy said.

“She’s not here,” Kevin Riford answered.

“Well, can you tell me where she is?” the deputy asked.

“I’m not going to answer any more questions. She’s not here. I would like a lawyer. You’re free to go, this is private property, you’re trespassing,” Kevin Riford said.

Kevin Riford gets angry, using expletives at the deputy in directing him off the property.

Later that day, at least four more deputies visited the Rifords home, at which Kevin Riford again answered the door.

“How’s it going buddy, got a warrant?” Kevin Riford said as he opens the door.

“Yeah, we do, a family court warrant for her,” a deputy responded.

Both Kevin Riford and his mother tell the deputies that Katie Riford is not in the home. One of the deputies said that they’ve been getting information that Katie Riford has been there and that they need to check on the welfare of her and the children.

“This is not going to end well for you guys,” a deputy said.

Kevin Riford ordered them off the property.   

 “What you’re doing is pure harassment, pure harassment,” Kevin Riford tells them.

“Get off the property! Leave! You’re not welcome here!”

Vito implored the district attorney to allow law enforcement to use every tool at their disposal.

“Allow them to use those tools, find these kids,” Vito said.

“We honestly do not know if they are live today, let alone where they are.”

One tool law enforcement use for missing children is the Amber Alert, but certain criteria must be met.

Authorities must believe that the children were abducted, that the children are in danger of death or serious injury and there must be enough visual information about the child, the captor or the captor’s vehicle.

Law enforcement told News 4 Investigates that they lack definitive evidence that the children are in imminent harm, even though the 9-year-old girl has asthma that would require medical attention, hasn’t been to school since February and there is no indication that either of the children have seen doctors.

Wojtaszek could empanel a grand jury on a misdemeanor of custodial interference against the mother, which would give the district attorney subpoena powers to get phone and banking records, among other documentation.

But such action is generally not taken for misdemeanors like this, said Scott Riordan, a former Erie County assistant district attorney who now serves as a judge in Kenmore.

“Could you indict on a misdemeanor? You could, but it still doesn’t do much more than what is already happening because there is a warrant for [Katie Riford’s] arrest,” he said.

Sleepless nights

Meanwhile, Diarbakerly hasn’t seen his children since November 2018.

“It’s a lot of sleepless nights,” he said.

Not being able to see his children has been “extremely painful” for him and his family, Diarbakerly said.

“I’m doing everything that I can humanly possible to make sure you guys are OK,” Diarbakerly said, as if he were speaking directly to his two children.

On the flip side, the Rifords say they are equally hurt by what they describe as constant harassment from private investigators and law enforcement.  Vito said the allegations are “nonsense.”

On Oct. 17, Little, the older sister, emailed News 4 stating that she prays that her sister will turn herself in and “face the consequences of her actions.”

“I’ve decided that I can no longer travel this path of pleading with professionals to examine the facts,” Little wrote in the email.

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