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Charge Dropped Against Mom Who Fled With Children 31 Years Ago

The Rhode Island Attorney General's Office said the decision in the long-running missing kids case stems in part from new information.
Image: A mugshot of Elaine Yates who was arrested for two counts of child kidnapping in Houston, Texas on Jan. 2017.
A mugshot of Elaine Yates released on Jan. 17, 2017 after Yates was arrested in Houston, Texas.Harris County Sheriff / EPA

Rhode Island prosecutors have dropped a criminal charge against a woman who took her young children and fled her husband 31 years ago, saying the dismissal is “in the interest of justice.”

An anonymous tip led police to Elaine Yates and her two now grown daughters, Kimberly and Kelly, who were found living in the Houston area last week.

Rhode Island and Texas police on Jan. 16 arrested Yates, who had been living under a different name, Leina Waldberg, and she was charged with child snatching in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin's office said in a statement the decision to dismiss the charge was due to "evidence that was not available or unknown to investigators prior to the discovery and apprehension of Ms. Yates and the laws in effect in 1988."

That's the year a warrant was issued against Yates for felony child snatching, but she disappeared with her daughters, who were 3 ½ years and 10 months old at the time, in 1985.

At the time of the disappearance, under Rhode Island law the children could not be considered abducted and no crime occurred, the Providence Journal newspaper reported in 1988. The child snatching law was changed in response to Yates' disappearance, state police said.

Related: How the 31-Year Missing Children Case Unfolded

Attorney General’s office spokesperson Amy Kempe declined to comment about what new evidence influenced the dismissal. The statement said the decision to drop the charge was made in part because "the well-being of the missing children has been established."

Russell Yates, left, holds a picture of his wife and children in 1988. At right, Yates speaks in the doorway of his home on Jan. 17 in Warwick, Rhode Island.Providence Journal via AP

Yates' daughters both have families of their own in the Houston area.

Their father, Russell Yates, told reporters from his home in Warwick last week that he just wants to be in contact with his children and didn’t think charges would do anyone any good.

"I don’t think it’s going to help her, me or anybody else. I just want to see my kids,” he said.

State police said Yates fled after a domestic dispute. Her attorneys have claimed she was abused. Elaine Yates, 69, was brought back to Rhode Island and charged, and was told she could return to Houston on $50,000 bond.

Attorneys for Elaine Yates, Bethany Macktaz and Lisa Holley on Wednesday applauded the dismissal and said she fled at a time when there were few legal options.

A mugshot of Elaine Yates released on Jan. 17, 2017 after Yates was arrested in Houston, Texas.Harris County Sheriff / EPA

"We were very pleased to be able to share the news of the dismissal of the charges with our client," the attorneys told NBC affiliate WJAR. They said the “unwarranted arrest” has now exposed her identity and location.

The missing children case garnered international attention and was featured on “America’s Most Wanted.”

Age-processed images of the mother and children appeared on the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. State police detectives followed leads to Canada, Colorado, Florida, Oregon, Maine and New Hampshire. Recruits were taught about the case, and it was reassigned to new detectives regularly.

"This one was handed down from generation to generation," Rhode Island State Police Lt. Col. Joseph Philbin said last week.