Fleeing Katrina Volunteer Arrested in Houston

Rhonda Tavey, the Houston woman charged with kidnapping five children she took in following Hurricane Katrina three years ago, has been caught, ABC News has learned.

Tavey, who had allegedly been on the run from police after disappearing two weeks ago, was arrested by the FBI outside a Houston, Texas, home and taken to the Harris County Jail, where she will stay until appearing before a judge Friday.

All five children are now in the custody of Child Protective Services.

Dick DeGuerin, Tavey's attorney, told ABC News following his client's arrest, "I'm going to show the court that these kids were not kidnapped, they were abandoned."

So how did a volunteer who did so much to help displaced families after Hurricane Katrina end up in this situation?

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Tavey claims Erica Alphonse, the 22-year-old mother of the five children, ages 3 to 8, is a neglectful mother who often went for weeks without seeing her children.

But regardless of Tavey's motives in leaving town with the children, her actions are illegal, authorities say, and she's now charged with five counts of kidnapping.

In an e-mail to ABC News, Rhonda's daughter, Lauren Tavey, accused Alphonse of threatening her mother at knifepoint and said her mother was acting in the best interest of the children.

"We would NEVER kidnap them or do ANYTHING to hurt them or try to run with them EVER! This is ALL over money," wrote Lauren Tavey. "Their mother came to our house and was stealing our bank statements because we have an account set up for the kids. The mom claimed that she had the right to the money since it was in her kids name and when my mom confronted her and told her that she had no right that is when Erica (the kid's mom) pulled a knife on my mom and threatened our lives. We weren't sure what to do. Then she told us that her boyfriend/fiance or whatever he is would be coming to 'take care of us.' We weren't sure what to do so we just took the kids and left in fear for our lives."

Feeling threatened, Tavey started talking to the Harris County Prosecutors Office. But when she felt she was getting no help, she allegedly took the children and ran.

In an exclusive interview with ABC affiliate WFAA in Dallas-Fort Worth, Tavey told reporter Jim Douglas that she did what she thought was best. "I have had them for three years and no family member has stepped forward and, to try and help, so who — there is no one to take them. I have not kidnapped them; my thing is that I am keeping these kids safe from the problems that have occurred."

The Harris County District Attorneys Office in Houston says her motives don't matter — taking the children was illegal. Assistant DA Jane Waters has been talking to Tavey for days.

"Tavey has taken the children out of the Houston area and refused to return them to their mother," she said.

A Volunteer Turned Surrogate Mom

The youngest of the children, 3-year-old twins Erin and Eric, were born a few days before Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. The babies, along with their three siblings and their young mother, all got bused to the Astrodome in Houston.

Rhonda Tavey was passing by the Astrodome on her way to the doctor when she decided to stop and volunteer.

"I was recovering from a bout of breast cancer and surgery, and God turned my car around that day," she told WFAA.

She could not resist the need she saw in the Alphonse family.

"This mom needed my help, she was very young, and she had all these babies," Tavey said.

So she took the whole family home with her. She has taken care of the children ever since, and in the process became very attached to them.

She is now charged with five counts of kidnapping. If and when she turns herself in, it remains to be seen who will be left to care for the children she sheltered for three years.

Elisa Roupenian contributed to this story

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