April 6, 2023


Sins of the Father (Eric Pape, The Atavist Magazine)

A small, good-natured boy named Pierce O'Loughlin was growing up between the homes of his divorced parents in San Francisco. Nine-year-old Pierce was accustomed to custody handoffs taking place at Convent and Stuart Hall, the Catholic school he attended. On changeover days, one parent dropped him off in the morning at the hilltop campus overlooking the bay, and the other picked him up in the afternoon. The parents avoided seeing each other. Their split had been ugly.

On the afternoon of January 13, 2021, Lesley Hu, Pierce's mother, arrived at Convent and Stuart Hall for a scheduled pickup. Hu planned to take Pierce to a Coinstar machine to exchange a small bucket of coins for a gift card he could use to buy toys. Then they would go to dinner at a restaurant called House of Prime Rib, because Pierce loved to eat meat.

But Hu's son wasn't waiting for her at the school. Staff told her that he had been absent that day. They didn't know why.

Another mom might have assumed that her child had a cold or that his dad had let him skip school and taken him somewhere fun for the day, but not Hu. She wondered if Pierce had been kidnapped--not by a stranger but by his own father.

Over the course of their marriage, Hu had watched as her now ex-husband, Stephen O'Loughlin, became obsessed with pseudoscience, self-help gurus, and conspiracy theories, spending long nights watching videos online, then sharing the details of fantastical plots with Hu, their friends, and people he barely knew. The COVID-19 pandemic had only made things worse. O'Loughlin huddled for hours at his computer streaming YouTube clips and poring over right-wing websites--what he called "doing research."

One of O'Loughlin's fixations was vaccines. He believed that Pierce had been damaged by the routine inoculations he received as a baby. O'Loughlin was adamant that the boy be given no more shots--not for COVID-19, when a vaccine was eventually authorized for kids, nor for any other disease.

In 2020, Hu had filed for the sole legal right to make decisions about her son's medical care, which would empower her to vaccinate Pierce regardless of what her ex wanted. She felt good about her chances in court. On January 11, as a condition for a continuance he had requested in the medical custody case, O'Loughlin suddenly agreed to let Pierce receive two vaccinations. In retrospect, according to Hu's attorney, Lorie Nachlis, "it all seemed too easy."

When Hu discovered that Pierce wasn't at school, she wondered if O'Loughlin had agreed to the vaccinations only because he was plotting to steal Pierce away before their son could receive them. To Hu it wasn't improbable--her ex seemed that far gone.

Hu and her boyfriend, Jim Baaden, had recently decided to move in together; Hu was planning to tell Pierce the news that evening at dinner. Now Baaden picked Hu up at Pierce's school, and together the couple sped to O'Loughlin's home in San Francisco's posh Marina District, trying not to dwell on worst-case scenarios.

When they arrived outside O'Loughlin's Mediterranean-style apartment building, they noticed that the blinds in the living room, which was on the ground floor of the unit, were drawn but disheveled. For a moment, Baaden recoiled. O'Loughlin was a gun owner. What if he'd barricaded himself and Pierce in the apartment? Baaden imagined O'Loughlin aiming the barrel between the blinds, ready to shoot.

Baaden and Hu approached the building's intercom and buzzed O'Loughlin's apartment. No one answered. Hu began banging on the door to the building and screaming. She considered breaking in, but Baaden told her to call 911 instead.

Hu could not fathom how someone like O'Loughlin--a man of means and privilege--had come to believe outrageous lies. She knew that various misinformation networks and snake-oil salesmen had facilitated her ex's paranoia and exploited his psychological fragility. But Hu had always stayed focused on what she considered her most important task: raising and protecting Pierce.

There would be time in the future to consider, almost endlessly, what happened to O'Loughlin. For now, in a panic, all Hu could do was wonder: Where had he taken their son?

Posted by at April 6, 2023 7:11 AM