RENO, Nev. — Melissa Reed was a proud fiancee applying for what she thought was a routine marriage license two weeks ago when she learned a stunning secret: She had been abducted as a child and living under an assumed name.
The woman was actually a former New Jersey girl named Eva Marie Fiedler who was 6 years old when she disappeared with her mother during a bitter child custody battle. The mother, Nancy Dunsavage, says she fled with her daughter and changed their names to save them from an abusive father.
The mother lived with the secret for all these years, but confessed to the double life when her 32-year-old daughter couldn't get a marriage license because she lacked proper identification. She couldn't bear to keep the secret any longer, knowing that she had deprived her daughter of a chance to get married.
"The wedding is set, the guests are committed and she cannot get a marriage license because she has no photo ID," said Dunsavage, also known as Debbie Reed. "This has brought me to the realization that we cannot continue living like this."
The discovery touched off a bizarre chain of events that has landed her 57-year-old mother in jail in Reno on a 1985 fugitive warrant out of New Jersey. Prosecutors in New Jersey want to bring her there to face charges in what they consider a parental abduction.
Details of the secret life the daughter apparently never knew she had began to emerge this week in newly unsealed court documents.
Fiedler said Melissa Reed is the only name she has ever known – "the only name by which I have been known to friends, associates, my fiance and the world for the last 26 years."
"About ten days ago, my mother `Debbie Reed' told me that my name and her name were assumed names. She told me our past," Fiedler said in the affidavit filed Tuesday and unsealed on Thursday in Washoe County District Court.
"I learned the reason that for all these years I have not had a proper ID or valid Social Security number for `Melissa Reed' and why I could not get a driver's license, bank account, passport or travel by plane, all because of my assumed name," she said.
It was not immediately clear how the daughter got through life without valid documents. Attempts to reach the mother and daughter were unsuccessful, and defense lawyer John Rogers said they "have requested privacy during this challenging time."
In a brief statement Friday to her hometown newspaper, the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, Fiedler said she wanted to thank the community "for their outpouring of love, concern and care for me and my mother during the events of the past few days."
"I ask that those who do not know my mother reserve judgment. Some of the information that has appeared in the press is not accurate. You have not heard her story," she said.
Dunsavage, whose name was Nancy Fielder before she divorced in 1983, said in an accompanying affidavit filed Tuesday that her ex-husband repeatedly threatened that if she ever left him, "he would `hunt us down' and `end it all for both of us.'"
"Day in and day out, fear and violence were part of my life. I fled because I had no money (for a lawyer)... and I wanted to remove my daughter from this life of threats and fear. I did not want this to be her future, too," she said.
All along, Dunsavage has been wanted in New Jersey on a warrant stemming from charges that she packed up her daughter and fled during a break in a custody hearing at the Somerset County courthouse in August 1984.
Dunsavage said in her affidavit she had custody of her daughter at the time, but authorities in New Jersey claim otherwise.
Washoe County sheriff's deputies arrested Dunsavage on the fugitive warrant at her home in Incline Village. They say she admitted she was the woman they were looking for.
Her secret likely would never have been discovered if not for her concern about Fiedler's inability to obtain a marriage license with the Oct. 10 wedding approaching.
After talking with a lawyer, she decided to tell her daughter at least part of the story and seek a court order to formally change their legal names to Reed.
"Facing my daughter's upcoming wedding has finally given me the courage to tell my daughter our story, but I have put my daughter's wedding in jeopardy and want very much to allow her happiness of a wedding with the only name she has known, until recently, Melissa Reed."
Court officials became suspicious about the requested name changes partly because they were filed under the names of petitioners Jane and Joan Doe, and neither had any identification to prove their real identities.
Judge Janet Berry asked her bailiff to check into the mother's background and the request for the name change since has been put on hold and the wedding postponed.
"The situation was a little out of the ordinary," Karla Solferino said. "We ran the names a then we came back with a hit on the warrant. Luckily, we were able to solve this case."
Jack Bennett, spokesman for the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office, declined comment Friday beyond saying that investigators will travel to Nevada "sometime next week to pick her up" to face charges on the East Coast.
Fiedler said it hasn't changed her view of her mother.
"I have virtually no memory of my father," she said in court papers. "My mother has cared for me throughout my life and has provided a good home for me. I know her and trust her and now I have learned of my past."
(This version CORRECTS Corrects to `realization' in 4th paragraph quote)