HOUSTON - A volunteer who was caring for five children who survived Hurricane Katrina and faced kidnapping charges after taking off with the youngsters has been arrested.
Dick DeGeurin, the attorney for 44-year-old Rhonda Tavey, confirmed she was arrested by the FBI while on her way to his office Thursday. She was being taken to Harris County Jail.
An Amber Alert was issued for the children, two boys and three girls ranging in age from 3 to 8.
Tavey contends the kids were abandoned. She says the children's mother had been gone for some time and "caused total chaos" in her house when she came back earlier this summer.
Child Protective Services was taking custody of the children.
Tavey spoke to News 8 in Fort Worth just before the alert was issued late Wednesday afternoon for the youngsters. Authorities said Tavey was a volunteer who took them in after Hurricane Katrina left them homeless.
Now, the Good Samaritan faces a legal storm that turned her into a fugitive. Tavey and the children talked with News 8.
"We call her "Ra-Ra" because we don't call her Rhonda," said one of the children.
"She's nice," the child said when asked what she thought of Tavey.
Tavey took in the children, including twins who were born to their mother in New Orleans just days before Katrina hit. The mother also lived with Tavey for awhile.
"I put them in my home," Tavey said. "[I] made room for them in my house."
After Katrina hit and the family fled to Texas, Tavey met family at the Astrodome in Houston, which was where she was volunteering. She said the mother, 22-year-old Erica Alphonse, stayed with at her home for about a year and then returned to New Orleans without her kids.
"I've had them for three years and no one has stepped forward to help," she said. "Who's going to take them?"
Tavey and her church supported the kids. She said she occasionally heard from the mother, but seldom saw her until the woman returned several weeks ago, which led to a confrontation.
Alphonse admits she left the children in Tavey's care several times while she returned to New Orleans to try and build a new life. She said she planned to take the children back with her to New Orleans in mid-July, but that's when Tavey and the children disappeared.
Alphonse told deputies that Tavey left with the kids on July 13 without her permission.
"I have not kidnapped them," Tavey said. "My thing is I'm keeping these kids safe from the problems that have occurred."
Tavey said Alphonse has threatened her with a knife.
"The parents are into drugs and crime and I know that God put these kids in my hands to take care of, not to put them back into harm's way" Tavey said. "The safety and well-being of the kids is number one and that's why I've taken the efforts that I have to remove them from all of that harm."
She said she believes Alphonse wants them back now for financial reasons.
"Her FEMA is about to run out and she needs these kids for welfare and that's the bottom line," Tavey said. "She needs them for food stamps and welfare."
Although Tavey has been in touch with prosecutors in Houston, she has so far refused to bring the children back.
Harris County charged her with kidnapping.
"She has no legal custody to the children, no legal basis for keeping the children," said Jane Waters, Harris County district attorney. "This was made clear to her."
The District Attorney's office told KHOU-TV, News 8's sister station in Houston, that all of the claims that Tavey is making about Alphonse are not true.
They also said that Tavey has been less than truthful with them during the course of the investigation.
"You get to a point of no choice but to file the criminal charges," Waters said. "We've resorted to everything. We've given her every option to cooperate and to assist us, every opportunity to do the right thing. She has put us in the position of having to file the criminal charges."
KHOU-TV checked Harris County records and found no criminal record for Alphonse.
"I love my children with all my heart," Alphonse told KHOU-TV.
Meanwhile, Tavey said the charges shocked her and she said she has been trying to find an attorney to help her. She also said she plans on turning herself in.
Alphonse said she had a message for Tavey Wednesday.
"Rhonda, I'm saying this from the heart: you've been our family for three years," she said. "You've grown accustomed to loving my children and loving me. I've grown accustomed to loving you. I never thought you would do this to me."
The children are Rod Keesa Alphonse, female, age 8; Alaysa Alphonse, female, age 6; Yasmine Alphonse, female, age 4; Eric Alphonse, male, age 3; Erin Alphonse, male, age 3.
Tavey is believed to be driving a blue 2004 Chrysler Town and Country Van, Texas License Plate 963-PTB and may be in the Dallas area.
Tavey has been charged with five cases of kidnapping and there are five felony warrants out for her arrest.
Please contact police if you have any information about the children or the suspect.
KHOU-TV, The Dallas Morning News and the Associated Press contributed to this report