A Hardin County judge is being viewed as a hero for ending a three-year nightmare, reuniting a mother and her daughter after a drawn-out custody battle involving the child’s paternal grandparents.

Judge Britt Plunk didn’t buy into the story given by the paternal grandparents Steve and Karen Salter that the mother, Rochelle Nash, was unfit and awarded her sole-managing conservatorship of the child, effective Wednesday, Feb. 2, at noon. In fact, no evidence was presented in court, no study was ever done, no case waws ever filed with Child Protective Services, no allegations of abuse were ever made and no police reports were ever levied against the young mother. The Salters even told Judge Plunk they never witnessed the child dirty, unclothed, hungry or abused but they still believed they would be better parents than Nash and deserved to raise the little girl.

During the one-day hearing Monday, Jan. 31, Judge Plunk heard testimony of how Jeff Salter, 25, convinced then 17-year-old Rochelle Nash to move from Detroit to Texas and live with him and his parents in 2005. He also heard from Jeff’s mother that, although she claimed he is not required to register as a sex offender, her son had sexually abused several children. According to testimony in court, Karen Salter omitted that fact when Nash’s mother, Barbara Phillips, franticly pleaded with Karen Salter over the phone in 2005 to send her daughter back home.

“She laughed and told me that it would be up to her husband,” Phillips told the judge.

Jeff Salter confirmed his penchant for young children when he took the stand and openly admitted to Judge Plunk that he has abused numerous children, some as young as 5 years old. He also said he had been verbally and physically abusive toward Nash during their relationship and that he struck her, leaving marks on her face.

In May 2005, Nash met Jeff Salter over the Internet. About six weeks after she turned 18, she came to Texas but didn’t tell anyone where she was going. She boarded a Greyhound bus, and Jeff called Nash’s mother telling her that her daughter was on the way to Texas to live with him and his parents.

Oblivious to the situation her daughter was getting into, Phillips pleaded with her daughter and hoped she would return. About two months later she did, but she had Jeff with her. The two returned to the Detroit and several months later Nash had become pregnant. One of the reasons the couple returned to Detroit was because the Salters, who claim to be of the Orthodox Jewish faith, didn’t want the unmarried couple living together in their home.

However, the day Jeff told them that Nash was pregnant, they sent bus tickets for the unmarried couple to come live with them in Texas, promising to get them jobs and support them, according to court testimony.

That living arrangement lasted for several months before the young couple had an argument and Jeff left with his infant daughter to hide out an undisclosed location. His father said Jeff was with a “trusted friend” but never told the young mother where her daughter was.

“Jeff’s history is with children 5 years and up; (the girl) was still a baby at the time,” Steve Salter told the judge. “He took (the girl), got in the car and Karen got in the car with him to make sure he didn’t do something in the state that he was in. And the friend that he was with is a very highly moral person, so we were not concerned.”

Steve Salter and his wife told Nash she had 24 hours to get out of their home, according to court testimony.

Karen Salter told the judge that they had looked into the legal issues and knew they couldn’t “kick” Nash out of their home but she did relay to Barbara Phillips that Nash had 24 hours to find a new place to live.

So, Barbara and her husband Doug drove straight through from Detroit to Texas to get their daughter and grandchild. But when they arrived, Steve and Karen Salter would not tell Nash or her parents where Jeff had taken the baby girl.

Barbara told the judge she tried to get help but because Jeff was the biological father, there was nothing they could do except take the matter to court. With no help, no answers and without her daughter, a distraught Nash returned to Detroit and pleaded for Jeff to bring her little girl home. And after a couple of months, he did.

But during the interim, Steve Salter had taken his son to an attorney and helped him file paperwork to gain custody of the little girl, which set into motion the chain of events that just ended this week.

Jeff abandoned his request for custody of his daughter but the Salters took advantage of a little known area of Texas law that allows grandparents to intervene in custody cases. Their intervention allowed them to seek custody of the little girl for themselves.

When Nash was served with court papers from Hardin County notifying her the Salters were trying to take her baby from her, she hired a Michigan attorney who told her to disregard the Texas court because she and the little girl were not residents of this state. With no knowledge of the law, Nash relied on the advice of her attorney but because she didn’t show up in court, the Salters asked Judge Plunk for a default judgment. He awarded temporary custody of the baby girl to the Salters.

“It was horrendous advice,” Nash told The Examiner. “I didn’t know what to do. I was listening to the attorney and all of the sudden Steve and Karen threatened to put an Amber Alert out and have me arrested.”

So, Nash was forced to bring her daughter to Texas and turn her over to the Salters on Dec. 3, 2007.

“It was the hardest day of my life,” Nash said. “I couldn’t believe they were taking my baby from me.”

Nash hired an attorney and fought for her parental rights but the first attorney, Richard Clarkson, took several thousand dollars from her and did little to help her situation. In fact, Nash said he recommended the couple get married because it would help their chances of winning in court. After Clarkson stopped taking her calls, Nash terminated his services and sought out a new attorney.

Several court dates were canceled and costly trips from Detroit to Texas were for naught. In fact, for more than a year the Salters wouldn’t even let Nash see her daughter – allowing her to talk to the toddler on the phone only once a week.

About that time, Judge Plunk became seriously ill and had to have a kidney transplant, which took him out of court for months.

And when Nash refused to hand over some medical records they had requested, the Salters punished her by cutting off her telephone contact with her daughter, according to testimony.

She later hired another Beaumont attorney but that also ended poorly. Because she was in Detroit, she said she couldn’t keep track of whether or not the attorney was actually working on her case. And when an instance came up that Nash vehemently disagreed with, the attorney didn’t appear to have her best interests at heart, she said.

Court records show Karen Salter allowed herself to be called “Mama” and forbade the young mother from being known as “Mama,” the child’s first words. Nash was forced to call herself “Mommy” and Karen Salter was to be known as “Mama,” according to an order signed in September 2009 when Nash was being represented by her second attorney. However, the attorney was able to get Nash visitation with her daughter via Skype video conferencing three times a week and monthly visitation, although it was supervised and at her own expense. Still the young mother, who attends college and has a part-time job, managed to save enough money to travel more than a half-dozen times from Detroit to Texas to see her daughter.

Nash and Jeff Salter had ended their relationship and she pleaded with the attorney to file the paperwork for their divorce. Nash said that attorney also began dodging her calls and then he claimed he filed her divorce in Hardin County. But when a reporter with The Examiner checked, no such divorce case existed, and Nash immediately fired him for not being honest with her.

Nash said she was extremely lucky and, with some help, hired Alicia Hall in 2010. Hall was able to schedule a final custody hearing in hopes of reuniting mother and daughter. She studied the case and pored over hundreds of documents that had been collected by a reporter and a legal assistant who both volunteered their time to help.

After three years, Nash said she had almost lost hope. During that time she documented everything the Salters said on the phone and during the online visits with her daughter. This week, when her note-taking was brought up in court, Karen Salter called Nash “obsessed.”

After hearing the Salters call her “delusional,” “a liar” and saying she was “obsessed” for wanting her daughter back, a tearful Nash took the stand. She told the judge she loves her daughter and all she has ever wanted since this began was to be a mother.

“The only thing I want is to have my daughter back and have the chance to raise her,” Nash told the judge.

And despite the statements made about her in court and the way she was treated by the Salters, she doesn’t want to keep her daughter from knowing who her grandparents are.

“I said before that I didn’t want (the child) to see them, but they are her family, too,” Nash sobbed. “I want her to know who they are.”

At the end of the day, Judge Plunk said he would make his ruling soon and both sides departed the courthouse wondering what fate would bring them.

The following afternoon, Judge Plunk named Nash as sole-managing conservator of her daughter, granting her all the rights any mother would have and more importantly, allowing her to take her daughter home to Detroit.

According to the order, the Salters are allowed visitation via Skype and can see the little girl when it is agreeable to both parties. The father was ordered to pay child support and is forbidden to have unsupervised access to the little girl.

When Hall called Nash to tell her of the judge’s ruling, the young mother burst into tears.

“I have been waiting for this day for three years,” Nash cried. “I knew that I had never done anything to be considered a bad mother. I was so lucky to find  Alicia because she made this possible. All I wanted was my little girl and I can’t believe it’s finally is here. I thought about her every day for three years and there has never been a time I didn’t pray she would come home.

“I am so thankful for Judge Plunk. I just wanted my day in court and he gave it to me. He is a hero.”

Hall said she was pleased with the ruling but never doubted Judge Plunk would do the right thing both morally and legally.

“Being a mother myself and thinking about all of the things she has missed, it is unfathomable,” Hall said. “I just can’t imagine missing out on such a big part of your child’s life.

“Her previous attorneys let her down. That is disappointing but Judge Plunk recognized there was no factual basis to the allegations against my client.”

Jolei Shipley, the attorney representing the Salters respectfully declined comment but acknowledged the little girl is “well loved.”