A judge ruled Wednesday that the young twins of a Florida woman missing after a television appearance must be returned to their father, who is the only suspect in the woman's disappearance. The search for the woman expanded with authorities looking for evidence around a lake.
Child welfare officials cited what they described as a pattern of violence by 40-year-old Dale Smith, but Judge Thomas Turner ruled that the 3-year-old twins face no imminent danger in his care. The twins had been removed the previous day from the home of Smith, who is the focus of the investigation into what happened to his ex-fiancee, Michelle Parker.
Joe Iuzzolino, an attorney for the Florida Department of Children and Families, told the judge that Smith had displayed abusive and criminal behavior on multiple occasions since 1992 that included him striking Parker in front of the children in 2009.
But with no evidence that Smith had abused the children, Turner wasn't persuaded that they should be removed from his care. The children have been living with Smith and his parents since the 33-year-old Parker disappeared.
"I don't think incidents that happened years ago constitute a pattern," the judge said.
Parker was last seen on Nov. 17, the same day an episode of "The People's Court" aired in which Parker and Smith argued over who was responsible for the cost of a missing $5,000 engagement ring.
As to her disappearance, the judge said: "I can speculate like everyone else what's happened to Miss Parker. But there's no evidence."
Around the time of the hearing, authorities used divers, boats and a K-9 unit to search the lake. It's close to the last location Parker was known to use her cell phone.
Smith's attorney, Mark NeJame, has said his client has done nothing wrong. He hasn't been charged.
Parker's mother, Yvonne Stewart, wiped away tears after the hearing and said that they would work with Smith and his attorneys to figure out a plan in which she could visit the children. She briefly hugged Smith after the hearing.
"I hugged Dale to tell him that my grandbabies _ I want to be able to see them," Stewart said. "And I hope we can work something out because they're so important to me and my family. He said he would work it out with us."
NeJame said that the ruling Wednesday was just.
"We've maintained throughout that this has been overstated and overblown by the police department and there's been a rush to indict," he said.
Smith and Parker had been together off and on since 2006 before appearing on the television show. Parker said they got into a heated argument in a hotel that included her throwing the engagement ring at him. It fell nine stories into the hotel atrium, and they couldn't find it. The television judge said they needed to split the cost of the ring.
Court records show Parker filed for a domestic violence injunction against Smith in 2009 but the order was dismissed after a hearing.
Smith has had traffic infractions and arrests on a misdemeanor drug charge and a misdemeanor charge of possession of an opened container of alcohol in a car, according to court records. The most serious charge he faced was for aggravated battery in 1996. He pleaded guilty and a prison sentence was withheld. Smith has lived in Florida and North Carolina.