A troubled marriage and the trip back home to Ireland that never took place
Jason Corbett's desire for a new family life in the US brought instead a harrowing family dash across the world to claim his orphan children, says Maeve Sheehan
AT 3am on August 2, Thomas Martens, a retired FBI agent with 30 years' service, dialled emergency services to tell them his son-in-law was dead. According to media reports based on a police incident sheet, there had been "an argument" and he struck him with a baseball bat.
By the time the police reached the suburban detached house at Panther's Creek Court in Walburg, North Carolina, Jason Corbett, (39) Limerick man, father-of-two, widower, and plant manager for a multinational, was unresponsive, having suffered serious head injuries. He died later of his injuries.
The two adults in the house that night were Jason's second wife, Molly Martens Corbett, and her father. Both gave detailed statements to police, who linked Jason's death to a "domestic disturbance" and said they were not looking for anyone outside the home.
"There are persons of interest within the family," said the sheriff, David Grice, in a statement.
With the police following a definite line of inquiry into Jason Corbett's death, his extended family back in Limerick faced agonising uncertainty over the fate of his two children, Jack (10) and Sarah (8). Since Jason's death, his family were forced to suspend their grief for almost three weeks while the children's guardians and aunt and uncle, Tracey and David Lynch, on one side, and stepmother, Molly Martens, on the other, fought for custody of the children.
Jason's parents and siblings refused to bury him without his children. The Lynches finally brought them home yesterday morning, landing at Shannon Airport at 7.02am, following an exhausting 39 hours by train and planes, and a trail of hefty legal and travel bills in their wake.
Although back in the bosom of their extended family, the journey is only beginning for two, no doubt, confused and distressed children, who lost their mother, and now their father.
This was not the fresh start that widowed Jason Corbett had in mind when he moved to America in 2011 with his two young children and his bride-to-be, Molly Martens.
Jason's first wife, Mags, was well-known and loved in Limerick. She had worked in a creche while he worked as a plant manager for a multinational pharmaceutical packaging firm. They lived a nice life, completed by the births of their children, Jack and Sarah. In November 2006, when Sarah was just three months old, Mags died following an asthma attack.
Her sister, Catherine Fitzpatrick, said last week that Sarah "doesn't stop talking, which is very like Mags" and Jack "looks very like her".
"They'll always ask questions about her and look at videos. Jack always goes outside at night and there is a special star in the sky and he says that's his mammy," she said.
In 2007, one year after his wife died, Jason Corbett made a will making his sister, Tracey, and her husband, David, legal guardians of Jack and Sarah should anything happen to him.
The will would later prove crucial, particularly the fact that he did not change it after he met Molly Martens.
Molly (31) came into the Corbetts' lives in April 2008. She was in her early 20s and a native of Tennessee and was the fourth au pair that Jason had hired since his wife's death.
At some point, they struck up a relationship. She wished to return to America, and Jason arranged with his multinational employer in Limerick to work in the company's Lexington plant in North Carolina. His employers clearly thought highly of him. A reference on his LinkedIn page described him as an "inspiring manager with an exceptional talent for leadership".
Jason, Molly and the children moved to North Carolina in April 2011. The couple married two months later at a ceremony in Molly's home town of Knoxville, Tennessee, with Sarah as flower girl and Jack as ring bearer. They lived in Panther's Creek Court in a classic American suburban home, complete with den and veranda.
Molly "acted as the mother figure in the household" and was "very active" in the children's lives, according to a court document outlining the "facts" of the case.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent this weekend, her attorney, David Freedman, described her as a stay-at-home mom who doted on the children.
"She stayed at home, she was like the parent representative for Sarah's class. She was very active in the school. She was their full-time mother. She was the swim coach as well, and she was coaching them in swimming. She was the one that was with them. The people in the community where she lived were quite surprised to find out that she was not their biological mother."
Court documents in the US suggest that, in recent times, not all was well in the marriage. Molly wanted to adopt the children, but Jason resisted - he refused to consent to a step-parent adoption.
In the summer of 2013, Molly confided to Sarah's godmother, Lynn Shanahan, that she had sought legal advice about getting custody of the children if she and Jason divorced. Last autumn, she spoke to an attorney about it.
According to Jason's older brother, John, the couple had had "rows" about Molly's desire to adopt the children. "She was trying to persuade Jason to allow her to adopt the kids so that they could get US citizenship," said John last week. "You would think that would be a natural progression, but Jason did not want that."
Jason had recently applied for green cards for himself and the children, but they retained their Irish citizenship.
David Freedman acknowledged that there were "problems in the marriage".
"Jason was the one who chose Molly to be the mother for the children. He was the one who entrusted her with the children, he was the one who married her, she was the one who was around the children 24 hours a day. He clearly thought she was a very good mother," he said.
He couldn't say why Jason did not consent to Molly adopting the children, although he did speculate that it was one way of keeping her from leaving, as she was attached to the children.
According to one friend of the family, Jason, Jack and Sarah were due to fly back to Ireland this week for the birthday of one of their grandparents on August 24. But three weeks before the trip, Jason Corbett suffered serious head injuries from which he later died.
His sister, Tracey Lynch, was on day four of a two-week family holiday in France when she received what a friend said was a "cold" text message on her phone saying her brother had died. Tracey immediately tried to ring Molly but she could not get through or there was no answer. Tracey flew from France to Limerick, met her sister and best friend, and the three got a flight onwards to North Carolina.
According to one friend, they were en route to the US when they were notified that arrangements were being made for Jason's cremation. They had to hire an attorney to intervene. By the time they reached North Carolina, they were not allowed entry to the house at Panther Creek Court and they also struggled for days for permission to see Jason's remains, according to a family friend.
But the main concern was the children, Jack and Sarah. Since Jason's death, the children were with their stepmother, Molly.
Before she got to the US, two days after Jason's death, Tracey got to speak to Jack on the phone. According to court documents, Molly Martens later claimed that Tracey told the boy that she was flying out to the US for him and Sarah. Molly filed for custody of the two children by 9.51am the following morning, marking the beginning of a string of custody battles that dragged on for almost three weeks.
David Lynch, Tracey's husband, told one radio station that they had "grave concerns" that the people who were in the house the night Jason was killed were now caring for the children. Legal bills mounted. But the Limerick community - where the family are well-known and well thought of - rallied around. Tracey is the chief executive of a local community enterprise, Tait House.
Her friend, Mary Fitzpatrick, whose own son was stabbed to death aged 19, and others helped orchestrate a fund-raising campaign that raised €16,000 so far. Local politicians, such as Kieran O'Donnell and Jerry O'Dea, a Fianna Fail councillor and mayor, organised references for Tracey, hit the phones and lobbied.
In the middle of this turmoil, on August 11, Jason Corbett's body was repatriated to Ireland. But his parents, Rita and John, and siblings refused to lay him to rest in the absence of Jack and Sarah.
Last Monday, Brian Shipwell, the clerk of the Davidson County Court, indicated in a private hearing that he was siding with the Lynches. That night, social services took the children from Molly Martens Corbett.
"They were taken from her in the evening from the house she was staying at, and just packed up and taken away. It is very heart-wrenching," said her attorney.
On Tuesday, he ruled that after careful thought and prayer, and considering Jason's will, he had decided it was in the children's best interests to be with the Lynches.
Molly was allowed to have an hour with the children before they were handed over to Tracey and David Lynch. When Tracey texted delighted friends back in Ireland from her hotel late on Tuesday night, the children were tucked up beside her, according to friends.
There was one more hurdle to come. On Thursday, another court considered Molly's claim for custody and ruled against her. By 4pm that afternoon, the Lynches were on a plane to Washington, on the first leg of a long and circuitous journey home.
Jason's body is finally expected to be laid to rest later this week. But the Corbetts' battles are far from over. Molly Martens Corbett has lodged a last-minute appeal, legal bills continue to mount and both the Corbett and Martens families have to contend with the police investigation into Jason's death.
Although intending no disrespect to the Lynches, David Freedman said, Molly "will do everything appropriately she can to be reunited with her children".
According to John Corbett, however, Molly has inflicted an "unforgivable" level of pain on his family by trying to get custody of the children. "[She] could have avoided all of this by just humanely handing these children back to their rightful family."