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LOCKPORT NATIVE MAY BE 1ST TRIED ON CHILD-SUPPORT LAW FACES FEDERAL CHARGE OF FAILING TO MAKE PAYMENTS

First, James D. Murphy was named one of Virginia's 10 most-wanted child-support scofflaws. Now, the Lockport native soon may be one of the first in the country to be tried on a federal charge of willfully failing to pay child support.

"I'm not pleading guilty to anything. All I'm guilty of is having been unemployed and not being able to make my child-support payments," said Murphy, who moved last fall from his family's Olcott cottage to Bradenton, Fla., without leaving a forwarding address. "I'll fight this charge all the way, even if it means I have to collect pop cans."

Now employed as a dog trainer in Bradenton, Murphy, 49, said his April 10 trial in U.S. District Court in Roanoke, Va., is unnecessary because he has started making payments to assist in the support of his 14-year-old daughter, Erin, who lives in Roanoke.

Cancellation of the trial is not likely, according to Julie M. Campbell, an assistant U.S. attorney in Roanoke, who has accused Murphy of owing $12,639.49 in back child support.

"When we get these cases, it is because the state has exhausted all remedies. We don't arrange settlements and say, 'Now be a good boy.' To avoid a trial, Murphy will have to plead guilty and make restitution on what he owes," Ms. Campbell said. "We expect this will be one of the first cases involving this charge to go to trial in the country."

Murphy, who has pleaded innocent, said, "It's a petty charge, and what's needed is a mediator to work the damn thing out. What's needed is common sense, but our government doesn't have a lot of that. They just build bigger prisons."

William H. Cleaveland, a Roanoke lawyer representing Murphy, accused the government of inflexibility for refusing to negotiate a settlement.

"I think they picked (Murphy) out of the pile to make him a candidate for a government statistic. It's a new law, and the Department of Justice says, 'Look, we're going to have to justify it with statistics,' " Cleaveland said. "It's unfortunate the government in advance rules out reasonable alternatives. Serving justice is not necessarily getting convictions."

Ms. Campbell said Congress passed a law three years ago making it a federal offense to willfully fail to pay child support.

"Usually when we advise the absent parent that we have received a referral from a state agency on unpaid child support, restitution is made before a charge is filed," she said. "In Murphy's case, he did not follow through on his agreement with the state to start paying child support."

The FBI arrested Murphy earlier this year in Florida after he failed to make good on a payment plan he had worked out with the Virginia Department of Social Services when he was still living in Olcott.

Lynda T. Murphy, Erin's mother and Murphy's ex-wife, traced him to Olcott after making countless telephone calls to social workers in Florida and relatives in Niagara County. After he left Olcott, Ms. Murphy provided the FBI with information on his whereabouts in Florida.

"Erin and I will both be at the trial, and I'm planning to testify. He (Murphy) stopped making support payments in August 1991. He's supposed to pay $290 a month plus health insurance costs," said Ms. Murphy, who has been divorced for 10 years.

If convicted of willfully failing to pay child support, a misdemeanor charge, Murphy would face up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.

"Since I became gainfully employed Jan. 13, I've been paying $300 every two weeks in child support to the state of Virginia," said Murphy, who remains free on a $25,000 bond. Several years of being unemployed, he says, caused him to fall behind in his child-support payments.

Molly E. Wade, a supervisor with the Virginia Department of Social Services, confirmed that Murphy has started making payments. "But the first payment wasn't made until after he was arrested," she said.

In court papers filed by FBI special agent John P. Butler, Murphy was described as having a history of leaving an area once Social Services officials find him and attempt to collect child-support payments.

"Murphy characteristically will quit his job and often relocate to another area to avoid the enforcement efforts of the Virginia child-support agency," Butler stated.

Asked why he left Olcott, Murphy explained that he moved because there were better job prospects for him in Florida.

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