Wolfgang and Lisa Nester were rolling through the deserts of Nevada, hitching a ride on a strawberry truck that would eventually take them back home to Hagerstown and far away from their most recent misfortune and the 3 1/2 -year-old son they had apparently abandoned hours earlier in a Southern California shopping mall.
As they rode, little Wolfie -- clad in dirty overalls and a stained shirt -- was found standing amid pots, pans and cutlery, unaware of where he came from and how he ended up in a Montgomery Ward store in the seediest part of San Bernardino.
Four weeks later, a bewildered public still wonders how parents could -- as California authorities assert -- take their child 3,000 miles from home, leave him in a store and then disappear.
No answers have been found yet, but a look at the lives of Wolfgang, 23, and Lisa, 24 -- who met four years ago in a Hagerstown Narcotics Anonymous meeting -- reveals a pattern of personal failures and broken dreams, hardly a design for a successfully functioning family.
"We knew it was only a matter of time before something would happen," said Philip L. Nester, Wolfgang Nester's father and Wolfie's grandfather. "It is horrible that this has happened the way it did. But in a sense, this is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to Wolfie. He at least now has a shot at a normal life."
Philip Nester and his wife, Susan E. Nester -- Wolfgang's stepmother -- are seeking to raise their grandson in their Smithsburg home. Lisa Nester's parents, John and Marjorie Savage -- who already have custody of their daughter's four other children -- also want custody of little Wolfie.
"Lisa's never had any real concern for family life," Mrs. Savage said from her Boonsboro home. "She doesn't see where anything should hold her down. She wants to be on the go, and we feel that all of her kids are our kids. We want little Wolfie with us."
While the grandparents wait for a decision from Child Protective Services officials in California, their grandson remains in a foster home a few miles from San Bernardino, far away from the life he led most of his three years when he was shuttled the dozen miles between the Nester and Savage homes in eastern Washington County.
Wolfgang and Lisa Nester have not been charged with a crime, although a San Bernardino detective said he would seek to have them accused of child neglect and child abandonment, both felonies. Although there was a sighting of the couple in Washington County last week, no one really knows where they are. But a California detective is looking for them.
They left the Hagerstown area May 25 in Wolfgang Nester's car, authorities said. About a week later, Wolfie was discovered in the mall and the car the couple had driven to California was towed from in front of a former neighbor's house, where it had been abandoned.
San Bernardino Detective Bill Rogers said that hours after Wolfie was found, Wolfgang and Lisa Nesters were seen hitching a ride from San Bernardino to Nevada. From there, the driver of a strawberry truck en route to Pennsylvania took them to Hagerstown.
On June 17, they turned up in Hagerstown, where they made no contact with relatives but crashed a party. There, according to Washington County sheriff's investigator Richard N. Ziolkowski, they bragged of purposely leaving little Wolfie behind. Then, a day later, they apparently took one of Philip Nester's tents, some dried food and headed up the Appalachian Trail.
Investigators on both coasts said they have no idea where the couple was heading. One guess was up to an Ontario provincial park where Wolfgang Nester camped with his family when he was a boy. Another had them going to suburban Philadelphia, where he has family. It also is possible that they are hiding out in Hagerstown, or, if Lisa Nester gets her way, they are hitching down to Florida, relatives say.
The child left behind, Wolfgang Von Nester Jr., was born in November 1991, Lisa's fifth child by a fifth father. Little Wolfie, as he was called, was going to be different.
His father was the first man Lisa married, and, unlike her other four children, Wolfie remained with her.
"We thought she was turning her life around," Mrs. Savage said.
For Wolfgang Nester, the prospect of being a father and husband at 20 was daunting but not overwhelming. "He really seemed to be doing well, he had a good attitude," his father said. "We had a lot of hope for him."
But it didn't take long for Wolfgang and Lisa Nester to fall into snares that had been catching them for years. They didn't think their jobs -- an odd assortment of mostly menial work -- were worthy of them, so they'd quit. They'd leave Wolfie with grandparents and turn to the drugs that had been part of their lives since each was barely a teen-ager, their parents say.
They'd disappear -- both had a history of running away as youngsters, sometimes as far as Florida.
Before Lisa met Wolfgang at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in 1990, relatives said, she had already been involved in dozens of failed relationships. Her first child was born when she was 14.
While Lisa was dropping out of school, taking a variety of drugs and losing job after job, Wolfgang was doing the same thing 12 miles north in Smithsburg, their parents said.
"Wolf has had a severe drug problem -- a great drug problem -- for most of his life," Philip Nester said.
He and Lisa did try to live their dream about two years ago, when they and their son boarded a train and headed west, to San Bernardino. There Wolf was going to make it big in the music business, catapulting his prowess on the electric guitar into paying jobs in nightspots.
Instead, the couple spent the half-year there unsuccessfully looking for work and living off relatives.
"They tried and tried and tried, but they were never able to land a job," said Brenda Walker, Wolfgang Nester's aunt, who lives in Yucaipa, near San Bernardino. She said she helped set up the family in an apartment, but the three soon returned to Maryland, discouraged and broke.
The couple separated soon after their return; little Wolfie spent several months with the Nesters, then with the Savages. Wolfgang Nester took a job selling records at a Hagerstown mall; Lisa Nester went to work for a small company, owned by a neighbor of her parents, that tabulates store inventories.
She also became engaged to another man, who said she rarely told him the truth. "Her name was the only thing she ever told me the truth about," said Wayne Wilson, 32, of Frederick.
Wolfgang Nester, according to his parents, was trying to stay clean of drugs and expressed a desire to make a go of being a father. Last month he tried to bar Lisa from seeing Wolfie by telling a Washington County judge that the boy was being subjected to "an unsanitary environment." The judge turned him down.
About a week later, Lisa and Wolfgang Nester left for California, telling no one. Ms. Walker and the rest of her family had no idea that the family was back in San Bernardino until Wolfie's picture was broadcast by Los Angeles television stations.
"I don't know what they got into their heads when -- if -- they abandoned the baby," Wolfgang Nester's aunt said. "I still love Wolfgang and Lisa . . . but they need to come forward, face the consequences, pay the price."
Detective Rogers of the San Bernardino Police Department wants them to show up, too, preferably before he asks the county district attorney to file charges against them.
"Deciding to leave a kid in the mall does not sit very well with people, nor with me," said the detective, an 18-year veteran of the department. "I would like to understand why this beautiful kid would just be left there like that."