Contrasting views of Ray Wigdal, the foster father of an eight-year-old girl who died Sunday night and ten other children who are now in protective custody, have emerged, as his whereabouts remain unknown.
Early Chinese media reports on the situation indicated that Wigdal, a US citizen, may have been in China for as long as 30 years and speaks fluent Mandarin. One of the volunteers who assisted with caring for the 11 children whom he had adopted described him as being "nearly 60."
Wigdal has little apparent social media activity online, but his Facebook page identifies him as having "Worked at God," implying a religious calling, and having attended Cedarville University in Ohio, which describes itself as "an accredited, Christ-centered, Baptist university." Several online church circulars refer to blessings to be sent to Wigdal, who was identified to be doing missionary work in China.
Inquiries by the Beijinger indicate that Wigdal is a familiar face around Beijing’s expat communities centered in Lido and Shunyi, as he and the children spent much of their time in public places such as Pinnacle Plaza and the Lido Hotel. Residents of the downtown Qijayuan Diplomatic Compound say they were frequent visitors to the playgrounds and fields there as well.
Although few report a close relationship with the man, many have had casual encounters with him and the children. Reports have him alternately doting and harsh, while the kids are described in far-ranging terms from happy and playful to hungry and unkempt.
This much appears clear: Widgal for the past 10 years has been providing foster care to an increasingly large number of children, moving frequently and often staying in two-bedroom accommodations in Beijing.
Wigdal appears to have spent most of his time taking care of the children and did not have a regular job – news reports indicate that he relied on donations and charity to pay life expenses and corrective surgeries for the children. A number of Chinese and expatriate volunteers assisted him with their care.
One comment left on an earlier report in this story presented a picture of a caring father. "I met [Wigdal] a few years ago in Christmas Day at the Old Goose and Duck with all 13 of his foster kids. He brought them there for a Turkey Dinner and the guy did not consume any alcohol. He doted on the kids and taught them how to play Foosball, Shuffleboard, shoot pool and throw darts," said thebeijinger.com commenter.
"From my recollection, he clearly cared for those kids. It’s inconceivable to me that he abused those kids in any way unless he lost his mind or something," the commenter added. "Ray was devoted to those kids."
However, many witnesses contacted by the Beijinger indicated that Wigdal was short-tempered with the children in public.
"I remember he was short with them, but man, a dozen kids – who wouldn’t be short?" said on expat parent. "I got the impression that his heart was in the right place but like many priests or nuns I’ve known, not the most patient … [What Widgal] was doing was tough work and not glamorous or fun at all."
Another source added that the kids would often turn up at Jenny’s supermarket in Shunyi to ask for expired bread. “A few times when they had sold out all the bread, Ray got really mad and started yelling at the staff demanding they gave the children bread or something else,” said the source.
Widgal’s almost entirely text-free website rayschildren.org displays 10 years of images and portrays a father caring for his infant foster children. Group shots are numerous and the kids’ lives seem filled with trips to the Great Wall and other tourist attractions, as well as playing in familiar Beijing locations such as Pinnacle Plaza, the Lido, ISB and Qiajiayuan.
From the pictures one can see that birthdays were celebrated regularly with cakes and gifts and the children are almost always pictured smiling and doing typical child activities like riding bikes and doing homework. At other times they are taking baths and undergoing medical checkups.
Many of the pictures show the children’s pre-surgical cleft palates and post-surgical care and feeding; Wigdal is often bedside at the hospital, bottle feeding the children, hugging or kissing them.
Numerous people who saw Wigdal and the children at the Pinnacle Plaza Starbucks reported that the kids looked well. "[They] didn’t look abused/malnourished/unkempt. Always doing homework etc. in Starbucks," one of several Twitter posts read.
However, others say the children were frequently begging and seemed to cower in the face of their guardian.
One person who claims to have seen the children at Pinnacle Plaza nearly every day says the kids’ situation had worsened over the past year.
The last the witness saw them, in September, she asked the children where Widgal was. “They were terrified to speak; and the older boy kept telling them in Mandarin to stop answering my questions and was clearly nervous; looking around and moving his hands in and outside of his pocket.”
The source said that many in the community shared similar concerns about the children, as they were frequently seen asking for food or money around Pinnacle Plaza. The kids inexplicably claimed to be students at a nearby international school, which the source could verify was not true (previous news reports indicate the students were all home schooled and had received no formal education beyond that).
Some who have had encounters with the children suspect that Wigdal had ceased to be able to offer adequate care to the children as his flock of foster children grew beyond his means.
“This is probably a ‘good guy gone bad; something happened along the way," says one witness. "Deep inside I hope he is the nice guy looking after 10 children out of love and compassion." However, seeing the condition of the children was enough to compell her to contact the US embassy about the case.
Some or all of the 11 children were brought to Wigdal over the years, from origins unknown. Media reports quoting volunteers said the children had all been abandoned at birth, presumably due to birth defects.
It remains unclear whether Wigdal legally adopted any of the children. Earlier news reports say an Chinese elderly volunteer, identified as "Granny Guo," 76, helped Wigdal take care of his foster kids and had told reporters that she was unaware of Wigdal processing any proper paperwork to formally foster or adopt the children.
Another report added that since most of the children Wigdal had been caring for were abandoned, they lacked any legal Chinese documents such as birth certificates or IDs that would be necessary for proper registration. Without this paperwork, adoption of the children by a foreigner through legal channels would prove even more difficult than the already rigorous procedure.
Authorities now caring for the children are attempting to establish their identities via DNA testing.
In the meantime, the whereabouts of Wigdal remain unclear. He did not visit Phoebe in the hospital during her stay from late November until her death over the weekend, though volunteers say he had sent money to the hospital to help pay for her care.
The Beijinger is following up on several leads in the hope of hearing from Wigdal to get his side of the story; if anyone has contact with him please have him contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence will be kept confidental.
This post first appeared on thebeijinger.com on December 9, 2014
Photos: Rayschildren.org via theBeijinger