CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – A man suspected of abducting his two children – now believed to be dead – told his ex-wife shortly before the three disappeared that he would not abide by a new custody arrangement, court records show.

Authorities say accountant Manuel A. Gehring, 44, drove across the country starting July 4 or 5, possibly with his children. Court papers say 14-year-old Sarah and 11-year-old Philip were in tears when they were last seen with their father leaving July 4 fireworks in Concord.

Authorities searched for the children Sunday and again Monday at points along Gehring’s route between Concord and Gilroy, Calif., but Attorney General Peter Heed declined Monday to give details.

Gehring was arrested last week in California on charges of interfering with custody of the children.

In a brief interview Monday, Heed held out little hope the children will be found alive.

“I’d say no. Until we find bodies, you never say never. But, based on everything we know, our level of confidence that they are dead is very high,” he said.

Prosecutors have called Gehring the sole focus of the investigation, but Heed declined Monday to call him a suspect.

Gehring, a naturalized citizen from Nicaragua, was out of work after finishing a year-and-a-half contract job with a Nashua firm last month, according to a petition for emergency custody of the children filed by his ex-wife, Teresa Knight, on July 7.

Gehring and Knight signed a mediated agreement on June 24 – the day they were supposed to go to trial over custody – that said Sarah and Philip Gehring would go to school in Concord, where their father lived, but would spend two or three days and nights each week with their mother in Hillsboro, including some school nights.

After signing the agreement, Gehring “called (Knight) and advised her that he had no intention of following the agreement,” according to her petition in Merrimack County Superior Court in Concord. Gehring “was very agitated and angry in his last telephone call with (Knight).”

A woman who considered Gehring her closest friend and spoke to him every day said he was thrilled when Knight signed the agreement allowing Philip to go to school in Concord and spend about 60 percent of his time at his father’s.

“He really like being around the kids. He and I had that in common,” Linda DeSantis told the Concord Monitor.

DeSantis does not understand what has happened since.

“Now I have to really consider the fact that I don’t know this man as I thought I did, that I would trust my kids with him. I just sat up to watch the same news again and again, because it seemed like it wasn’t happening, it wasn’t Manny,” she said.

A seven-hour search in and around Toledo, Ohio, on Sunday yielded no bodies, but authorities said they had more places to look.

The focus of the search is in the Midwest, according to Assistant New Hampshire Attorney General Jeff Strelzin.

FBI Special Agent Robert Hawk in Cleveland said information that he would not disclose prompted the Toledo-area search. FBI agents and police searched on foot and in a helicopter in open areas and parks along major highways and thoroughfares.

Gehring was being held in the mental health unit of the Santa Clara (Calif.) County jail. A jail spokesman said Gehring is depressed but was not considered a suicide risk.

He faced a hearing Tuesday in San Jose, Calif.

Officials said unspecified evidence found Friday night and early Saturday led them to believe the children are dead. Strelzin would not discuss the evidence or say whether Gehring was helping them find the children.

According to credit card charges, authorities say Gehring apparently traveled on Interstates 84 and 80, stopping July 5 at Newburgh, N.Y., and Emlenton, Pa.; July 6 at Joliet, Ill., and Iowa City, Iowa; July 7 at Greenwood, Neb.; July 8 at Winnemucca and Sparks, Nev.; July 9 at Rocklin, North Highlands and San Francisco, Calif.; and July 10 in Gilroy.

Teresa Knight, who is four months pregnant with twins, has not spoken to reporters, but her husband, James Knight, the children’s stepfather, told the Monitor they were struggling to cope with the news.

He said they last saw the children on July 2 when they dropped Philip off at his father’s home.

“There were no problems as we saw them,” he said.

AP-ES-07-14-03 1039EDT

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