Lesbians’ Child Custody Battle Turns Into International Manhunt
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Lisa Miller's path from lesbian in committed relationship to international fugitive started in 2003.
She broke up with her partner, Janet Jenkins, renounced homosexuality and became an evangelical Christian before disappearing in 2009 with the daughter she had with Jenkins.
Now, what started as a custody battle over little Isabella Miller-Jenkins has turned into a global manhunt, with indications that Mennonite pastors and other faith-based supporters may have helped hide the two in Nicaragua and are now coming to the aid of one who the FBI says helped Miller.
Eager to keep the girl away from Jenkins and what they consider a dangerous and immoral lifestyle, they liken their roles to that of underground helpers aiding runaway slaves.
"God's Holy Law never recognizes a gay marriage," said Pablo Yoder, a Mennonite pastor in Nicaragua, in an email message to The Associated Press. "Thus, the Nicaraguan Brotherhood felt it right and good to help Lisa not only free herself from the so called civil marriage and lesbian lifestyle, but especially to protect her nine year old daughter from being abducted and handed over to an active lesbian and a whole-hearted activist."
As the gay marriage movement gains momentum in the U.S. with impending legal recognition of the relationships in New York state, the case is a reminder of the obstacles and opposition that same-sex couples and their families can face.
The saga began in 2000, when Miller and Jenkins were joined in a civil union in Vermont. Two years later, Miller gave birth to the girl, through artificial insemination. The couple split in 2003, with Miller renouncing her homosexuality and becoming a Baptist, then a Mennonite.
Miller was originally granted custody of the girl, but her defiance of visitation schedules led courts in Vermont and Virginia to rule in favor of Jenkins, culminating in a judge's 2009 decision to award custody to Jenkins.
After Miller and the girl failed to show for a court-ordered custody swap on Jan. 1, 2010, to hand the girl over to Jenkins, the hunt was on. A federal arrest warrant was issued for Miller, and her daughter's name was added to the missing by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
But they were long gone: In 2009, two months before the judge ordered the custody change, Miller and the girl flew to Central America and took up residence for an unknown amount of time in Nicaragua before vanishing again.
So says the FBI, which revealed in April that it had arrested Nicaraguan missionary Timothy David "Timo" Miller and charged him with abetting an international kidnapping by helping arrange travel and lodging for the two. He is awaiting trial.
According to the FBI, Timo Miller -- no relation to Lisa Miller -- arranged to fly Miller and her daughter from Canada to Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua.
He'd never met her until they arrived at the airport, according to Loyal Martin, a friend of Timo Miller's.
Timo Miller has pleaded not guilty and is free on $25,000 bail, awaiting trial. His attorney, federal public defender Steven Barth, won't discuss the case. Another lawyer for Timo Miller, Jeffrey Conrad, of Lancaster, Pa., didn't respond to a request for comment.
"Tim believes there is a higher law than the laws of any country that all people, including himself, are accountable to," said Martin, 40, of Philadelphia, N.Y., who attended Miller's first court appearance.
In an April 1 affidavit outlining the charge against Timo Miller, FBI agent Dana Kaegel noted the involvement of various religious groups and people involved -- in some fashion -- with Miller.
At a minimum, she appears to have had the support in the Mennonite community outside the capital of Managua.
Yoder, who works the remote village of Waslala, 161 miles from Managua, told The Associated Press she celebrated her daughter's birthday in his house last year. He wouldn't say more.
"She came here to have a good time, and we allowed her to celebrate her daughter's birthday in my house because of the love we have for the girl," Pablo Yoder said.
Yoder, who is mentioned in the FBI's affidavit over an email exchange with Timo Miller planning the party, told the AP in an interview he couldn't remember how long she stayed. She slept at the house of another pastor, according to Yoder, who would not name that person for fear it would lead to questioning by police.
Members of the church made a pact not to reveal any details to protect Timothy David Miller.
"We want to remain silent because we do not know whether it would cause him problems," Yoder said. "The moment may arrive when we are going to want to talk, when we deem it necessary to tell Nicaragua the true story."
Nicaraguan police haven't questioned Yoder and other members of his church, he said in an interview last month.
"They know we are not involved in this matter," said Yoder, who likens the help given to Lisa Miller to aid given by Mennonites and Quakers to the aid abolitionists gave runaway slaves.
Richard Huber, of Myerstown, Pa., a friend of Timo Miller's who agreed to assume custody of him after his first court appearance, sees Timo Miller's actions as faith-based.
"Choosing to heed God's law over man's would be an accurate way of putting it," he said in an email message.
Miller may have gotten help from others drawn to her predicament for religious reasons.
The lawyer for Miller's ex-partner, Janet Jenkins, told the FBI she got a call in June 2010 from someone -- she won't say who -- who told her that Lisa Miller and the girl had stayed in a beach house in coastal San Juan del Sur, about 68 miles south of Managua.
The house is owned by Philip Zodhiates, the father of Liberty University law school administrative assistant Victoria Hyden, according to the FBI. Jenkins' attorney, Sarah Star, told the FBI that the caller told her Zodhiates had asked his daughter to put out a request for supplies for Lisa Miller.
Located in Lynchburg, Va., Liberty University was founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. An affiliate of the university, conservative Christian law firm Liberty Counsel, formerly represented Miller in her court case in Vermont over custody of the girl.
Law school dean Mathew Staver -- who leads Liberty Counsel -- has said Zodhiates isn't affiliated with either.
"From our perspective, she just dropped off the face of the Earth. We haven't heard from her or from anyone who said they've heard from her," Staver said of Lisa Miller.
Miller, 42, is wanted by the FBI and Interpol, which recently requested the help of Nicaraguan police in the search. U.S. Embassy officials in Nicaragua said they don't know where she is.
"We have clues, but we do not want to reveal them so as not to hinder our investigation," Fernando Borge, spokesman for the Nicaraguan national police, told the AP last month. "We can't say either, at the moment, whether she is or is not in the country."
A security guard at the hotel Royal Chateau in San Juan del Sur, Juan Garcia, told the AP last month he remembered seeing Miller and her daughter seated along the waterfront.
Back in Vermont, Jenkins waits for word on their whereabouts, a break in the case -- or both.
"It is hard to understand how anyone could consider a childhood on the run better and more stable than one surrounded by family, with two parents and two sets of grandparents who can provide love and support," Jenkins, who declined to be interviewed for this story, said in an email.
Timo Miller, meanwhile, awaits trial on the abetting count, which could send him to prison for three years. For now, he and his wife and their four children are staying in Pennsylvania, with Huber.
Supporters have rallied to Timo Miller's his side. At his April 25 court appearance in federal court in Burlington, Vt., dozens of supporters turned out.
More than $30,000 has been raised for his legal defense fund, and donors have provided he and his family with a minivan and an apartment, according to http://www.timomiller.org, the Timothy Miller Family Support Network's website.
"When Isabella was about 18 months old, Lisa Miller realized the emptiness of her lesbian lifestyle, and her mother's instinct alerted her to the danger that lifestyle posed for her young daughter. She chose to leave that lifestyle, repented of her immoral ways, and began a new life," according to the website.
Star calls Miller's actions kidnapping. She doesn't buy the idea of civil disobedience.
"My understanding is that civil disobedience is an act of defiance against a government. Janet Jenkins is not the government, she is a mother who is worried sick about her daughter."
Associated Press correspondent Filadelfo Aleman reported from Nicaragua.