Over the next two weeks, a Buffalo jury will hear the story of an alleged kidnapping, a story that captured the nation’s attention and cast a spotlight on some of its most polarizing issues.
At the heart of the case is Isabella Miller-Jenkins, now 14 and believed to be living in Nicaragua with one of her two mothers, Lisa A. Miller, the woman accused of abducting her seven years ago.
Their story – a journey that started with the alleged kidnapping in Virginia, brought them to Buffalo and eventually landed them in Central America – has garnered national headlines because of the social and legal issues – same sex marriage, homosexuality and parental rights – at the core of the case.
On trial is Philip Zodhiates, the man accused of helping Miller and her daughter make their way from Virginia to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport in an effort to flee the country and keep Isabella from ever again seeing her other mother, Janet Jenkins.
By then, Miller and Jenkins had dissolved their civil union and Miller, who had renounced what she now calls her “homosexual lifestyle,” was fighting Jenkins’ visitation rights.
“Janet wanted to have contact with the girl she loved,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Van de Graaf told the jury Wednesday. “The backdrop of this case is the custody fight that followed their separation.”
A federal grand jury in Buffalo indicted Miller and two others on charges of conspiracy and international parental kidnapping in 2014 but so far, Zodhiates is the only one to ever appear in a Buffalo courtroom.
Unlike most kidnapping cases, the Miller prosecution unfolded on the national stage for all to see. The New York Times and Atlantic Monthly are just two of the many news organizations that have followed the story.
“This case is not about attitudes about lesbians, gays or same-sex marriage,” Robert B. Hemley, the Burlington, Vt., lawyer defending Zodhiates, said Wednesday. “That is a smokescreen.”
Hemley insists the trial should only be about Zodhiates, a Virginia businessman, and why he went out of his way to help Miller and her daughter seven years ago.
He told the jury his client is a “very special kind of person,” a person known for his charitable acts, and was never motivated by a desire to keep Isabella away from Jenkins.
“Why did he do it?” Hemley asked at one point. “Did he do it to hurt Janet Jenkins? Or did he do it because that’s who he is.”
For seven years, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has distributed photos of a smiling 7-year-old girl in blond pigtails in hopes of finding Isabella and her mother.
Prosecutors plan to call witnesses who have seen the two in Nicaragua. Jenkins, who Hemley claims had an opportunity to adopt Isabella but declined, is also on the witness list.
Now 51 and married to another woman, Jenkins has said little in recent years but has always maintained her legal and moral right to be part of her daughter’s life.
“Isabella, like any other child, deserves to grow up in her home country with parents and relatives who love her,” Jenkins said in a statement to The Buffalo News two years ago.
After their separation, Miller acknowledged that, even before she and Jenkins moved from Virginia to Vermont, a state that recognized same-sex unions, she had started questioning their lesbian relationship.
She also pointed to a desire to reconnect with the church and, in notes that later became public, pointed to her difficult pregnancy with Isabella.
“I promised God that, if he would save my baby, I would leave the homosexual lifestyle,” she wrote in one of her journals.
One of her lawyers at the time, Rena M. Lindevaldsen, associate dean of the Liberty University Law School, refers to the notes in “Only One Mommy,” her 2011 book on Miller’s decade-long fight to become Isabella’s only parent.
When the courts in Vermont and Virginia disagreed and upheld Jenkins’ visitation rights, Miller tried stopping Jenkins from seeing their daughter.
When the courts again intervened and, according to prosecutors, appeared on the verge of transferring custody to Jenkins, Miller left Virginia.
“Lisa and Isabella have not been back since,” Van de Graff, the federal attorney, told the jury. “And that was the last Janet saw of her daughter.”
Zodhiates’ lawyers don’t contest the government’s claims that Miller fled the country, but they argue the decision was hers and hers alone.
“Her choice,” Hemley said Wednesday. “No one forced her to do anything.”
Sometime in late September 2009, Isabella and her mother arrived in Managua, Nicaragua, and were greeted by Timothy D. Miller, a Mennonite pastor who is no relation to Miller.
Like Zodhiates, Timothy Miller, who was recently discovered and arrested in Nicaragua, was indicted and charged with helping Lisa Miller make her way from Toronto to Nicaragua. He was also charged in 2011 but the government dropped the charges, reportedly because he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
A few months later, another Miller, Kenneth, a Mennonite pastor in Virginia, also was charged with aiding in Isabella’s kidnapping. None of the Millers are related.
In 2012, a federal court jury in Vermont found Kenneth Miller guilty. Court papers indicate Miller, who is on the prosecution’s witness list, may refuse to testify.