Seven years later, Janet Jenkins still hesitates, her eyes moistening, her voice cracking, when someone asks about the last time she saw her daughter.
It was January of 2009 and Jenkins, one of two women at the center of kidnapping case that, even now, remains in the national spotlight, had no clue her former partner would flee the country with seven-year old Isabella.
Now 14, Isabella is believed to be living in Nicaragua with her other mother, Lisa A. Miller, the woman accused of abducting her in an effort to keep her away from Jenkins and what Miller now calls “the homosexual lifestyle.”
In the midst of a trial chock full of hot-button issues, including same sex marriage and parental rights, Jenkins took the witness stand in a downtown Buffalo courtroom this week and explained why she’s still waging a legal fight.
“I’m going to do anything and everything to get my daughter back,” she told the jury.
At the heart of the case being heard by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara is Miller’s alleged kidnapping of Isabella and the journey that brought them from Virginia to Buffalo and eventually to Central America.
The sole defendant on trial is Philip Zodhiates, the Virginia businessman accused of helping Miller and her daughter make their way to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and later Toronto, where they caught a plane for Nicaragua.
Prosecutors say Isabella’s kidnapping is rooted in Miller’s decision to renounce her same sex civil union with Jenkins – they separated in 2003, the year after Isabella was born – and her fear that Jenkins might ultimately win custody of their daughter. A Vermont court had given custody to Miller but gave Jenkins visitation rights.
“Do you know where Isabella is?” federal prosecutor Paul Van de Graaf asked Jenkins at one point Monday.
“I don’t know,” Jenkins replied, her voice beginning to crack.
“Do you know how she’s doing,” Van de Graaf asked.
“I have no idea," said Jenkins.
“Has anyone told you anything about her,” he asked.
“No,” she said.
Even now, seven years after Isabella went missing, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a photo of the 7-year-old girl in blond pigtails on its website.
A federal grand jury in Buffalo indicted three people, including Miller, on charges of conspiracy and international parental kidnapping in 2014 but so far, Zodhiates is the only one to stand trial.
Even before the indictment came down, Isabella’s disappearance garnered headlines across the country, in part because of the polarizing issues at the heart of the case,
Prosecutors, who continued to present evidence Tuesday, have called a series of witnesses and presented a trail of emails intended to prove Zodhiates helped Miller flee Virginia in an effort to keep Isabella away from Jenkins.
The witnesses included Miller’s father, Terry, who hasn’t seen his daughter or grand daughter in more than seven years. He did, however, receive two letters from them, both with postmarks from within the U.S. – Cincinnati, Ohio and Harrisburg, Pa.
“It gave me reason to think,” Miller told defense attorney James W. Grable Jr. “You know, they’re probably hiding right under our nose.”
When questioned by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiGiacomo, Miller said his wife and youngest daughter also received letters from Miller in 2010 but, after that, never heard from her again.
“Please forgive me,” one of the letters said. “I miss you and look forward to when I’ll have the liberty to communicate with you again.”
Zodhiates’ defense team has gone out of its way to suggest that their client helped Miller, not because of Jenkins, but because he’s a man known for charitable acts.
“He’s generous without conditions,” Mary Van Nortwick, a friend for the past 13 years, told Grable. “Generous without strings attached.”
Jenkins tells a far different story and acknowledged in court that she filed a civil suit against Zodhiates and several others when she learned of their alleged involvement in Isabella’s disappearance. Now 51, she’s married to another woman and is a stay at home mom to a two-year old boy.
She told the jury how she and Miller met in Virginia in 1997 and eventually moved to Vermont, a state that allowed civil unions.
“We were planning on having a family,” she told the jury. “We wanted to make sure our children would be protected.”
Two years later, Isabella was born.
“She was born into a family that wanted her,” Jenkins said of her parents. “They were thrilled to have another grandchild in the family.”
When Miller became pregnant again, and this time miscarried, their relationship began to change, Jenkins said.
They separated in late 2003, and Miller and Isabella moved back to Virginia. Jenkins said she visited Isabella on weekends until Miller pulled the plug on her visitation rights.
When the courts intervened and appeared on the verge of transferring custody to Jenkins, Miller left Virginia, prosecutors say.
Sometime in late September 2009, she and Isabella 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.
Another Miller, Kenneth, a Mennonite pastor in Virginia, was charged in a previous case with aiding in Isabella’s kidnapping. A jury found him guilty in 2012.
Scheduled to testify at Zodhiates trial, Kenneth Miller took the witness stand but refused to answer questions, citing religious reasons.