There’s no question, no doubt that Philip Zodhiates helped Lisa A. Miller and her daughter make their way to Buffalo, the first step in a journey that would catapult them into the national spotlight.
But did the Virginia businessman do it because he wanted to keep the then-7-year-old Isabella away from her other mother, or simply because he’s a good man trying to do the right thing?
A jury Thursday found Zodhiates guilty of conspiracy and international kidnapping.
“We had a lot of evidence about intent,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Van de Graaf said after the verdict. “We also had strong evidence about the secrecy and deception used by the defendant.”
The verdict, which followed a two-week trial before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara, is the latest development in a case that has captured the nation’s interest and cast a spotlight on issues such as same-sex marriage and parental rights.
At the heart of the case is the allegation that Miller abducted Isabella in September of 2009 and is now living with her in Nicaragua.
Prosecutors say the kidnapping was Miller’s attempt at keeping Isabella away from Janet Jenkins, her former partner, and what Miller now calls “the homosexual lifestyle.”
Jenkins, who took the witness stand in the case, told the jury that she intends to do “anything and everything” to bring her daughter, now 14, back to the United States.
Zodhiates, who will face prison time when he is sentenced by Arcara, was accused of helping Miller and her daughter make their way to Buffalo Niagara International Airport and later Toronto, where they caught a plane to Nicaragua.
During the trial, prosecutors called a series of witnesses and presented a trail of emails intended to prove that Zodhiates helped Miller flee Virginia in an effort to keep Isabella away from Jenkins.
“It was piece by piece,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiGiacomo said of the evidence linking Zodhiates to the kidnapping. “I don’t think it was one single piece of evidence that swayed the jury.”
DiGiacamo and Van de Graaf argued during the trial that Miller’s decision to flee stemmed, in part, from her fear that Jenkins might ultimately win custody of their daughter. A Vermont court previously had given custody to Miller but gave Jenkins visitation rights.
In 2014, a federal grand jury in Buffalo indicted three people, including Miller and Zodhiates, on charges of conspiracy and international parental kidnapping.
Defense lawyers argued that Zodhiates acted out of a desire to help Miller, not a desire to deny Jenkins her parental rights.
“Lisa’s secrecy and deception should not rub off on Philip,” Robert B. Hemley, one of Zodhiates’s defense lawyers, said in his summation. “There is no such thing as guilt by association.”
Buffalo lawyer James W. Grable Jr. also represented Zodhiates.
Even before the indictment came down, Isabella’s disappearance garnered headlines across the country, in part because of the hot-button issues at the heart of the case.
Miller and Jenkins separated in late 2003 and eventually ended their civil union in Vermont. When Miller moved back to Virginia and tried to stop visits by Jenkins, the courts intervened and, at one point, appeared on the verge of transferring custody to Jenkins.
Prosecutors say that’s when Miller fled Virginia.
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 Lisa Miller.
Recently arrested, Timothy Miller is expected in a Buffalo courtroom next month and, like Zodhiates, will face conspiracy and kidnapping charges.