The Kidnapping of Isabella
In 2009, a former lesbian in a custody battle fled with her 7-year-old girl. The case still haunts the anti-LGBT movement today.
In late September 2009, Philip Zodhiates, a Virginia businessman who runs a Christian direct-mail company near his home in Waynesboro, didn’t show up at his office. He told his secretary he would be out for a few days, unable to accept calls and tending to business associated with Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based anti-LGBT group.
Zodhiates and Liberty Counsel already had been working together for years to raise money and build outrage around an increasingly contentious custody battle over a girl who was then 7, after her same-sex parents, Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins, dissolved their civil union. Miller had later “renounced homosexuality,” joined her cause to that of Liberty Counsel, and fought bitterly for sole custody.
Liberty’s interest was no surprise. Its co-founder and chairman, Mat Staver, is one of the country’s leading anti-LGBT crusaders. In his 2004 book Same-Sex Marriage: Putting Every Household At Risk, Staver had described homosexuality as a “destructive lifestyle” that put children at risk. Elsewhere, Staver called the newly gay-friendly Boy Scouts a “playground for pedophiles,” described “the homosexual agenda” as “a direct assault on our religious freedom,” worked to criminalize gay sex, and defended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore after Moore unsuccessfully defied a federal court order legalizing same-sex marriage.
On that September day, Bea Connor, an assistant at Zodhiates’ company, Response Unlimited, wrote an email to fellow staffer Joel Baugher after hearing from Zodhiates. “Philip called and said he is working on Liberty Counsel from home and that he might be taking a trip — not sure — may be in office for a few minutes only. He hummed around like he was searching for words to say,” she wrote.
Baugher responded right away: “Maybe something about Lisa Miller?”
That email exchange was part of the evidence presented last September at a federal trial in Buffalo, N.Y., where Zodhiates was convicted on two felony counts of international kidnapping. (He was scheduled to be sentenced in January 2017.) It suggested to prosecutors and others that Liberty Counsel might have been involved in the little girl’s abduction.
After calling his office, Zodhiates drove Lisa Miller — who expected to soon lose primary custody of her daughter in court — and the girl, Isabella Miller-Jenkins, to Buffalo. Before he left, he made sure the pair, garbed in the long dresses and scarves of Amish women, were safely in a taxi, crossing the Rainbow Bridge into Canada. As he drove back to Virginia from Buffalo, a call was made from his cell phone to another cell phone registered to Liberty Counsel.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, Lisa Miller and Isabella boarded a flight for Mexico, flying on to El Salvador and then to Nicaragua, where — after staying for a time in Zodhiates’ beach house, according to an FBI court affidavit — they disappeared into an underground international network of Christian Right warriors and Amish-Mennonite missionaries.
Neither Miller nor Isabella, now 14, has been seen since.
But that wasn’t the end of the case. There is still an active arrest warrant out for Miller. And a civil rights case filed by Janet Jenkins in 2012 — which alleges that co-conspirators including Zodhiates’ Response Unlimited, his daughter Victoria Hyden and her employers at Liberty University School of Law, and Liberty Counsel played a role in the kidnapping — could move closer to trial because the criminal trial of Zodhiates is over. (Liberty Counsel’s Staver was dean at the Liberty Law School until resigning just two weeks after Zodhiates’ 2014 indictment.)
Liberty Counsel has consistently denied any involvement in the kidnapping of Isabella. But it is clear that Lisa Miller did get help from Zodhiates and others.
Creating a Cause
Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins joined in a civil union in December 2000. In 2001, they decided to become parents and Miller conceived via artificial insemination. Isabella Miller-Jenkins was born in 2002, and the couple moved to Fair Haven, Vt., four months later. Eager to build a family, Miller had fertility treatments and tried to get pregnant again.
She did, but the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Jenkins told the Intelligence Report that problems in the marriage intensified after the couple lost their second baby. She said that Miller had tremendous difficulty with the emotional fallout.
In November 2003, Miller filed to dissolve the civil union. The separation was amicable, with an informal verbal agreement that Jenkins would have regular visits with Isabella and pay child support. Miller then left Vermont for a new home in Virginia, eventually settling in Lynchburg, where she became a fervent Baptist and joined the Thomas Road Baptist Church, founded by arch-conservative Jerry Falwell.
Miller found a welcoming community, eager to help a young, troubled mother escape her “sinful” ways. Miller renounced her sexual orientation, hired and fired a few divorce attorneys, and finally ended up with Liberty Counsel.
It is unclear if Miller sought out Liberty Counsel or vice versa. But Miller initially met with Linda Wall, a Virginia anti-gay fundamentalist leader who once published an essay detailing her fight with “GLBT demons” in the form of a snake she encountered in the cobwebbed basement of her employer’s home. Published at Barbwire.com, a website run by anti-LGBT activist Matt Barber, her article elicited a wide array of responses from readers. “Unfortunately, the snakes have slithered out of the old, dirty basements and are now infesting our streets,” was one of them. “A much more radical fumigation is thus in order.”
Wall, who in 2014 would found the Virginia chapter of MassResistance, another hardline anti-LGBT group that has claimed gays are dangerous to kids, saw sincerity in Miller’s departure from the “homosexual lifestyle” and said so to Liberty Counsel. As a result, the organization took on Miller’s case.
From the start, Liberty Counsel raised money on the case. In one of their fundraising appeals — sent to a mailing list rented out by none other than Zodhiates’ Response Unlimited — the group and Miller adopted a tone of impending calamity. “This is truly a David and Goliath showdown that will decide whether we as a nation will continue to follow our traditional values … or bend the knee to the corrupt, unnatural, sinful homosexual agenda,” Miller wrote in the appeal.
Over the following years, Miller and Jenkins — who were both legally parents of Isabella — fought an increasingly bitter battle as Miller became more and more unwilling to share custody. Visits were missed, and Miller repeatedly denied Jenkins a chance to see her daughter. Miller also made a variety of spurious claims, as the courts ultimately found, including a false allegation of child abuse.
The case eventually reached the Vermont Supreme Court, which ruled that Jenkins was, in fact, Isabella’s legal parent, no different than any other marriage. (The case was also fought in courts in Virginia, which at the time did not allow same-sex civil unions. But Virginia eventually agreed that Vermont had primary jurisdiction.) The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Miller’s appeal.
Through it all, there was a constant drumbeat of anti-LGBT propaganda.
An article in WorldNetDaily (WND), an extremist online “news” source that has championed the “birther” myth about Barack Obama, was typical. The story, by WND Managing Editor David Kupelian, began like this: “After childhood abuse led Lisa Miller into a dysfunctional life of multiple addictions and homosexuality, at long last, by the grace of God, she found the Christian faith, freedom from her former bondage and real hope. She left behind the lesbian lifestyle in which she had lived as ‘spouse’ to another woman in a same-sex ‘civil union.’”
Philip Zodhiates was among those watching the case unfold. On Jan. 21, 2009, seven months before the kidnapping, he emailed Bill Sidebottom, then director of communications for Liberty Counsel. The subject of the email was “LISA MILLER,” and attached was the WND article.
“Is there no legal recourse now for Lisa Miller?” Zodhiates asked. “If not, I’d like to suggest to her some personal options, which LC [Liberty Counsel] probably should not or would not want to know about. In other words, if there is nothing else LC can do for her, I’d like her contact information.”
Links and Ties
Nearly three months after Zodhiates drove Miller and Isabella to upstate New York, a hearing was held to address a motion filed by Miller’s attorney, Liberty Counsel official Rena Lindevaldsen, asking the court to stay a ruling granting primary custody to Jenkins. Miller had not responded to the court ruling, and her whereabouts were unknown except to a few, including Zodhiates.
Jenkins and others had asked police to check Miller’s apartment, but they found no one coming and going. The lights were out, the curtains drawn. As the hearing began, Rutland, Vt., Family Court Judge William Cohen asked Lindevaldsen, “Do you know where she is?”
“I do not, your honor,” Lindevaldsen responded. “You know, Lisa, in the past, has, you know, depending on what’s going on in the case, sometimes, you know, has been a little more secluded with things and dealing with it.”
The exchange highlighted a central continuing issue in the case, one that is expected to be litigated in the coming civil trial: Did anyone at Liberty Counsel know about Zodhiates’ plans? Were they helping in any way?
Sarah Star, Jenkins’ attorney, says that evidence at Zodhiates’ trial shows a flurry of communications that she argues implicates Zodhiates’ daughter, Victoria Hyden, who is an employee of Liberty School of Law, where Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver worked as dean for years; Miller’s Liberty Counsel attorney, Rena Lindevaldsen, who took over as Liberty School of Law’s dean when Staver left in October 2014; and even Liberty Counsel as an organization.
On Oct. 23, 2009, a month after Isabella’s disappearance, Zodhiates sent an email to his daughter with instructions on how to continue paying for Miller’s lease, which was set to expire, and a list of items to “rescue” from her home. “There is someone that can deliver all or some of these items in the next couple of weeks,” he wrote Hyden. “If it was already packed in suitcases that’d make it much easier for them to transport.” He ended the email, “Sister Sarah is doing well.”
Prosecutors believe Lisa Miller took the name “Sarah” after her disappearance, while Isabella adopted the name “Lydia.”
That list, and others sent later, was specific, with directions on what to pack from Miller’s apartment and what to send to storage. There were requests for clothing and body wash, bobby pins and Bible DVDs. The handwritten note also asked for bathroom rugs and handmade dolls, items with emotional or personal significance to “Sarah” and “Lydia.”
One item, Isabella’s pet hamster, was marked with two stars. Miller’s landlord would later testify he had found the hamster when he came to clean out the apartment. It had died from neglect in its cage in Isabella’s room.
On Nov. 11, 2009 — two months after Miller and Isabella fled — Zodhiates emailed his daughter a second list. There was no subject and it read simply, “Something else to print and give to Rena [Lindevaldsen]. I need a status report, as well.”
The bags ultimately made their way to Nicaragua, compliments of John Collmus, a friend of Zodhiates who was headed there on an unrelated missionary trip. Emails admitted during Zodhiates’ trial show that he had arranged for Timothy David Miller — a pastor of an Amish-Mennonite church in Managua, Nicaragua, and an associate of Christian Aid Ministries of Berlin, Ohio — to meet Collmus at the airport.
“The suitcases are for a lady that works with them there in Managua named Sarah. … Thank you for taking these. Sarah will greatly appreciate it, I am sure. I trust you’ll have a wonderful time and accomplish your purpose,” Zodhiates wrote on Nov. 13, 2009.
Collmus later testified that a group of women in Mennonite attire, not including Miller or Isabella, met him and his wife at the airport in Managua. It was the last known time that anyone associated with the pair would be seen.
While more may come to light about Isabella’s kidnapping, and more people could be implicated in the coming civil case, others in addition to Zodhiates have already been found criminally guilty.
Timothy David Miller, the man who delivered items for “Sarah” in Managua, was arrested in 2011 by federal authorities, accused of arranging for Miller and Isabella’s 2009 flights from Canada to Nicaragua. Just last November, Miller, who goes by “Timo” and is no relation to Lisa Miller, pleaded guilty to aiding the international kidnapping. He had not been sentenced at press time.
But Liberty Counsel’s Staver insists he had no involvement.
“I have never counseled Lisa Miller to disobey court orders,” he said in a sworn 2012 affidavit. “I have never counseled or encouraged Lisa Miller to flee from the state, the country or the reach of any court or law enforcement, nor have I counseled or encouraged anyone to assist her in doing so. I have always maintained and continue to maintain that I had no knowledge that Lisa Miller would flee and continue to have no knowledge of her whereabouts.”
Nevertheless, Staver has been energetic in using the case to advance his own views, sometimes using highly questionable assertions.
“I can’t recall a more emotionally charged legal case than the one involving Lisa Miller and her precious daughter Isabella,” Staver wrote in one fundraising letter. “What makes it even more intense is the fact that every American family has a huge stake in its outcome. After reading this letter, you will see ‘homosexual activism’ in a whole new light.” The pitch letter went on to accuse Jenkins of having “force[d]” Isabella to take baths with her.
Pressed to back up such allegations during custody hearings in Vermont, Miller’s attorneys failed to provide any evidence to support them. Sarah Star, Jenkins’ attorney, said the bath allegation was false and falls into a long pattern of Staver and Liberty Counsel’s vilification of the LGBT community.
It’s not clear when the civil case against Zodhiates’ Response Unlimited and Victoria Hyden will go to trial. Lawyers are still filing documents and various claims, and Star thinks it may not begin until next year. Last December, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which publishes the Intelligence Report, joined the civil case as co-counsel to Sarah Star and Langrock Sperry & Wool, LLP.
In the meantime, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children continues to carry a poster showing Isabella around the time of her disappearance — a photo of a smiling face, with wispy bangs crossing her forehead and a braided pony tail hanging over her shoulder, next to an “age-progressed” version of her showing what is thought to be her appearance at around age 13.
The case remains a central battleground in the American culture wars, still used by the religious right to plug its cause. But if you ask Janet Jenkins, it is not about the viability of same-sex parenting, or some biblical conception of sin. More than anything, she says, it is about love between a parent and her daughter.
“I’m still going to do everything within my power, within the law, to stand up for my daughter, to do everything I can to give her the choice,” Jenkins told the Intelligence Report. “She didn’t choose this.”