A Virginia businessman is accused of playing a major role in a transnational scheme to help a woman who renounced homosexuality kidnap her child from her former same-sex partner seven years ago.
Consequently, Philip Zodhiates turned Buffalo into a crime scene when he drove the pair to a bridge leading to Canada, federal prosecutors argued on Wednesday.
The case, beginning this week in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, comes seven years after Lisa Miller and her then 7-year-old daughter, Isabella, disappeared into a convoluted network of anti-LGBT hate groups, Christian Right warriors and Mennonite Amish missionaries in Nicaragua.
At the center of that network surrounding the disappearance of Miller and her daughter, prosecutors allege, is Philip Zodhiates, who faces two federal counts related to international kidnapping.
“This case is about how [Zodhiates] secretly helped Lisa Miller kidnap Isabella and hide her in Nicaragua," federal prosecutor Paul J. Van De Graaf said in his opening statement.
Miller, who was represented by Mathew “Mat” Staver and another attorney, both with the anti-LGBT hate group Liberty Counsel in a prolonged custody dispute with her then-partner Janet Jenkins, repeatedly defied court-ordered visitations and fled the country for Nicaragua within days of a Vermont court awarding full custody of the child to Jenkins.
On Wednesday, the first day of testimony in the trial, prosecutors focused on laying out a detailed roadmap of geo-tagged phone calls, emails, bank transactions, international border crossings – even the purchase of flowers - to show how Zodhiates hid money and communications to orchestrate Miller's flight, which ended in Managua.
Zodhiates’ involvement in Miller’s disappearance with her daughter, prosecutors argue, began when tried to contact Miller after following the case for some time by reaching out to the Liberty Counsel on Jan. 21, 2009. In an email prosecutors showed the jury on Wednesday, Zodhiates told William Sidebottom, then working for Liberty Counsel, that he "would like to suggest to [Miller] personal options, which LC (Liberty Counsel) probably should not or would not want to know about." He then asked for her contact information.
Defense attorneys have worked to distance the case from focusing on cultural schisms over same-sex marriage. Defense attorney Robert Hemley stressed that Zodhiates was a “special kind of person” and that if asked for help, he’d give it. Henley claimed Zodhiates wasn’t trying to obstruct Jenkins’ parental rights, and that he may not even have known what those rights were, when he drove Lisa Miller and Isabella to the Canadian border in 2009.
Miller had been in a civil union with Jenkins in Vermont, which they dissolved in 2004. After the relationship ended, Miller moved to Virginia, became an evangelical Christian and renounced her homosexuality.
“Whatever she believed and whatever reason she wanted a ride to Buffalo, Mr. Zodhiates is not the kind of person to say no,” Hemley said. “This case is not about attitudes about lesbians or gays or same-sex marriage. That is a smoke screen.”
Zodhiates is one of three people charged in the kidnapping. Those who were also charged include Miller and Mennonite pastor Kenneth Miller (no relation to Lisa Miller), who was convicted of aiding an international kidnapping and sentenced in February to 27 months in federal prison. On Wednesday, Miller declined to testify against Zodhiates, despite U.S. District Court Judge Richard Arcara granting him immunity.
But perhaps no other person in the case demonstrates just how deeply the issue of parental rights and same-sex marriage reaches into the radical right than Zodhiates.
His company, Response Unlimited, in 2006 was charging $100 for the rental of every 1,000 names of the Spotlight newspaper, a defunct publication founded by the late Willis Carto that carried anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic articles interspersed with ads for Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi and related hate groups.
Zodhiates also peddled lists of subscribers to the American Free Press, which carries stories on Zionism, secret "New World Order" conspiracies, American Jews and Israel. Mixed in are advertisements for outfits like Pete Peter's Scriptures for America and Kingdom Identity Ministries - practitioners of Christian Identity, a theology that claims that Jews are the literal descendants of Satan.
The case also once involved the Liberty Counsel, run by Mat Staver and his wife. The Liberty Counsel has garnered lots of press recently for its defense of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses after the Supreme Court ruling that legalized it last summer. In 2012, Jenkins filed a RICO lawsuit against several parties that allegedly played a role in the kidnapping of her daughter. The lawsuit named several parties, including Zodhiates, Liberty School of Law and Response Unlimited, though Liberty School of Law was dismissed from the case in 2013.
Zodhiates’s daughter, Victoria Hyden, was working at Liberty Law School (of which Staver was dean at the time of Miller’s disappearance) and is alleged to have sent an email to co-workers at the law school requesting donations for supplies to send to Miller. Zodhiates was indicted in 2014 for conspiracy in the Miller case.
Staver resigned from Liberty School of Law in the fall of 2014, about two weeks after Zodhiates’ indictment, citing his wife’s health concerns and the fact that he had seen the school through its accreditation process. (Liberty School of Law received full accreditation approval in 2010, and according to Liberty Counsel, final approval occurred in the fall of 2014).
The trial is expected to last two weeks.