A federal jury in New York has found Virginia businessman Philip Zodhiates guilty of international kidnapping for conspiring to help a woman flee the country with a daughter she had with her same-sex partner.
Lisa A. Miller sought help leaving the country from a complex web of anti-LGBT hate groups, Christian Right activists and Mennonite Amish missionaries. Zodhiates, who owned a direct mail business serving conservatives and evangelical Christian groups, was accused of helping Miller leave the country with 7-year-old Isabella Miller-Jenkins when he drove the pair from Virginia to the Canadian border in 2009 so they could fly to Nicaragua.
The guilty verdict came Thursday after a two-week trial in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, N.Y. A federal grand jury indicted Zodhiates and others in 2014.
The case has drawn international interest –– spotlighting legal issues associated with parental rights and child-raising in same-sex marriages –– while also becoming a lightning rod for conservatives who condemn homosexuality.
Zodhiates, 61, of Waynesboro, Va., faces up to eight years in prison when he is sentenced in January.
“We had a lot of evidence about intent,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Van de Graaf told the Buffalo News after the guilty verdict. “We also had strong evidence about the secrecy and deception used by the defendant [Zodhiates].”
The jury apparently didn’t buy defense attorney Robert Hemley, who described Zodhiates as a “special kind of person,” always willing to provide help, who may not have known he was obstructing Jenkins’ parental rights when he drove Miller and Isabella to Canada in 2009.
The current whereabouts of Miller and her daughter, who is now 14, are unknown. Now considered a U.S. fugitive, Miller faces charges of international parental kidnapping and conspiracy.
Miller gave birth to the child during a civil union with Janet Jenkins while the couple lived in Vermont. Se later became an evangelical Christian and dissolved her civil union with Jenkins. A contentious custody battle followed that saw Miller frequently defying court orders granting Jenkins visitation. The pair fled the United States shortly before judge awarded custody of the child to Jenkins.
During the custody battle, Miller was represented by Mathew “Mat” Staver and another attorney, both affiliated with Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based legal organization known for his rabid anti-LGBT, anti-abortion stands. It is affiliated Liberty University founded by the late Jerry Falwell, considered the founder of the white, evangelical “Moral Majority.”
During the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Van de Graaf told the jury that Zodhiates enlisted help in the kidnapping from a number of Mennonites in the United States and Nicaragua.
For his role, Mennonite pastor Kenneth Miller, of Stuarts Draft, Va., was convicted of international parental kidnapping in 2012. He was found guilty of providing support and refuge to Lisa Miller and her child in Nicaragua through Amish-Mennonite missionaries. He is serving a 27-month prison term.
Another defendant, Timothy David Miller, 39, a Crossville, Tenn., evangelical pastor, recently was arrested by U.S. authorities after being deported from Nicaragua, federal authorities announced Thursday. He is expected to be arraignment soon in U.S. District Court in Buffalo on related conspiracy and kidnapping charges.
None of the Millers are related.