By JOHN CURRAN and FILADELFO ALEMAN
MONTPELIER, Vermont – Lisa Miller’s path from lesbian in committed relationship to international fugitive started in 2003.
She broke up with her partner, Janet Jenkins, renounced homosexuality and became an evangelical Christian before disappearing in 2009 with the daughter she had with Jenkins.
Now, what started as a custody battle over Isabella Miller-Jenkins has turned into a global manhunt, with indications that Mennonite pastors and other faith-based supporters may have helped hide the two in Nicaragua and are now coming to the aid of one who the FBI says helped Miller.
Eager to keep the girl away from Jenkins and what they consider a dangerous and immoral lifestyle, they liken their roles to that of underground helpers aiding runaway slaves.
“God’s Holy Law never recognizes a gay marriage,” said Pablo Yoder, a Mennonite pastor in Nicaragua, in an email message to The Associated Press. “Thus, the Nicaraguan Brotherhood felt it right and good to help Lisa not only free herself from the so called civil marriage and lesbian lifestyle, but especially to protect her nine year old daughter from being abducted and handed over to an active lesbian and a whole-hearted activist.”
As the gay marriage movement gains momentum in the U.S. with impending legal recognition of the relationships in New York state, the case is a reminder of the obstacles and opposition that same-sex couples and their families can face.
The saga began in 2000, when Miller and Jenkins were joined in a civil union in Vermont. Two years later, Miller gave birth to the girl, conceived through artificial insemination. The couple split in 2003, with Miller renouncing her homosexuality and becoming a Baptist, then a Mennonite.
Miller was originally granted custody of the girl, but her defiance of visitation schedules led courts in Vermont and Virginia to rule in favor of Jenkins, culminating in a judge’s 2009 decision to award custody to Jenkins.
After Miller and the girl failed to show for a court-ordered custody swap on Jan. 1, 2010, to hand the girl over to Jenkins, the hunt was on. A federal arrest warrant was issued for Miller, and her daughter’s name was added to the missing by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
But they were long gone: In 2009, two months before the judge ordered the custody change, Miller and the girl flew to Central America and took up residence for an unknown amount of time in Nicaragua before vanishing again.
So says the FBI, which revealed in April that it had arrested Nicaraguan missionary Timothy David “Timo” Miller and charged him with abetting an international kidnapping by helping arrange travel and lodging for the two. He is awaiting trial.
According to the FBI, Timo Miller- no relation to Lisa Miller- arranged to fly Miller and her daughter from Canada to Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua.
He’d never met her until they arrived at the airport, according to Loyal Martin, a friend of Timo Miller’s.
Timo Miller has pleaded not guilty and is free on $25,000 bail, awaiting trial. His attorney, federal public defender Steven Barth, won’t discuss the case. Another lawyer for Timo Miller, Jeffrey Conrad, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Tim believes there is a higher law than the laws of any country that all people, including himself, are accountable to,” said Martin, 40, of Philadelphia, New York, who attended Miller’s first court appearance.
In an April 1 affidavit outlining the charge against Timo Miller, FBI agent Dana Kaegel noted the involvement of religious groups and others with Lisa Miller’s case.
At a minimum, she appears to have had the support in the Mennonite community outside the capital of Managua.
Yoder, who works the remote village of Waslala, 160 miles (260 kilometers) from Managua, told the AP that she celebrated her daughter’s birthday in his house last year.
“She came here to have a good time, and we allowed her to celebrate her daughter’s birthday in my house because of the love we have for the girl,” Pablo Yoder said.
Yoder, who is mentioned in the FBI’s affidavit over an email exchange with Timo Miller planning the party, told the AP in an interview that he couldn’t remember how long she stayed. She slept at the house of another pastor, according to Yoder, who would not name that person for fear it would lead to questioning by police.
Members of the church made a pact not to reveal any details to protect Timothy David Miller.
“We want to remain silent because we do not know whether it would cause him problems,” Yoder said. “The moment may arrive when we are going to want to talk, when we deem it necessary to tell Nicaragua the true story.”
Nicaraguan police haven’t questioned Yoder and other members of his church, he said in an interview last month.
“They know we are not involved in this matter,” said Yoder.
Richard Huber, of Myerstown, Pennsylvania, a friend of Timo Miller’s who agreed to assume custody of him after his first court appearance, sees his friend’s actions as faith-based.
“Choosing to heed God’s law over man’s would be an accurate way of putting it,” he said in an email message.
Miller may have gotten help from others drawn to her predicament for religious reasons.
The lawyer for Miller’s ex-partner, Janet Jenkins, told the FBI she got a call in June 2010 from someone- she won’t say who- who told her that Lisa Miller and the girl had stayed in a beach house in coastal San Juan del Sur, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of Managua.
The house is owned by Philip Zodhiates, the father of Liberty University law school administrative assistant Victoria Hyden, according to the FBI. Jenkins’ attorney, Sarah Star, told the FBI that the caller said Zodhiates had asked his daughter to put out a request for supplies for Lisa Miller.
Located in Lynchburg, Virginia, Liberty University was founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. An affiliate of the university, conservative Christian law firm Liberty Counsel, formerly represented Miller in her custody case in Vermont.
Law school dean Mathew Staver- who leads Liberty Counsel- has said Zodhiates isn’t affiliated with either.
“From our perspective, she just dropped off the face of the Earth. We haven’t heard from her or from anyone who said they’ve heard from her,” Staver said of Lisa Miller.
Miller, 42, is wanted by the FBI and Interpol, which recently requested the help of Nicaraguan police in the search. U.S. Embassy officials in Nicaragua said they don’t know where she is.
“We have clues, but we do not want to reveal them so as not to hinder our investigation,” Fernando Borge, spokesman for the Nicaraguan national police, told the AP last month. “We can’t say either, at the moment, whether she is or is not in the country.”
A security guard at the hotel Royal Chateau in San Juan del Sur, Juan Garcia, told the AP last month he remembered seeing Miller and her daughter along the waterfront.
International law would not require the return of the child if she were found in Nicaragua, since it’s not a treaty partner with the U.S. under the Hague Conventions, according to Robert Spector, an international family law expert.
“The only way you could get the child back is by somehow asking Nicaragua to enforce a U.S. custody determination,” said Spector, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma who is not involved in the case.
Back in Vermont, Jenkins waits for word on their whereabouts, a break in the case–or both.
“It is hard to understand how anyone could consider a childhood on the run better and more stable than one surrounded by family, with two parents and two sets of grandparents who can provide love and support,” Jenkins, who declined to be interviewed for this story, said in an email.