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Trial nears in Vt. civil-union child custody case

A trial beginning this week in federal court in Vermont could lift some of the mystery from an international child-custody case that has highlighted the religious tensions surrounding legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

Jury selection is to begin Tuesday in Burlington in the case against the Rev. Kenneth Miller, of Stuarts Draft, Va. He would be the first person to go to trial as part of what prosecutors describe as a network of Mennonites and friends who helped shepherd Lisa Miller and daughter Isabella, now 10 years old, out of the country in 2009. Opening statements are expected Wednesday.

Authorities say Kenneth Miller, 46, drove Lisa and Isabella from Virginia to Buffalo, N.Y., in an effort to help the woman evade an order expected from a Vermont family court that Lisa transfer custody of Isabella to Janet Jenkins, of Fair Haven, Vt. Lisa and Isabella are believed to have traveled on to Canada and eventually Nicaragua.

Lisa Miller — who is not related to Kenneth Miller — and Jenkins entered into a civil union in Vermont shortly after the state became the first to legally recognize same-sex relationships in 2000. Miller conceived the child through artificial insemination, and both acted as parents.

Miller later became an evangelical Christian and renounced her homosexuality. A child-custody case went to Vermont family court in 2004, after the couple dissolved the civil union. Lisa Miller, who moved to Virginia, had primary custody of Isabella, with Jenkins given visitation rights.

After defying visitation orders, Miller became a fugitive in 2009 when she disappeared with Isabella, and their current whereabouts are unknown.

Prosecutors wouldn't comment on the details of their case beyond what's in documents filed with the court. Kenneth Miller's attorney said during a pretrial hearing he is going to seek acquittal.

Jenkins' lawyer said Friday that she'd monitor the trial on behalf of her client.

"Janet is really only interested in action that might help bring Isabella home and ensure that Isabella is safe," said attorney Sarah Star, of Middlebury. "People need to be held accountable if they break the law, but Janet's overriding concern is Isabella's welfare."

It's unclear whether the trial, expected to last six days, will clear up exactly how Lisa and Isabella went from attending the Thomas Roads Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., to being connected with Mennonite supporters who prosecutors say moved them north to Canada and then to a community in rural Nicaragua.

Nicaragua is not a signer of the 1980 Hague convention on international child abductions, which is designed to return children illegally taken from member countries.

Charges were dropped in October against an American Mennonite missionary living in Nicaragua, Timothy Miller, who is not related to the other Millers. Prosecutors said he helped Lisa Miller reach Central America; he cooperated in the case against Kenneth Miller.

During some of her legal battles before leaving the country, Lisa Miller was represented by Liberty Counsel, a legal group with offices in Florida and Virginia "dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family."

Mathew Staver, the founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, said Friday that his organization hasn't heard from Lisa Miller since early September 2009 and hadn't represented her legally since early 2010.

A Nicaraguan group of Mennonites told The Associated Press last year that it wanted to keep the girl away from Jenkins and what they consider a dangerous and immoral lifestyle.

"God's Holy Law never recognizes a gay marriage," The Rev. Pablo Yoder said in the email. "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."

Staver said he didn't know how Lisa Miller made the alleged connection with Mennonite supporters.

"She wasn't a Mennonite and she never talked about Mennonites," he said. "She didn't have any background with Mennonites."

One name is frequently mentioned in those same court papers: Philip Zodhiates, a Virginia businessman who specializes in direct-mail fundraising campaigns for Christian groups through his company, Response Unlimited.

The documents say that during Kenneth Miller's trip to Buffalo, he kept in regular contact with phones registered to Response Unlimited. The same documents say that Lisa and Isabella also stayed for a time at a Nicaraguan beach house owned by Zodhiates and that he sent Lisa and Isabella, who were using assumed names in Nicaragua, a care package.

Zodhiates did not respond to a phone call from the AP or a faxed letter containing a series of questions about his alleged involvement.