BURLINGTON, Vt. – A Mennonite pastor worked with a number of other people to help a woman flee the country with her 7-year-old daughter and live in Central America rather than share custody with her former lesbian partner, federal prosecutors said Wednesday in a Vermont courtroom.
Prosecutors opened their case against Kenneth Miller, 46, of Stuarts Draft, Va., with a series of witnesses and cellphone records to establish what they say involved several people in September 2009 to help Lisa Miller and her daughter Isabella out of the country before a judge could transfer custody of the child to Lisa Miller's former partner.
Prosecutors told jurors that Lisa Miller, who is no relation to the defendant, left the U.S. with her child three days before a court-ordered visitation with Janet Jenkins, her former partner who lives in Fair Haven, Vt. They said a Vermont judge made it clear in August 2009 that he would transfer custody of Isabella to Jenkins if Lisa Miller continued to disobey the court's visitation orders.
But Kenneth Miller's lawyer, Joshua Autry, told the jury he would prove his client believed Lisa Miller had full custody of Isabella when she fled the country.
"Your decision is not going to be a referendum for or against civil unions in the state of Vermont," Autry told the jury. "It's going to be about whether, at the time of the removal, Janet Jenkins had parental rights."
Kenneth Miller is charged with aiding in international kidnapping. A conviction carries a maximum prison term of three years.
Lisa Miller and Jenkins entered a civil union in Vermont in 2000. Lisa Miller gave birth to her daughter in 2002. The couple later broke up, and Lisa Miller returned to her native Virginia.
A custody battle ensued in both Vermont and Virginia courts, with the supreme courts in both states eventually ruling the disagreement should be handled as a parental rights case under Vermont law. Two months after Lisa Miller left the United States, a Vermont judge transferred custody to Jenkins.
Prosecutors say that on Sept. 22, 2009, Kenneth Miller drove Lisa Miller and her daughter from Virginia to Buffalo, N.Y., where the two crossed the Rainbow Bridge into Canada and flew to Central America to live with Mennonites in Nicaragua. The current whereabouts of the mother and her now-10-year-old daughter are unknown.
In testimony, Ontario Mennonite pastor Ervin Horst said Kenneth Miller asked him to pick up Lisa Miller and her child in the United States. But Horst said he did not feel comfortable crossing the border with the mother and child because he knew of the custody dispute so he picked them up on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls after they crossed the border in a taxi.
He testified that Lisa Miller and Isabella were dressed in Mennonite clothing when they crossed the border and that he took them to the airport in Toronto.
When asked if he knew the background of the custody case, Horst said he didn't know the details.
"Lisa did not feel good about what was happening and wanted to protect her daughter from the situation," he said.
Horst said that he was also in regular cellphone contact with Kenneth Miller and a man named "Philip" while Lisa Miller and Isabella were traveling across the border.
In court documents, prosecutors have said that Virginia businessman Philip Zodhiates, the owner of Response Unlimited, kept in cellphone contact with Kenneth Miller during the trip to Buffalo. 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 not using their real names, a care package.
The trial is expected to continue into next week.