CHICAGO – A former Lithuanian judge and parliamentarian jailed in Chicago at her homeland's request fears death if she's extradited because she helped expose a network of influential pedophiles in the country, she told The Associated Press in her first interview since becoming a fugitive.
Unless the Trump administration intervenes, 47-year-old Neringa Venckiene could be sent back home within weeks.
"I never want to go back to Lithuania," she told the AP by phone from jail, adding that she would embrace becoming a U.S. citizen.
The improbable story of how Venckiene, once a rising judicial star in Lithuania, ended up in a high-rise federal jail in downtown Chicago goes back a decade. For years, the drama enthralled and bitterly divided the Baltic Sea nation.
It involves the slaying of a fellow judge accused of molesting her 4-year-old niece; the death of Venckiene's brother who leveled the accusation and was suspected in the murder; and Venckiene's election to parliament after a burst of popularity as head of a new anti-pedophilia party named after her dead brother.
After fleeing Lithuania in 2013, Venckiene lived in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake with her teenage son, Karolis. She worked as a nursing-home aide, then a florist. She had documents allowing her to live and work legally in the U.S., but she turned herself in on Feb. 13 after learning American authorities were seeking her arrest on the Lithuanian charges.
Kathleen Miller, a friend of Venckiene's from Crystal Lake, says Venckiene stood out as bright and kind. Over lunch or while grocery shopping together, she often spoke of the turmoil that engulfed her in Lithuania.
"Our whole family loves her," Miller said. "It was a terrible shock when she was arrested."
At the Metropolitan Correctional Center, which typically holds drug- and gun-crime suspects, Venckiene gets outside to a deck atop the 26-story jail for one hour each day. She plays basketball, goes to mass and reads a lot, she said. She has recently been reading "The Diary of Anne Frank," written by the Jewish girl as she hid from Nazis in occupied Amsterdam.
Hollywood depictions of U.S. jails initially worried her, she said, but neither inmates nor guards have mistreated her.
"It's better than what I have seen in movies," she said. "I don't want to sit in jail for crimes I didn't commit. But it's not that bad."
Lithuania issued an arrest warrant in 2015. But American authorities haven't explained why they arrested her only three years later.
If she is extradited, Venckiene says politically connected pedophiles would target her both for exposing their network and for campaigning on the issue in 2012, when her fledging party won seven parliamentary seats.
"They have no reason to have me back but to kill me," said Venckiene, who also answered some questions by email.
There's no history of extrajudicial killings in Lithuania, which restored independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and now belongs to NATO and the European Union. Asked about Venckiene's safety concerns, Lithuania prosecutors' spokeswoman Rita Stundiene said she'd leave it to others "to evaluate her claims."
Extradition documents highlight only a few charges, including stalking supposed pedophiles through a surveillance group Venckiene created and noncompliance with an order to relinquish custody of her niece. Her lawyers expect her to face dozens of charges if extradited, including disrespecting the dead.
Among the dead she allegedly disrespected by was Judge Jonas Furmanavicius, a colleague at the same Kaunas courthouse where Venckiene worked.
She and her brother, Drasius Kedys, had alleged Furmanavicius abused the 4-year-old based on a 2009 video in which she described several men molesting her. The girl's mother is Kedys' former girlfriend, and Kedys implicated her, too. Officials said evidence didn't support those allegations or her claims about a pedophile ring.
On Oct. 5, 2009, the judge was shot dead near his home. Hours later, the sister of the girl's mother was killed. Suspicion fell on Kedys, who disappeared and was found dead six months later. Investigators blamed his death on binge drinking while he was in hiding. But Venckiene says someone framed him for the murders before killing him.
Months after Kedys died, another man he had accused died falling off an all-terrain vehicle into a shallow pool of water. Investigators ruled it a drowning.
Some Lithuanians considered Kedys a vigilante hero. Many agreed he must have fabricated abuse allegations for leverage in a custody dispute with his ex-girlfriend. Others wondered why Kedys would commit revenge killings if he knew the allegations were false.
Legal pressure grew on Venckiene after May 17, 2012, when 250 police officers stormed her parents' home where she was staying to enforce an order transferring custody of the niece to the girl's mom. They pushed through crowds of Venckiene supporters and pried the niece from Venckiene as the girl screamed she wanted to stay.
Venckiene's son, now 18 and studying law and history in an Illinois college, said his mom decided to flee in 2013 by driving to Germany with him and boarding a flight to Chicago after receiving death threats in Lithuania. They seemed credible, he said, because "people connected to the case were dying left and right."
U.S. authorities say a treaty with Lithuania obliges them to extradite Venckiene. Arguing successfully in court for her to remain jailed, they said she could again flee, "embarrassing the United States in the conduct of its foreign affairs."
Her lawyers argued that under U.S. law the Lithuanian charges, such as slander, would be either civil complaints or at most misdemeanors, and so aren't grounds for extradition. But a judge ruled she could be extradited.
Venckiene's hope is that the Department of State will agree to deem the charges politically driven, a designation that would halt extradition. But that would entail criticizing a staunch U.S. ally, which American officials may be reluctant to do.
A message left Tuesday seeking comment from the State Department wasn't immediately returned.
Venckiene said she hasn't spent time yet preparing herself emotionally in case she loses the extradition fight. She told the AP in one email from jail: "I still believe that in a democratic country, like U.S.A., I have an opportunity to prove my innocence."
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