By Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com April 22 2011 12:30 PM ET
In a long-standing child custody case, an American missionary working in Nicaragua has been arrested on charges of helping a Virginia woman flee the U.S. with her daughter after a state court had awarded her former partner full custody rights.
According to an April 1 affidavit by an FBI special agent, Timothy D. Miller, a Tennessee man who is associated with Christian Aid Ministries in Nicaragua, helped secure safe passage to Nicaragua for Lisa Miller and her 9-year-old daughter, Isabella (Lisa Miller is not believed to be related to Timothy Miller, according to the affidavit).
Lisa Miller disappeared with her daughter in 2009 after Miller’s former partner, Janet Jenkins, was awarded custody of Isabella by a Vermont family court judge. The couple, who entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2000, dissolved their union in 2003.
Sarah Star, Jenkins's attorney in the custody case, told The Advocate Friday that while Vermont's state supreme court has ruled in favor of Jenkins, granting her primary custody, details regarding visitation rights will still need to be worked out when Miller and her daughter return to the country.
"The important part in all this is that Isabella will get to see both of her parents," Star said. "The goal is that she has to see both of her parents. Hopefully this [arrest] is a step toward getting her home, to live her life."
The Advocate contacted the FBI for comment on today's arrest, but calls were not returned by the end of the day.
Timothy Miller, 34, is one of several people named in the affidavit (downloadable here as a PDF) who may have colluded in the international parental kidnapping of Isabella — including a “leader” with Liberty Counsel, the Christian legal group that has provided pro bono representation for Lisa Miller in the custody case.
In the affidavit, FBI special agent Dana L. Kaegel said that a series of e-mails as well as customer service notes from an airline company indicate that Timothy Miller helped to arrange flights to Nicaragua via Canada, Mexico, and El Salvador for Miller and her daughter, who were referred to multiple times under the pseudonyms “Sarah” and “Lydia,” respectively.
E-mail correspondence between Timothy Miller and missionary associates indicate the young girl now living in Nicaragua leads an isolated life.
“Mother Dear, We were planning to have a special birthday party for Lydia as her birthday is the 16th,” Miller wrote of Isabella. “The more children the better. Sarah every year has gotten a piñata for Lydia, so she has been planning on that ... I feel dearly for these 2 dear people. And I can see it would mean a lot to them in this rough first year of there stay in [Nicaragua]. I would love for Lydia's birthday to be very special and remembered long. She is going through a lot, and her future looms greatly in front of her right now."
In June 2010, Jenkins’s attorney, Sarah Star, received a phone call from an unnamed individual who said that Miller and her daughter were staying at a vacation rental house in Nicaragua owned by Philip Zodhiates, who was described by the caller as a “Liberty leader,” Kaegel said.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Zodhiates heads the Christian direct-mail firm Response Unlimited. His daughter, Victoria Hyden, is an administrative assistant at Liberty University School of Law and was asked by her father to “disseminate a request to get Lisa Miller supplies.” Upon the news of the arrest breaking, Hyden's bio was taken down from the Liberty website as of noon Eastern time, but a screen grab of the page before its removal is available here below.
In an e-mail dated on or about November 13, 2009, Zodhiates e-mailed an associate with the following instructions: “Timo Miller will meet you at the airport and hold up a sign with your name. He is a pastor of an Amish-Mennonite church in Managua who is with Christian Aid Ministries (Ohio). ... The suitcases are for a lady that works with them there in Managua named Sarah. ... Thank you for taking these. Sarah will greatly appreciate it, I am sure."
Reached by phone on Friday, Zodhiates told The Advocate that while he was aware of the Lisa Miller case via news reports, he said that Miller and her daughter were not living at his house in Nicaragua.
“That’s absolutely absurd,” Zodhiates said before hanging up. His daughter, Victoria Hyden, declined comment via phone.
Miller’s attorney, Liberty associate professor of law Rena M. Lindevaldsen, could not be reached for comment Friday, though a Liberty representative asked to see Kaegel’s affidavit and said that any allegations of misconduct on the part of the organization were false.
Timothy Miller was arrested Thursday in Virginia and is scheduled to appear before a U.S. district judge in Burlington, Vt., on Monday, the Rutland Herald reports.
In a statement released Friday morning by Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which has represented Janet Jenkins in Vermont appellate court proceedings, Jenkins said, “I’m grateful to everyone in law enforcement for working so hard on finding my daughter, as well as to my attorney, Sarah Star.”
“I know very little at this point, but I really hope that this means that Isabella is safe and well. I am looking forward to having my daughter home safe with me very soon,” Jenkins said.