Trial Due for Pastor in Dispute on Custody
By ERIK ECKHOLM
Published: August 6, 2012http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/07/us/trial-for-kenneth-miller-accused-of-aiding-in-a-kidnapping.html?_r=1&smid=tw-share
The curious involvement of an Amish-Mennonite sect in a high-profile case of international parental kidnapping will be on display — and perhaps become clearer — in a courtroom in Burlington, Vt., this week.
Jury selection is to begin Tuesday in the criminal trial of a pastor charged with helping Lisa A. Miller flee the country with her young daughter to prevent the girl from staying with Ms. Miller’s former partner in a civil union.
Kenneth L. Miller, 46, the leader of a Beachy Amish Mennonite church in Stuarts Draft, Va., is accused of helping Ms. Miller, who is no relation, violate custody orders, aiding her in her flight with her daughter, Isabella, to Nicaragua, where they were sheltered by missionaries of the sect. The pair have been missing since September 2009 and are believed to be in Central America.
The bitter and widely publicized custody battle that preceded Ms. Miller’s flight pitted conservative Christians using the slogan “Protect Isabella” against the courts and supporters of gay rights.
Ms. Miller repeatedly defied orders by a Vermont family court to allow Isabella to visit Janet Jenkins, Isabella’s other legal parent. The Vermont civil union was officially dissolved in 2004; Ms. Miller, the birth mother, was granted custody, and Ms. Jenkins was awarded visitation rights.
Ms. Miller became a cause célèbre among evangelical opponents of same-sex marriage after she declared her newfound religious objection to homosexuality and spent years in court trying to end Ms. Jenkins’s parental rights. In September 2009, as a frustrated Vermont judge ordered one more visit and threatened to transfer custody of the girl to Ms. Jenkins, Ms. Miller and Isabella, then 7, disappeared from their home in Lynchburg, Va.
Federal agents eventually learned that the pair had flown to Nicaragua, where they were sheltered by missionaries of the Beachy Amish Mennonites, sect members have acknowledged. The group believes that same-sex marriage is a sin.
Mr. Miller contacted a fellow pastor in Nicaragua to ask if he would buy one-way airplane tickets for Ms. Miller and her daughter, meet them at the Managua airport and arrange a place to stay, according to recovered e-mails, telephone records and the deposition of the missionary in Nicaragua.
Ms. Miller and Isabella remain missing, but federal agents believe they remain in hiding somewhere in Nicaragua, possibly with covert help from conservative Christians.
How Kenneth Miller met Lisa Miller and who drove the pair to the Canadian border so they could fly from Toronto remain mysteries.
“We hope the trial will reveal more information about who helped Lisa flee the country and will send a message to those who continue to aid Isabella’s abduction in Nicaragua,” said Sarah Star, Ms. Jenkins’s lawyer in Vermont.
Aiding and abetting of international parental kidnapping — assisting the removal of a child “with intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights” — carries a prison sentence of up to three years.
Mr. Miller has not disputed the extensive evidence of his role in arranging the flight to Nicaragua, but in preliminary motions, his lawyers have argued that Mr. Miller did not knowingly commit a crime. They note that Ms. Miller was still free to make a flight at the time and that a warrant for her arrest was not issued until months later.
But the Vermont judge had already mandated a visit with Ms. Jenkins for late September 2009 — just after the international flight — and had made his ultimate intention to transfer custody if Ms. Miller continued to defy orders quite clear. From evidence in the indictment, it appears that prosecutors will describe a pattern of deliberate deception on Mr. Miller’s part, suggesting he knew that Ms. Miller was violating the law.
For their flight to Central America, for example, Mr. Miller disguised Ms. Miller and Isabella in the long dresses and head scarves of the Beachy Amish Mennonites, according to his e-mails and statements by missionaries. He told those buying the tickets to make sure the flight did not originate in the United States and he asked that their route not include connections on American soil. Later, he made an e-mail inquiry about the pair’s life in Nicaragua in the Pennsylvania Dutch language, which the F.B.I. translated from recovered e-mails.
The court documents also describe the possible role of Philip Zodhiates, the owner of Response Unlimited, a Christian direct-mail business in Waynesboro, Va., only minutes from Mr. Miller’s church and family landscaping store. On the evening of Sept. 21, 2009, two cellphones registered to Mr. Zodhiates’s company left a moving trail of calls to Mr. Miller, made en route to Buffalo, where Ms. Miller and Isabella were dropped off to go to Canada.
Later, the court documents indicate, Mr. Zodhiates sent care packages to Ms. Miller and Isabella in Nicaragua.
Mr. Zodhiates has not been indicted and declined to comment.
The indictment of Mr. Miller has shaken the Beachy Amish Mennonites in the United States and abroad, a group that tries to live simply and avoid trouble but now finds one pastor on criminal trial and others, in Nicaragua, under surveillance and afraid to visit home.
The sect, one of many offshoots of the Anabaptist tradition, has about 13,000 adult members worldwide, said Cory Anderson, a member and doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State University who keeps a Beachy Amish Mennonite Web site. It broke with the Old Order Amish in 1926 over its decision to use cars and other technology and it is more evangelistic, with missionaries living throughout Central America as well as in Australia, Ireland, Kenya and Eastern Europe.
The sect has no official affiliation with the mainstream Mennonites in the United States, who do not wear distinguishing clothing and are known for their pacifism.
The Beachys’ aid to Ms. Miller and now the trial of a respected pastor have stirred debate within the sect over whether it should be more engaged with society’s culture wars, working to defend traditional marriage and opposing abortion, Mr. Anderson said.
But their historical style is not one of harsh attacks on others, he added.
Beachy leaders have asked members to remember Mr. Miller’s trial in their prayers, Mr. Anderson said, and members hope that Mr. Miller will not go to prison. But the leaders also warned against condemning the judge or those who testify against Mr. Miller. “The outcome is in the hands of God, and we trust that God will make the best of it,” he said.