A tale filled with improbables has dragged an Amish Mennonite sect into an international high-stakes kidnapping case about the custody of a girl born to two women once joined in civil union.
MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Lisa Miller and daughter Isabella started their fugitive lives in Nicaragua in fall 2009, disguised in the white scarves and blue dresses of the Mennonites who spirited them out of the U.S.
Isabella Miller-Jenkins, 10, has spent her past three birthdays on the run, “bouncing around the barrios of Nicaragua,” as one federal agent put it, a lively girl and her mother trying to elude the U.S. marshals who have traveled to Nicaragua in pursuit.
She has been told the other woman she once called “Mama,” Miller’s former partner from a civil union in Vermont, cannot go to heaven because she lives in sin with women.
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Isabella’s life has embodied some of America’s bitterest culture wars — a choice, as Miller said in a courtroom plea, shortly before their flight, “between two diametrically opposed world views on parentage and family.”
Isabella was 7 when she and Miller jumped into a car in Virginia, leaving behind their belongings and a family of pet hamsters to die without food or water. Supporters drove them to Buffalo, N.Y., where they took a taxi to Canada and boarded a flight to Mexico and then Central America.
Miller, 44, is wanted by the FBI and Interpol for international parental kidnapping. In their underground existence in Nicaragua, she and Isabella have been helped by evangelical groups that endorse her decision to flee rather than to expose Isabella to the “homosexual lifestyle” of her other legal mother, Janet Jenkins.
In a tale filled with improbables, an Amish Mennonite sect known for simple living and avoiding politics has been drawn into the high-stakes criminal case: One of its pastors is facing trial in Vermont on Aug. 7 on charges of abetting the kidnapping.
The drama touches on some of the country’s most contentious social and legal questions, including the extension of civil-union and marital rights to same-sex couples and what happens, in the courts and to children, when such unions dissolve.
In this case, the passions of any divorce were multiplied by Miller’s conversion to conservative Christianity and her denouncing of lesbianism as an addiction. Miller repeatedly prevented Isabella’s court-ordered visits with Jenkins until an exasperated Vermont judge said he would transfer custody.
Her supporters say she has been persecuted because of her religion.
“I only want to see my daughter,” Jenkins said in an interview in the four-bedroom house in Vermont that she and Miller bought when they dreamed of having five children. Jenkins, 47, has since married another woman and runs a day-care business.
Even as Miller disappeared with Isabella, William Cohen, a Family Court judge in Vermont, granted Jenkins formal custody of the girl, as of Jan. 1, 2010.
Jenkins keeps a bedroom piled with toys Isabella is outgrowing. “What’s hard for me as a parent is not knowing what she’s going through,” Jenkins said.
At the center of the story is a girl whose face appears on a poster from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Based on the first extended interviews with the missionaries who harbored the pair, visits to places Isabella and Miller stayed in Nicaragua and court documents, a picture of their getaway and subsequent life has been assembled.
Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Falls Church, Va., in 1997. In later interviews, with supporters and her lawyers, Miller described growing up with a mentally unstable mother and dealing with her own pill addictions, food disorders and self-mutilation. After a failed marriage and a suicide attempt, she said, she began seeing women.
Jenkins, when they met, had recently ended a long-term relationship with a woman. “It was a normal courtship, and we fell in love,” Jenkins recalled. “We wanted to have a family and spend the rest of our lives together.”
In 2000, soon after Vermont became the first state to offer civil unions, they traveled there to seal the relationship, adopting the joint surname Miller-Jenkins.
When Miller decided to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization, they picked a donor with Jenkins’ green eyes. Isabella Ruth Miller-Jenkins was born in Virginia on April 16, 2002. Jenkins cut the umbilical cord as her own mother, Ruth, stood in the room.
Preferring to raise a family in a state that endorsed same-sex relationships, the couple moved to southern Vermont. They bought a two-story house within walking distance of a grade school in Fair Haven.
Isabella called Jenkins “Mama” and Miller “Mommy.”
Miller later said in interviews that even before the move, she was rediscovering Christianity and questioning her lesbianism. During her difficult pregnancy with Isabella, “I promised God that if he would save my baby, I would leave the homosexual lifestyle,” she said in notes she left for one of her lawyers, Rena Lindevaldsen, associate dean of the Liberty University law school.
But such doubts were not apparent to Jenkins, who said they lived as Unitarians at the time, nor to Jenkins’ parents in Virginia, Roman Catholics who said they had warm relations with Miller and doted on their new grandchild.
Miller became pregnant again but had a miscarriage. She fell into depression, according to Jenkins; Miller later said she was tortured by guilt. They separated in September 2003. Miller moved back to Virginia, which does not recognize same-sex unions or marriage.
Jenkins signed a promise to pay child support, and they agreed, she said, that she and her parents would remain in Isabella’s life.
“I wanted to preserve the close bond with Isabella,” Jenkins said, and she started visiting on weekends, making the 10-hour drive from Vermont. Their civil union was formally dissolved in 2004, and Family Court in Vermont granted custody to Miller with visiting rights for Jenkins.
But according to court records, Miller soon began to block visits, disappearing with Isabella before Jenkins arrived. Miller moved to Lynchburg, Va., where she got a teaching job at Liberty Christian Academy, a Baptist school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell with close ties to Liberty University, which he also founded.
Her legal case was taken up by Liberty Counsel, which is affiliated with the Liberty law school. Her lawyers, led by the dean of the law school, Matthew Staver, and Lindevaldsen, invoked the federal Defense of Marriage Act to argue that Virginia’s laws had precedence and Jenkins was not a parent.
Seeing the custody battle as an important test, national gay-rights advocates including Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation have given legal aid to Jenkins.
Initially, a Virginia court sided with Miller, and for two years she did not allow Jenkins to see Isabella.
She told Jenkins’ parents they should not consider themselves Isabella’s grandparents and the child could no longer call them “Mom-Mom” and “Pop-Pop.”
But eventually, setting what legal experts said was an important precedent, the Virginia Supreme Court determined that Vermont still had jurisdiction, regardless of Virginia’s stance on same-sex unions. The Vermont court laid out a new schedule of visits.
In January 2009, Miller again blocked visits. She complained, in a court filing and to friends, that Jenkins had upset Isabella by taking a bath with the child and was undermining the girl’s conservative beliefs by reading her “Heather Has Two Mommies.” When Isabella returned from a rare visit to Vermont showing anxiety and wetting her bed, Miller blamed Jenkins.
The judge in Vermont held Miller in contempt but gave her another chance, specifying visits in Virginia and in Vermont. None took place. In August, the judge warned that he would transfer custody and ordered a weekend visit for late September.
Miller’s written appeal to the judge that fall gives some idea of her thinking.
“What is at stake is the health and well-being of an intelligent, delightful, beautiful, 7-year-old Christian girl,” she wrote. Isabella “knows from her own reading of the Bible that marriage is between a man and a woman,” she wrote, “that she cannot have two mommies, that when I lived the homosexual lifestyle I sinned against God, and that unless Janet accepts Christ as her personal savior, she will not go to heaven.”
Miller was also under financial pressure because her teaching position had not been renewed.
She prayed, hoping God would tell her what was best for her daughter, said Linda Wall, a conservative activist and self-described “ex-gay” who befriended her in Virginia. “I told Lisa that she should have a Plan B,” Wall said.
The government alleges, based partly on recovered emails and phone records, that Miller developed such a plan.
One person named in the court papers is Philip Zodhiates, owner of a conservative Christian direct-mail-list service who lives in Waynesboro, Va., and owns a beach house in Nicaragua. The other is Kenneth Miller, a pastor of the Beachy Amish Mennonite sect in Stuart’s Draft, Va., and manager of a garden business near Zodhiates’ home. (He is not related to Lisa Miller.)
Zodhiates has not been indicted, but Kenneth Miller’s trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 7. Prosecutors, citing extensive email correspondence, say he helped make arrangements for the escape to Nicaragua. If convicted, he could be sentenced to three years in prison. Emails in the court documents suggest Zodhiates also helped with the flight and sent “care packages” with items such as peanut butter to Lisa Miller and Isabella.
Kenneth Miller and Zodhiates declined to comment.
On Sept. 21, 2009, Lisa Miller and Isabella drove south to meet Kenneth Miller, who, according to court documents and missionaries in Nicaragua, gave them Mennonite garb. That evening they were driven to Buffalo, a trip documented by the FBI in a trail of calls from two cellphones registered to Zodhiates’ company, Response Unlimited.
Just after midnight, prosecutors allege, Miller and Isabella took a taxi over the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls and were met by a Mennonite pastor who put them on a plane to Mexico City, where they continued on to El Salvador and Nicaragua.
The tickets were bought at Kenneth Miller’s request, according to the indictment, by a Mennonite pastor in Nicaragua, who had his mother-in-law in the U.S. buy them. She was reimbursed with a money order from Virginia.
Wall said that after no one had heard from Lisa Miller for three weeks, she let herself into her house outside Lynchburg. When she discovered the dead hamster family, she said, she knew they were long gone. “I thought, wow, congratulations Lisa Miller, you did it,” she recalled.
Miller and Isabella — now using the aliases Sarah and Lydia — were met at the Managua airport by Timothy Miller, 35, known as Timo, who runs the Beachy Amish Mennonite outpost in a rough area of the capital city. He drove them to Jinotega, in the coffee-growing hills of northern Nicaragua, he said in an interview, where they lived for two months on a farm. (Timo Miller is not related to either Kenneth or Lisa Miller.)
Isabella enjoyed the animals but it was a rainy, foggy time of year in Jinotega and Miller felt isolated, Timo Miller said. The mother and daughter moved to Managua, to a $150-a-month one-bedroom home near the Mennonite mission.
The mother and daughter visited nearly every day, as Lisa Miller helped with home schooling. Some evenings, Isabella sat on the pastor’s lap as he read to her and his own four children. “We were like family,” he recalled.
One of his daughters, RuthAnna, 9, said she and the girl she knew as “Lydia” used to ride bicycles in their courtyard and enjoyed giggle-filled sleepovers at each other’s homes.
“We were best friends,” she said.
Timo Miller noted that the girl’s eighth birthday was coming up on April 16, 2010, and said that she could use cheering up with a party. “She is going through a lot,” he wrote to his parents, also missionaries, who lived in the remote town of Waslala.
Timo Miller’s family and their guests made the five-hour drive to Waslala, where the Mennonites have five scattered churches and a clinic. The family of Pablo Yoder, another pastor, hosted a birthday party.
The group from Managua returned home within a day or two. But relations with Lisa Miller, who tends to see things “in black and white,” Timo Miller said, were getting strained. Within weeks after the party, she and her daughter moved back to Jinotega, renting a house on their own.
Missionaries in Jinotega indicated Lisa Miller was struggling.
“Lisa is very independent-minded,” said David Friesen, 45, a Canadian Mennonite in Jinotega. “She needed spiritual help,” he said. But eventually, he said, she embraced the fundamentalist faith of the Mennonites.
Things changed on April 18, 2011, when Timo Miller, returning for a vacation in the United States with his family, was arrested at Dulles International Airport outside Washington and charged with aiding a kidnapping.
Lisa Miller and Isabella quickly disappeared from their house in Jinotega, and there have been no reported sightings since, but federal agents believe the two remain in Nicaragua.
In December, federal prosecutors dropped the charges against Timo Miller in return for his testimony and filed charges against Kenneth Miller for what they allege was his more central role in Lisa Miller’s flight from the United States.
Jenkins, meanwhile, said she worries about Isabella’s welfare, after years in hiding in a foreign land, with all her former ties lost.
“Isabella was such a happy child,” she said. “That’s one of the things I hope has stayed the same.”