February 18 2013
Father ignores legally binding divorce decree when he doesn’t send son back to U.S. after a 2011 visit.
Alissa Zagaris hopes an international arrest warrant filed against her ex-husband will allow her to get her son Leo, 12, back home from Greece, where he allegedly has been held against his will since August 2011.
INDIANAPOLIS — In June 2011 Alissa Zagaris drove her then-10-year-old son, Leo, from their home in Noblesville, Ind., to Chicago and put him on a plane for Greece — just as she had done four times before.
It was a long-distance visitation arrangement set forth by the couple’s divorce agreement struck in a Hamilton County, Ind., court. Leo would fly over, spend some time with his father, Nikolaos Zagaris, then fly back.
No big deal.
But on this fifth journey, things went wrong when Leo, now 12, did not come home. His father kept him in Greece — despite the legally binding divorce decree that awarded Alissa custody.
Leo soon would become embroiled in a protracted and messy bureaucratic morass that would involve two nations, the FBI, Interpol, the State Department, international treaties, courts on two continents and one angry and heartbroken mom.
Unlike so many other incidents when one parent keeps a child away from the other, this was not a custody case. This was an international abduction. This, authorities ultimately concluded, was kidnapping.
Nevertheless, prodding authorities in Athens, Washington and Indianapolis to take up her case has been a long, frustrating journey for Zagaris. In December, in a Greek court, Zagaris finally got the chance to tell her side of the story — and she was reunited with her son for a brief, supervised visit.
When she saw Leo for the first time in 19 months, all her fears and anxieties — stemming from his recent comments about hating America — melted away.
“My little boy jumped in my arms,” Zagaris said. “He is this tall on me now (holding a hand up to her shoulder) and he lunged at me and held my hand the whole time. “We sat together on the couch and I just rubbed his skin. His skin is fine like mine. I always rub his back. And look into his eyes.”
The Dec. 13, 2012, visit lasted for about 45 tense minutes as Nickolaos and his mother watched.
‘Left behind moms’ unite
Many of the more than 350 or so friends and followers of Zagaris’ two Facebook pages — her personal page and one she set up to publicize her son’s kidnapping — call themselves “left behind moms” or “left behind parents.”
They are the husbands and wives who fight the same battles Zagaris has fought during the past 19 months.
According to the Bring Sean Home Foundation, founded in 2009 as a support group and resource hub, more than 4,700 American children were abducted outside the United States between 2008 and 2010 by a parent or guardian,
Getting them back is rarely quick and never easy. Zagaris found that out in the fall of 2011 when it became clear to her that her ex-husband had no intention of sending Leo home.
She contacted the U.S. State Department, office of Consular Affairs, and reported what had happened. They urged her to file an application with the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction — a necessary step in any case that spans international borders.
The Hague Convention, designed to make the process work more smoothly, is contingent on both countries agreeing to its terms — which provide a framework for communicating the facts of a case and agreeing to abide by the laws of both countries.
In other words they need to get along, which can be a sticky situation depending on the state of world affairs.
“Sometimes they cooperate in getting a child back to the country,” said Wendy Osborne, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Indianapolis. “But some countries don’t play by the rules.”
Osborne declined to comment on Zagaris’ case — an agent in Indianapolis is heavily involved and filed the affidavit that led to charges being filed by the U.S. District Court.
But Osborne said the FBI is involved in hundreds of cases like this across the country.
“At one time I was working on six myself, involving Mexico, Syria, other countries, all at the same time,” Osborne said. “And these are very difficult cases because they are so emotional.”
According to the Bring Sean Home Foundation, children abducted abroad are often traumatized, losing contact with a parent and finding themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, forced to live in a country where they may not know the language or the culture.
Leo, does not speak Greek, Zagaris said. And despite assurances that he would be enrolled in an English-speaking school, she suspects that has never happened. Experts also say abducted children are often told lies about the other parent or guardian and the country from which they came.
Love, marriage, violence
A younger “Nick” and Alissa met in 2000 when he was a weekend waiter at a Greek restaurant, and she, a nutritionist and caterer by trade, was a manager. One thing led to another.
“It was mainly a physical relationship,” she said. “I had no intention of getting serious. But then, lo and behold, I’m pregnant.”
Attempts to reach Nickolaos Zagaris through his attorney for this story were unsuccessful.
Alissa said Nickolaos, a Greek citizen, was looking for a way to stay in America. He had come to the U.S. on a student visa and studied at the University of Indianapolis. But that visa had expired.
Not long after their wedding in July 2000, Leo was born. Zagaris said things changed once the pressures of parental responsibility set in.
“Nick changed,” she said. “Before that it was just me and him. The day Leo was born, everything changed.” As the baby grew, Zagaris said, Nick grew physically abusive toward her. In 2008, Nick was arrested and charged in Hamilton County with domestic battery and felony strangulation. Before he would stand trial on those charges, he fled to Greece.
Zagaris filed and was granted a divorce (without her husband present) in Hamilton County. The court granted custody of Leo to his mom. Despite the charges pending against him, the court allowed for a clause in the divorce decree that not only gave Nick visitation rights, but guaranteed visits to Greece.
In exchange, Nick Zagaris would maintain child support payments and put $5,000 into an account controlled by his attorney as a sort of “insurance clause” that he would have to give to his ex-wife should he ever fail to return Leo in a timely fashion.
According to the State Department, Zagaris was lucky her ex-husband had not taken their son to a non-compliant nation such as Costa Rica, Guatemala, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, France or Poland — countries on the State Department’s “enforcement concerns” list when it comes to child issues.
Greece, however, is known as a country that works well with other countries.
She had other facts in her favor. Nick was not only a fugitive from a felony charge in Hamilton County, he was violating a court-ordered divorce agreement that specifically gave her custody.
The Greek courts set a hearing date for April 6, 2012.
During the delay, Zagaris also filed charges against Nick in Hamilton County, based on the violation of the custodial agreement. Hamilton County issued a warrant for his arrest.
She wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pleading for the White House to do something to help.
Not much happened.
“I used to be a very clear, organized thinker,” Zagaris said. “But I’ve lost my mind.
“There is a very high suicide rate with our kind. It’s very hard. We have to fight through every obstacle, every hurdle just to get our cases taken seriously.
“It’s like our children are wrapped up in this diplomatic nightmare.”
The State Department spokesman told The Indianapolis Star on Friday that it is working as quickly as it can.
“The Department of State is aware of the Zagaris case and is providing all appropriate assistance,” the spokesman said. “We will continue to monitor the case and the welfare of the child through close coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Athens and the Greek Central Authority for the Hague Abduction Convention.”
A final dagger?
With two legal victories in Greek courts, Zagaris was counting the days when she could bring her son back.
But on Jan. 9, the State Department sent Zagaris an email saying that the Greek Central Authority told U.S. officials that because of “recent judicial strikes” in Greece a final and formal decision could take up to two years to be published.
After that, her ex-husband would have 30 days to file yet another appeal, with the Greek supreme court, the email said. Another appeal would mean another long delay.
However, the State Department told her that it was working with Greek officials who seem to be willing to move forward with returning Leo to Indiana despite any future appeal … “and will be in touch as soon as the situation is clarified.”
Zagaris was stunned.
“It’s just back and forth, back and forth,” she said. “I’m frustrated. I’ve won the right twice now from Greece. I’ve got the acknowledgments from the courts.
“It’s been 19 months.”
While all this was happening, Zagaris said she received an angry phone call from her ex-husband. According to an FBI affidavit, Nick Zagaris threatened to “take (him) to the United Arab Emirates” — a nation not part of the Hague Convention.
Not long after that call, an FBI special agent filed the paperwork and U.S. Magistrate Judge Tim Baker signed the formal federal charges against Nikolaos Zagaris for international parental kidnapping.
Those charges have been filed with Interpol, the international police community comprising 190 countries, including Greece. Greek authorities now (or soon) will have the authority to simply arrest him on those charges.
But now all Zagaris can do is wait for the words that will finally end a mother’s nightmare.
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