January 13, 2016
A 5-year-old boy stood outside a Knoxville federal courtroom Tuesday unaware of his place at the center of an international custody battle.
Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan intends to keep it that way — as do the two parents who are warring over what country the youngster should call home.
In a case that has involved the Mexican government, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Marshals Service and The Hague Convention, Varlan found himself Tuesday playing a role far removed his usual duties — a family court judge.
“This is not the typical proceeding in this court,” he remarked.
In that new role, Varlan reminded the feuding parents — Mexican citizens Eugenio Garduno Guevara and Alma Soto Soto — of an agreement brokered by their respective attorneys to shield the boy from talk about the legal fight.
“There are to be no discussions with the child involved in these proceedings, do you understand?” the judge asked both parents via interpreters.
The case hit U.S. District Court in Knoxville in December when Memphis attorney Suzanne Landers and her firm filed on behalf of Guevara federal action to keep Soto, who has been living with the boy in Knoxville, from fleeing with him. Citing the provisions of The Hague Convention of 1980 on international child abduction cited by Guevara’s lawyers, Varlan issued a temporary restraining order and ordered Soto to bring the boy with her to Tuesday’s hearing. He ordered the U.S. Marshals Service, an agency tasked with hunting criminal fugitives, to serve Soto with his order.
Guevara and Soto had the boy out of wedlock in Mexico in 2010 but lived together with him until March 2013 when Guevara moved out. A month later, the boy and his mother disappeared.
Guevara launched a hunt for his son, engaging Mexican police and the Mexican government, scouring Facebook and ultimately engaging the State Department and the U.S. judicial system.
Two years later, Guevara finally found mother and son via a photograph posted on Facebook, showing Soto and the boy at the Wichita Falls Park in Wichita Falls, Texas. But, he alleges, she disappeared with the boy again. The pair resurfaced in late May in Knoxville when she sought custody through Knox County Juvenile Court.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Landers and Soto’s attorney, Scott Saidak, announced a temporary deal in which Guevara would be allowed to visit with his son later that evening at West Town Mall and again on Wednesday at a location to be determined. Soto, who will keep custody of the boy for now, agreed to stay put in Knoxville pending a March 7 hearing on where the boy should reside — the U.S. with his mother or Mexico with his father.
“My client has been here two years and has no intention of moving anytime soon,” Saidak said.
While it’s not been made clear whether Soto is in the U.S. legally, she has a passport, which Saidak said she agreed to turn over to him while the case is pending. Guevara said he will be returning to Mexico to await the upcoming hearing.
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