Indiana mom awarded $1.17 million after son’s kidnapping


April 10, 2016

Source: indystar.com

Alissa Zagaris of Noblesville, Ind., was once embroiled in an international custody fight for her son, Leo, that captured many Hoosiers’ attention and led to intervention by authorities in the U.S. and Greece.

Alissa-Zagaris

The darkest moments of Alissa Zagaris’ life were set in Greece.

For nearly two years, the Noblesville woman fought an international custody battle for her son, Leo. Where others saw Greece’s rich history, she worried about her future. Where others experienced joy, she felt terror.

“I didn’t enjoy any of it,” Alissa recalled. “I felt like I was going to my son’s prison.”

It has been three years since Alissa regained custody of Leo — a victory that required the intervention of authorities in both countries.

She co-founded an organization to help other parents battling international parental abductions. And she recently won a $1.17 million judgment against her ex-husband, a moral victory that may or may not result in payment.

But for Alissa and Leo, the strongest symbol of how far they’ve come is not what they’ve done. It’s what they plan to do in the near future: return to Greece.

“I took what became my biggest nightmare,” Alissa said, “and it became my greatest success.”

A broken agreement

When Alissa and Nikolaos “Nikos” Zagaris divorced in 2009, they agreed that Leo, then 8, would live with his mother in the United States. Their agreement called for Leo to visit his father in Greece for 10 weeks each year — one week during spring break, eight weeks during the summer and one week for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Nikos, who did not respond to IndyStar’s requests for an interview, also agreed to pay child support.

A year later, while Leo was visiting his father during the summer, Nikos told Alissa he would no longer pay child support, federal court records state. He also tried to persuade Leo to stay in Greece, but the boy refused.

When Nikos stopped paying child support, Alissa did not send her son to Greece for his next two scheduled visits.

Then, in March 2011, Nikos called and apologized, according to court records. He wired the past-due child support and asked to see his son.

Three months later, 10-year-old Leo flew from Chicago to Athens to spend the summer with his dad.

‘Get on the plane’

For the next nine weeks, Leo and his dad explored the Greek islands. They visited the beach and amusement parks. They took a cruise together. And Nikos showered his son with gifts.

“I gotta admit, it was kinda nice to have my dad there,” Leo recalled.

Nikos felt the same way about his son. He called Alissa in late July to tell her he had rescheduled Leo’s return flight from Aug. 7, 2011, to Aug. 16, 2011, court records show.

On Aug. 11, 2011, Nikos called again. He said Leo had been diagnosed with the mumps and would need to stay another month. Nikos asked Alissa to send Leo’s vaccination records, so he could share them with the doctor.

“Absolutely not,” she replied. Alissa said she knew what vaccination records were used for: enrolling Leo in school.

She asked Nikos to send proof of Leo’s illness. He didn’t, according to federal court records.

Nikos also initially refused to let her speak with Leo. When she finally did, Leo told her he wanted to stay in Greece. School started a month later, he said, and there was a private English-speaking school he could attend.

“Baba treats me like a prince,” Leo said, referring to his father.

“I was like ‘get on the plane,’” Alissa recalled.

Leo said his dad asked him to try living in Greece for one year. What Leo didn’t know is the legal process for returning a child to the country he or she typically resides in applies only if the application for return is filed within one year of the date of wrongful abduction.

The clock was ticking.

Dead to her

For the next two months, Alissa tried to persuade Nikos to send their son home. She also researched her legal options.

nikos-zagaris

Nikos told Alissa he would return Leo if she agreed to drop felony strangulation and misdemeanor domestic battery charges that had been filed against him in 2008, before the couple’s divorce, federal court records state. Nikos couldn’t return to the United States while there was a warrant out for his arrest.

Alissa said she refused to ask the prosecutor’s office to drop the charges.

Later, Nikos told Alissa that Leo was going through the process to become a Greek citizen, federal court records state. She would be dead to Leo, and he would be dead to her, Nikos said.

On Sept. 29, 2011, Alissa contacted the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs to fill out an application under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

Countries that sign the Hague Convention are obligated, with limited exceptions, to return an internationally abducted child who is younger than 16. The United States and Greece have signed the treaty, according to the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Each year, the U.S. Department of State receives about 1,200 new cases of international abductions by parents.

Alissa said it was a “do it yourself” process.

She also sought charges against Nikos in Hamilton Superior Court. The judge issued a warrant for Nikos’ arrest on Oct. 20, 2011, on a charge of felony interference with custody.

Meanwhile, Alissa’s communication with her son was sporadic and cold. Leo told his mother that Greece was better. He rejected his half sister, who still lived in the U.S., and his American friends.

Alissa didn’t know that Leo had been told his mother didn’t want him, that all she wanted was child support.

“Baba said she’s lying,” Leo recalled.

‘I thought I was being arrested’

Alissa said Nikos also spewed lies about her to the judge in Greece who would decide Leo’s future. She said Nikos claimed she was a drunk and addicted to drugs.

In 2012, Leo had to meet with the judge handling the case. She asked him where he wanted to live. But he didn’t want to choose. Leo asked the judge to keep his answer a secret.

The judge ruled in Alissa’s favor, federal court records show. She ordered Nikos to return Leo to his mother’s custody.

Nikos appealed but lost. He still didn’t send Leo home.

In February 2013, two months after Nikos lost his appeal of the judge’s ruling, he was charged in U.S. District Court with international parental kidnapping, court records show. The FBI and Greek Ministry of Justice, Transparency and Human Rights ordered Nikos to return Leo to his mother.

A month later, Greek police removed Leo from school.

“I thought I was being arrested,” Leo said. “Greek police came up and were like ‘you’re coming with us.’”

Alissa was waiting for him at the airport.

‘I needed to make a point’

After nearly two years, Leo was home.

But Alissa said her son, then 12, acted like a different person.

“I literally felt, when I picked him up, that I picked up a mini version of my ex-husband,” Alissa said. “He had a weird sense of superiority. He was a narcissist.”

The FBI provided counseling for Leo when he returned. It helped, but Alissa said the best therapy was being home and getting back to life.

“The first year we focused on us,” she said.

In 2014, Alissa’s friend, Noelle Hunter, suggested they start an organization to help other parents navigate the process of fighting international abductions. The iStand Parent Network was born.

“These kids don’t want this (situation),” Alissa said. “They want both parents.”

The federal government dropped the parental kidnapping charge against Nikos a few weeks after Leo returned to the United States. Nikos still has active arrest warrants for the domestic violence and interference with custody cases in Hamilton Superior Court.

Alissa also sued Nikos in 2013 for fraud, breaching their custody agreement and damaging her relationship with Leo, court records state. Earlier this year, Hamilton Superior Court Judge Steven Nation issued a $1.17 million default judgment against Nikos.

It’s unclear whether Alissa will receive any of the money. She said it doesn’t matter.

“I needed to make a point that this situation was abusive,” she said. “Two countries had to get involved because one man made a decision to be selfish.”

Leo, now 15, is an eighth-grader at Noblesville East Middle School. He had to be held back a year because of his time in Greece.

He said he is conflicted about his relationship with his father. They speak occasionally on the phone, but Leo said it seems like his dad wants to talk only when he sends a request on the game Candy Crush.

“He said if you’re not going to choose and act like me, you’re not my son anymore,” Leo said.

Alissa said she and Leo will visit Greece together next year. They are waiting until Leo is 16, so his father can’t keep him in Greece. Alissa said she will be nervous, but she wants her son to continue to embrace his Greek heritage.

“I think we’re doing great,” she said. “I’m proud of us.”

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