BUFFALO, N.Y. — A federal judge held a Mennonite minister in contempt of court on Thursday after refusing to testify for reasons of “faith and conscience” at the trial of a Virginia man who is being accused of aiding an ex-lesbian turned professing Christian who fled the country with her daughter in 2009 to escape a court order.
Kenneth Miller, who is currently serving a 27-month sentence in a federal prison in Vermont for likewise helping Lisa Miller—no relation—flee to Nicaragua, is now potentially facing new charges and a longer prison sentence for declining to testify against others.
Miller had been escorted into the courtroom by federal marshals after being ordered to testify in the trial of Philip Zodhiates, who is charged with international parental kidnapping and conspiracy for allegedly driving Lisa Miller and her then seven-year-old child from Virginia to New York.
Kenneth Miller’s attorney, Herbert Greenman of Buffalo, had advised the court in advance that the pastor was going to decline to testify, citing the Fifth Amendment. The jury was consequently recessed until the court discovered whether or not Miller would comply.
U.S. Assistant Attorney Paul Van De Graaf of Burlington, Vermont informed Miller that he had been granted immunity in speaking—that his testimony would not be held against him.
“You no longer have a Fifth Amendment right not to answer,” advised Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara, who then asked Van De Graaf to read aloud the immunity order.
Moment later, Van De Graaf proceeded with the questioning as Miller was placed on the stand.
“In September 2009, where did you live?” he asked.
“On the advice of my attorney, I decline to answer the question,” Miller replied humbly, choking up as he sought to respect the court but chose to stand by his convictions.
Van De Graaf repeated the question.
“For reasons of faith and conscience, I am not answering,” Miller again replied.
Arcara warned Miller that if he did not answer the questions he would be held in contempt of court, which could escalate to criminal contempt of court. Miller understood.
Arcara asked Van De Graaf to ask Miller additional questions, giving him further opportunity to comply. He remarked that there was “no lawful basis” for Miller to decline as Arcara had granted him immunity for testifying.
“Have you met Lisa Miller?” Van De Graaf asked.
Miller again responded that he could not answer for “reasons of faith and conscience.”
“Did you call Timothy Miller?” Van De Graaf questioned.
As Miller stood firm and again declined to answer, Arcara held Miller in contempt of court under 18 U.S. Code 6002. His supporters remained standing until he was escorted out the courtroom. Van De Graaf smirked.
Miller, who has been serving his sentence in Vermont, is now being held in a Buffalo prison for the duration of the trial in the unlikely event that he changes his mind.
Others prior to Miller agreed to testify before the court on Thursday, including Tara Devine, an attorney who had been appointed before Lisa Miller’s departure to oversee the child’s custody in the case, and Annie Joyner, a telephone company employee who discussed Zodhiates’ phone records.
William Sidebottom, who handled direct marketing for the religious liberties organization Liberty Counsel, was also questioned about an email he received from Zodhiates, asking, “Is there no legal recourse now for Lisa Miller?” Zodhiates had advised that he wanted to communicate with her.
A woman from Oregon by the name of Jessica, who worked with Timothy Miller in Nicaragua, told the court that someone had used her email account to send communication without her knowledge and permission, and that she had met Lisa Miller and her daughter, known to her as Sarah and Lydia.
As previously reported, the situation began in 2000, when Miller, then a homosexual, joined in a civil union with lesbian Jenkins in the state of Vermont. Following an artificial insemination procedure from a male sperm donor, Miller gave birth to a daughter, named Isabella, in 2002. But even then, Miller had concern.
“There were numerous incidents of Janet going to [the Internet] and putting up naked women on the screen saver, and I would ask her to please change it,” Lisa later told the court, according to the Washington Post.
“I don’t have clean hands, either. Previously, before … the baby was born, [pornography] was used in our relationship,” she said. “When we moved to Vermont, Isabella was 4 months old, and I said this stuff has to go … There’s a baby in this house now. I don’t want that.”
In 2003, Miller and Jenkins split over continued tension in their relationship, and Miller moved to Virginia. She renounced homosexuality and reportedly turned to Jesus Christ for salvation.“It wasn’t a struggle,” she recalled of walking away from the homosexual lifestyle. “I felt peace.”
Miller, who had previously been married to her college boyfriend, said that she had struggled with being intimate with her husband due to an abusive childhood, which adversely affected their marriage. She turned to alcohol for solace, and later became involved in a relationship with a woman, but only for the companionship.
“I did not feel sexually attracted to women,” Miller said.
She met Jenkins at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting while seeking help and soon moved in with her, where one step led to another.
When the civil union between Miller and Jenkins was officially dissolved, the court gave custody to Miller, while also granting visitation rights to Jenkins.
While Miller did allow Isabella to spend time with Jenkins for a while, she reportedly became concerned at the information that her daughter was providing to her following the visitations.
Later, Miller testified to the court that the visits were causing great trauma to Isabella. She claimed that at six years old, the girl was forced to take baths together with Jenkins, and that the girl was openly touching herself inappropriately. She also stated that Isabella was withdrawn and talked about suicide at times.
“Isabella came home and said, ‘Mommy, will you please tell Janet that I don’t have to take a bath anymore at her house,’” Miller told reporters in 2008. “I asked her what happened. She said, ‘Janet took a bath with me.’ I asked her if she had a bathing suit on. ‘No, Mommy.’ She had no clothes on and it totally scared Isabella. She had never seen this woman except once in 2 ½ years and she takes a bath with her.”
“Last year, Isabella put a comb up to her neck and said she wanted to kill herself after one of the visits,” she outlined. “She took a comb and pressed it into her neck and said, ‘I want to kill myself.’ I don’t know where she got that. It was immediately after a visit. Other people have seen huge changes.”
Miller then filed for exclusive custody of Isabella, and the court agreed. She told the Washington Post, “I don’t see Janet as a parent, first and foremost. Secondly, I don’t want to expose Isabella to Janet’s lifestyle. It goes against all my beliefs. I am raising Isabella to pattern herself after Christ. That’s my job as a Christian mom. Homosexuality is a sin.”
However, Jenkins fought the ruling all the way up to the Virginia Supreme Court, which in 2008, ruled in favor of granting Miller’s former lesbian partner visitation rights. Miller refused.
The following year, family court judge Richard Cohen warned Miller that she must allow Isabella to visit Jenkins and threatened that if she did not do so, he would transfer full custody to Jenkins. In November 2009, Cohen followed through with his threats and ordered Miller to hand the child over to Jenkins.
However, Miller had fled the country with Isabella before he issued the transfer order, and for some time, none knew the whereabouts of the two. It was later discovered that they had fled to Nicaragua via the help of a number of Mennonite Christians and their contacts.
Zodhiates is accused of driving Miller from Virginia to Buffalo, New York, where she then crossed the Rainbow Bridge into Canada. (See the indictment here.)
American missionary to Nicaragua Timothy “Timo” Miller—no relation to any in the case—is also accused of arranging Lisa Miller’s travel arrangements from Canada and assisting her upon her arrival to Nicaragua.