BUFFALO, N.Y. — A Virginia man who was accused of helping an ex-lesbian flee the country with her daughter has been declared guilty of international parental kidnapping and conspiracy.
A jury handed down the verdict on Thursday after a nearly two-week trial, which centered not on whether businessman Philip Zodhiates of Waynesboro helped Lisa Miller seven years ago, but whether he did it out of the generosity of his heart or to keep the girl away from Miller’s ex-partner.
“We had a lot of evidence about intent,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Van de Graaf, who served as one of the prosecutors in the case, told reporters following the verdict. “We also had strong evidence about the secrecy and deception used by the defendant.”
“Lisa’s secrecy and deception should not rub off on Philip,” argued Robert Hemley, one of Zodhiates’ defense attorneys. “There is no such thing as guilt by association.”
He faces up to eight years behind bars and a $500,000 fine. Zodhiates will be sentenced on January 30.
As previously reported, Zodhiates was placed on trial on Sept. 20 after being indicted on accusations that he drove Miller to Buffalo, New York, where she then crossed the Rainbow Bridge into Canada. (See the indictment here.) The trial was consequently held in Buffalo as the accused crimes took place within its jurisdiction.
During the trial, the prosecution presented numerous witnesses, including Miller’s own father, Terry Miller, who painted a strained relationship with his daughter, calling her “hard-headed,” “introverted” and “very much secretive.” He testified that she asked him to call Zodhiates to provide the location of the Walmart where she was waiting, but said he did not know why and did not ask.
Janet Jenkins, Miller’s former partner, also testified, stating that she is determined to do “anything and everything” to get the child, now 14, back. Jenkins is now “married” to another woman, and they raise a two-year-old together.
She said that the two separated after their relationship went downhill following an IVF miscarriage.
Miller had previously been married to Kirk McConchie, her college sweetheart, but the marriage was very brief.
The Washington Post reported in 2007 that Miller struggled with being intimate with her husband due to a physically and emotionally abusive childhood, which adversely affected their marriage.
“I tried [to secretly date men],” Lisa told the outlet at the that time, advising that her mother, who she described as “mentally ill,” forbid her from having relationships with men. “She would always find out. ‘All men are evil.’ That’s what I grew up with. ‘They only want one thing.’”
She said that she turned to alcohol in an attempt to deal with her problems, and soon ended up in AA, where she met lesbian Janet Jenkins and entered into a relationship with her, although “I did not feel sexually attracted to women.”
In 2000, Miller joined in a civil union with Jenkins in the state of Vermont, one of the few states that allowed homosexual arrangements at the time. 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, part of which involved the miscarriage of Miller’s second pregnancy, and Miller moved to Virginia. She renounced her involvement in homosexuality and reportedly turned to Jesus Christ to be born again.
“It wasn’t a struggle,” she recalled of walking away from the homosexual lifestyle. “I felt peace.”
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, the sole defendant not identified as a Mennonite, is the son of the late Dr. Spiros Zodhiates, a Greek-born Bible scholar who founded the missions and relief ministry Advancing the Ministries of the Gospel International (AMG). His father also published the Hebrew-Greek KeyWord Study Bible and was a radio and television host, teaching on the New Testament from its original Greek meaning.
Zodhiates and his wife have six children, all adopted. Attorney Robert Hemley, who represented Philip Zodhiates in court, described him as a “unique and special individual” who seeks to help others.
Hemley had also cast doubts on Jenkins’ parental rights during the trial, noting that “Lisa Miller is the biological mother; Janet Jenkins never decided to adopt.”
Mennonite pastor Ken Miller is currently serving 27 months behind bars for his alleged part in the escape. As previously reported, he was held in contempt last Wednesday for refusing to testify against Zodhiates “for reasons of faith and conscience.”
Timothy Miller, a Mennonite pastor in Nicaragua, was recently arrested and deported back to the United States. He faces a trial in Buffalo next month.