Isabella Miller-Jenkins’ journey into the national spotlight began with a car ride to Buffalo when she was 7.
It also began with a high-profile, same-sex custody battle and a conspiracy to help her biological mother flee the country with her.
Seven years later, the conspiracy and that initial car ride are sending Virginia businessman Philip Zodhiates to prison for three years.
Convicted by a federal jury in Buffalo of taking part in an international parental kidnapping, Zodhiates was one of three men accused of orchestrating Lisa A. Miller’s escape to a Mennonite community in Nicaragua. She and Isabella, now 14, have never been found by authorities.
On Wednesday, Zodhiates denied that his involvement with Miller was based, at all, on her previous same-sex civil union with Janet Jenkins in Vermont, a relationship that later dissolved and led to their custody fight. Jenkins, who took the witness stand in the case last year, told the jury that she intends to do “anything and everything” to bring her daughter back to the United States.
“In truth, I was not at all motivated by Lisa Miller’s and Janet Jenkins’ lifestyle,” Zodhiates told the court Wednesday. “That’s their choice and it’s not my role to change that.”
Zodhiates , a Virginia businessman, pointed to his core belief that “we’re put on earth to make a difference,” and said he acted out of a desire to help Miller, not a desire to deny Jenkins her parental rights.
Prosecutors, however, told a far different story of Zodhiates’ motivation and described him as a major player in the conspiracy to kidnap Isabella.
“This is not a case about helping someone,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Van de Graaf. “He chose sides in a fight. And when you choose sides in a fight, you chose to hurt one side.”
Zodhiates’ sentence, which followed a two-week trial before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara, is the latest development in a case that has captured the nation’s interest and cast a spotlight on issues such as same-sex marriage and parental rights.
At the heart of the case is the allegation that Miller abducted Isabella in September of 2009 in an effort to keep her away from Jenkins and what Miller now calls “the homosexual lifestyle.”
Zodhiates was charged with helping Miller and her daughter make their way from Virginia to Buffalo Niagara International Airport and later Toronto, where they caught a plane to Nicaragua.
During the trial, prosecutors called a series of witnesses and presented a trail of emails intended to prove that Zodhiates helped Miller flee Virginia in an effort to keep Isabella away from Jenkins.
Van de Graaf and Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael A. DiGiacomo argued during the trial that Miller’s decision to flee stemmed, in part, from her fear that Jenkins might ultimately win custody of their daughter. A Vermont court previously had given custody to Miller but gave Jenkins visitation rights.
In 2014, a federal grand jury in Buffalo indicted three people, including Miller and Zodhiates, on charges of conspiracy and international parental kidnapping.
Robert B. Hemley, one of Zodhiates’ defense lawyers, argued for leniency and pointed to the 286 letters of support filed with the court on his client’s behalf.
“They are important,” Hemley told Arcara, “because they’re a reflection of what he’s done to acquire so many friends.”
Buffalo lawyer James W. Grable Jr. also represented Zodhiates.
Even before the indictment came down, Isabella’s disappearance garnered headlines across the country, in part because of the hot-button issues at the heart of the case.
Miller and Jenkins separated in late 2003 and eventually ended their civil union in Vermont. When Miller moved back to Virginia and tried to stop visits by Jenkins, the courts intervened and, at one point, appeared on the verge of transferring custody to Jenkins.
Prosecutors say that’s when Miller fled Virginia.
Sometime in late September 2009, she and Isabella arrived in Managua, Nicaragua, and were greeted by Timothy D. Miller, a Mennonite pastor.
Timothy Miller, who is no relation to Lisa Miller, pleaded guilty to conspiracy last year.
Zodhiates’ case was investigated by the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service.