By David Story, Special to The Villager
Alabama June 17, 2011
Contributed Auburn Villager
Luis Gallardo-Rivera and his daughter, Amaia
Last Father’s Day, Opelika city employee Luis Gallardo-Rivera didn’t know if he’d ever see his daughter Amaia again as he embarked on a desperate odyssey. His search ended up spanning two states, crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and including a trek across Bulgaria from Sofia to Burgas on the Black Sea.
A single man with visitation rights to see his 6-year-old daughter Amaia, Gallardo-Rivera says the disappearance of his daughter was unexpected. In the prior year, his relationship with her mother Beatriz had “settled down.”
“Things were rocky with Beatriz after Amaia’s birth, with visitation disagreements,” admits Gallardo-Rivera, a Columbus native. “I’d travel to Florida from Puerto Rico, where I was living and I’d first met Beatriz, and later to Florida from Columbus.”
Then Beatriz announced she had a real-estate job offer in Spain.
“Beatriz said she’d take Amaia for nine months,” says Gallardo-Rivera, who had joint custody. “It was temporary, and though I wouldn’t see Amaia for nine months, I could have her every summer per our new visitation arrangement.”
The only hitch, adds Gallardo-Rivera, was that Amaia’s mother was engaged to a Bulgarian national.
“The day before they left for Spain, Beatriz called and said they were making a pit stop in Bulgaria to meet the fiancé’s family and get married,” he says.
Gallardo-Rivera admits resenting the fact that Beatriz’s fiancé was a father figure to Amaia. But he appreciated that Amaia got along with the man who might become her stepfather. He says he was glad his daughter had a chance to travel, and he understood the fiancé’s wanting to see his home and family.
But weeks passed and then a couple of months went by with only email and webcam communications between Gallardo-Rivera and his daughter. Beatriz explained that there were visa problems delaying their departure for Spain. Because he has a friend who’s an immigration lawyer, Gallardo-Rivera says this didn’t sound improbable.
The first warning bell rang when Beatriz said Amaia couldn’t come back to visit her father, adding that it wasn’t feasible for the child to leave Bulgaria and try to get back in. She said Gallardo-Rivera could come and visit, however.
“I was frustrated, but not entirely suspicious,” he says. “Now, I look back and think, how could I have been so stupid!”
By February, Gallardo-Rivera was planning a visit. Shortly afterwards, his story took an alarming turn.
“On March 16 of last year, I found an arrest warrant online for Beatriz on federal charges of mortgage fraud,” he says. “A 50-plus-page document from the federal Department of Justice initiated by the FBI, which had first interviewed Beatriz the day before she called me with the Spain story.”
Gallardo-Rivera says he didn’t care so much about the bank’s allegations of mortgage fraud as he did about what Beatriz had done to him and his daughter.
“Everything fell into place, so, I called the FBI,” he says. “They had no news of her whereabouts—she and Amaia had boarded a flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam—so I gave the Bureau an address.”
Gallardo-Rivera immediately tried to obtain emergency full custody, filing in Florida.
“It was denied for lack of jurisdiction, and their court ruling said I could file in Alabama or Puerto Rico,” he says. “My lawyer said not to file in Alabama, so I filed in Puerto Rico, and the request was denied.”
Months passed and Gallardo-Rivera still communicated with Amaia via webcam, watching what he said to avoid giving away anything. Then, things began to turn in his favor.
“The FBI had to go through the State Department to work with the Bulgarian embassy in Sofia” he says. “I had called the embassy repeatedly, having written to the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, Nancy McEldowney.”
Gallardo-Rivera finally got in touch with a female official, Kimberly Atkinson of the embassy’s American Citizens Services, who became his contact. The search for Amaia evolved from a federal case to an Interpol case.
“Atkinson was very proactive,” says Gallardo-Rivera, who had been assured that once Beatriz was apprehended the American embassy would hold his daughter.
“I was sitting tight, and in mid-October I received a call from Atkinson,” he says. “The embassy had just finished a legal consultation and said they couldn’t hold Amaia overnight if they found her. ‘Are you going to get her soon?’ I asked, and Atkinson said she couldn’t answer that.”
Atkinson said she could pass Amaia on to an American missionary couple, the Ridgways, pending Gallardo-Rivera’s arrival.
“‘Should I come?’ I asked,” recalls Gallardo-Rivera, “and Atkinson couldn’t give me a definitive answer. So I slept on it, decided to go, and bought a ticket for Bulgaria.”
Gallardo-Rivera flew into Letishte Sofia-Vrazhdebna airport in Sofia, arriving on a Friday. He checked into the Kempinski Hotel Zografski in the Lozenets neighborhood near downtown Sofia. As Gallardo-Rivera strolled past the hotel’s lake, he contemplated his situation.
“The Kempinski Hotel was next to the embassy,” he explains, “and by Monday I was frustrated when Atkinson informed me Beatriz still wasn’t in custody. I didn’t know what to do, so I went back to the hotel and tried to contact the Bulgarian police. Then my sister told me about a private investigation agency she’d found online,”
A private detective
Korona AIK Detective Agency at 14 Budapeshta St. is known for tracking hiding or missing persons, and the agency had a 10-year for reputation working with foreign clients.
“I gave Korona’s Alexandra Karmanska my daughter’s last address in Bulgaria, plus the name of the Drita School,” says Gallardo-Rivera, “She arranged surveillance of the school and learned Amaia was abruptly checked out by her mother’s fiancé on the same day I’d gotten the call from the U.S. Embassy about the American couple, the Ridgways.”
Gallardo-Rivera moved to a less expensive hotel, the Hotel Maxim, close to downtown Sofia and the Vitosha Street commercial district. He stayed till the end of the second week but was on leave without pay.
“I was trying to email Beatriz because the webcam communication had suddenly stopped,” he explains, “but there were no email responses.”
Gallardo-Rivera decided to return home. Once he was back in Alabama, the emails started again and were forwarded by him to the FBI, which forwarded them to Bulgaria. There, authorities traced the IP address to the seaside town of Burgas.
Gallardo-Rivera was still trying to arrange a trip without letting Beatriz know he knew where she was. He said he was going to visit his brother in Ibiza, Spain, and wanted to make side trip to Bulgaria.
“No, don’t come,” Beatriz said. “Amaia is going to winter camp with her school.”
The Hague Treaty
The emails slacked off, and when they came again, Beatriz was elusive about her address. Gallardo-Rivera tried to get Amaia on the Missing Children’s List, a process that only local authorities can initiate. The Florida police wouldn’t follow through, however, so Gallardo-Rivera turned to the International Missing Children’s List and made a petition through the Hague Treaty.
The Hague’s Office of Children’s Issues provides direction to foreign service posts on international parental child abduction and fulfills U.S. treaty obligations relating to the abduction of children.
The Hague Treaty, a multilateral treaty protecting children from abduction and retention across international boundaries, provides guidelines for an application process to have a child returned under the treaty.
“In the week or two leading up to finally getting Amaia back in November, I made calls and wrote letters to my congressmen, the State Department, Bulgarian Minister of Interior Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the International Missing Children’s List and Interpol’s Bulgarian office,” says Gallardo-Rivera. “I got flooded with calls in response.”
Then Atkinson called from Sofia, saying the embassy had Amaia. She and Beatriz had been in the home of a friend of the fiancé’s in Burgas. Gallardo-Rivera drove straight to the Atlanta airport, thinking his daughter was en route to the Ridgways. There were complications, however.
“It was alleged that Beatriz said I’d given up custody rights or they’d been revoked,” according to Gallardo-Rivera. “But I had my documents when an embassy car with a translator picked me up at the airport.”
Gallardo-Rivera’s documents showed he had never relinquished joint custody, and he immediately became custodial parent as soon as Beatriz was incarcerated.
The embassy got Gallardo-Rivera to the Social Assistance Office, but Amaia wasn’t with the Ridgways; she was at the Dragalevtsi Shelter for Children because Beatriz claimed Gallardo-Rivera had relinquished custody.
When Gallardo-Rivera saw Amaia there she hugged him. The embassy staff drove them to the airport, and they were out of the country three hours after his arrival.
Home at last
Amaia’s aunt and paternal grandfather were waiting when they landed in Atlanta.
“I am grateful I’d always tried to communicate with Amaia, because she was comfortable with me,” says here dad. “Amaia took it all like a champ.”
Amaia started school at Jeter Primary in Opelika the following Wednesday.
“Amaia was smiling and acting like a little girl,” recalls Sandra Gallardo, Amaia’s aunt, of their airport reunion. “She’d say little things in reference to her time in Bulgaria, and it caught us off guard and was hard to respond to. Amaia has a strong sense of leadership and a deep need to understand things but is as silly as any young girl.”
Her aunt adds that Amaia has always been extremely social, makes friends quickly and never forgets names.
“Folks stop me and tell me they can’t believe Amaia’s only been with me for a few months,” says Gallardo-Rivera. “She’s resilient and integrated into school. She’s gotten used to new rules; it’s like we’ve always lived together.”
Be careful with whom you have children, sums up Gallardo-Rivera.
“It’s a challenge—going from bachelor to full-time single Dad with the ‘technical’ aspects of health plans,” he says. “Nothing can prepare you for day-to-day parenthood. It’s not like when you could eat a bowl of cereal for dinner or skip a meal; you have another mouth to feed.”
The ‘big picture’
His sleep was the first thing affected. He wakes up an hour early and stays up at night to make dinner and help with homework.
“All of these things are peanuts compared to the big picture, so it’s worth it,” he muses.
Amaia and her dad even make it down to Florida so she can see her maternal grandparents, who knew nothing about Beatriz’a legal troubles.
“I’ve learned so many things about Amaia,” says her dad. “She is into art. Her drawings are very detailed. I signed her up with 4-H club at school, and we visit different parks and go to Opelika’s Sportsplex to swim.”
The one thing he hasn’t figured out yet is how to fix a little girl’s hair, confesses Gallardo-Rivera.
“I try to convince her to go with a short haircut, but with the movie Tangled, that hasn’t been successful,” he says. “You can tell when my sister or a female co-worker has helped with my Amaia’s hair and when ‘Daddy’ did it.”
This is the first Father’s Day Amaia will spend with Gallardo-Rivera, his father and all his siblings.
“My family has showered her with so much love,” he says. “She adores them, and they love her. They’ve grown so close so fast; she calls my dad ‘abuelo.'”
Gallardo-Rivera’s father Orlando—Amaia’s grandfather, says she is totally different from when she first arrived.
“When we are together, she is very affectionate and talks of things she does with her Dad; she loves being with him,” he says. “My son has a unique way with her. He’s always there for Amaia.”
Note: Gallardo-Rivera said Amaia’s mom Beatriz was extradited and is awaiting trial in Florida. Gallardo-Rivera now has full legal and physical custody, and Beatriz will have to request visitation in court. So far, she has not. The facility she is in does not allow visitors, so Amaia has only seen her mom via webcam since leaving Bulgaria. Beatriz’s fiancé is still in Bulgaria, and since he didn’t formally sign anything or directly commit any mortgage fraud, he is not facing charges.