BURLINGTON, Vermont (AP) — A Mennonite pastor worked with a number of other people to help a woman flee the U.S. with her 7-year-old daughter rather than share custody with her former lesbian partner in Vermont, federal prosecutors said.
The 46-year-old pastor from Stuarts Draft, Virginia, is on trial on a federal charge of aiding and abetting in international kidnapping. Opening statements began Wednesday; the trial is to continue into next week.
Kenneth Miller is accused of helping the woman elude a Vermont court order to share custody with her former partner, and flee to Nicaragua to live with Mennonites there. The current whereabouts of the mother and her now 10-year-old daughter are unknown.
"We are here because others, including the defendant, Kenneth Miller, aided in her cause," Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugenia Cowles told the jury.
Miller's lawyer, Joshua Autry, said he will prove his client believed the mother had full custody of her daughter and could travel freely.
"Kenneth Miller thought that she was the full legal guardian," Autry said in opening statements.
Lisa Miller, no relation to the defendant, and Janet Jenkins of Fair Haven entered a civil union in Vermont in 2000. Lisa Miller gave birth to her daughter, Isabella, in 2002. The couple later broke up, and Lisa Miller returned to her native Virginia.
A custody battle ensued, and a Vermont judge transferred custody of the girl from her mother to Jenkins after the court says Lisa Miller refused to cooperate with visitation arrangements.
Prosecutors told the jury Wednesday that on Sept. 22, 2009, Kenneth Miller drove the mother and daughter from Virginia to Buffalo, New York, where the two crossed the Rainbow Bridge into Canada and flew to Central America and lived among Mennonites.
"In the dark of the night, Lisa Miller took her daughter across that bridge," Cowles said. "Lisa Miller didn't act alone."
Among the first witnesses, Ontario Mennonite pastor Ervin Horst said he picked up Lisa Miller and Isabella on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls after the two crossed into Canada by taxi. Horst said he was in regular telephone contact with Kenneth Miller and declined to cross into the U.S. to pick up the mother and child because he didn't want to cross an international border with them. He said he took them to the airport in Toronto the next day.
When asked if he knew about the custody case, he said he didn't know the details.
"Lisa did not feel good about what was happening and wanted to protect her daughter," he testified.