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FBI arrests Tenn. pastor in Vt.-Va. custody case

  • Article by: JOHN CURRAN
  • Associated Press
  • April 22, 2011 - 4:00 PM

MONTPELIER, Vt. - A Tennessee pastor who allegedly helped a woman abscond to central America with her 9-year-old daughter has been charged with aiding a kidnapping, the latest twist in a long-running custody dispute between former lesbian partners.

Timothy David Miller, 34, of Crossville, Tenn., is accused of helping to arrange passage for Lisa Miller of Virginia and daughter Isabella Miller Jenkins, who have been on the run since 2009 and now are believed to be living in Nicaragua.

It doesn't appear that Timothy Miller is related to the mother. He works with an Ohio-based Christian ministry and people with links to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University may have provided a beach house where the two could live, according to an FBI affidavit.

"I know very little at this point, but I really hope that this means that Isabella is safe and well," said Miller's former partner, Janet Jenkins, of Fair Haven. "I am looking forward to having my daughter home safe with me very soon," she said in a statement released by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which has provided legal help to her.

Timothy Miller, described by the FBI as a pastor in an Amish-Mennonite church, is charged with aiding in international parental kidnapping, which carries a potential three-year prison term.

He's accused of providing Miller and the girl with travel assistance and a place to live outside the U.S.

A public defender who represented him after his Monday arrest in Alexandria, Va., Whitney E.C. Minter, declined to comment. Steven Barth, a public defender who was designated Friday to represent him in Vermont, where his case is being prosecuted, didn't return messages.

Lisa Miller and Janet Jenkins were joined in a Vermont civil union in 2000. Isabella was born to Miller in 2002, and the couple broke up the following year.

Miller then moved to Virginia, renounced homosexuality and became an evangelical Christian. She was granted custody of Isabella, but Jenkins got visitation rights.

Courts in Vermont and Virginia have since ruled in favor of Jenkins on the custody issue, most recently in November 2009, when Rutland Family Court Judge William Cohen — frustrated by Miller's refusal to obey court orders — ordered her to surrender custody to Jenkins.

Miller, who at one time lived in Forest, Va., failed to appear with the girl for a court-ordered Jan. 1, 2010, custody swap in which Jenkins was to take her.

A federal arrest warrant has since been issued for her. The girl is listed as missing by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Jenkins' attorney had said last year the two were reported to be in El Salvador at some point, but the FBI says they were last known to be in Nicaragua.

According to the April 1 affidavit by FBI special agent Dana Kaegel:

_ Using search warrants that gave them access to various e-mail and Facebook accounts, authorities found their way to Timothy Miller, who is described as pastor of an Amish-Mennonite church in Managua, Nicaragua, and associate of Christian Aid Ministries, which is based in Berlin, Ohio.

_ On Sept. 22, 2009, Lisa Miller and the girl flew from Toronto to Mexico City and then onto to El Salvador. A day later, they flew to Managua.

_ In customer service notes obtained from TACA Airlines and dated the day before, someone wrote that Timothy Miller called from Nicaragua and said Lisa Miller and the girl had to leave Canada the following day and couldn't be routed through the United States. According to the airline, "Timothy" approved the itinerary.

_ Investigators believe that references to "Sarah" and "Lydia" in email messages sent from Timothy Miller's account are code names for Lisa Miller and her daughter. In one March 25, 2010, a birthday party for the girl is discussed, with the writer saying: "I feel dearly for these 2 dear people. And I can see it would mean a lot to them in this rough first year of there stay in Nica. I would love for Lydia's birthday to be very special and remembered long. She is going through a lot, and her future looms greatly in front of her right now."

_ Email messages make reference to Lisa Miller. One written by Timothy Miller said: "Sorry, folks, the Lisa subject should currently not be a topic of discussion or emailing. It might soon, or it just might be more of a secret. Please advise folks about this. Pray. Definitely pray."

_ A law professor at Liberty University represented Lisa Miller in court appearances before her disappearance.

_ An administrative assistant at the law school named Victoria Hyden is the daughter of Philip Zodhiates, a "wealthy man" and "Liberty Leader" who has a beach house in Nicaragua where Miller and the girl have been staying. The affidavit attributed that information to Jenkins attorney Sarah Star, who told prosecutors she was told that by a caller in June. Zodhiates asked Hyden to disseminate a request to get Lisa Miller supplies, the caller told Star.

Star wouldn't identify the caller to The Associated Press on Friday.

Hyden and Zodhiates didn't immediately respond to telephone or e-mail messages sent by The Associated Press on Friday, a Christian holiday.

It's unclear why the caller called Zodhiates a "Liberty Leader." Liberty's alumni relations office said Zodhiates is neither an alum nor a donor.

Mathew Staver, dean of the Liberty University law school and chairman of the conservative Christian legal organization Liberty Counsel, said Zodhiates is not affiliated with either.

Liberty Counsel had represented Miller, but the organization last heard from her in fall 2009, Staver said. The group sought to withdraw from the Vermont case "because our client had abandoned us with no information about where she was," but the judge denied the motion, he said.

"From our perspective, she just dropped off the face of the earth. We haven't heard from her or from anyone who said they've heard from her."

Staver said Hyden works at the law school but said they have never had any conversation about Lisa Miller.

Vermont U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin wouldn't comment on the case Friday.

Janet Jenkins' lawyer in Vermont, Sarah Star, called Timothy Miller's arrest the biggest development in the case so far.

"Hopefully, it's a step in the right direction towards bringing Isabella home. That's the only thing Janet cares about. Hopefully, it also means that Isabella is safe," Star said Friday.

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Associated Press writers Larry O'Dell in Richmond, Va., and Wilson Ring, in Montpelier, Vt., contributed to this story.

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