Video: Distraught dad speaks out on Japan custody battle

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updated 5/11/2010 7:10:27 PM ET 2010-05-11T23:10:27

This report aired Dateline Sunday, May 9

Like any proud dad, Christopher Savoie beams when he describes his kids,9-year-old Isaac and 7-year-old Rebecca, except for him it’s painfully bittersweet.

CHRISTOPHER SAVOIE, father:  I can feel them right here. I want to hug them. But I can’t do that.

It’s been seven long months since Christopher hugged his hildren, seven months since he so much as heard their voices.

Mr. SAVOIE:  It’s worse than a death. At least with a death, there’s closure. But I’m still left worrying about my children’s welfare every day. They’re alive. They’re out there. I just don’t know where.

VIEIRA: What does that do to a dad?

Mr. SAVOIE: It’s horrible.

So horrible it has led this father down what he calls a nightmarish path, involving an abduction, a daring international rescue attempt and time in a jail cell. It all goes back to 1995 when Christopher married Japanese native Noriko Asaki. They met when he was studying in Fukuoka, a city about 500 miles southwest of Tokyo. The couple spent 10 years in Japan, where Christopher even founded his own pharmaceutical company.

Mr. SAVOIE:  I liked it very much. I liked the culture. I liked the lifestyle there.

But last year the couple’s 14-year marriage ended in a bitter divorce. By then, they’d moved to the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tennessee, and in court they agreed the children would live there, with Noriko taking them to Japan for six weeks each summer. Still, Christopher says, his ex-wife immediately began talking about taking the children to Japan for good, saying it was hard to watch them become American, talk that only escalated when he married his second wife, Amy Savoie.

MEREDITH VIEIRA, Reporter: So you tried to get a restraining order?

Mr. SAVOIE: Yes. I...

VIEIRA: To keep her from taking the children to Japan?

Mr. SAVOIE: Right. Right.

Noriko testified in court that she didn’t really plan to move the children to Japan, and Judge James Martin decided a restraining order was unnecessary. But Christopher’s lawyer, Jeremy Morley, tried to warn him that if Noriko did move the children to Japan, Christopher would be left with virtually no hope of ever getting his children back.

Mr. JEREMY MORLEY, lawyer: If somebody here violates an American court order, grabs the kid, takes the kid to Japan... ...nobody is going to take that child away.

Mr. MORLEY: It never happens.

Japan isn’t party to an international treaty that would require it to promptly return a child wrongfully abducted by a parent, and the country has never once returned an abducted child to the US.

Mr. MORLEY: It’s horrible. It really is an international haven for child abduction.

VIEIRA:  And on August 13th last year, Christopher’s worst fears were confirmed. Isaac and Rebecca’s school called to say they hadn’t shown up for the first day of class. Christopher and Amy raced over to Noriko’s house.

Mr. SAVOIE:  All the blinds were closed. All the doors were locked. We called the police over. And I was down on my knees praying, ‘Oh, God, let them be all right.’ Where are my kids?

After frantically calling his former in-laws in Japan all day and night, Christopher finally got his answer: Noriko had abducted them to Japan. Within days, a Tennessee court awarded Christopher sole custody of the children, and police issued an arrest warrant for Noriko. But in a highly risky move, the 39-year-old father decided his only hope was to take matters into his own hands.

VIEIRA: You make a decision, ‘I’m going to go to Japan and I’m going to get my kids back.’ Either that was a very brave decision or a foolhardy one. How did you come up with that?

Mr. SAVOIE: Well, they couldn’t call me a criminal. They’re my flesh-and-blood children.

VIEIRA:  Christopher got a few friends to help him sneak up on his ex-wife in Japan as she was taking the kids to school, then he jumped out of the car, snatched the children back and made a desperate dash for the closest US Consulate, 47 miles away.

VIEIRA: But, I mean, she’s a mother. What did she do?

Mr. SAVOIE: Well, she screamed bloody murder.

VIEIRA: And you just drove off with the kids?

Mr. SAVOIE: Mm-hmm.

It was a futile effort. Japanese police were already waiting to arrest Christopher when he got to the consulate.

VIEIRA:  What happened to the kids?

Mr. SAVOIE: That’s the last time I saw them.

VIEIRA: Where did they take you?

Mr. SAVOIE:  To the main police station, to the interrogation room.

VIEIRA:  And what happened there?

Mr. SAVOIE:  Good cop/bad cop, yelling, screaming, pounding on tables, trying to get me to confess.

VIEIRA: Confess to what?

Mr. SAVOIE: To kidnapping my own children.

VIEIRA:  You spent the next 17 days in jail. Your attorney described your treatment, that you said it amounted to torture.

Mr. SAVOIE: Twelve hours a day of interrogation without a lawyer present. And the hygienic conditions were just awful.

But after 17 days, Christopher was suddenly free to go, as long as he immediately left Japan and never again attempted to contact his own children.

VIEIRA: Does any part of you regret that you went over there and tried to take them?

Mr. SAVOIE: If she hadn’t kidnapped the kids, I wouldn’t have had to be over there.

Video: Letters from  Japanese jail VIEIRA:  After he was released from that jail last October, Christopher says he suffered symptoms of post traumatic stress. Even his own lawyer calls the outlook sobering.

Mr. MORLEY: It’s most likely that he will never see the children again until they’re adults.

VIEIRA:  When he was behind bars, his son turned nine. Now he wonders how many more birthdays will he miss.

VIEIRA:  And this past weekend, your daughter turned seven.

Mr. SAVOIE:  Having to have a birthday cake for Rebecca that I know she’ll never eat, that’s hard.

VIEIRA: Were there candles?

Mr. SAVOIE: Yeah.

Ms. AMY SAVOIE: There were seven.

VIEIRA: And when the—who blew it out?

Mr. SAVOIE: I blew it out for her.

VIEIRA: And what was your wish?

Mr. SAVOIE: I wished there’d be a birthday sometime soon where I can hug my daughter.

VIEIRA: But you don’t believe there will be?

Mr. SAVOIE: I hope there will be. I hope against all hope.

Judge James Martin, who denied that emergency restraining order, is now being sued by Christopher Savoie. The judge declined to comment on the case.

And this past week, members of Congress introduced a resolution condemning Japan, calling on it to return hundreds of children abducted to that country.

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