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Mennonite pastor convicted of helping mom Lisa Miller flee to Nicaragua with daughter

Lisa Miller answers questions about her custody battle during a news conference on April 17, 2008, in Richmond, Va.
Lisa Miller answers questions about her custody battle during a news conference on April 17, 2008, in Richmond, Va.Lisa Billings / AP file

An Amish-Mennonite pastor who helped a mother and her 7-year-old daughter flee the U.S. to Nicaragua so that she wouldn’t have to share custody with her former lesbian partner was found guilty Tuesday of aiding in international parental kidnapping of a minor.

Prosecutors say that Kenneth Miller, 46, who worked in his family’s garden supply business, coordinated with Mennonites to drive Lisa Miller and her daughter, Isabella, to an airport in Canada and to then pick them up in Nicaragua, where the group runs a mission.

Prosecutors say Lisa Miller fled after a Vermont judge made it clear in August 2009 that he would transfer custody of Isabella to her former partner, Janet Jenkins, if she continued to disobey the court's visitation orders.

The women had separated six years before when Isabella was 17 months old; according to The New York Times, Lisa Miller had turned to religion and renounced being gay.

The New York Times reported that Lisa Miller wrote a pleading letter to a Vermont judge, explaining her position: “What is at stake is the health and well-being of an intelligent, delightful, beautiful, 7-year-old Christian girl,” she wrote. Isabella “knows from her own reading of the Bible that marriage is between a man and a woman … that she cannot have two mommies, that when I lived the homosexual lifestyle I sinned against God, and that unless Janet accepts Christ as her personal savior, she will not go to heaven.”

The case has drawn widespread attention, pitting gay rights groups against evangelical Christian groups in the legal battle between the two women over Isabella, now 10.

Read the criminal complaint against Kenneth Miller (.pdf)

Lisa Miller and Jenkins entered a civil union in Vermont in 2000. According to court records, Jenkins paid $50,000 to facilitate in vitro fertilization, which led to Lisa Miller giving birth to Isabella in 2002. The couple broke up a year and a half later, and Lisa Miller returned to her native Virginia with the couple’s daughter.

A custody battle ensued in Vermont and Virginia courts, with the supreme courts in both states eventually ruling the disagreement should be handled as a parental rights case under Vermont law.

Prosecutors say that on Sept. 22, 2009, Kenneth Miller drove Lisa Miller and her daughter from Virginia to Buffalo, N.Y.

In testimony, Ontario Mennonite pastor Ervin Horst said Kenneth Miller asked him to pick up Lisa Miller and her child in the United States. Horst said he did not feel comfortable crossing the border with the mother and child because he knew of the custody dispute, so he picked them up on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls after they crossed the border in a taxi.

He testified that Lisa Miller and Isabella were dressed in Mennonite clothing when they crossed the border and that he took them to the airport in Toronto.

When asked if he knew the background of the custody case, Horst said he didn't know the details.

"Lisa did not feel good about what was happening and wanted to protect her daughter from the situation," he said.

Kenneth Miller's lawyer, Joshua Autry, told the jury his client believed Lisa Miller had full custody of Isabella when she fled the country. Lisa Miller and Kenneth Miller are not related.

"Your decision is not going to be a referendum for or against civil unions in the state of Vermont," Autry told the jury at the start of the trial. "It's going to be about whether, at the time of the removal, Janet Jenkins had parental rights."

The jury deliberated only a few hours before finding Kenneth Miller guilty. He faces the possibility of three years in prison. No sentencing date was set.

Outside the courthouse were more than 100 Mennonites, who attended the court proceedings in support of Kenneth Miller. Women were wearing bonnets and men dressed in high collared shirts sang hymns, led by an older, bearded man in suspenders.

The current whereabouts of the mother and her now-10-year-old daughter are unknown.

Prosecutors say that Lisa Miller changed her and her daughter’s names to Sarah and Lydia. Court records also indicate that they have been on the move.

Court records include an email exchange between two Mennonites in Nicaragua, one suggesting getting the girl a piñata for her birthday.  

“We were planning to have a special birthday party for Lydia,” the email states. “The more children the better … 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.”

This article includes reporting from The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC’s Isolde Raftery.

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