This is a true story. The red-haired middle-aged man who showed up in my office was highly distraught. I will call him Carl. He spoke with a British accent. He told me that he was a stockbroker who until recently lived in a beautiful condominium in Jersey City overlooking the NY City skyline, with his wife and son, a six-year-old boy. His hands shook as he showed me a picture of him walking with his young son in the park and playing with action figures, Elmo and Thomas the train. He had not seen his son, Andrew in three months. The last time he saw him he had watched him eat his breakfast cereal before going to his job in New York City. His wife, Katerina, had said that she would take Andrew shopping that day. When he came home from work his son’s clothes and his wife’s clothes were gone as well as his wife’s personal items.
Carl had met Katerina, a beautiful Greek brunette on the internet and had traveled to Greece to marry her and eventually brought her to the United States. He paid for her to get her Associate’s Degree in Psychology and she had just gotten her degree when she disappeared. Katerina, he had found out, was prone to explosions of rage and had become obsessed with Wicca and the occult as well as Cabala. He held on, however, because of his love for his baby boy, Andrew who was his entire life.
Through hiring a detective in Greece, we found out that Katerina had taken the child to Greece and had moved in with her parents in Athens. We told Carl, who by this time was increasingly despondent and crushed by fearing that his son was losing touch with and forgetting his father. He missed him terribly, spending his days thinking about what they did together. He took a leave of absence from his job due to depression.
I took this case personally. I could not imagine not being with or seeing my kids for any such length of time. As the ABA Liaison to Greece and as a US and Greek lawyer, I had handled such cases before but never one with such emotion. Attempts to contact the mother both by our client and us were met with slammed doors and hung up phone calls. We decided that we needed to take action. We filed a Petition under The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction with the US Department of State, Office of Children’s issues. This Hague Convention basically says that a parent cannot take a child away from his habitual residence to another country. Any custody disputes must be determined by the court where the child was last living with both parents – in this case Jersey City. Our Petition was transmitted by the US State Department to the Greek Ministry of Justice which appointed a Ministry lawyer to commence proceedings in Greece against the mother.
We met with the Ministry lawyer in Athens, a wonderful and sympathetic woman, who explained that the Ministry lawyers’ role in these cases was formal and that the father’s lawyers would have to intervene in the case and actually try the case. We did this and I and my Greek legal partners began to prepare for the case. In the meantime, the Greek court ordered that our client, Carl, could see his son – which he did under the hateful glare of the mother and her family. He was devastated to discover that the child had started to forget him and had become fearful of him. Trial in Greece was set 4 months after our initial Hague Petition.
During this time, our client received anonymous, dire warnings, satanic messages, Wicca symbols and death threats. They warned him that if he proceeds in this course he would be ruined. We brought these to the attention of the court but there was no proof that Katerina sent them. (However, we saw that these pentagrams matched her earliest drawings). In the week before the trial, our client’s parents flew in from the UK to support their son and concerned that they would never be able to see their grandchild. Carl had been in Greece preparing with us for a week before the trial and had been a mess in his hotel room every time we saw him. We also heard that the wife’s father, a Greek General, would appear at the trial to intimidate us and perhaps influence the judge. We also heard that Katerina had retained a famous Greek “celebrity” lawyer – the “F. Lee Bailey” of Greece, as her attorney. She was determined to keep the child in Greece at all costs. We all realized, as did Carl reluctantly, that all along she had planned to use him to pay for her education in the US and that she never wanted to live in the US. We found out that she had been seeing a boyfriend in Greece for some time – maybe even during the marriage.
On the day of trial, tension ran high but we were prepared. Katerina claimed that Carl took drugs but we had blood tests and hair sample tests for several months previously showing he was drug free. She said he drank and was abusive but we had witnesses and affidavits that he did not drink. She said that the US home was unfit for living – but we had photographs of the beautiful condominium. She said he was a bad father but we had dozens of photographs of Carl with his son showing his obvious love for his son. We had Affidavits from friends and pre-school staff. She questioned that he supported the family properly but we had Affidavits from his employers that he had a promising career and a steady job. The General blustered that his daughter was intimidated and bullied by Carl and the Greek celebrity lawyer tried to impeach him (claiming that he had evicted his wife) but all these claims were proven to be lies.
One month after the Hearing, the Greek judge ruled in our favor ordering that the child had to be returned to Jersey City for a custody hearing there. We were overjoyed but a new problem surfaced. Under the former law the court constables and the police were authorized to break in and seize the child. The law had changed because this was deemed psychologically detrimental to the children. Therefore, enforcement proceedings had to be filed to impose contempt charges and fines on the offending parent who did not turn over the child. It was clear that the Greek legal bureaucracy was completely confused as to how to enforce this Order – as is often the case in Greece (and which legal bureaucracy had been a main cause in Greece’s financial problems).
Months passed while we tried to work out how to enforce the Athens Court order and actually take possession of the child. One ministry and government lawyer referred us to another lawyer for the police department. Then there were other lawyers involved for the civil court and another lawyer for the justice ministry and another lawyer for the constables.
One terrible morning, I walked into my US office to find my secretary looking pale and shocked. Carl’s parents had called. Carl had committed suicide. He was found suffocated, his head wrapped in a plastic bag. He could not wait anymore and his depression got the better of him. Perhaps the black magic of Katerina worked.
It has been years and I have not yet recovered. Justice delayed is indeed justice denied. This experience, more than any other, has led me to try to reform the Greek legal system so that predictable and efficient justice can be rendered. In today’s global economy and interconnected world stories such as Carl’s are becoming more common. International law is more critical than ever whether it be on terrorism or refugees or privacy. That, however, is another story. For now, I have to live with the fact that I was not able to get justice for Carl nor was I able to give Andrew the priceless gift of a great father.