Crime and Justice

Woman in civil union custody dispute pleads guilty to taking child out of the country for years

Janet Jenkins, left, had not seen her daughter since 2009, when former partner Lisa Miller fled to Nicaragua to avoid sharing custody of the girl. Photo courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center

A woman who fought for full custody of a child born in a Vermont civil union pleaded guilty to an international kidnapping charge that spanned more than a decade, the U.S. attorneys of Vermont and the western district of New York announced in a Wednesday press release.

Lisa Miller, 53, formerly of Virginia, pleaded guilty to international parental kidnapping of her child, Isabella Miller-Jenkins, who is now an adult, according to the release. The charge carries a potential maximum penalty of three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The case drew national attention because it was among the first to consider the fate of children in relationships sanctioned in one state but not in others.

Miller was in a civil union with Janet Jenkins under Vermont law when Miller was artificially inseminated and gave birth to Isabella, according to authorities. In 2003, Miller was looking to terminate the civil union, the equivalent of a divorce, and arguments arose over who had parental rights of the child.

Jenkins had been awarded parental rights in Vermont prior to 2009, according to the release, but Miller disputed Jenkins’ parental rights in Vermont and Virginia courts. 

On Sept. 22, 2009, Miller took the child to Buffalo, New York, then to Canada and eventually to Nicaragua — where they would remain for more than a decade — to avoid a court-ordered meeting between Jenkins and Isabella that had been set for the following weekend. Miller remained outside of the United States until January 2021 when she voluntarily returned after Isabella turned 18.

Three other people have been charged and convicted in connection to the kidnapping case. 

Philip Zodhiates, who authorities say organized the child’s kidnapping, was convicted of international parental kidnapping and conspiracy to commit international parental kidnapping, and sentenced to three years in prison. 

Mennonite pastor Kenneth Miller, whom Zodhiates recruited, was convicted of international parental kidnapping in Vermont and sentenced to serve more than two years in prison. 

Timothy Miller was also convicted and sentenced to time served — eight months — for his role in assisting Lisa Miller. (Neither Kenneth Miller nor Timothy Miller are related to Lisa Miller, according to The New York Times.) According to Wednesday’s press release, he purchased a one-way plane ticket for Lisa Miller and the child to travel from Toronto to Nicaragua, and he assisted Lisa Miller financially.

Lisa Miller’s guilty plea is the culmination of an investigation by the Vermont office of the U.S. Marshal’s Service and the Vermont office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Paul Van de Graaf of Vermont and Michael DiGiacomo of Buffalo, New York, are handling the case.

Lisa Miller’s sentencing is scheduled for June 9 before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.

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Jeralyn Darling

About Jeralyn

As VTDigger's news editor, Jeralyn Darling anchors the night desk, often as the final set of eyes on stories before they are published. Before arriving at VTDigger she was a night desk editor at the Valley News, covering the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire. Jeralyn has spent the last 14 years as a journalist. She holds a BA in journalism and sociology from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. When not at work, Jeralyn can be found on the trail with her husband, in the woods hunting mushrooms or volunteering with animals.

Email: [email protected]

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