Michael Gulbraa has stacks of documents declaring his custody rights to his two sons, Michael and Christopher. But what's on paper does not reflect the reality that three years ago, his ex-wife swept their sons away to Japan, a country that does not recognize parental kidnapping orders from U.S. courts.
Gulbraa's ex-wife, Etsuko Tanizaki Allred, claims she and her sons are stuck in Japan, unable to persuade the Utah courts to give her a fair hearing.
Studies show that kidnapping cases — including international kidnapping cases — are on the rise.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice National Incident Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children, it is estimated around 200,000 children were abducted by family members annually in recent years.
A 1999 report to the United Nations on "post-divorce child stealing" concluded that since the mid-1970s incidents of parental abduction have paralleled the growing divorce rate in the United States.
Gulbraa's custody battle spans the vast Pacific Ocean and involves not only U.S. and Japanese courts, but the FBI and U.S. State Department. One entity that has resisted getting involved has been The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which the divorced couple remain members. And as in many custody battles, emotions are strong.
Gulbraa still keeps the room in his South Jordan home for his now 13- and 14-year-old sons exactly the way they left it. He hopes that he will somehow find a way to get them back. For two years Gulbraa said he and his current wife saved unopened Christmas presents for them. "It just became too painful," Gulbraa said. "We eventually gave the gifts away to charity."
Last month, the Utah Court of Appeals upheld Gulbraa's custody rights to his sons, but with several court rulings in his favor, pending state and federal kidnapping charges against his ex-wife and her current husband, Daren Allred, and an Interpol red note out on the couple, Gulbraa has had little luck in getting his sons back.
Speaking via e-mail from Kasugai, Allred claims because she and her husband are wanted on U.S. federal charges, they can't even come back to the United States to challenge the court's ruling.
When Gulbraa and Allred divorced in 1996, a Utah court granted custody of the two boys to their mother. Gulbraa was ordered to pay $1,000 a month for child support.
Soon after Allred remarried in 1997, she claims Gulbraa began harassing her and her new husband. Gulbraa says he was concerned when one of his sons told him that their new stepfather was physically abusing them. Although a Division of Child and Family Services investigation found the abuse allegations to be unsubstantiated, a Utah court began hearings on the custody issue at Gulbraa's insistence.
In 2001, Allred said she and her family moved to Japan. It wasn't until several weeks later that she received a court order to appear in a Utah court.
"I was summoned to Utah State Court after I came back to Japan. I didn't appear in court because I had a 2-year-old daughter to care for as well as the boys and a husband. We had also suffered financially" from their move to Japan, Allred wrote in a court affidavit.
The judge found Allred in contempt of court and granted Gulbraa custody. Since then, Allred has fought the ruling from a distance, having felony charges pending against her. Federal court records confirm that international parental kidnapping charges are pending against both Allreds.
Salt Lake City attorney Steve Christiansen, who represented Allred, said she is a mother who has sought refuge in Japan from a father who won't let the matter go.
"He has ruined their life," Christiansen said. "She tried to find a safe place, and he has put them in a no-win situation."
Gulbraa sees the situation differently. He said his former wife has basically flouted a court's authority by moving to Japan and refuses to acknowledge his custody rights.
Experts say incidents involving international parental abductions have become a growing problem. In 1976 the United States was a major force in pushing for the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which included 23 countries. Now, some 50 countries have adopted the treaty, in which countries agree to recognize custody court orders from other participating countries. But in spite of the Hague Convention, some of the top countries with pending custody cases with the United States are Hague members.
Although Japan is one of the top U.S. trade partners, the country has not adopted the Hague Convention. Gulbraa said his attempt at appealing to Japanese courts has had no success. Courts in Japan have told him they do not get involved in international parental custody conflicts.
"It's incredibly frustrating," said Gulbraa's attorney, Kevin Bond. "I think the U.S. government could put some heat on Japan if they wanted to."
There could be political consequences. Without a formal treaty, if the United States pressured Japan in this case, could the pressure come back to bite the United States in future custody cases when the tables are turned?
"Japan will not extradite on this charge," said Utah U.S. District Attorney spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch, who added her office was working with the State Department on trying to get the children back. The bottom line, she said, is that the Allreds would have to come back on their own to face justice.
Salt Lake City FBI spokesman Bob Wright said his office has had some involvement in the custody case but could not comment on an open case.
In a letter sent to Assistant U.S. District Attorney Mark Vincent from the U.S. State Department on Sept. 2, the department noted that it has put out an order not to renew the U.S. passports of Etsuko and Daren Allred, which will expire in 2007 and 2010 respectively.
However, the State Department noted that because Etsuko Allred is a Japanese national, it is likely that she will be allowed to remain in Japan after 2007 and that Daren Allred can seek asylum as her spouse.
Gulbraa said he has pretty much exhausted all of his options to get his sons back to the United States. In the past years, he said his sons have missed important family events, including the death of a grandparent.
Being LDS, Gulbraa had hoped to persuade his church to step in and help. Church officials, however, say the matter is out of their hands.
"We believe in obeying and sustain the law of the land," said LDS spokesman Mark Tuttle. "In this case what we have is the law of the United States and the law of Japan, which don't agree; they're in conflict. Because it's a civil matter we leave it to the courts."
"The church is trying to minister to the needs of the families on both ends. But this is really an issue for the governments."
Friends of the Allreds, both in Utah and in Japan, have said Gulbraa should abandon his efforts and accept the situation.
Gulbraa said he plans to keep fighting, despite tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys fees, to get his sons.
"It boils down to my basic love for my kids," Gulbraa said.