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Updated: Friday, 22 Mar 2013, 12:13 PM EDT
Published : Friday, 22 Mar 2013, 12:12 PM EDT
NOBLESVILLE, Ind. (AP) - Leo Zagaris is quick to say life in Greece was not that bad.
If you ask his mom, the U.S. State Department, the FBI and many others, the 12-year-old boy was kidnapped and held against his will for 20 months by his father, Nick Zagaris, who still faces international kidnapping charges. Alissa Zagaris says her son fell behind in his schooling, and his dietary options were limited — a problem that Leo acknowledges, along with the lack of variety in television.
But if you ask Leo, with divided loyalty and perhaps a clouded understanding of the issues, he was just spending extra time with his dad.
He went to a Greek school, "got A-pluses" in class, hung out with friends and cousins and began to learn a little more of the Greek language.
"I would like to go back," Leo told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1034fZQ ) a few days after his return home to Noblesville. "But I want to be here too. Visit here and then visit there."
Confusing, but understandable for a pre-teen stuck between two parents and two worlds.
Alissa Zagaris, who has spent many frustrating months working with federal officials to get her son back, looks at her son and smiles.
"That will be up to you, baby," she told Leo as the two chatted with a reporter after their return from Greece last weekend.
"It will be your choice."
But a few days later, when Leo was not around, she had a different response:
"There is no way I'm going to just let him go back," she said, sitting in a Westfield coffee shop Thursday morning. "No way."
With each passing day, life is returning to normal in their Noblesville home, where Leo lives with his little sister, Zoey, and has spent the past week reconnecting with friends he has not seen for far too long.
Especially his best friend Morgan, a girl who lives nearby and maintained a long-distance connection while Leo was in Greece.
"We are not boyfriend-girlfriend, just good friends," Leo said.
Ever since his return, the two have been almost inseparable, playing Wii games, texting each other or setting up a "bowling alley" in the living room, according to his mom.
"Morgan has been very important, not just to Leo but to me," said Alissa. "She was my rock while he was gone. I told Leo she was my best friend, too."
Two weeks ago, Alissa needed all the friends she could get.
Facing more delays in the legal battle to get her son back, she was getting desperate, turning to the Internet to raise money to hire someone to help her get Leo back, even if it meant "stealing him" back to the U.S.
And then the phone rang last Tuesday afternoon. It was the State Department telling her that the Greek Ministry of Justice had changed course and suddenly decided to enforce the court order for Leo's return to the U.S.
Alissa needed to drop what she was doing and jump on a plane.
Leo had been in Greece since June 2011, the day his mom put him on a plane for Greece so he could visit his father, as part of a divorce decree. Leo had made the trip four times before without incident.
This time his father refused to send the boy back. And that put Leo and his mom in the middle of a bureaucratic nightmare that would involve two nations, the FBI, Interpol, the State Department, international treaties and courts on two continents.
According to the Bring Sean Home Foundation, founded in 2009 as a support group and resource hub, more than 4,700 American children were abducted outside the United States from 2008 to 2010 by a parent or guardian.
By Thursday morning, she was on a Delta flight to Athens, where she arrived Friday afternoon and was met at the gate by the U.S. Embassy, who drove her to the police station.
Less than an hour before she landed, Greek police had picked up Leo and his father just outside the school he attended in Marathon, Greece, and taken them to the police station, holding them in separate rooms.
What she did not know at the time was that Greek officials had been trying to get her ex-husband to surrender Leo for the previous week, sending him an official letter and calling him, to no avail.
"Nick was just blowing them off," Alissa said. "But I think the media stories here and especially in Greece, were embarrassing and they wanted to end this thing."
When Alissa walked into the station, Leo burst into tears and wondered why he was being arrested.
"I just hugged him and said, no honey, you are not being arrested. You're being freed."
For a confused 12-year-old boy, that didn't make much sense. He thought he was supposed to be living with his dad in Greece. He thought his mom wanted him to be there. Alissa later learned that's what Leo was being told.
"No wonder he was telling me on the phone that he didn't want to come home," she said. "He thought I wanted him to stay in Greece."
From the police station, they were taken to a hotel near the airport, where mother and son could reconnect after a long absence on a secured floor.
Knowing the situation would be stressful, Alissa packed some of Leo's favorites:
Chex mix, Skittles, Reese's Cups and "50 First Dates," one of his favorite movies.
"After we went swimming, we just curled up and watched the movie," she said.
The next day, on the plane home to New York, Leo asked for his mom's phone and snapped a shot that later was posted on Facebook. It shows both of them . smiling.
Happy to be going home. And eating up the celebrity treatment, starting with Delta officials who "bent over backward to make our trip smooth," said Alissa, including help getting through security, a private room at the Delta Sky Club at DeGaulle Airport in Paris and never having to deal with a long line.
"We buzzed through customs," she said. "We got the royal treatment everywhere we went. And that was so awesome."
By the time they landed at JFK in New York, word was getting around Facebook that Alissa and Leo were heading home to Indiana. She had been contacted by The Star and by a local television station, prompting Leo to text his friend, Morgan, that she should come to the airport to watch all the fun.
Morgan didn't make to Indianapolis International, but the cameras were rolling as mother and son stepped off the plane, tired but happy.
In the days that followed, Leo has enjoyed doing more television interviews, a guest spot on a local radio show and jabs from friends who joke that they want his autograph.
Back in Greece, there wasn't a lot to do. The TV only offered one channel in English, he said, and they did nothing but show old American movies. He had cousins around, but they were older. He liked being with his father and his grandmother, but he acknowledges he was getting tired of eating so much pasta and chicken and "a few Greek dishes I did not like."
There was a McDonald's and a Domino's in Marathon, Leo said, "but they had no Burger King and no Steak n Shake." Asked what he looked forward to eating when he got back, Leo said: "My mom's famous macaroni. And a steak. A medium rare steak."
Over the next few weeks, Alissa plans to have Leo checked out by a doctor. Not only has he put on a few pounds — "he didn't eat any vegetables over there" — he has been complaining of numbness in his fingers and toes. A chef and nutritionist, she worries about juvenile diabetes.
And then there is school.
Leo was heading into the 6th grade when he went to Greece in the summer of 2011. His classmates are now looking at the 7th grade, but Alissa is not sure Leo is ready for that.
"I have no idea where he is on education," she said. "We need to get him an aptitude test. He should be entering the 7th grade, but right now I'm just hoping to get him into the 6th grade. That's where Morgan is and it would be good for him to be with friends."
Alissa has also filed a civil lawsuit against her ex-husband and his Indianapolis attorney over a $5,000 deposit that was supposed to be used as assurance that her ex-husband would always return Leo to Indiana after a visitation.
The guarantee was included in the divorce settlement, but the lawsuit claims it was never filed in Greece and the money was never paid, despite the apparent violation of the decree. The suit claims both Nick Zagaris and his attorney, Vincent Scott, committed fraud and breach of contract by not releasing those funds. It seeks punitive damages, too.
Such agreements, Zagaris said, are common in international custody agreements. The money is supposed to serve as a safeguard against kidnapping. But once the child is out of the country, it becomes practically non-enforceable due to jurisdictional issues involving courts in other countries.
The lawsuit was filed March 12 in Hamilton Superior Court.
"I'm pursuing this because we need to prevent other at-risk parents from entering into these agreements and thinking it will safeguard them from having to deal with these issues," Zagaris said.
Scott, who represented Zagaris in the divorce proceedings, denied the allegations made in the lawsuit against him.
"What is alleged is untrue," he said. "And I will be giving specific evidence. I cannot speak for Mr. Zagaris but as to myself, there was no conspiracy."
Meanwhile, Alissa says she is embracing her new role as an advocate for other "parents left behind," many of whom were cheering her along by way of Facebook as she posted updates about her trip.
Her most immediate concern: The case of a northern Indiana mom who is trying to get her two children back from Cyprus. Marla Theocharides of Osceola claims that in January 2011, her children, Marcus and Katerina (who were age 1 and 5 at the time), were unjustly taken to Cyprus by their father, who had charged her with kidnapping them when she returned to the U.S. from a short stay in Cyprus.
Without a custody order at the time of this allegation, she turned to the U.S. courts and was granted full custody. But since that time, she has been fighting Cyprus courts to get officials there to recognize her rights as the custodial parent.
Theocharides said her case is different than the fight for Leo Zagaris.
case was different. She had a warrant for her ex-husband's arrest which made the situation slightly easier," she said. "Courts in Cyprus are not as fair as in Greece. Cyprus is a small island, full of corruption."
After many months of not seeing her kids, she finally did get a short visitation while pleading her case in a Cyprus courtroom — a good thing for her, but the battle is far from over.
A child psychologist in Cyprus has recommended Theocharides move to Cyprus for "an extended stay" in order to re-establish her relationship with her children.
"(They) said my children are not doing well and they would prefer that I go to Cyprus," she said. "They have been completely alienated from me and brainwashed.
"I do agree that my children need me and I need them. The problem is that the economy has crashed in Cyprus; everything is very unstable. If I go, even for a short stay, I would need to find work, a place to live and a car. This is not an easy task."
Alissa Zagaris said this is just one more case where left behind parents are soaked for money, taken advantage of and psychologically abused, simply because others know that they will do just about anything to get their kids back.
That's also why, she said, many turn to private investigators and bounty hunters to try to steal their children back. And it's why she is planning to continue to push for more compliance with international treaties designed to streamline cases of child kidnapping and custody issues.
"We are victimized," Alissa said. "We should not have to deal with mobsters or with expensive attorneys when these things happen. Our state and our country should be demanding that our kids come home."
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