LAREDO, Texas (KXAN) - Stephen James had last seen his children on June 20, 2012. Even though a judge gave him sole custody of his sons, 9-year-old Zane and 12-year-old Matteo, their mother kidnapped the two boys. The story has a happy ending, but its long series of twists and turns took James, law enforcement, private investigators and KXAN News all the way to the Mexican border.
PHOTOS: A father reunited with his sons
James, a United States Army veteran, tried to persuade law enforcement agencies to carry out court orders to return the boys, but those efforts were either ignored or rebuffed.
“It’s scary,” James told KXAN as he waited at a hotel in Laredo for word on whether his boys were being returned. “It’s overwhelming. Really excited with the possibility of being reunited with my sons again, but really scared, too.”
The back story
To understand that range of emotions, you have to know how James finally found himself in Laredo late last months.
James’ ex-wife, Alicia Gomez, kidnapped his sons in the summer of 2012. James was told for nine months by local, state and federal law enforcement told him there was nothing they could do to help him. Even though interfering with child custody and kidnapping are felonies in Texas, James got no where.
He even hired international private investigator Logan Clarke, an expert in international abductions. And eventually they came to KXAN for investigative assistance and news coverage.
In March, Jamee finally caught a huge break.
Williamson County District Attorney Jana Duty assigned investigators to the case after being contacted by KXAN. She quickly issued felony aggravated kidnapping warrants for Alicia Gomez and her mother, Alma Alice Morrow, charged with aiding in the abduction and fleeing to Mexico with her daughter.
Sgt. Royger Harris, a DA’s office investigator, tracked the boys to a town outside Veracruz. Clarke International Investigations of Los Angeles and Swift Intervention Investigations of Laredo confirmed their location and took photos of them living in deplorable conditions.
“Once we got eyes on them, and once we knew where they were … we literally had people across the street, then we had some leverage,” Clarke told KXAN in May.
Harris arrested Gomez’s aunt, Edna Annette Bengston, on a charge of aiding in the kidnapping and sending money to Mexico to help Gomez and her mother. Harris assured additional warrants and indictments would be coming against other family members who he had discovered also aided in the kidnapping.
The pressure on Gomez’s family helped investigators come up with a plan to get the boys back, and that’s what put James on the road to Laredo.
Gomez agreed to travel from Orizaba to a meeting point in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, with Zane and Matteo. Meanwhile, James waited, with cautious optimism, at a hotel across the border in Laredo.
“It’s hard for me to put too much into it,” he said. “We’ve been close before and it didn’t happen and it’s a long way down if it doesn’t happen.”
Story Continues Below
A sleepless, an uncertain morning
James went to bed the night of June 30 not knowing what the next day would bring. But morning, as the moonlight faded away and the Laredo sky turned a glorious orange with the promise of a new day. And with what could be the beginning of a new life for a father who had waiting for so long to reunite with his sons.
James said he hadn’t slept much in the last year, and he certainly didn’t sleep any better that night.
“I woke up constantly, more than usual,” he said that morning. “It’s hard to be patient right now. It’s real hard. The last time we got close like this and it didn’t happen, I almost ended up in the hospital.
James didn’t know the details, but while he waited at the hotel, a well-planned law enforcement operation was taking place at the border to get the boys back on U.S. soil.
The hours of waiting started to take a toll.
“I’ve never been this scared in my life,” James said. “There’s that part of the fear that it’s not going to happen but then there’s the fear of you know, how much damage has been caused and how much they’ve suffered.”
Finally, a break though
But then came a phone call from investigators and it was finally time to share some good news with Stephen.
“So I have some news for you,” said KXAN’s Shannon Wolfson. “Your boys are on U.S. soil right now.”
“Where are my sons at?” asked Stephen.
“They’re going to be here pretty soon to see you,” said Shannon.
“Oh man! That’s awesome,” Stephen replied. “I really want them back. I really do.”
But Stephen immediately showed concern for the health of his sons: “How do they look? Have you seen them yet?”
Back at the border, Zane and Matteo were still being processed through Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which helped ensure the safe transfer of the boys across the border.
But for James, the news was too sweet not to share with his family. As he told his wife and step-son, the father who fought so hard to keep it together finally let it all go and sobbed happily on her shoulder.
James then called his mother to tell her the boys were safe in the United States.
Father and sons reunited
Soon, back at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement station, James reunited with his sons 376 days after he dropped them off.
His smile beamed with happy relief though Zane and Matteo appeared unbathed and thin. They were fascinated by the video games their dad had brought them. But after their brief first visit, James explained that it wasn’t a storybook reunion.
“They weren’t like, ‘Daddy!’ And wanting to hug me either,” he said. “They were just like – they didn’t know what to do. “I could tell it was really awkward for them.”
But they warmed up quickly and showed their happiness to be back with their father.
And because of the hard work of a determined Sgt. Harris from the DA’s office, Logan Clarke and his team, and Swift Interventions, there will be plenty of time to get to know each other again.
Clarke said he’s seen hundreds of cases where police don’t get involved and hopes other law enforcement agencies take notice.
“If other counties in Texas will listen to this and follow this exact procedure, just follow the law and stop using selective prosecution,” said Clarke.
Harris has made James’ case his priority for four months. He organized the boys’ return and employed the strategy of arresting Alicia’s family members and using that pressure to get the boys home.
“We’re relieved to have the kids back,” said Harris. “It’s pretty cool. Pretty cool.”
Alicia Gomez didn’t cross the border with Zane and Matteo because if she did she would have been arrested. Her felony kidnapping warrant is still active and the Williamson County District Attorney’s office says it will keep the aggravated kidnapping case open.
Zane and Matteo went through processing not only with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, but also with Child Protective Services before finally being released to Stephen.
Back home with their dad, Zane and Matteo are doing the things little boys do. Home video shows them playing video games and swimming in their grandmother’s pool. And on the Fourth of July, Zane and Matteo and Stephen watched fireworks while celebrating their own special kind of freedom.
Many custody battles don’t turn out like this one.
Even though in Texas, it’s a felony to interfere with child custody and it’s a felony to abduct a child. It’s also a crime to flee to avoid prosecution. Experts say many law enforcement agencies won’t even take a report which makes the cases impossible to track.
“Sometimes I have had pushback from law enforcement in this and I think it’s because of that experience they have of not wanting to get involved in child custody issues and their distaste for those issues,” said Pamela Brown, and attorney with Texas Rural Legal Aid.
From her office in Weslaco, less than two miles from the Mexican border, Brown has been fighting for ‘left behind’ parents for more than a decade. Brown receives grant funding even training law enforcement across the state how to handle cases like Stephen’s.
“It is a big problem that is growing,” said Brown.
The Austin Police Department said seven family abductions have been reported so far this year. Four were reported to APD last year and 11 the year before in 2011.
The Texas Department of Public Safety’s Missing Persons Clearinghouse lists 45 missing children taken illegally by a family member.
But The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has more than 100 cases of children abducted by a family member in just the past year in Texas. About a third of those children were abducted to Mexico. The NCMEC currently has 60 active cases of children from Texas who have been taken to Mexico by a family member.
Nationwide, the NCMEC told KXAN it receives about 1,800 to 2,000 reports of family abductions every year.
Clarke often gets involved in family abductions because the feds just won’t.
Clarke believes the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office has set a precedent with Stephen James’ case and supports the strategy employed by the Williamson County DA’s Office to execute the return of Zane and Matteo.
“You start doing that, these people, the mom or the dad, they will come back,” said Clarke. “They will bring those children back so fast it’ll make everybody’s head spin because their whole family is going to jail”