Not leaving without Leo

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Leo and Alissa Zagaris before boarding his flight in June 2011.

Leo and Alissa Zagaris before boarding his flight in June 2011.

Noblesville mom is fighting to get her abducted son back

 

Leo prepares to board his flight to Greece in June 2011. It was the last time he has been in the United States.

Leo prepares to board his flight to Greece in June 2011. It was the last time he has been in the United States.

Noblesville’s Alissa Zagaris last saw her son, Leo, on Dec. 13, 2012. Since then, Leo has celebrated his 12th birthday. As Zagaris waits for Leo’s return fro Greece, thousands of miles of ocean and international law and politics are preventing their permanent reunion.“I’ve spent 19 months fighting a battle that should have never been,” she said.

In June 2011, Zagaris drove Leo to Chicago and put him on a plane for Marathon, Greece, to visit his biological father, Nikolaos “Nikos” Zagaris. It was a long-distance visitation arrangement set forth by the couple’s divorce agreement in a Hamilton County court in 2009. It was an annual 10-week trip Leo had made four times previously. But today, Zagaris is still waiting for Leo’s return from his most recent trip, which started more than 19 months ago.

“I don’t know how I have survived. Half of my heart has been ripped out and is an ocean away. I’m fighting an uphill battle with half a heart but somehow I’m getting it done,” she said. “I feel like a machine – run, run, run. I don’t feel like a human anymore.”

Zagaris said the hardest part is how quiet her home is without Leo.

“The neighborhood kids aren’t running in and out,” she said, adding at night she sometimes curls up in Leo’s bed. “I fight my fight every day from his room. It’s the only way I am connected to him… I’ve made it a point to leave everything as it is. I refused to move because this is his home. I’ve preserved everything we had so he can pick up where he left off. It’s made us keep my life on hold.”

Throughout the entire process, Zagaris has only talked with Leo a dozen times.

“When we do talk, he says the craziest things. Nikos tells him I don’t want to talk to him, and I don’t want him anymore. He tries to make my son hate me,” she said. “Leo sounds like a robot on the phone.”

Zagaris’ worst fears were quickly erased once she saw him on Dec. 13.

timeline“He jumped in my arms,” she said. “I looked into his eyes and saw the truth.”

On Sept. 28, a Greek court ruled and ordered Leo be returned to the United States. He was not returned because the Hague Convention gives Leo’s father the opportunity to appeal the decision. Foreign courts will not enforce the any orders until that appeal has been denied.

“Once Greece agreed Leo did not belong there, the Ministry of Justice immediately sought a $10,000 Euro fine and imprisonment. The civil courts said no, let’s give him a chance to do the right thing,” Zagaris said.

The second appeal hearing was held Dec. 13, 2012, but no ruling was made by the judge.

“Fifty people were ahead of us and all were denied and got their ruling that day,” she said.

While Zagaris had to return home without Leo, the American Embassy did help in arranging a visit between mother and son and accompanied Zagaris to Nikos’ mother’s house, where he lives with Leo.

“They are a huge support. They want Leo home as much as I do. They would not let me be alone in Athens,” she said. “I was crushed leaving without him. He doesn’t speak or read Greek – not even at a kindergarten level.”

Like so many other left-behind parents in international parental child abduction cases, Zagaris is dealing with both psychological and economic burdens. With huge costs of paying for courts, lawyers and translations, Zagaris said the average cost is $250,000 to bring children home (donations to assist can be made at www.fundraise.com/alissa-zagaris/zagarisinternational-child-abduction-return-fund).

“International child abduction is big business,” she said.

Zagaris has worked for five years as a chef at Lutz’s Steakhouse. She thought about leaving her job to dedicate her time to Leo’s return, but owner Nancy Lutz wouldn’t let her go.

“My life is day-to-day right now. I couldn’t commit to this,” she said. “I feel like the little sister. They have been like my therapist. They’ve been my support.”

Lutz said she and the staff are amazed at how strong Zagaris has become through the process.

“We feel this is so unique because we are all family. We spend more time together than we do with our families,” Lutz said. “I can’t imagine what she’s going through. The important part is we are a diversion from such intenseness. Working gives her something else to think about.”

Staying upbeat sometimes is hard for the extended Steakhouse family.

“Watching how many challenges she’s faced is disheartening,” Lutz said. “There’s little for us to do, and it’s frustrating for us. We’ve tried to support her financially but much more emotionally.”

Working part time, Zagaris was told by Lutz there is only one reason for her not to pick up a shift: she’s traveling to Greece to bring Leo home.

“It’s the only excuse I would take,” Lutz said.

“I’m going back over, and I’m getting him. I’ll be there when Nikos gets arrested,” Zagaris said. “If I’m there 24 hours, it will be too long.”

Zagaris has two plans for Leo once he lands back in America.

Leo and Alissa were reunited briefly on Dec. 13, 2012 in Marathon, Greece. It was the last time they have seen each other.

Leo and Alissa were reunited briefly on Dec. 13, 2012 in Marathon, Greece. It was the last time they have seen each other.

“I’m ripping up his passport and taking him to the nearest McDonalds,” she said. “He’s addicted to chicken nuggets and loves his French fries.”

Zagaris is just waiting for enforcement to retrieve Leo.

“It’s really frustrating. We’ve got the charges, but we are waiting on Interpol to finish up the paperwork,” she said.

Zagaris’ understanding is that Greece police are looking to arrest and jail Nikos for two months. The United States will attempt to extradite him to face federal charges.

“If extradition doesn’t happen, it’s OK,” she said. “I just want to have my son.”


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