Leo Zagaris has returned home to Noblesville and his mother’s loving arms
Alissa Zagaris’ 20-month battle to bring home her abducted son, Leo, 12, from Greece has ended.
What was the happiest moment in her life was also the most secretive. Alissa received a phone call from the U.S. State Dept. at 3:30 p.m. March 12 informing her she needed to board a plane “now” as they and Greek police were going to pick up Leo within 48 hours.
“Two weeks ago, I was being told ‘no way, no way.’ I don’t know how the enforcement happened; I just hope my situation opens the door for others,” she said.
Greek police cars went to Leo’s school in Marathon and picked up him and his father, Nikolaos “Nikos” Zagaris, and drove them to the Ministry of Justice in Athens. Leo said he was placed in one room and his father was in another. He was not aware of what was happening, and was briefly afraid.
“I thought, ‘Oh God, what’s going on? Am I getting arrested?’” Leo said. “I was kinda freaked out.”
Alissa’s plane arrived a half hour after police arrived at the school, and she was driven straight to the police station to be reunited with her son.
“He buried his head in my chest,” she said. “I told him, ‘Honey, both countries have decided where you belong, and it’s time for you to go home.”
Nikolaos, who still faces U.S. charges of international kidnapping and felony kidnapping charges in Hamilton County, was released and avoided going to jail by relinquishing Leo to authorities.
“In his mind, he allowed me to do this,” Alissa said.
Alissa and Leo spent the night in an Athens hotel on a secured, keyed floor. Leo used the Greek he learned to check in and order dinner for the two before swimming in the pool and contacting his best friend, Morgan Eldridge. The relaxation was short lived, however, as the two were driven to the airport by American Embassy officials at 4 a.m.
Because Leo was still flagged as a protected child and his father still had his passport, officials had documents from Homeland Security allowing Leo to travel.
“Once we got to Paris, he was playing games and gitty,” Alissa said. “I was crying and couldn’t stop crying all the way back. I’m not worried anymore. I’m a mom again, I’m a mom again. I’m still broken, but I’m healing quickly. My heart is finally back together.”
From Paris, the two returned to American soil at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and then flew to Indy.
“It was a round trip in 52 hours,” Alissa said.
Once the two arrived at JFK, Alissa quickly filled Leo with American fast food.
“He downed his French fries and a 10-piece nuggets from Wendy’s,” she said.
Not having traditional U.S. cuisine and his mother’s macaroni and cheese was difficult for Leo.
“He can’t get enough Cool Ranch Doritos, Cheez-Its and Gatorade,” Alissa said. “He’s gone through withdrawal of American food.”
Even though he’s been away for almost two years, it doesn’t seem that way for Leo and his friends and family.
“It’s almost like he’s come home from vacation, it’s just been 20 months,” Alissa said. “He re-acclimated 30 seconds after he walked through the door. It’s like the last 20 months never happened.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing all of my friends, sleepovers and going to an indoor pool,” Leo said. “It feels great, awesome (to be home).”
Morgan was at the Zagaris’s home an hour-and-a-half before the two arrived home on March 16. As soon as Morgan, 11, gets home from school, she greets her mother at the bus stop, hands over her backpack and then comes over to hang out with Leo.
“We’ve been having a lot of fun. It’s pretty much non-stop,” she said, adding the two are enjoying their time hanging out and playing Wii. “He’s taller.”
Morgan stayed in constant contact with Alissa and waited for Leo to come home.
“I tried not to think about it. When bad news came I tried to brush it off,” she said.
Leo had been in Greece since June 2011, the day Alissa put him on a plane in Chicago so he could visit his father, as part of a divorce agreement. Leo had previously made the trip four times without incident, but this time his father, Nikolaos “Nikos” Zagaris, refused to send Leo home – making Alissa face a bureaucratic nightmare that involved the United States, Greece, the FBI, State Dept., Interpol and judicial systems on two continents.
In September 2011, Alissa begins the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction process by filing an application. She does not get a hearing until April 2012. Charges against Nikos were filed in Hamilton County courts, which issued its own warrant for felony kidnapping charges in October 2011.
On Sept. 28, 2012, the Greek courts ruled and ordered Leo to be returned to the United States. He was not returned as the Hague Convention gives the abducting parent an opportunity to appeal the court’s decision and the foreign courts do not enforce the orders until that appeal has been denied. The second appeal hearing was held on Dec. 13, 2012, but no ruling was made by the judge. Alissa traveled to Greece to attend the hearing. While she was expecting to leave with her son, she only was able to briefly spend time with Leo. The judge eventually denied Nikos’ appeal and reordered Leo to be returned to the United States on Jan. 4.
The U.S. Dept. of Justice notified Zagaris that Nikos was charged with international parental kidnapping on Feb. 19. Those charges were filed with Interpol, the international police community comprised of 190 countries including Greece, giving Greek authorities the ability to arrest Nikos on those charges.
For more details about the history of Leo’s situation, visit https://youarecurrent.com/not-leaving-without-leo
Alissa said Leo isn’t aware of his custody battle but will receive after-care and therapy from victim specialists. Getting Leo enrolled in school and tested to see what grade level he will be placed in is the next obstacle facing the family.
“He was in school in Greece, but it was basically learning Greek, so he took language class the last 20 months,” Alissa said.
Luckily, several of Leo’s former teachers have offered to help get him caught up on schoolwork after spring break and during the summer so he hopefully enters sixth-grade in the fall.
Alissa allows Leo to stay in contact with his father via Skype very night, but quickly asserts “he’s not going anywhere!”
Her experience has also led Alissa to help other parents retrieve their abducted children oversees.
“I’m disgusted by the system. What’s unique about me is I got my son back,” she said. “I’m an advocate now. This is a lifelong campaign for me. They’re all coming home. I finally moved from victim to advocate.”