When a Florida Senate committee considered a bill this spring to prevent parental child abductions, one of the witnesses in support of the measure was Peter Thomas Senese.
"I flew in this morning from Los Angeles,'' Senese began, identifying himself as the head of an L.A. entertainment company. He told lawmakers that his own son had "traveled a very dangerous road'' after being "internationally kidnapped'' by his ex-wife in collusion with lawyers.
Senese's March 26 appearance was noted on a Tallahassee blog, Capitolsoup.com, that also identified him as author of a "critically acclaimed book'' on child abduction.
The testimony of Senese and others proved persuasive enough that the bill, introduced by Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, sailed through both houses and was signed into law May 12 by Gov. Charlie Crist.
But while Florida's new Child Abduction Prevention Act addresses a very real problem, Senese's own story is far different from what state lawmakers were led to believe.
The "very dangerous road'' began in 1998 when his ex-wife, pregnant with their son, returned to her native Canada after Senese landed in a California jail for bouncing $6,800 in checks used to finance a hot-air balloon wedding.
The "critically acclaimed book'' is self-published and has yet to go on sale.
And many people say they have been scammed by Senese, including a California father who says he was "profoundly devastated'' when Senese reneged on a promise to help pay $30,000 toward the return of the man's abducted children from the Philippines.
"He's a master con,'' says John Lee Smith, a carpenter. "I will not sit by any longer and let this guy continue to do to other people what he has already done to me and my sons.''
Smith and others say they suspect that Senese's "impassioned'' support of the Florida bill — as Senese called it in a press release — was largely motivated by a desire to get publicity for his book, Chasing the Cyclone: a Father's Unending Love for His Son, and obtain funding for a movie based on the book.
"If you look at his website everything is promoting Chasing the Cyclone,'' says Karl Hindle, a Briton who briefly worked with Senese. "The idea was he had funding in place for this movie and all these parents were going to be part of it. He was just playing to the dreams of people in a very desperate situation.''
Senese, 44, accuses Hindle and others of "untruthful and malicious'' statements and says he only wants to help other victims of parental child abductions.
"I have attempted . . . to the best of my ability to help educate society about the gravity of this issue,'' he said in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "I have used a substantial amount of my own resources to do this and have never earned a penny from my efforts.''
The bill Senese supported was written by Carolyn Ann Vlk, a St. Petersburg resident briefly married to a man who was not a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.
Vlk, afraid that her Czech husband would flee the United States with their son, was surprised to find that Florida had not adopted a 2006 federal law that lets judges impose restrictions on parents deemed likely to abduct their kids.
"At the very least our state law needed to indicate risk factors and other preventative measures for judges to use as a guide,'' Vlk says. She sent a report with recommendations to dozens of agencies and politicians, including Rouson.
"I said, 'Carolyn, if you write it (the bill), I will file it,' '' Rouson recalls.
Vlk says she knew nothing about Senese until he called her and offered to help "get the word out'' about the legislation.
"For me, he's been a perfectly lovely, sincere gentleman, and he wrote some great articles,'' she says. "I would like to believe he's motivated truly out of concern for other parents. The past is the past."
But, critics say, Senese's past is a troubling one.
In 1997, he pleaded guilty to grand larceny in his native New York in a scheme targeting doctors and insurance executives. Senese even set up temporary offices at prestigious Manhattan addresses to buff his image as a rich venture capitalist with homes in Italy and Boca Raton, Newsday reported.
A year later, Senese was still on probation when he got married in California and spent months in jail after bouncing checks on a lengthy honeymoon. He pleaded no contest to one count of burglary with intent to commit grand larceny.
"My drug of choice was not a narcotic nor alcohol, but the most severe addiction of all: the addiction of money,'' Senese wrote to the judge, according to a story in the law enforcement magazine APB.
Over the next several years, Senese self-published three books and in 2006 promoted his idea for a TV show called Book Beat, which would feature major authors like J.D. Salinger and "make rock stars out of writers.''
That brought Senese to the attention of author Victoria Strauss, who has a blog that tracks schemes that allegedly prey on writers.
"I talked to people who had done work for him and never been paid and who had auditioned for the show and nothing ever happened,'' says Strauss, who posted a warning to fellow writers. Though the posting was taken down after Senese began legal action, Strauss says she still gets e-mails about him and "this kind of child advocacy thing he's doing now.''
Senese told the Times that he had to drop the Book Beat project because his son was abducted in 2006.
In 2008, Clearwater lawyer Michael Berry got a call from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It had been contacted by a fundraiser who said he wanted to help John Lee Smith, the California father whose wife had illegally taken their sons to the Philippines. The fundraiser: Peter Senese.
The center "was a little concerned about his veracity and wondered if I could lend a hand,'' says Berry, who specializes in international law.
Over the next six weeks, Smith says, Senese sent such touching, sympathetic e-mails that "had me in tears.'' At the same time, Senese was giving the lawyer excuse after excuse as to why he couldn't send the money he had promised.
"Finally, I said, 'John, this guy is just blowing smoke,' '' Berry recalls. "Peter was just playing on John's emotions.''
Senese's response: "It is my right to change my mind if I want to provide financial assistance to someone or not.''
Senese's website contains numerous links to his own writings on child abduction as well as an interview he says he did last year with the Levin Institute, part of the New York state university system.
The interview — full of references to his book Chasing the Cyclone — does not appear on the institute's own website. Senese says the institute removed the interview because it didn't want to get involved in a dispute he had with a man who allegedly slandered him.
The Times was unable to reach the Levin staffer who purportedly interviewed Senese. No one else at the institute recalled any interviews with him.
In his e-mail to the paper, Senese insisted that his ex-wife, Mary, abducted their son, and he denied that he has exaggerated the circumstances.
She in turn accuses Senese of making false and "slanderous'' claims, among them that she sold Tyler, now 11, to a pedophile ring in Macau. She says that she and Tyler were never in Macau. The boy has spent his entire life in the United States, Canada, where he was born, and New Zealand, where his mother took him in 2006 with court permission, records show.
Though there have been custody and visitation disputes, "Peter has totally blown it out of proportion into a story he could spin and create this whole child abduction thing,'' she says.
Remarried, she now lives in Los Angeles. She and Senese have joint custody of Tyler, and in March, Senese took the boy with him to Florida when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Rouson, who filed the bill, said he didn't vet Senese, and no committee members questioned him.
"I would hate to think that anybody would seek to profit off the fears and concerns of real people,'' Rouson said when asked about Senese's background.
"Who knows why Peter Senese does what he does?" he said. "At the end of the day it's a good law that will help judges and ease the fears of parents and keep kids safe. Everything else will take care of itself.''
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.