The Tampa couple accused of kidnapping their sons at gunpoint and absconding on a sailboat across the Gulf of Mexico tried to formally seek asylum from Cuban authorities, asserting the lives of their children were at risk from U.S. government officials, one parent's lawyer said Monday.
Joshua and Sharyn Hakken met with a lawyer in Cuba after arriving there in April, and were initially told they would be safe from U.S. law enforcement while their asylum application was reviewed, said Tampa lawyer Bryant Camareno, who is representing Sharyn Hakken.
"They sought counsel, and they actually met with a lawyer in Cuba," Camareno said. "They felt that their kids' lives were in danger from the (U.S.) government." He said the couple also believed that if Cuba rejected them, they would have time to seek protection at other foreign governments' embassies in Havana.
The couple's dreams of a safe haven abroad were short-lived. Within days of the Hakkens' arrival at Hemingway Marina outside Havana, Cuban authorities gave the U.S. permission to apprehend the family and extradite them to Florida. Both parents are jailed as they await trial in Hillsborough Circuit Court on charges including kidnapping and child abuse.
But the description of the Hakkens' overtures to Cuban officials and fears of government intrusion in their boys' lives provides an early glimpse of their mind-set and legal strategy. Camareno's remarks to the Tampa Bay Times, made after Joshua and Sharyn Hakken briefly appeared in court Monday, marked the first time the couple's own account of their motives has emerged.
The argument that the Hakkens were attempting to extricate their sons from a tyrannical child welfare system also promises to bring more national attention to the bizarre saga of an American family driven by mistrust of government to seek refuge in the Western Hemisphere's last communist country.
On April 3, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Joshua Hakken, 35, kidnapped his children at gunpoint from the home of his mother-in-law, whom he bound with zip-ties. He and Sharyn Hakken, 34, had lost custody of 4-year-old Cole and 2-year-old Chase after a series of incidents in Louisiana. A court later terminated their parental rights.
Authorities said Joshua Hakken was arrested on drug charges in a hotel there last year, and was found with a gun talking about taking a "journey to Armageddon" in the presence of the boys when he was taken into custody.
The children were placed in foster care following the drug arrest, but Hakken showed up with a gun at their foster home demanding they be returned, according to authorities.
The foster parents called 911 and Hakken fled.
After the Hakkens' extradition from Cuba, their sons were placed back in the custody of their grandmother, who lives north of Tampa.
Camareno said he and Jorge Chalela, Joshua Hakken's attorney, are awaiting discovery materials from the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office and are still in the early stages of reviewing the case. But Camareno already expects to call witnesses from Cuba, and he said the case could involve international law and jurisdictional issues.
It is unclear what specific justification the Hakkens might have had for claiming special refugee status. Cuba never signed the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, the backbone of international protection for asylum-seekers. The treaty obligates governments to harbor those who fear persecution in their home countries for their political views, race or religion, among other factors.
"They weren't too sure of what type of asylum they were seeking," Camareno said, "but they were seeking asylum."
Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.