TAMPA — Politics has assumed an oddly prominent role in the criminal case of Joshua and Sharyn Hakken, the Tampa engineers accused of kidnapping their sons and fleeing more than 300 miles on a sailboat to Cuba.
At the case's outset, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said the couple were "antigovernment," a characterization echoed in news coverage. Some sympathizers have bristled at the focus on the Hakkens' ideology, saying the pair have been unfairly painted as extremists.
Interviews this week with the couple's defense attorneys and authorities in Louisiana — where the Hakkens had early run-ins with law enforcement last year — suggest elements of truth to both perspectives, and offer clues to the beliefs undergirding the Hakkens' actions.
While the pair hold deep-seated suspicions of government, according to their attorneys, early descriptions of some of their political activities by law enforcement officials now appear to have been inaccurate.
In particular, there is no available evidence the Hakkens attended an "antigovernment rally" last summer outside New Orleans, as was initially asserted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
"She'll tell you she's not antigovernment," said Tampa lawyer Bryant Camareno, who is representing Sharyn Hakken, 34. "She's anti-big government."
Authorities say the Hakkens, after learning in April their parental rights were terminated by a court in Louisiana, kidnapped their children from Sharyn Hakken's mother and set sail from Madeira Beach.
They were apprehended in Cuba and are now being held without bail at the Falkenburg Road Jail on charges including kidnapping, child abuse and false imprisonment.
The portrait of the defendants emerging from their attorneys is that of an educated couple who adhered to some tenets of old-line libertarianism — distrust of public schools and organized religion — as well as ideas of newer vintage that fall well outside the mainstream.
Those include the concern that vaccines can harm children — an idea popularized in one form by Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann during the 2012 presidential primaries— and the theory that some airplanes' exhaust trails contain substances spread for secret purposes by government officials, according to the Hakkens' attorneys.
Jorge Chalela, attorney for Joshua Hakken, 35, said the couple are "impressive, nice" people who "happen to be educated and are asking questions" about the U.S. government's activities.
Camareno said the Hakkens strongly desired to home-school their boys, ages 2 and 4. While they believe in a deity, Camareno said, they did not want their children brought up in a church.
The chain of events that led the Hakkens to lose parental rights began in 2012 in Slidell, La., on the northeastern rim of Lake Pontchartrain.
The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office said in a statement that police encountered the Hakkens there after the couple attended "some type of antigovernment rally."
But Camareno said the Hakkens were on a road trip from Florida to Arizona, where they planned to meet "like-minded people" who shared their suspicion of government. He said there was no rally along the way.
Slidell police Detective Daniel Seuzeneau likewise said he was unaware of any rally at the time.
"If something like that happened here, it's a very conservative part of the United States, and we would know about it," Seuzeneau said. "We haven't had anything close to an antigovernment rally here."
He said police received a call from a local hotel about Sharyn Hakken "running down a third-floor hallway screaming and knocking on doors."
Upon arriving, Seuzeneau said, police arrested Joshua Hakken on marijuana charges and confiscated a Glock pistol, a Smith & Wesson pistol and "a large dagger."
Chalela said the guns were in locked boxes in the Hakkens' vehicle at the time.
The Hakkens' sons, Cole and Chase, were placed in temporary foster care after the incident. Slidell police said Joshua Hakken showed up two weeks later at their foster home with a gun, demanding their return. He fled without the boys when their caretakers called 911, police said.
The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and State Attorney's Office declined to comment in detail because the case here is pending.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.