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Greek drama plays out in Florida

It seemed an everyday shoplifting case.

Constantinos Papadoulis was wandering through the Kmart in Largo in October when, police say, he took a box of granola bars and ate them all. Tossing aside the wrappers, he made his way to the home cleaning aisle, where he stuffed his backpack with toilet bowl freshener and Scotch-Brite scouring pads.

Largo police arrested Papadoulis, 57, soon after he left the store.

As he went to jail, Papadoulis spoke of his kids. "He advised that he has no other family or friend that could take care of the children," Officer James Escalona wrote.

The officer found them at home. He contacted a Pinellas County child protection investigator, who watched 9-year-old Kleopatra and 11-year-old Yiannis until their father was released that night.

Authorities didn't realize they were giving the children back to the man who had snatched them from his estranged wife in Greece.

Unknown to police at the time, Papadoulis was wanted for abduction. There was an Interpol Red Notice — akin to an international arrest warrant — calling for his extradition for financial crimes. And legal proceedings were under way to return the kids to Greece.

It would be two months before mother and children were reunited.

But not for long.

Something happened on March 7. Something so disturbing it shocked everyone who had tried to help the children during their strange sojourn in Florida.

• • •

Sofia Dionysopoulou and Constantinos Papadoulis met in the 1990s while she attended the Greek university where he taught. She was stunning, with glossy chestnut hair and classic features. He was polite and obviously well-educated.

He was also 24 years older and had been divorced twice.

They dated just a short time before she became pregnant. She had doubts about Papadoulis — "Nobody liked him,'' she says — but married him anyway. They lived in an Athens suburb.

In a phone interview from Greece, aided by a translator, Dionysopoulou described a relationship gone bad.

Papadoulis, she says, didn't believe Yiannis was his child. He beat the boy and made him eat his breakfast eggs until he vomited, then forced him to eat the same ones he had just thrown up.

After Kleopatra was born, Papadoulis wouldn't let other children come over to play. He kept his wife from friends and family. He was also lazy, she says.

Papadoulis had a master's degree from the New School in New York and a doctorate from the London School of Economics. Three times, Dionysopoulou says, she went with him to London, where she sat in the school's cafeteria while Papadoulis was in the library ripping page after page out of books.

In 2004 and 2005, scholarly journals published three articles Papadoulis claimed to have written. All three were retracted when the true authors complained of plagiarism.

Dionysopoulou tried several times to get away, but Papadoulis wept, begged, vowed to be a better person. The break finally came when he started going naked in the house and sleeping nude with their daughter.

"I told him never to sleep with the girl again and he said, 'I'm going to make your intestines come out of your mouth if you try to stop me.' "

Dionysopoulou called police. In late 2009 a Greek court gave her full custody while she waited the requisite two years for the divorce to be finalized. Papadoulis had limited visitation, three hours twice a week, no overnight stays.

During the Easter holidays last year, he picked up the children one morning at 11. When 2 p.m. passed and they hadn't returned, their mother grew frantic. She called police. She tried Papadoulis' cell phone; he didn't answer.

Finally, a text message. He was taking the kids to Crete on vacation, he said.

It was April 1. She didn't know that Papadoulis had forged her signature on a letter enabling him to get passports for the children.

Or that she wouldn't see them again for nine months.

• • •

As police would later learn, Papadoulis and the kids flew to Baltimore in late April.

They took a bus to Pinellas County, where they first stayed in a $250-a-week motel on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater. Then, through contacts in Tampa Bay's Greek community, they found a two-bedroom apartment in Largo.

Within walking distance of Walmart, Kmart and Burger King, the apartment was ideal for Papadoulis, who didn't have a car. It was also close to Ponce de Leon Elementary School.

Papadoulis bought a king-size bed at a used furniture store.

• • •

Greece has a TV show similar to America's Most Wanted. It's called Light at the End of the Tunnel, and you can see it in the Tampa Bay area on satellite TV.

In early May, a segment aired on two kids who had been kidnapped by their father. Soon after, Dionysopoulou says, she heard from a Pinellas County man who said he had seen Papadoulis and the children while on business at their Largo apartment complex.

Once she knew where her kids were, Dionysopoulou set out to legally get them back. Her tool: the Hague Convention on international child abduction, under which the United States, Greece and 80 other nations agreed on procedures for returning children to their home country.

While Dionysopoulou got copies of the custody order and other paperwork needed to file a Hague petition, word spread through Tampa Bay's Greek community that Papadoulis was a wanted man. But no one said anything to him, afraid he might move again.

Instead, acquaintances continued to help, mostly because of the children.

A taxi driver often took the family to appointments, Largo police records show, although "he does not like how Constantinos talks to the kids.''

After walking the children to school, Papadoulis sometimes rode the bus to a pharmacy owned by Greek-Americans. There, pharmacist Minas Liristis says, he would chat or pace the aisles while making cell phone calls.

"He was always asking for a job, anything he could get his hands on,'' Liristis says.

Papadoulis said he was getting money from his mother in Greece. He also indicated he had obtained state aid for the kids.

The Florida Department of Children and Families wouldn't comment. But as Liristis recalls, "his demeanor was that he was taking advantage of the system.''

• • •

In late October, soon after Papadoulis' shoplifting arrest, someone went to the children's school and expressed fears they were in danger, Largo police records show.

The matter was turned over to Largo after a school resource officer complained that the Florida Child Protection Investigations 24-hour hotline refused to take a report.

Detective Jill Freire was unable to substantiate the allegation against Papadoulis. But knowing he was from Greece, she contacted Interpol to see if it had anything on him.

Interpol confirmed that Papadoulis was wanted for unspecified financial crimes. However, "they wished for us to hold off on making contact with Constantine and the children because they do believe he is a flight risk, as there is more involved in this case,'' Freire wrote in her report.

The Tampa law firm of Holland & Knight was frustrated, too. In October, it had agreed to take, pro bono, the Hague case of the children's mother. But attorneys delayed filing the Hague petition, partly in hopes that federal law enforcement authorities would pick up Papadoulis on criminal charges.

The firm eventually decided to move ahead on civil grounds, and at that point "it was all very fast,'' lawyer Michael Chapman says.

On Dec. 15 in federal court in Tampa, he and colleague Dominic Kouffman filed the petition under seal so Papadoulis wouldn't get wind of it. Dionysopoulou flew in from Greece on Dec. 17 and three days later, U.S. District Judge James Whittemore signed an order to pick up the children.

The ride to Largo afterward "was very tense,'' Chapman says. "Sofia was concerned about how her children would react to her. She knew her husband had essentially nine months to indoctrinate them and influence their thinking. But at the same time she was very excited because after all this time she would be reunited with her kids.''

Shortly before noon, two U.S. marshals knocked on the door of Apartment 851. The instant it opened, they handcuffed Papadoulis, and Dionysopoulou got her first look at her children.

"I want my father!'' Kleopatra screamed. She sobbed and tried to wriggle out of Dionysopoulou's embrace.

The ride back to Tampa was difficult, too, with mother and kids arguing loudly in Greek. But over lunch, the children began to calm down.

The three spent the next 10 days in an apartment rented by Holland & Knight. Dan Ruth, a St. Petersburg Times columnist whose Greek-American wife, Angela, works for the firm, took the kids shopping for clothes. They had Christmas dinner with the Ruths, who became close to the family.

At a temporary custody hearing, Papadoulis claimed his wife was a prostitute and drug abuser. But the Holland & Knight lawyers said he presented no evidence and came across poorly on the stand. He was vague, too, on whether he had entered the United States on a long-since expired green card from his New York student days, or on a tourist visa, good for 90 days, not nine months.

At the final hearing, Judge Whittemore ordered that Yiannis and Kleopatra be returned to Greece in their mother's custody. As the lawyers and children left the Tampa courthouse, Chapman says, Papadoulis jumped out of a van and yelled in Greek: "Let me know where you are! E-mail me! Call me!''

And chillingly, a Greek obscenity.

• • •

The Ruths and some others who spent time with the kids say they often used foul language. But around Chapman they were sweet, polite children whom he and his daughters would greatly miss.

They stayed in touch via Facebook. Everything seemed to be going well.

Then, two weeks ago, a distraught Dionysopoulou called Dan Ruth from Athens. She told him this story:

On the night of March 7, she had phoned a mechanic to change a flat tire. As she waited outside, a stranger with an Albanian accent slapped a gloved hand over her mouth, shoved her to the ground and repeatedly banged her head on the pavement.

When the man yanked her up by her hair, she saw two other men. One was Papadoulis.

"Give me the keys,'' he ordered. He took them from her pocket and went upstairs. "Where's Mom?'' "Where's Mom?" she heard her children screaming.

Then all five — Papadoulis, the two men and the kids in their pajamas — got in a black Volkswagen.

As they drove off, Papadoulis shouted: "'Let's see if you find them again!''

• • •

The State Department has alerted Greece and neighboring Albania, as well as U.S. consulates and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to be on the lookout for Papadoulis.

His wife and others doubt he would try to return to the United States. As citizens of Greece, which is part of the European Union, he and the children could easily move among the 27 EU nations. They could also go to Latin America, where Mexico and other countries are notorious for noncompliance with the Hague Convention.

"I do, absolutely, worry that he'll go someplace where he won't be as easily found and where the legal system will not be so friendly toward Sofia's rights,'' Chapman says.

He knows she was lucky to have found Papadoulis and the children the first time. What are the odds, he wonders, that she'll ever see any of them again?

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Greek drama plays out in Florida 03/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 19, 2011 9:32pm]

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