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Cuba returns Hakkens to U.S.

TAMPA — The dramatic odyssey of a Tampa dad sailing to Cuba with his wife and kidnapped sons culminated in undramatic fashion Tuesday when the communist nation readily turned the family over to the U.S. government.

A U.S. plane carrying the Hakkens — and a family rat terrier named Natti — returned from Havana to Tampa this morning. The boys were medically checked out during the flight.

"Right now just we're just looking forward to getting them in our arms and hugging them and being with them and getting them home where they'll be safe again," said the boys' grandfather, Robert Hauser, who added he had a brief chance to talk to them before they left Cuba.

He and U.S. authorities expressed thanks to the Cuban government for averting what could have turned to crisis.

"Tonight, thanks to a joint effort of the Department of State, FBI and U.S. Coast Guard, two U.S. citizen children are safely on their way home," a statement from U.S. diplomats in Cuba said.

Cuban officials had spotted Joshua Hakken, 35, Sharyn Hakken, 34, and boys Cole, 4, and Chase, 2, on Sunday or Monday in Hemingway Harbor near Havana.

They tipped off U.S. authorities, then confirmed Tuesday they would oust the four.

Foreign Ministry official Johana Tablada said in a written statement she had informed diplomats "of the Cuban government's willingness to turn over . . . U.S. citizens Joshua Michael Hakken, his wife Sharyn Patricia and their two minor sons."

Though the Hakkens may have planned a new life in Cuba with the children, safe from the U.S. government's reach, that option offered little political benefit to Cuba, experts said.

In fact, the decision to return them falls in line with what many predicted would happen.

With the world watching, cooperation with U.S. authorities could provide good publicity for a country attempting to foster tourism, some said.

Cole and Chase, a sheriff's spokesman said, would be safely back in their grandparents' home north of Tampa — from where they were snatched a week ago this morning.

• • •

Hillsborough County deputies said Joshua Hakken, a mechanical engineer, kidnapped the boys from mother-in-law Patricia Hauser's house early April 3. Carrying a gun, he bound her with zip ties, they said, after Robert Hauser left for his job with Pinellas County government.

The Hakkens had lost custody of their sons after a series of bizarre incidents last year documented by Louisiana police.

Authorities say Joshua Hakken had attended an anti-government rally there, but have not provided details of it.

Also still unclear are the specific circumstances under which the couple's parental rights were severed.

Authorities in Louisiana said Mr. Hakken was arrested last year in a hotel there on drug charges. Officials said the couple were making suicidal remarks, and believed that Mr. Hakken had tried unsuccessfully at one point to take his sons at gunpoint from a foster care facility.

At a press conference this morning, Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee indicated the Hakken parents had ignored child custody proceedings there.

"There was clearly neglectful behavior," the sheriff said. "They did not participate in the system. They did not respond to the system when the custody issue was taking place."

He added: "We tend to agree that the courts made the right decision. We can't go into everything that we may be aware of now."

Hakken and his wife, a civil engineer, set sail the morning of the kidnapping with the boys from Madeira Beach. Surveillance video showed them aboard Salty, a blue-and-white 25-footer.

FBI Special Agent Dave Couvertier said authorities had an indication the family was traveling south and searched land and water. Then they got word from the U.S. State Department the family had docked in Cuba.

Joshua and Sharyn Hakken, who own a home in South Tampa, faces a litany of state felony charges, including kidnapping and interference with child custody. Authorities said the couple also face a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

They were put in handcuffs — outside the view of the boys — for the trip back to Tampa.

They were to be booked today in the Hillsborough County Jail.

Natti, the dog that presumably was along for the ordeal, was to go with the boys to their grandparents' home.

"This was not a typical parental kidnapping," Couvertier said. "As this case moves forward, you may be able to determine that for yourself."

• • •

After the sailboat was discovered in the fenced-in Hemingway Marina, Cuban security officers surrounded it but did not remove the Hakkens.

That, said St. Petersburg immigration lawyer and Stetson law professor Arturo Rios Jr., was a good sign for the United States.

If Cuba was going to make a big production of providing asylum to the family, officials likely would have put the family up in a hotel, Rios said.

The security was an indication that Cuba was working with the U.S. Interests Section, a group of U.S. diplomats in Havana.

Historically, Cuban has sheltered Americans seeking political asylum, including people in the Black Panther Party. More recently, the country has refused to turn over people wanted for crimes in the United States.

There is less precedent for cross-border custody cases involving Cuba, though many called the Hakken case a situation of "Elián González in reverse."

In 2000, Miami relatives tried to keep the boy in Miami against his father's demands that Elián be returned to him to Cuba.

Elián was reunited with his father in Cuba after federal agents stormed a home in the Little Havana community and snatched the boy.

A case more similar happened in 2006, when a U.S. man traveled from Texas to the Florida Keys with his youngest son — whom he did not have custody of — and allegedly stole a plane in Marathon, landing in Cuba.

The boy was soon sent to his mother, who lived in Mexico. The father, David Franklin, was extradited within the month.

"The only thing that sets (the Hakkens' case) apart from other international abductions is that both parents took the children," Rios said.

Cuba could not simply send the children to the other biological parent, Rios said.

Another difficulty U.S. authorities faced: Cuba is not a signatory of the Hague Convention, which establishes procedures to reunite abducted children with their guardians, said Florida International University law professor Cyra Choudhury, who specializes in transnational family law.

Therefore, any decisions regarding the Hakkens lay completely with Cuba, she said.

Though Cuba had little reason to help the Hakkens, recent U.S. relations with the island have been tense and cooperation spotty, said Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Research Institute and professor of anthropology at Florida International University.

The Castro regime has refused to return Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen who in 2011 was sentenced in Cuba to 15 years of prison after he delivered satellite telephones to members of Cuba's Jewish community. The country said it wants to swap Gross for five Cuban spies arrested in 1998.

But Cuba has been on a mission to draw U.S. tourists to its tropical island — and cooperation on the Hakkens could be used to further those aims, said Jose Azel, a research associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press and the Miami Herald. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Cuba returns Hakkens to U.S. 04/09/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 9:19am]

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