TAMPA — After being separated by 10 months and thousands of miles, federal authorities on Friday reunited a mother and her 4-year-old son.
Rachelle Smith and her son Dexter have been apart since August 2018, when authorities said her husband Ali Salamey took the boy and fled to Beirut, in violation of his court-ordered visitation rights.
Her ordeal ended Friday when the mother was reunited with her son in Atlanta, according to her attorney. The FBI said the father was being held in federal custody there.
Mother and son then flew home to Tampa International Airport, arriving that afternoon.
"He came off the plane and that little boy looked thrilled," said attorney Patrick Leduc. "He seemed like water off a duck's back."
The saga dates back to Aug. 1, when authorities said Salamey entered the mother's South Tampa home, paid off the babysitter and took the child, then 3. He was arrested on charges of burglary of an occupied dwelling and interfering with child custody. A judge granted the father weekend visitation while assessing the couple's shared-custody agreement.
Instead, the mother said the father obtained passports for himself and his son and left the country on Aug. 25. She has been trying to get her son back ever since.
The process was complicated because Lebanon is not a signatory of the Hague Convention of Intentional Child Abductions, Leduc said, and typically does not extradite people to the U.S. This is the first time Lebanese authorities have agreed to enforce a U.S. arrest order, the lawyer said.
Tracking down and apprehending the father was a months-long process that involved appealing to the religious Sharia and civil courts in Lebanon, Leduc said. U.S. authorities were able to enlist the help of local police to arrest the father in Lebanon and turn him over to the FBI.
Father and son flew back to the U.S. on the same Beirut-Atlanta flight they used to flee the country last year, Leduc said. But this time, he said, Salamey was in handcuffs. It was not known what charges the father was being held on.
Salamey, 37, will make his first appearance in federal court on Monday, according to an FBI spokesperson. The agency declined to provide further details about the case, noting that the criminal complaint is sealed.
Mother and son will now attempt to return to a normal life, Leduc said.
"She is a strong and powerful woman," the attorney said. "I think what it'll be is they go on to live happily ever after. … But they're going to need time to decompress and adjust to all of this."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.