Custody battle involving retired Air Force dad crosses globe

Andrew Morcombe and his daughter, Victoria, pose for a portrait in Vatican City.
Andrew Morcombe and his daughter, Victoria, pose for a portrait in Vatican City.
Published Aug. 1, 2016

TAMPA — Faced with the prospect of an unfavorable court decision that could have separated him from his child, Andrew Morcombe said he really had only one choice.

The divorced father fled Tampa and the United States in the spring of 2014, moving his daughter, then 5, to Dubai.

Two years later, she is stateside and the retired Air Force major who once worked for U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base faces a federal indictment accusing him of committing international parental kidnapping. The charge is punishable by up to three years in prison.

When then-President Bill Clinton signed the international parental kidnapping crime act into law in 1993, he said prosecutions should be reserved for cases that cannot be resolved in civil courts. Morcombe's indictment caps off years of civil disputes with his ex-wife.

Some parents have been on the lam for years and some children remain abroad.

An arrest warrant was issued in a federal court in California in 2005 for a woman suspected of taking her three sons to the Philippines. A grand jury in Florida indicted a woman in 2011, alleging she kidnapped her daughter from Broward County to the United Arab Emirates. Both mothers are named on the FBI's online most wanted list.

The law is an "important remedy" for parents of children taken to far-flung nations, said Merle Weiner, a law professor at the University of Oregon. And it's one, she said, that prosecutors are increasingly using.

"Oftentimes, left-behind parents have very few remedies," Weiner said, "but this actually gives them a tool to possibly have the perpetrator held accountable and ultimately get the child back."

• • •

The Morcombes were married about five years. Midway came their daughter, Victoria, born in January 2009. Two months after the couple's November 2011 divorce, Jane Morcombe met her next husband, according to Andrew Morcombe.

That began a tug of war, with the girl in the middle.

The daughter traveled the world with Morcombe during the two-month blocks they were together, initially going to Germany, Australia and Malaysia, according to court documents.

A federal complaint states that he "unilaterally" took her to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, without his ex-wife's consent, before deciding the nation's capital city was "too dangerous."

The couple's shared custody agreement unraveled amid mutual mistrust.

Morcombe, 49, said he has acted only with his daughter's best interest in mind.

"All I care about is the health of my child and the well-being of the child," he said.

The trips across the globe were the first steps toward alienating his daughter from her American family and friends, said Lawrence Katz, Jane Morcombe's attorney.

"What he's done to her is so unconscionable," Katz said.

In March 2014, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Nick Nazaretian barred Morcombe from taking his daughter outside the United States without court permission, calling him an international kidnapping risk.

That spring, Morcombe agreed to spend a few months each year stateside with his daughter. He had moved from Apollo Beach to Tampa's Hyde Park neighborhood after the marital split.

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But the agreement was made under "false pretenses," Nazaretian concluded.

Morcombe ran off before the judge could decide on time-sharing privileges.

What was supposed to be a two-day weekend with his daughter turned into two years of life abroad.

Occasional photos of the smiling father-daughter duo appeared on Morcombe's Facebook page. In one, Victoria raises an ice cream cone like a torch in front of the Pantheon in Rome. In another, the two entertain pigeons in Venice's St. Mark's Square.

Morcombe said he was "forthcoming" with the court after he left the United States in the spring of 2014. Peter Morcombe, Andrew Morcombe's father, said his son offered to pay for the mother to visit her daughter in Dubai, but she refused.

But Katz said there's no indication the state court knew of Morcombe's whereabouts.

"They never knew exactly where he was when they were (abroad)," Katz said. "If they knew, he would've been picked up one way or the other much earlier."

• • •

Even if American authorities knew for sure that Morcombe was in the Middle East, Katz said getting Victoria back would've been "next to impossible."

That's because the United Arab Emirates is not a member nation of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, an international agreement designed to swiftly get abducted children back to their countries of habitual residence.

At the end of 2015, according to a U.S. State Department report, there were only five open cases concerning children taken to the United Arab Emirates. The report states that the country "does not adhere to any protocols" for international parental kidnapping cases.

Morcombe, who has dual citizenship in the United States and the United Kingdom, relocated to the Middle East and worked there for Emirates airlines. The move came with an added benefit. He said he hoped the courts there would sort out the dispute.

A recent trip to the United Kingdom, a Hague member, was the wrench in his plan. An Interpol notice tipped off authorities there, Morcombe said, and he was jailed for about two weeks.

Now that his daughter is back with her mother in the United States, Morcombe, who remains abroad as of last week, recognizes that he'll need to work with the American courts.

"I'm not fighting extradition, like I'm not fighting anything," Morcombe said. "There is a very clear defense to what I did."

He already tried accusing the new stepfather of improper conduct, but Nazaretian, the judge, decided that Morcombe exaggerated.

• • •

Around the time Morcombe was jailed in England, a similar case in Tampa marched toward a resolution.

In June, a jury convicted Oliver Grasland, a French national and legal U.S. resident, of international parental kidnapping when he traveled with his child to the Bahamas and France starting in 2013, according to court documents.

The documents accuse Grasland of kidnapping the child from Sarasota County when faced with an agreement giving him only four supervised hours each week.

Grasland left the child's mother a voicemail message on Dec. 23, 2013, saying he was taking the child on a "world tour," according to court documents.

Calling from a hotel in Paris, Grasland told the woman he left everything behind and threatened to "lose contact" if she notified police.

He now awaits sentencing.

• • •

After two years on the run, Morcombe maintains he isn't asking for much. He hopes to get liberal visitation rights with his daughter and have social workers check on her when she's with her mother.

The retired officer is convinced he's in the right, that he "did what I had to do."

Although he faces up to three years in prison, Morcombe thinks prosecutors are just "playing a game."

"I don't think anybody could say, 'Let's send this guy into prison,' " he said. "It's very clear that, yeah, I did break the law, but I did it in a justifiable manner."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Samuel Howard at (813)-226-3373 or Follow @SamuelHHoward.