TAMPA — Trembling and wiping away tears, Rachelle Smith stood in front of a row of news cameras and sent a message to her 3-year-old son.
"Dexter, if you are watching, I'll never stop looking for you," Smith said. "I promise."
Authorities say her son's father, Ali Salamey, fled to Lebanon with the boy, who has the same last name as his father, in violation of a court order giving him only weekend visitation rights.
Smith's attorney, Patrick Leduc, says the case is an example of a father taking advantage of the fact that the Lebanese government is not a signatory of the Hague Convention of Intentional Child Abductions and does not extradite wanted suspects to the United States.
"Lebanon is a co-conspirator in this kidnapping," Leduc said at the news conference Wednesday in front of the Tampa Police Department. "Nothing is going to happen unless our government stands up and asserts itself as a superpower that we are."
Salamey entered Smith's Tampa home on Aug. 1, paid a babysitter, took Dexter and left, court records show. He was arrested that day in Pinellas County and charged with burglary of an occupied dwelling and interfering with child custody.
During an injunction hearing on Aug. 23, a family law judge set a Sept. 15 hearing to determine whether the parents' shared-custody agreement should change. Salamey was granted visitation with Dexter for two weekends preceding that hearing. Salamey chose this past weekend for his first weekend, according to his attorney, Alex Stavrou.
Stavrou said he felt confident he could persuade the court at that hearing to amend the existing custody agreement in Salamey's favor because Smith had not let him see the boy for about three months. He said he was "stunned" to learn that Salamey didn't drop off the boy at day care on Monday morning as planned.
Instead, Stavrou would later learn, Salamey got passports for himself and his son and left Tampa on Saturday for Lebanon.
Smith called Tampa police and that agency launched an investigation along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to Leduc. An FBI spokeswoman said the bureau is aware of the case but does not confirm or deny active investigations.
A court order forbade the parents from obtaining a passport for Dexter, but Salamey, a dual citizen of the United States and Lebanon, was able to get one from the Lebanese consulate in Detroit anyway, Leduc said.
Leduc called on the U.S. State Department and Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson to pressure the country's officials on behalf of his client and other parents whose children have been taken there.
Rubio's office did not respond to messages Wednesday. A Nelson spokeswoman did not immediately provide a comment. In a statement, a State Department official said it is aware of the case but declined to comment on specifics, citing privacy concerns.
"The welfare of children who are involved in international parental child abduction is among the Department's top priorities, and we work with our U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, state and federal agencies, and the left-behind parent or legal guardian, as appropriate, to resolve cases," it read.
An email from the Times to the Lebanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., was not returned Wednesday.
Stavrou said he has had one email exchange with Salamey, before the attorney realized his client was in Lebanon. Stavrou said Salamey should return to the United States to face his pending charges. He will likely face new state and possibly federal charges for leaving the country with his son, Stavrou said.
Salamey did not respond to a Times Facebook message.
Smith begged officials to help return her son, who has a birthday on Sept. 10.
"He turns 4 in a few days, and I fear I'm never going to see him again."