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Former USF professor who killed 3-year-old daughter had refused to return her to mother, records show

Laurel Friedman worried that her estranged husband would take their young daughter Ela back to his native Turkey, according to court filings. Now, both father and daughter are dead. [Photo courtesy of Laura Davis]
Published Dec. 12, 2018

TEMPLE TERRACE — When his wife filed for divorce earlier this year, Ayhan Aytes agreed to share custody of their young daughter Ela. The couple thought it would be best for the girl to have both parents in her life, court records show.

But as the months passed, Laurel Friedman, an instructor at the University of South Florida, began to worry that Aytes would take Ela to his native Turkey and never return, according to filings in the divorce case.

Last week, when Aytes didn't return after his scheduled visiting day, Friedman filed an emergency motion in court asking a judge issue an order allowing Friedman to pick up the girl, now 3, immediately.

"The Father is only refusing to return the minor child for a warped sense of satisfaction that he has disrupted the Mother's life," the motion says. "Father's mental health is declining, and his behavior is becoming increasingly unpredictable and erratic," the filing said.

Instead of an emergency pickup order, Judge Wesley Tibbals issued a directive for Aytes, 48, to immediately abide by the parenting plan. Five days later, Aytes and Ela were dead. Their bodies were discovered Monday afternoon by Temple Terrace police officers who went to Aytes' condominium at Friedman's request to check on them.

"The system failed Ela in the most tragic of ways, even as my lawyer and I did everything in our power to ensure her safety," Laurel Friedman, 38, said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

Court filings show an increasingly bitter tug-of-war over the child.

Aytes and Friedman married in 2012, records show, the same year Aytes earned his doctorate in communication and cognitive science from the University of California San Diego. Friedman got her master's and doctorate degrees in communication from the same university, according to her USF faculty page.

Aytes was hired by USF in December 2016 for one semester in a temporary position as a visiting assistant professor in the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications, according to a USF spokesman. Aytes' contract expired in May 2017 and he was brought back in the same capacity in August 2017 for two semesters. His last contract expired in May.

Friedman still works as an instructor in the College of Communication.

She filed for divorce in January and the couple agreed to share custody of Ela.

In September, Friedman filed a motion asking the court to forbid Aytes from taking the girl to Turkey to visit his family. Aytes is Turkish citizen with a permanent U.S. green card, but has an apartment in Istanbul and could easily get a job there, the motion says.

"The Father has been hostile and emotionally abusive to the Wife," the motion states.

In a response, Aytes denied that he planned to stay in Turkey and said he only wanted to take his daughter to visit his mother. His response said he was looking for a job here and applying for U.S. citizenship. He also claimed Friedman had previously denied him his allowed visitation time.

The court granted Friedman's motion Sept. 18, finding that Aytes was "an abduction risk." In November, a judge ratified the parenting plan and ordered each side to abide by it.

On Dec. 5, Aytes didn't bring Ela to school, according to the emergency motion Friedman filed the same day. Friedman sent Aytes a text message noting it was her turn to have Ela and asked to immediately arrange a meeting so she could pick up the girl.

"Do not push it too hard," Aytes replied in a text message, the motion shows. "You owe me three previous days from two previous incidents when you kept Ela on my time-share. I am claiming my time-share back as a compensation for those days."

Friedman's attorney, Damien McKinney, sent an email to Aytes' attorney Blair Chan, who replied that Aytes had spoken to a child protection investigator because the girl "stated that she has been touched inappropriately by your client's paramour."

"Given the concerns raised by this statement, Mr. Aytes has decided to keep the child until a decision is made regarding whether a dependency matter will be opened," Chan wrote. "If it is determined that the concerns are unfounded, Mr. Aytes will of course offer the mother make up time."

But Friedman's motion includes an email to Friedman from Jamie McKay, a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office child protection investigator, who was investigating the abuse allegation. The email says McKay "never told the child's father to withhold the child from you."

"He should be sending the child back per his court order," McKay wrote to Friedman. "I did advise to him to continue with your court order custody as normal."

An incident report prepared by an investigator for the Florida Department of Children Families was not available Wednesday. McKinney and Chan have not responded to messages from the Times.

Friedman's motion claims that Aytes fabricated the abuse allegation.

"The Father has a long history of pretending to care about the minor child, when in reality, his main motivation is clearly to hurt the Mother in any way possible, including by coaching the minor child to make false accusations of abuse," the motion said.

The next day, Dec. 6, Judge Tibbals signed the order requiring both parties to abide by the parenting plan and fining Aytes $50 for every day he failed to do so.

Four days later, Friedman called police to ask for the welfare check. It was unclear Wednesday when Aytes last communicated with Friedman or when police believe he killed the girl and himself. A Temple Terrace police spokeswoman said no other details were available.

"We were failed when we tried to have Ela returned to me after it became obvious that her father's mental health was rapidly deteriorating and after multiple violations of the custody agreement," Laurel Friedman said in the statement. "In addition, the courts are not adequately equipped to the very real consequences and potential devastating outcomes caused by emotional and verbal abuse."

Friedman said she her family is looking forward to participating in "the conversation about the intersection of custody arrangements and mental health."

For now, though, they want privacy to grieve.

Times staff writer Chris O'Donnell contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 266-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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