Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - After a US custody battle came to Cambodia, a family found itself torn apart — and alleging kidnapping

After a US custody battle came to Cambodia, a family found itself torn apart — and alleging kidnapping

Rochelle Costigan, who says her son has been kidnapped, pictured in a Phnom Penh hotel room earlier this week. Sahiba Chawdhary

When 8-year-old James Costigan was taken, he kicked until his shoes came off.

His older half-sister, Mira, was clinging to his waist, so they took her too.

Last Wednesday, in the Cambodian coastal town of Sihanoukville, a group of Christian vigilantes, who claim to be former Central Intelligence Agency and United States military forces, stopped their car, blocking Mira and James’s path.

The way Mira, 17, tells it, two men emerged from the car, along with James’s father. She tried to get her brother away on her scooter, but when they stopped her, she wrapped her arms around him tight.

The siblings were bundled into the car and driven to Phnom Penh, several hours away from their mother, Rochelle Costigan.

A custody dispute originating in the United States between Costigan and the father of her son, Nicholas Kanieff, had abruptly arrived in Cambodia.

Rochelle Costigan with her 8-year-old son James. Photo supplied

Rochelle remembers her son kissing her before he ventured out with Mira to get pizza at around 5pm. She hasn’t seen him since.

“When they weren’t back two hours later, I knew something was wrong …when they weren’t back three hours later, I began to panic,” Rochelle said on Wednesday.

She went to the police, who didn’t speak English and asked her to return in the morning. She began looking in every hospital, every bar, every hotel. “I’m thinking somebody grabbed her, and that she wasn’t alive,” Rochelle said, her voice thickening as her eyes welled up with tears.

When Rochelle returned home, she noticed a Facebook message from someone by the name of Freddy Carter. Though they had never met, Carter had struck up an amiable conversation with her some three weeks earlier, asking for advice about beekeeping. In his last message, he thanked her for her help and promised to save her a jar of honey. His tone now was very different.

“James is with his sole legal guardian. Mira chose to come willingly. We will contact you tomorrow morning to let you know where we can meet,” he wrote, in a message seen by The Post.

Mira spent the car ride to Phnom Penh with her brother on her lap. Her legs fell asleep under his weight as she questioned her captors. They told lies, she said – that a warrant was out for her mother’s arrest, that she would be jailed for 15 years, that they had searched her home and found hard drugs. They talked to her about a Dr Phil video she liked on Facebook. They preached to her about the gospel of Jesus.

“The whole ride they were very disrespectful, very self-righteous. For some reason they thought this was just totally okay,” she said.

The men told Mira about the kids they had saved, to which she replied: “I’d rather not be saved.”

Rochelle Costigan and her daughter Mira Costigan, 17, in a Phnom Penh hotel room earlier this week. Sahiba Chawdhary

Once in Phnom Penh, the team left behind traces. On Wednesday, the group stayed at the Harmony Hotel near riverside. Mira insisted she share a room alone with her brother, and the men ultimately relented. One of them kept watch outside the door the whole night. “Don’t try to go out the window, because it’s a long fall,” she remembers one of them saying.

Receptionist Mov Youpheng confirmed that their records showed Juan Gonzalez, Rodolfo Gonzalez, Thad Turner and Nicholas Kanieff, James’s father, checked in late on Wednesday. Kanieff is a Boston businessman of some repute and the founder of the Boston Comic Con.

When asked if staff noticed anything strange, Youpheng said it struck him as odd that the group had checked in for two nights, but only stayed one.

He also found it strange that the children didn’t have passports, and because of this staff took their photographs for their records. The picture of James, a grainy photocopy of which was seen by The Post, shows his eyes wide and his hands clasped in his lap.

James Costigan, 8, is photographed at Harmony Hotel in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, October 11. Photo supplied

Mira says the children were taken to the US Embassy on Thursday to get passports. Seeing an opportunity to get help, she explained the situation to the staff. The embassy called Rochelle, who rushed to Phnom Penh from Sihanoukville.

“I packed up some things to comfort James – books, a fresh change of clothes, toothbrush, you know, all the things a mum would think of,” she said. Her son had recently been scratched by a cat near his eye so she grabbed his antibiotics before getting in a taxi.

But when she arrived at the embassy, she found Mira, alone – James had already left with his father, who was granted sole custody of the child by a temporary court order from the Middlesex Family and Probate Court in Massachusetts, dated September 11.

David Josar, deputy spokesman at the US Embassy, said he could not comment on “individual cases”.

“In general however, a US passport for a minor can only be issued if both parents sign the passport application or a passport for a minor can be issued with the signature of one parent on the child’s passport application if a court has granted that parent sole custody,” he said.

Costigan maintains the order was never properly served. An email was sent, she said, but never opened. Middlesex court staff said that order would have to have been mailed to her. It remained unclear yesterday whether that had happened.

Before he left the embassy with his father, Mira said an emotional goodbye to her brother. He clung to her, she said, as he was pulled away.

“He can just tell by my face. He bursts into tears . . . We both know it’s probably the last time we’re going to see each other for a long time,” Mira said.

Vigilante justice

At the Secret Villa hotel in Phnom Penh on Thursday, the group checked in with one passport – that of Bazzel Baz.

Baz is the founder of the Association for the Recovery of Children (ARC). Thad Turner and Juan Gonzalez are also key members of ARC, an “under the radar operation”.

“We don’t come home without the child,” their website says, boasting a 100 percent success rate. “If we do not, who will?”

A screenshot of the Association for the Recovery of Children website, which details the CIA and military backgrounds of their "under the radar" child retrieval staff.

Their website claims that “ARC coordinates all investigations through proper documentation obtained from the judicial systems both State and Federal. Background investigations are performed on custodial and non-custodial parents”.

Baz and Turner – a former US Navy SEAL, the recipient of a Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Community Crime Prevention and the CEO of Warren YMCA – did not respond to requests for comment by email, and other attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.

It’s only fitting that parts of Mira’s exchange with her captors resembled the dialogue from a bad action movie.

Baz bills himself as ex-CIA and has consulted on a television drama called The Agency and acts in another, The Blacklist.

Back in 2004, reality TV producer Mark Burnett, who is behind Survivor and The Apprentice, starring current US President Donald Trump, reportedly developed a reality documentary series focusing on Baz’s work in recovering children.

It was apparently later dropped and never aired, but not without first causing some controversy. At the time, missing children’s advocates slammed the concept of using vulnerable children for entertainment value.

The murky business of child recovery was thrust into the spotlight last year when an Australian television network, Channel Nine, paid for the botched recovery of two children in Lebanon.

The mother, Sally Faulkner, was arrested, as was 60 Minutes star Tara Brown and Child Abduction Recovery International’s Adam Whittington – who after his release set up Project Rescue Children to hunt paedophiles in Cambodia.

ARC’s “poster child” case, the rescue of blond-haired Lily Snyder from her father and half brother in Costa Rica, also gives some insight into Baz’s modus operandi.

In a 2004 feature in the Mount Idaho Express, Lily’s brother Eli and father Stephen describe being beaten and tied up by Baz, during an operation which ultimately saw the girl returned to her custodial mother and the men jailed. Despite the beatings, they found him a likable guy, and called him “Captain America”.

“In my mind, from his perspective, he’s a genuine hero. What he does most of the time is a great thing. I just happened to be on the receiving end. They had the best intentions for doing so, the best of intentions, but they took Lily from two people who love her, and who she loves,” Eli said, from jail, at the time.

A screenshot from Bazzel Baz's website. The ex-CIA and founder of the ARC is also an actor in the television series The Blacklist.

Trading accusations

Rochelle claims the court ruling against her was an unjust decision. She was out-litigated, she said, and her father had to go back to work to help pay the legal fees. She is sure that part of the decision was based on where they had moved – a developing country portrayed by lawyers as unsafe.

Their visas show Mira and James arrived in Cambodia in late June, before a July court order forbade Rochelle’s son from being taken out of the country. Rochelle followed soon after. The three had been living in Cambodia previously, but had travelled back to the US for court proceedings.

Then came the sole custody court order in September.

Rochelle Costigan in a Phnom Penh hotel room earlier this week. Sahiba Chawdhary

While The Post was unable to unequivocally confirm the veracity of allegations of abuse, they have been made against both sides. Allegations of drug use, child abuse and neglect were levelled against Rochelle by her siblings in affidavits. A document from Bucks County Children and Youth Social Services Agency, dated August 2016, found claims Rochelle had abused her own three children were “unfounded”.

Rochelle’s brother, meanwhile, says she molested him over a two-week period when he was young, which Rochelle acknowledges. Adding that the “shame has haunted my life”, Rochelle noted she was a minor at the time and also a victim of child abuse, and said she has tried to make amends.

A violent family dispute in Thailand in November last year also saw Rochelle and Kanieff each accusing the other of abuse. The incident ultimately resulted in Thai police accepting Rochelle’s other teenage daughter into custody. She now lives with family in the US.

Meanwhile, testimony and evidence given to the court alleging Kanieff physically abused Rochelle did not sway the judge, she says.

James’s grandfather, for whom the boy is named, said while he missed his grandchildren in Cambodia, he spoke to them every day and never doubted their safety and wellbeing.

To see his “bubbly, happy” grandson’s face in the grainy picture taken at the hotel after he was snatched was “haunting”, the elder Costigan said. “I just can’t fathom it,” he added.

Felony or ‘family matter’?

Rochelle said she was grateful to local police who have helped her, and she wants Kanieff to face Cambodian justice.

“This country treats me better than my own. I am humbled and amazed by the kindness, the good hearts and the generosity of the Cambodian people and their government,” she said.

Lao Lin from the Anti-Human Trafficking Police this week confirmed he had received a complaint but said he could not comment as the matter was under investigation.

The last believed sighting of James was in Poipet, near the Thai border, on Saturday.

However, Pol Pithey, head of the Interior Ministry’s Anti-Trafficking Department, contended the case did not qualify as “kidnapping” and was a “family matter”.

“We have not found the case to be kidnapping. If this is a kidnapping case, we will arrest . . . We need to define the word – kidnapping means money also,” he said. “The US Embassy knows about it. So just let the embassy solve it.”

He dismissed questions about whether a group of men also snatching Mira –who is not Kanieff’s daughter, and over whom he has no legal custody– would constitute kidnapping. “Do not prolong the story to make it big,” he said.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan, however, took a different view. “They have to abide by Cambodian law. This breaks the law. We cannot tolerate it at all,” he said, adding the case was “shameful”.

Siphan said rather than enacting a traumatic recovery operation, if an American had a legal claim to the child there should have been collaboration with local police and the Ministry of Interior. If their plot had backfired, he warned, they could end up languishing in a Cambodian prison. “They cannot put the law into their own hands on Cambodian soil,” he said.

A representative from a local child protection group, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the case, said it was of obvious concern and violated Cambodian laws.

“Bringing a vigilante group into Cambodia to extract a child is extremely concerning,” they said.

Rochelle Costigan wrings her hands in a Phnom Penh hotel room earlier this week. Sahiba Chawdhary

While Kanieff and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment, The Post received a flurry of documents from men with seemingly intimate knowledge of the case saying the measure was justified due to misdemeanours on Rochelle’s record for theft and other allegations made against her.

The man known on Facebook as “Freddy Carter”, who first notified Rochelle that her children had been taken, said that as Kanieff had sole custody, it was actually Rochelle who had “kidnapped the kid and brought him to Cambodia with full knowledge that there would be no legal recourse in the kingdom”.

“It was a dangerous situation for James which is why the buerocratic [sic] procedure was not followed,” he wrote.

A website was also set up under the name “Eric Rollins” with a single page about the custody dispute. In an email to The Post, a man who only identified himself as “Eric” defended ARC’s involvement because of Kanieff’s sole custody rights.

“This makes Mr. Kanieff the justified parent and anyone who cooperates with him justified in supporting him,” he wrote. He didn’t reveal his role in the operation but did refer to the existence of “body cams of the Rescue Teams”, saying the videos prove Mira was treated well.

“Mira chatted calmly with everyone in the vehicle for over three hours,” he said, maintaining she “was taken to a 5-star hotel and provided a luxury room on her own with James”, none of which is inconsistent with Mira’s own account.

“At no time did members of the team treat her with anything but kindness and consideration,” he wrote.

Kanieff may have felt within his rights to claim his child, for whom he had sole custody, by any means necessary.

Left behind in Cambodia, however, is a distraught mother, severed from her young son.

“My son is gone, and I’m probably not going to get him back,” she said. “I just want my son back.”