AUSTIN (KXAN) - After his kids went missing last summer a central Texas father couldn't get help from law enforcement.
Stephen James served 20 years in the Army with tours of duty in Iraq and Kosovo. He's decorated veteran who fought for his country. But when his kids were abducted, nobody would fight for him. So, he turned to KXAN.
KXAN's investigation has spanned nearly seven months, several states, and two countries. For nearly a year, no one has known the location of the children. Now, KXAN has helped track down their abductor and the kids and convinced law enforcement to finally take action.
Becoming a dad felt like heaven for Stephen James, who says the highlights of his life were the births of his two sons. But since June 20, 2012, he's been in a living hell.
"I haven't even been in their bedroom, you know, since they left," said James. "I can't hang up pictures of them everywhere. I can't think about it. To take my mind off what's going on and get five minutes of peace."
James lost his peace of mind he last saw his two sons -- Matteo, 12, and 9-year old Zane. The boys were taken by their mother, Alicia James, last summer. Stephen says he remembers the phone call vividly.
His wife told him "she's taken the kids and gone to Mexico with her mom, and that I'm never going to see them again," said James.
Marriage on the rocks
More than three years ago, James said his marriage began to sour. And in spring 2010, he and his wife separated. They had been living in the Killeen area after Stephen returned home from military duty.
The legal documents
- The missing kids poster
- Federal arrest warrant for Alicia James
- State arrest warrant for Alicia James
- The final divorce decree, custody award
In May 2010, Alicia James was charged with assaulting Stephen. Court records show she went through counseling and the charge was dismissed.
A month after the assault charge, the judge issued a restraining order against Alicia and determined the boys should live with Stephen and stay in school. Alicia was allow visitation rights. Alicia had moved to the Dallas area and Stephen came to Austin where he later got a job at Samsung.
Months passed while their divorce remained pending. In May 2011, court records show Alicia's divorce attorney withdrew from the case due to Alicia's lack of communication and response.
In February 2012, the judge ordered a psychological evaluation of Stephen, Alicia and their two sons.
The court imposed supervised visitation, granting supervisory rights to Alicia's mother, Alma Alicia Morrow-Gomez, when the boys visited their mother. But those court orders were not followed for long.
On June 20, 2012, Stephen dropped off the boys for their summer visit with their mother, as the court order directed. He hasn't seen them since.
Stephen said Alicia contacted him on July 13, 2012, and told him she and her mother took the boys to Mexico and he will never see them again unless he gives her sole custody and a signed agreement that no criminal charges would be brought against her.
A hearing in their divorce case was set for July 17, 2012. Alicia did not appear. The court found it to be in the best interest of the children that joint custody be removed and issued further orders appointing Stephen sole conservator. The court order shows "credible evidence has been presented that there is a potential risk of international abduction of the children."
Threats and court orders
That same day, July 17, Alicia sent Stephen a text message he later shared with KXAN: "You didn't do as I said. You won't hear from us until after Christmas. Have a wonderful summer. You have a restraining order. I'm safe here."
Stephen responded, begging to speak with his sons,"Can I at least hear their voice?"
Alicia communicated with Stephen again on Aug. 4, 2012, demanding $1,000 a month for each of the boys. Her message to Stephen reads, "Supervised visits crossed the line. Once the money is there they will call. If not we will contact you again after Christmas."
Stephen replied to Alicia saying "CPS gave you supervised visits. I didn't ask for it. And we have joint custody so we were sharing. You are not sharing and denying our boys their father."
The court then issued a "Writ of Attachment" on Aug. 15, ordering any Sheriff or Constable within the state of Texas to "take Matteo Stefan James and Zane McCallister James, children, and deliver the children safely to Stephen James."
The next day, the police department of North Richland Hills, the Fort Worth suburb where Alicia was living with her brothers and mother, opened its own investigation.
A few days later, Tarrant County constables attempted to serve the writ to Alicia but were told that Alicia and her mother took the kids to Mexico.
Legal roadblocks and frustration
North Richland Hills police referred the case to the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office. The office declined to accept the charges of interference with child custody because Alicia had not yet
been served with the Writ of Attachment.
Stephen contacted an international private investigator. Together, they grew frustrated with the lack of help coming from law enforcement to help find Alicia and bring the boys home, as ordered by the court.
Brad Stephenson, Stephen's divorce attorney, said interfering with a child-custody court order is a crime. And such an offense, as well as parental kidnapping crimes, are punishable.
"My hands at this point are tied," said Williamson. "I've done everything that I can do but we don't know exactly where she is," he continued.
In late September 2012, the Texas Department of Public Safety listed Zane and Matteo on its online Missing Persons Clearinghouse , showing Alma Alicia James as the abductor.
By October 2012 the FBI requested records in the divorce case from the court. But Stephen said he had little contact with the federal agency, and the North Richland Hills Police seemed to be at a dead end.
With no sign of help coming from law enforcement, and Alicia in hiding, Stephen couldn't get a final divorce decree or final custody orders. At that point, he said, he didn't know where to turn.
"I expect a hell of a lot more from my state and my country than to let someone take two children out of the country on the run and nobody do a thing," he said.
That's when he contacted KXAN.
Despite Alicia's claim to be in Mexico with the boys, KXAN received information indicating Alicia could be back in Dallas-Fort Worth and staying under the radar. She was reportedly using the name Alicia Gomez and using the last name "Gomez" for the boys.
Through December 2012 and January 2013, KXAN followed numerous leads suggestion that Alicia might in North Texas, Kansas orColorado. The station hired a private investigator in Oregon to track Alicia's relatives there.
No sign of the kids turned up at Alicia's last known address, where Alicia's brothers were still living. There was no sign of their presence at their family church. A KXAN crew staked out her father's restaurant and then his home. The crew caught up with him and asked if he knew where his daughter and grandsons might be.
"I was told they were in Mexico somewhere but I don't know where they are," said Alicia's father, Enrique Gomez Ramirez. "
Asked if he had heard from them, Gomez Ramirez replied: "No … well, just by ... she has put some messages on Facebook. But I don't know where she is."
Those messages on Facebook appeared to be taunting Stephen. One post reads: "You tried to take them away from me, how does it feel now that it is flipped?"
The taunting also took place on YouTube, where Alicia posted a video of the boys, at an unknown location, with one of them talking about the custody issues.
"When we left sole custody was not finalized yet.. it was still in the stages of being finalized, he still had temporary shared custody, that's all I'm going to say about that, but basically, sole custody was a lie," said young Matteo.
Legal experts told KXAN the statement appears to be a form of brainwashing taking place, which tends to happen in some nasty divorce cases involving heated child custody disputes.
Finally, a break
Then in March, things changed. The 264th State District Court in Bell County agreed to hear Stephen's divorce case with or without Alicia present. She did not show up and t he judge awarded Stephen sole custody and ordered Alicia to turn them over to him immediately.
The judge also ordered Alicia to pay child support and once the kids are returned, and Alicia wants to visit them, she must post a $50,000 bond prior to visitation.
It was a bittersweet day for Stephen.
"This is the final piece in what law enforcement (agencies) needed to go after my children," said Stephen as he left the Bell County courthouse. "Tonight, I'm going to close my eyes and wake up six or seven times after every dream. I just want my boys to come home."
But civil court and criminal court are very different and jurisdiction seemed to be a major problem for law enforcement all along. That's is why Stephen could not get any help.
Stephen lives in an unincorporated area of Austin, in Williamson County. He dropped the kids off in Hillsboro with Alicia, the last time he saw them. Alicia's last known address is in North Richland Hills. And his court orders are from a Bell County court.
So which agency has authority to act and what's been the delay? Two questioned that have plagued Stephen James for coming up on a year.
"I've contacted everybody from the policeman down the street to the White House," said Stephen.
KXAN went to the District Attorney's Office in Williamson County with the final divorce decree ordering the kids returned, and all the information gathered in our investigation. For the first time, with a newly elected district attorney, somebody in law enforcement listened and took immediate action.
"We'll get the kids…it's just a matter of time," said Sgt. Royger Harris, an investigator with the Williamson County District
"Alicia Gomez better understand one thing -- she's going to jail if those kids are not returned. Her family will face charges if those kids are not returned."
Within days, Harris obtained a felony arrest warrant for aggravated kidnapping charges against Alma Alicia Gomez James. He tracked her to a small town outside of Veracruz Mexico, called Orizaba.
A federal judge also issued an arrest warrant for Alma Alicia Gomez James for unlawfully fleeing to avoid prosecution.
On the ground in Mexico
Investigators in Mexico told KXAN that Alicia and the boys are living in deplorable conditions with no electricity while the boys are kept behind locked doors and not in school. The investigators provided KXAN photos, showing the first confirmed sighting of Stephen's youngest son, Zane behind a barred window in a small dwelling in Orizaba, Mexico. It was the first time Stephen had seen either of his boys in nearly a year.
"I knew it was my son," said Stephen.
"Once we got eyes on them, once we knew where they were, we literally have people across the street, then we had some leverage," said Logan Clarke, the international investigator.
Clarke has rescued more than 300 kidnapped children from all over the world. He agreed to take Stephen's case for free and through him, additional investigators were secured in Mexico who continue surveillance on Alicia and the boys.
If Alicia tries to flee again, they'll know and follow her wherever she goes. But Clarke also says returning children to their rightful home in situations of parental abduction can be incredibly challenging for everyone involved.
"We're dealing with the most volatile emotions," said Clarke. "Parents and their children and someone taking their children away."
Clarke also says he's never experienced the level of diligence and dedication by a district attorney's office in parental abduction cases as he has with the Williamson County DA's Office.
Finding Alicia and the boys is a big step, but hurdles remain in getting them home because Mexican authorities so far have refused to extradite Alicia.
"Sure, we're running into some roadblocks because it's an international case," said Sgt. Harris of the Williamson County DA's office. "We're dealing with a third-world country and things are difficult."
The Williamson County DA's office also obtained an arrest warrant for Alicia's mother, Alma Alicia Morrow, and Alicia's aunt, Edna Annette Bengston on charges of conspiracy to commit aggravated kidnapping. Because Alicia's mother is in Mexico with her and the boys, Harris decided last week it was time to pay Alicia's aunt a visit at her home in Little Elm, north of Dallas.
Harris said Bengston was helping Alicia stay on the run and in hiding by wiring her money. With the help of U.S. Marshals, Harris first went to Bengston's home, and then to her place of employment in Plano. Bengston was arrested at the corporate offices of Rentacenter in Plano and later booked into the Denton County jail.
"If Ms Bengston can post a $450,000 bail here she'll be released on bond," Harris told KXAN while in Denton County. "If not, she'll be extradited to the Williamson County jail."
And the Williamson County jail is where Annette Bengston is currently being held. If convicted, she could face up to 20 years in prison. And Alicia's mother could face the same if the boys are not returned.
While in custody, Bengston contacted Alicia in Mexico urging her to return the boys. From Mexico, Alicia contacted Harris who is now working a deal to reunite Zane and Matteo with their father.
"Hopefully,things will turn out for the better," said Harris. "The boys will be returned to the United States, and it will have a happy ending."
Along with the efforts of the Williamson County District Attorney's office, friends and family have created a Facebook page called "Bring Zane and Matteo Home" to help raise awareness and try to get the U.S. Department of State and the Mexican government help bring the boys home and their abductors to justice.
The freezing and near-freezing rain that swooped into Central Texas overnight prompted numerous school closings and delays and made for a harrowing morning commute on Friday.
A man is charged with murder in the shooting death Wednesday of a woman at a North Austin auto repair shop, police said Friday.
A man is expected to survive after being stabbed in the head at the Salvation Army shelter in Downtown Austin at about 3:45 a.m. Friday.
It's the first criminal charge following a yearlong criminal investigation into the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.
With freezing temperatures pushing through the region, heating systems will likely be working overtime, which can bring rising energy bills.
Investigators are looking into an overnight fire that left one woman with third-degree burns.