The sad unraveling of a marriage often ends in a stack of papers bound together on a courthouse shelf, waiting on a judge to resolve lingering legal questions that are often the most emotional.When the two parents involved live nearly 6,000 miles apart and appeal to courts in their respective countries, that file grows even larger.

At stake in a case sitting in St. Joseph Circuit Court is who will decide custody of two children now living in Cyprus -- where their South Bend-born mother has kidnapping charges filed against her.

Another world

Marla Theocharides, a 32-year-old dental office manager living with her parents in Granger, met Cyprus-born Charis Theocharides in 2001, when she was a student in Arizona.</p>

Marla says she returned to the South Bend area in 2003, and Charis followed her. They married in 2004.

Two children, Katerina and Marcus, were born in Memorial Hospital in South Bend, in 2005 and May 2009, respectively.

In August 2009, Charis Theocharides, now 35, took the oath of U.S. citizenship.

The family moved to Cyprus on Oct. 29, 2009. And this is where accounts of their move diverge in important and relevant ways.

Marla insists that she agreed to move their young family to Cyprus temporarily, on a trial basis. She had not been comfortable in previous visits to that country, she says, but agreed that her children should have the opportunity to get to know their father's country and that side of the family.

But in an e-mail conversation last week and in court documents, Charis insisted that his wife knew that he had no intention of living permanently in the United States -- despite his new citizenship status -- and that their 2009 move was for good.

The family had earlier bought a flat in Cyprus, which they had rented to his sister before moving there. They paid thousands of dollars to ship many of their belongings, including a car, to Cyprus. Marla took some Greek lessons and made some stabs at finding work there.

But Marla points out in court documents that many belongings remained here as well; her job and their children's day care spots here were held open for their return; Charis' accountant job there with NCR Corp. was only on a six-month contract at the time; they kept bank accounts open here; and they had bought return plane tickets before they left.

Marla says the cracks in their marriage had begun to show before they moved to Nicosia, Cyprus, but the patriarchal culture in Cyprus brought out a side of her husband that scared her.

 

Marla says her husband abused her, verbally and sometimes physically, with him even spitting in her face in front of Katerina. In his e-mail correspondence with a reporter, Charis strongly denies those allegations.

Nonetheless, when Marla brought the children home in July 2010 for the five weeks she and Charis had originally planned, she says, she was reluctant to return to Cyprus and filed for divorce Aug. 17.

When the children did not return on Aug. 24 as agreed earlier, Charis approached authorities in Cyprus. The U.S. State Department sent two letters requesting the children be returned voluntarily, citing the Hague Convention, an international treaty that comes into play in international custody disputes.

After Marla did not return the children to Cyprus, an Interpol kidnapping charge against Marla was issued Dec. 3. Taking the advice of attorneys, who she says told her that if she were to be pulled over for as much as a speeding ticket she'd be taken to jail, Marla allowed Charis to retrieve the children and return with them to Cyprus on Jan. 10.

'A law system like ours'

Marla has two attorneys, one in Indiana and the other in Cyprus; so does Charis. The attorneys have been wrangling in their respective courts ever since - not merely debating who should have custody, but wrangling over which court should make that decision.

Soon after Marla petitioned for divorce, the Family Court in Nicosia filed a motion for St. Joseph Circuit Court Magistrate Larry Ambler to dismiss the case here and instead allow it to be heard in Cyprus.

After a hearing in which both parents' U.S. attorneys argued their positions, Ambler denied the motion on May 19, finding that Marla's arguments that the family had intended to return and that the children are American citizens to be more compelling, and that his court should retain jurisdiction.

Indiana law states that a "westernized country" such as Cyprus should be treated as another state would be in terms of settling custody issues.

Charis' U.S. attorney, Matthew Yeakey of Elkhart, says, "I don't know what a Cypriot court will do. But it's a westernized country with a law system like ours. They'll make similar types of determinations as in our own country regarding custody. It's not like Cuba, Venezuela or China where the rule of law is not followed."

Yeakey, who says Charis, "to me, comes across as a loving, caring father who cares deeply for his children," acknowledges that trust has become an issue.

"Her perception is that she's not going to get a fair shake in Cyprus," he says, "and he probably feels he won't get a fair shake here.

"But it would be better if the matter here were dismissed," Yeakey says. "The fact of the matter is that Cyprus is the home of these children."

'That's a red flag'

Marla's South Bend attorney, Len Zappia, not only disputes Charis' residency arguments, he also does not have faith that the legal system is as fair in Cyprus as in the United States.

After the local court decided it should retain jurisdiction over the divorce case, Marla's attorneys then quickly requested a hearing for parenting time and custody issues. But before that hearing could take place, Zappia says Charis' Cyprus lawyer approached the judge there. Without a hearing or even consulting Marla's Cyprus attorney, Zappia says, the judge issued an "ex parte" order giving Charis full custody and Marla limited parenting time.

Ex parte orders, by definition issued after consulting with only one side of a dispute, are extremely limited in the United States.

"I knew it in the United States before her attorney in Cyprus even knew it," Zappia says in anger and disbelief. "Even in an emergency, a judge here would never do that without speaking to the other lawyer. That's a red flag."

Zappia also points to the fact that the two courts cannot even seem to schedule a meeting between the two sets of judges and attorneys to attempt to settle the jurisdiction issue, the next step in moving the case forward.

He says Ambler has agreed to meet early in the morning or whenever necessary to accommodate the seven-hour time difference, yet the Cypriot court has still not managed to schedule a time. He says he's never seen a case in the 22 years of practicing family law where two judges cannot work together enough even to schedule a meeting.

"There seems to be a degree of arrogance over there," Zappia says.

If the two courts cannot agree, he says, the case would have to be resolved in an international court, possibly in another country.

A different world

Meanwhile, Marla is allowed to talk with her children by telephone or Skype a few times a week, but because of the time difference, she says that's often difficult.

Charis says the children are doing well in Cyprus. His attorney, Yeakey, says, "Quite frankly, he has told me that he wants Marla to have parenting time as well. ... She is going to be able to see her kids. I have every confidence that will take place."

Dismissing the kidnapping charges against Marla is part of the negotiations, Yeakey says, although Zappia points out that has proved more difficult than it should be, as well.

Serious family law issues can be resolved within days in this country, Zappia says. In Cyprus, he's heard that divorces can take three years to finalize.

Zappia says this case should be a warning in our global society, with Americans meeting and possibly marrying others in study-abroad programs and on military bases, for example.

"This is a mother's worst nightmare," he says. "The bottom line is if they do what's in the best interests of the children, they would place the children with their mother, where they were born and had lived most of their lives."

Staff Writer Virginia Black: vblack@sbtinfo.com 574-235-6321