Utah custody battle involves feds, Japan

Dad's 2 sons live overseas; similar cases on the rise

Published: Monday, Oct. 25 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

Michael Gulbraa joins daughters Natalie, left, and Stephanie in his sons' room. His ex-wife took the boys to Japan in 2001.

Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

Michael Gulbraa has stacks of documents declaring his custody rights to his two sons, Michael and Christopher. But what's on paper does not reflect the reality that three years ago, his ex-wife swept their sons away to Japan, a country that does not recognize parental kidnapping orders from U.S. courts.

Gulbraa's ex-wife, Etsuko Tanizaki Allred, claims she and her sons are stuck in Japan, unable to persuade the Utah courts to give her a fair hearing.

Studies show that kidnapping cases — including international kidnapping cases — are on the rise.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice National Incident Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children, it is estimated around 200,000 children were abducted by family members annually in recent years.

A 1999 report to the United Nations on "post-divorce child stealing" concluded that since the mid-1970s incidents of parental abduction have paralleled the growing divorce rate in the United States.

Gulbraa's custody battle spans the vast Pacific Ocean and involves not only U.S. and Japanese courts, but the FBI and U.S. State Department. One entity that has resisted getting involved has been The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which the divorced couple remain members. And as in many custody battles, emotions are strong.

Gulbraa still keeps the room in his South Jordan home for his now 13- and 14-year-old sons exactly the way they left it. He hopes that he will somehow find a way to get them back. For two years Gulbraa said he and his current wife saved unopened Christmas presents for them. "It just became too painful," Gulbraa said. "We eventually gave the gifts away to charity."

Last month, the Utah Court of Appeals upheld Gulbraa's custody rights to his sons, but with several court rulings in his favor, pending state and federal kidnapping charges against his ex-wife and her current husband, Daren Allred, and an Interpol red note out on the couple, Gulbraa has had little luck in getting his sons back.

Speaking via e-mail from Kasugai, Allred claims because she and her husband are wanted on U.S. federal charges, they can't even come back to the United States to challenge the court's ruling.

When Gulbraa and Allred divorced in 1996, a Utah court granted custody of the two boys to their mother. Gulbraa was ordered to pay $1,000 a month for child support.

Soon after Allred remarried in 1997, she claims Gulbraa began harassing her and her new husband. Gulbraa says he was concerned when one of his sons told him that their new stepfather was physically abusing them. Although a Division of Child and Family Services investigation found the abuse allegations to be unsubstantiated, a Utah court began hearings on the custody issue at Gulbraa's insistence.

In 2001, Allred said she and her family moved to Japan. It wasn't until several weeks later that she received a court order to appear in a Utah court.

"I was summoned to Utah State Court after I came back to Japan. I didn't appear in court because I had a 2-year-old daughter to care for as well as the boys and a husband. We had also suffered financially" from their move to Japan, Allred wrote in a court affidavit.

The judge found Allred in contempt of court and granted Gulbraa custody. Since then, Allred has fought the ruling from a distance, having felony charges pending against her. Federal court records confirm that international parental kidnapping charges are pending against both Allreds.

Salt Lake City attorney Steve Christiansen, who represented Allred, said she is a mother who has sought refuge in Japan from a father who won't let the matter go.

"He has ruined their life," Christiansen said. "She tried to find a safe place, and he has put them in a no-win situation."

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