A mother’s single focus on getting her daughter back from Iran

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For two years, Jodi Homaune was consumed by one thought: getting her daughter back.

The mother’s ordeal began shortly after her 6-year-old girl boarded a flight bound for what was supposed to be a six-week trip with her father to his homeland of Iran. But the father refused to return, and weeks soon stretched into agonizing months.

At first, there were excuses about visas and paperwork, then the father abandoned all pretense, saying simply he had no plans to return. It was not long before the calls turned menacing, with the father demanding cash in exchange for granting Homaune time on the phone with her daughter while threatening to sell the girl on the black market or to send her home “in a box.”

Feeling defeated and helpless, with her daughter 6,400 miles away from their home, Homaune turned to the only authorities who could help: the FBI. What happened next is the stuff of which Hollywood thrillers are made. Homaune’s story, as revealed in lengthy interviews with her, her relatives and an FBI agent, and as described in her journal entries and court filings, provides a detailed portrait of a mother’s determination to retrieve the one thing she cherished most.

More than that, the saga provides a window into the emotionally fraught and complex journeys endured by the hundreds of American parents whose children each year are abducted and taken overseas by a foreign parent. Such abductions can last for weeks, or years. Each parent handles the turmoil differently. And while some become paralyzed by the fear of never seeing their boy or girl again, others, like Homaune, take matters into their own hands.

Homaune, an athletic-looking 48-year-old with a sharp Midwestern accent, blue eyes and dark brown hair, was never supposed to have a child, having been exposed to a prenatal X-ray that led to a lifelong battle with various cancers that she thought had left her infertile.

By 2001, the 37-year-old divorcee was working as a real estate agent in Statesville, N.C., a small city 40 miles north of Charlotte. Always curious about other parts of the world, she was taking an Italian correspondence course on the Internet when she came across a new friend in a class chat room: Kevin Homaune, a dual Canadian and Iranian citizen who worked as a telephone engineer and part-time truck driver in Montreal. Funny, worldly and kind, Kevin Homaune was easy to like. They struck up a friendship, and he invited her to tour his city. One night, after too much wine, Homaune became pregnant.

“It was literally a miracle baby,” she said.

The pair gave marriage a shot and moved to Sarnia, a harbor city on Canada’s side of Lake Huron. Not long after their daughter was born in November 2002, it became clear the marriage was not working. It wasn’t that they were arguing. There just wasn’t any passion. “We knew very early on there wasn’t a love connection,” Homaune would later say.

They informally separated, but Kevin Homaune wished to remain in his daughter’s life and visited every month or so, taking M.H. (The Post has agreed to identify the girl only by her initials) to the Florida beaches for a week or to a nearby hotel for a weekend of playing in the pool.

In 2007, Homaune relocated to Charlottesville, where she took a job managing sales for a half-dozen radio stations. When her daughter was 6, Homaune agreed that it was time for M.H. to visit her grandparents in Tehran. Homaune planned to make the six-week trip in May 2009, but medication for skin cancer made her too ill to travel.

She had no inkling of what was to come.

The first few phone calls from Iran didn’t concern her. Kevin Homaune said he would not be able to return as scheduled because M.H. didn’t have an Iranian visa; he asked Homaune to mail him the girl’s birth certificate translated into Farsi. Homaune thought nothing of what she assumed was a typical bureaucratic hurdle and completed the task. But a few weeks later, Kevin Homaune said the birth certificate wasn’t enough — other paperwork was still delayed, and M.H. would not be making her scheduled flight home.

Though she knew it was hopeless, Homaune drove to Dulles International Airport on the chance the girl’s father had somehow slipped her past Iranian customs officials and put her on the plane. Homaune scanned each young face streaming through the arrival gate but never spotted her daughter’s familiar soft cheeks, greenish brown eyes, auburn hair and pouty lower lip. Homaune’s drive home was a two-hour slog through traffic and tears.

As the weeks passed, her husband’s demeanor evolved, from gentle and caring to belligerent. He said he would not return M.H. unless Homaune gave him money, and he said Tehran was a better place for their daughter than Charlottesville.

“You’ve had her for seven years; now I’m going to have her for seven years,” he’d tell her.

Your daughter “does not want you for a mother, and she does not want to talk to you,” he said, according to Homaune’s notes of the conversations. “Are you that stupid of an American that you don’t get it?”

“Why do you keep calling here? I think I have told you before — stop calling here!” he screamed.

As someone who rarely shirked from a fight, Homaune yelled right back: “Why are you doing this? What has changed you? I want my daughter back!”

The arguments grew intense, and Homaune began making 10 to 12 calls a day to Tehran. She’d call from her silver Jeep Liberty parked in the driveway because she felt her daughter’s presence in it. She and M.H. had picked out the Jeep to take scenic drives into the mountains, and Homaune was comforted by the line of colorful animal stickers her daughter had affixed to the dashboard.

By September 2009, Homaune filed a missing person’s report with the local police. Realizing Iran was way out of their jurisdiction, the officers referred Homaune to the FBI. The case was assigned to a rookie agent, Robinson Blake.

Blake expected to find a neurotic mess sitting across the table from him at a Charlottesville Dunkin’ Donuts when he first met Homaune in April 2010. Who wouldn’t be, in her situation?

Though she was too anxious to even nibble on a doughnut, Blake discovered that Homaune was focused and organized. Unlike many victims too overwhelmed to help investigators, she had begun keeping detailed notes of her conversations, a sign that she had the capacity to play a major role in the plan the agent was about to hatch.

“You know we have no relations with Iran, and we have to get him out of Iran to make this work,” Blake told her. “That’s the only chance we have to do this. But I know we can do this.”

The mother didn’t blink.

“Failure is not an option for me,” she replied.

Homaune had already been granted full custody of her daughter by a county judge in March 2010. Three months later, she was granted a divorce. Next, she needed to lure Kevin Homaune, with daughter in tow, to a country that was a member of the Hague Convention, the treaty that establishes protocols for handling children abducted to other countries.

Homaune and Blake drew up options for a meeting in Canada, the Netherlands, Greece or Turkey, then Homaune called Iran day and night proposing various reasons to meet. In phone conversations, which she recorded using an FBI device attached to her cellphone, she offered to exchange money, electronics, anything her ex-husband desired that could not be obtained in Iran. And she offered to pay their airfare.

At one point, Kevin Homaune seemed inclined to visit the States but backed out. He proposed Dubai, United Arab Emirates, but Blake and Homaune worried it would be difficult to persuade authorities there to separate a father and daughter.

To make the plan work, Homaune had to take on a new persona in conversations with her ex-husband. She tried to be calm, helpful and understanding, and mailed him just enough cash, medicine and clothes to keep him interested in a more lucrative rendezvous. She stopped haranguing and screaming, even when her husband threatened to send her daughter home in a “box” or to sell her on the black market, statements he would later admit he made.

After the most intense calls, Homaune sobbed or threw up. But she refused to stop calling Iran; a key part of the plan involved being in constant contact, wearing him down, taking his demands seriously and convincing him that they were still friends, no matter what.

The ordeal took a toll. Homaune stopped sleeping and eating, entering a state of “manic panic.” She couldn’t concentrate at work and was allowed to take a demotion so she could focus on her daughter. Even then, she couldn’t keep up and was fired. Her debts mounted.

She began tracking the time she was permitted to speak with M.H., which would ultimately amount to precisely 138 minutes spread over 802 days. The conversations were clipped, such as this one in late 2009: “I miss you. I miss my home,” the girl said, pausing. “I’m not supposed to be talking to you without Baba here.” The call then disconnected.

Homaune postponed thyroid cancer surgery because it meant she might lose her voice and all contact with her daughter. She got in shape, doing push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups to steel herself against a potentially prolonged custody fight in a foreign country. She studied the languages, cultures and governments of potential destinations.

To help pay off her legal fees and other debts, which grew to more than $100,000, she left her rental home, sold her furniture, pots and pans, televisions and radios — everything but her clothes and her daughter’s clothes and toys — and rented a small room in a friend’s house. To earn a living, she renovated bathrooms and sold timeshares and credit card machines on commission.

As the months wore on, she pressed Kevin Homaune for a meeting. Finally, he agreed to one in Istanbul. He’d allow her to visit with M.H. if Homaune gave him $10,000 in cash and other items, including a laptop that he could not obtain in Iran, according to court records. The meeting was set for Aug. 5, 2011.

Homaune, then visiting her family in Michigan so she could help care for her father after open-heart surgery, spoke to her daughter before the girl boarded the train for Turkey. She hoped to remind M.H. what she looked like — M.H. hadn’t seen a picture of her mother in more than two years. “You know the color blue? That’s the color of Mommy’s eyes,” she told her daughter. “You know brown? That’s the color of Mommy’s hair; it’s longer than you remember it being.”

The next day, Blake called with tremendous news: Father and daughter had been taken into custody in Van, Turkey, near the Iran border. Homaune was elated; she could almost feel her daughter in her arms.

But four hours later Blake was again on the phone.

“Are you sitting down?” he asked. There had been a horrendous mishap: The Turks had inexplicably released the pair, and the father and daughter were last seen heading to the train station. Nobody knew if they were headed to Istanbul or high-tailing it back to Iran.

Homaune felt nauseated, lightheaded; her vision narrowed. She snapped the phone shut, strode outside and began punching the side of the house so hard she thought she had broken her hand. She choked back sobs as one unbearable thought cycled through her frantic mind: Her daughter was lost, forever.

The next 16 hours were a blur. Blake called with regular updates, often with nothing to report. Finally, Homaune got good news: To her surprise, the father and daughter had pressed ahead with their trip, and Turkish authorities had nabbed them at the Istanbul train station.

M.H. was safe in police custody, the agent said, and would be transferred to an orphanage.

Homaune was wary and peppered the agent with questions: “Where is she? Are there people with her speaking English? When can I talk to her?”

Within an hour, Homaune was on the phone with her daughter. U.S. Consulate personnel had rushed to the police station to check on the girl and arranged the call. Despite the scratchy connection, the mother could sense her daughter was frightened. “Everyone around you is Mommy’s friend,” she said calmly. “They are there to help you. Mommy is in the United States, but I am flying tomorrow to get you.”

Homaune hopped the first plane to Istanbul and spent a day taking care of paperwork and meeting with lawyers and Turkish authorities until she was permitted to see her daughter at the orphanage. The emotional reunion took place Tuesday, Aug. 9, in a drab office; her daughter seemed perplexed. It was clear that the mother’s visual cues hadn’t worked: M.H. didn’t recognize her.

Homaune kneeled and locked eyes with her. “You are so beautiful,” she said. “Mommy is here. Everything is going to be okay. I love you.”

Pulling out a scrapbook, Homaune turned its pages, pointing out photographs of them playing together, of the girl’s aunts and uncles and grandparents. She handed the girl her prized teddy bear, Daffodil. M.H. finally smiled, jumped onto Homaune’s lap and gripped her in a fierce hug. Two days later, they were on a plane home.

On a recent afternoon, Homaune got a call from the nurse at her daughter’s elementary school: The girl’s chest hurt, and she felt like her “heart was heavy.” Homaune raced her now 10-year-old daughter to the emergency room, but doctors could find nothing physically wrong. They told her it could be anxiety.

In an interview at a restaurant near their new home in a Midwestern town that they requested not be identified, M.H. expressed conflicted feelings about her father. She said he smacked her feet with an electrical cord and lifted her off the floor by her neck. He also encouraged her to hate America. On her way through an airport, she shuddered when she spotted an American flag. “That’s where the bad people come from,” she had told her mother.

But despite those experiences, M.H. also wondered if it was okay to still love her father. “Absolutely,” Homaune answered.

Homaune, who said she has so far kept her husband’s name because it’s important to her daughter that they have the same one, said M.H. saw a therapist when they first returned, and there are plans for more sessions. The mother, who works in sales, hopes to buy a new house — one with plenty of security — and is waiting to get health insurance so she can finally have her cancer surgery. She has begun volunteering for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which helped her through her ordeal.

For a legal reason involving the difference in U.S. and Turkish laws, authorities in Turkey did not arrest Kevin Homaune, though a warrant had been obtained by the FBI in November 2010 charging him with international parental kidnapping. He returned to Iran. In May 2012, however, Kevin Homaune traveled to Germany, where he was captured and extradited to the United States.

Homaune dreaded her daughter being forced to testify at her father’s trial and was relieved when he pleaded guilty to attempted parental kidnapping on Oct. 25 in a sixth-floor courtroom in the District’s federal court. A federal judge sentenced him to time served, about five months behind bars, and banned him from entering the United States for 10 years. The judge would later order Kevin Homaune to pay $119,507 in restitution.

In a telephone interview from a federal immigration facility before he was deported to Canada, Kevin Homaune said he had kept his daughter only because he could not get the proper paperwork to return to the States. Years ago, the 46-year-old said, he had been jailed by Iranian authorities for political activity. When he returned in 2009, he said he was arrested again because Iranian security forces caught him taking photographs of a protest with a high-powered camera and was accused of being an American spy, an allegation he denied.

He said it took him more than two years to secure a bond that allowed him to legally travel. His threatening conversations with Homaune were all bluster, he said, because Iranian intelligence agents were listening to his calls and he didn’t want to be closely linked to an American. He denied abusing M.H. and said he had intended to return her to her mother in Turkey. “I would never harm her,” he said.

Homaune participated in her ex-husband’s sentencing by telephone and read a letter that began by expressing her dismay that a father could ever do something like this to his own child. “I truly believed you would take a bullet for our daughter,” she said, her voice cracking, before describing “the hell you put” their daughter through.

“No sentence of time can ever fix what you did to [M.H.],” she said, “and no sentence of time can replace the years [M.H.] and I lost.”

She next read a letter M.H. had composed on notebook paper the night before. The daughter wrote that she would never forget the beatings or the time her father had tried to “suffocate” her; she was also upset that her father had lied when he had said her mother “was mean because she didn’t send money to you and you said my mom didn’t love me because she didn’t send money. That wasn’t true. My mom does love me.”

A few hours after the hearing, Homaune picked up M.H. at school, and they drove home and ordered pizza, her daughter’s favorite meal. That night, as usual, M.H. slept in her mother’s bed. But her daughter’s rhythmic breathing failed to put Homaune to sleep. She had felt some satisfaction after the hearing, but as she stared at the ceiling she couldn’t stop her mind from whirling through three years of difficult memories. Anxiety, fear, fatigue — those emotions were still there.

Then she peeked over her shoulder. Her daughter was still there, too.

Wilber is author of “Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan.”

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