Herald.com | 08/12/2005 | Dad’s Cuba flight foiled
A Miami Beach man remains at large after fleeing to Cuba with his three children. The children have been returned to their mother, and warrants have been issued for their father’s arrest.
BY CARA BUCKLEY
Cuba is not the most obvious spot for a Miami man to seek sanctuary, especially a parent on the lam with his three kids. But by the time Mel Dressler disappeared from the United States three weeks ago, he felt his options had vanished too.
Dressler, a jack-of-all-trades, lives in a rambling Alton Road home in Miami Beach, 1,211 miles from Philadelphia, where his ex-wife and her husband live with the children, an 11-year-old boy and two girls, ages 13 and 9. Dressler, 44, says he’s worried about his children’s well being, but has been on the losing side of a protracted custody battle with his ex.
A rare, troubling mid-July visit from the children left Dressler heartsick at the prospect of sending them back home to Philadelphia. So, on July 22, he made the fateful, drastic decision to put his kids aboard his catamaran and sail 90 miles across the Florida Straits to America’s nearest forbidden land.
He didn’t tell his new wife, Elise d’Hauthuille, where he was going, and he didn’t tell his children. All they knew was that he and the youngsters were going on a nighttime sail, and that Dressler never turned back.
His eldest daughter, Dressler said, wrote the following entry in her journal: “Tricked into trip.”
No one knows how many children are taken from the U.S. by one of their parents and secreted to other countries. At any time, the State Department is aware of more than 1,000 active cases, a number officials guess grossly under-represents the actual amount.
But barely a handful of known custody cases involve children taken to cuba.
Negotiating a child’s return from Cuba, however rare, requires a predictably delicate diplomatic dance for the United States. Still, according to Committee for Missing Children representative David Thelen, Cuba has been more helpful in international child custody cases since the return of EliÃ¡n GonzÃ¡lez in 2000.
But the Dressler case had an additional twist: Though Dressler is married to an American woman, he is Canadian, and so are his children. Dressler chose Cuba because he hoped — mistakenly, as it turned out — that their nationality would shield him.
Child welfare advocates generally frown on parental abduction of children, saying it’s highly traumatic to the youngsters and usually unnecessary, since family courts are designed to address any parent’s concerns. But Dressler maintains he has been treated unfairly by courts in Philadelphia and Miami, which have not sided with him in his push to wrest sole custody of the children from their mother.
He also believed that because Cuba was not party to the Hague Convention, which requests child custody recognition from its signers, he could air his grievances in some sort of world forum without having to return the children.
”My plans are merely to try to get this into an international court,” Dressler said shortly after reaching Cuba. “It was top of the list to protect my children.”
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the children’s mother and stepfather, Monique and Richard Subbio, frantically tried to arrange for the children’s return. Richard Subbio, an advisor for U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said he contacted the FBI, the Department of State and the Canadian and Cuban governments.
”Frantic’s not the word,” said Richard Subbio. “My wife was a mess.”
On July 27, Foreign Affairs Canada, akin to the U.S. State Department, was told a Canadian father and his three children had disappeared from the U.S. Two days later, the Canadian embassy in Havana learned that three Canadian children had arrived in Cuba with their father and without travel documents.
Cloe Rodrigue, a spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Canada, said her office then worked with Cuban authorities to ensure the children’s safety and swift return.
And so, last Friday, Canadian embassy workers, helped by Cuban officials, approached Dressler’s catamaran, docked in Puerto de Vita on the Cuban coast, and removed the children from his care. The youngsters were flown to Montreal, where Richard Subbio met them. Then all four returned to Philadelphia.
”They’re traumatized, but they’ll be all right,” Subbio said.
Dressler, meanwhile, has yet to return to the United States, where d’Hauthuille, his three stepchildren and his parents are anxiously awaiting his return.
He sailed to the Bahamas over the weekend, after being told he would be arrested in Cuba. He faces a bench warrant in Philadelphia, and the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office charged him with child concealment, a third-degree felony that carries a maximum five-year sentence.
Richard Subbio said he intends to file his own charges, and vows that Dressler will never be alone with the children again.
But Dressler, who has plans to sail back within the week, insists the trip was worth it. At the very least, he says, he proved his devotion to his kids.
”No one can say I don’t love or care about them,” Dressler said.
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