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Tampa jury convicts former Air Force major of international parental kidnapping

TAMPA — A jury Monday found a former Air Force major guilty of kidnapping his daughter and holding her overseas to stop his ex-wife from exercising her part of a Hillsborough County custody agreement.

Andrew Haley Morcombe had argued that his 2014 jaunt around the world with a 5-year-old girl was a desperate effort to shield her from abuse.

But federal prosecutors said there was no evidence to back up his claims. He just wanted to hurt the girl’s mother.

"This is a case about a man who would do anything to do what he wanted," Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacie Harris told the jury. "This is a case about a military man who refuses to follow orders."

Morcombe, 51, who once worked at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base and whose work sent him on regular long-distance journeys around the globe, will be confined to a local jail cell as he awaits a July sentencing hearing. He faces up to three years in prison.

A star witness in the trial was Morcombe’s ex-wife, Jane Lempera.

She spoke softly, at times shifting in the witness seat away from her ex-husband’s gaze.

She told of her upbringing in Slovakia. She moved to the United States as an adult and later became a naturalized citizen. She was 23 and Morcombe was 36 when they met in 2002 in the Florida city of Melbourne, where her family lived. They married in 2006.

The couple lived in Apollo Beach while Morcombe was stationed at MacDill. The girl was born in 2008. Shortly after that, the relationship began to sour.

"I gained a lot of weight, so my ex-husband wasn’t happy about that," Lempera said. They argued frequently. In 2011, she filed for divorce.

She detailed a messy, years-long court battle. At first, she said, Morcombe wanted sole custody. She wouldn’t agree to it. He stormed out of a mediation in September 2011, and later filed a petition for a domestic violence injunction, alleging she attacked him and ripped his shirt. With a temporary injunction in effect, Morcombe took the daughter to the United Kingdom without permission but returned.

In court, they later agreed to shared custody of the girl for two months at a time, but the legal saga continued. While Lempera vacationed in Europe with her boyfriend in 2013, Morcombe took his daughter to Australia, then refused to return her.

He filed his own court paperwork, alleging that the mother’s boyfriend had abused the girl. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Nick Nazaretian, who handled the custody case, found that Morcombe exaggerated abuse claims.

As the dispute escalated, Morcombe mentioned to his ex-wife that he had taken a new job as an airline pilot in the United Arab Emirates. He wanted to take the girl there during their next visit.

Lempera’s attorney, Richard Mockler, explained to the jury that the country does not recognize international treaties on child abduction. The court system follows Sharia law, an Islamic religious legal system, which heavily favors fathers.

"I knew he was not going to bring her back once he took her there," Lempera said. "I was very worried. ... I was not going to let my daughter go to that country."

Mockler sought and later obtained a court order barring Morcombe from leaving the country with the girl. The order also required that he surrender her passports. He was reluctant to do so, but in early 2014, he did.

The couple later agreed to a parenting plan that afforded Morcombe weekend visits with the daughter.

On May 2, 2014, the pair met at the Sunny Isles Beach Police Department for a scheduled exchange. Morcombe said he planned to take the girl to Disney World.

The 5-year-old hugged her mother goodbye.

Two days later, Lempera received an email from Mockler. He said Morcombe had written to tell him he had taken the girl to Dubai. He didn’t want to deal with U.S. courts anymore.

Lempera collapsed in the street when she read the news, she told jurors.

"I thought I probably won’t see her until she grows up," she said. "All the previous court orders were just pieces of paper."

FBI agent Gregory Christopher testified that Morcombe applied for an emergency travel application for his daughter the same day that he took her. The agent also obtained from the British consulate in Miami a copy of what appeared to be a fake parenting plan. The document stated that the girl’s primary residence was in the United Kingdom, and that it was in her best interest to live with her father. It also included Nazaretian’s signature, which had been copied from a different court document.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection records indicated that Morcombe flew with his daughter to Warsaw, Poland.

The girl remained with her father for two years in Dubai. In that time, Morcombe communicated with his ex-wife. He said she and her boyfriend were welcome to visit the girl abroad as long as he could supervise. He said he would pursue the matter in that country’s courts.

He allowed the girl to talk to her mother via video calls. Lempera was concerned for her well-being.

"She had black circles under her eyes," Lempera said. "One time I saw her eating cereal for dinner. She looked like a different child."

In 2016, an international missing person’s notice flagged the girl on a flight from Germany to London.

Upon landing, Morcombe was arrested. The girl was reunited with her mother.

Morcombe sat quietly through most of his trial. He declined to testify or present a defense. His attorney, Bjorn Brunvand, sought in closing arguments to impugn Lempera’s credibility, noting that she initially denied recording her ex-husband’s conversations with their daughter, then later admitted she did so.

Brunvand suggested that Morcombe simply wanted to keep the girl safe and felt he had no other options.

"Was it reasonable that Mr. Morcombe had lost faith in the family court’s ability to protect his daughter?" the defense attorney proposed.

The jury took less than an hour to find Morcombe guilty.

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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