Somebody's Child

A very bitter custody battle

Sindi Graber Linden and her ex-husband are in an extremely bitter custody battle over their son, Gabriel. The dispute has involved the governments of four nations, and cost both parents hundreds of thousands of dollars. And Sindi was the focus of a manhunt for four years after taking her son out of the United States. Troy Roberts reports.

Sindi did not want to share custody of Gabriel Marinkovich, now 10, with her ex-husband.

"It's been like loving a ghost. I mean, i haven't been able to see, feel, touch, hear from him. Talk to him on the phone. He's been like the lost child," says Paul Marinkovich, Gabriel's father.

Twelve years ago when the couple first met, things were very different. Paul worked in real estate; Sindi was a stay-at-home mom. With Paul's son, Michael, and Sindi's daughter, Delancy, both from previous marriages, the couple had an instant family. Within a year, Gabriel was born.

But not long after the birth, Sindi says, things began to change dramatically. Sindi claims Paul's son, Michael , then 6, had molested her 2-year-old daughter. Even worse, she would later claim that Paul himself had molested the little girl.

Sindi says that a medical examination of Delancy confirmed her fears that she had been violated. "I took her to a special sexual abuse evaluator that saw some tearing and some scarring. Unfortunately, those records seem to have disappeared."

Paul denies ever molesting Delancey. He also says that the sex abuse allegations against Michael are false.

Both children, Delancy and Michael, were sent to see different child therapists. One therapist who treated Michael concluded, "There was a high likelihood that some serious sexual improprieties had occurred." Child protective services was notified but its nvestigation found the accusation baseless and no charges were pursued.

Sindi and the children moved to Corpus Christi. After the divorce, even though he maintained his innocence, Paul agreed to visit Gabriel only under supervised conditions.

Sindi, meanwhile, fell in love with a Swedish man named Michael Linden who became a surrogate father to Gabriel and Delancey. Worried that he would lose contact with Gabriel, Paul filed for increased visitation. Sindi asked the Texas judge overseeing the visitation to order a new investigation into the allegations.

A court-appointed psychologist found that Paul "did not abuse" any of his children. Moreover, the psychologist said, it was Sindi who used "manipulation to convince the children involved that abuse had occurred." The judge granted Paul increased visitation rights.

On August 18, 1996, Paul and Gabriel shared a boat ride in the Corpus Christi harbor. Although he didn't know it at the time, that would be Paul's last visit with Gabriel for four years. The next day, he was whisked out of the country.

The State Department issued a warrant for Sindi's arrest. But Sindi stayed ahead of the law. So Paul launched a crusade to bring his son home—appearing before a Senate committee, and convincing Swedish television to broadcast a segment about Gabriel on its version of "America's Most Wanted." He flew to Sweden several times to search for his son, and plead his case with Swedish officials.

But before the Swedish authorities could move in, Sindi took Gabriel and disappeared again. She wound up in the resort village of Malaga, in southern Spain, where she got by with odd jobs.

Six months after arriving in Spain, Sindi found a lost passport and assumed the identity. She used it to move one more time, to Scotland, where the family settled in a village just outside Edinburgh. Sindi says her every move was taken out of fear that Paul would be awarded custody of the little boy.

Last summer, Sindi was finally taken into custody. Ten detectives from Scotland Yard, acting on information from the FBI, surrounded her apartment. A Scottish judge ruled that Sindi had violated international anti-kidnapping laws and ordered her to face an extradition hearing. Gabriel, the judge said, would have to return to the United States at once.

Paul was given temporary custody of Gabriel, until the case was heard. Sindi was also brought back to Texas. She agreed to a plea bargain with the Department of Justice. In return for admitting to kidnapping, she was given probation.

Paul took Gabriel home to Los Angeles. Gabriel's life begins to take shape with school and vacations.

Gabriel says that he was nervous about the transition, but that he is getting used to it. He became fast friends with his stepbrother, Ivan.

For the next year, Paul and Sindi fought over visitation and Sindi saw Gabriel only twice. She tried unsuccessfully to remove the judge from the case and then prepared for a trial by jury to determine which parent would get permanent custody of Gabriel.

Texas is the only state in the country that gives parents the unusual option of determining child custody cases by jury. Believing the judge, who has presided over this case for four years, is biased against her, Sindi decided it was her only recourse.

Before the trial even begian, Sindi's case was dealt a bad blow. The judge ruled no allegations of sexual abuse could be heard, because an investigation showed no merit to Sindi's claims that Paul had abused her daughter.

The jury heard evidence for nearly three weeks, and it took them less than three hours to deliver its verdict. Paul Marinkovich was awarded custody of Gabriel. The jury gave Sindi visitation rights.

"My heart's ripped out of me. It's constant, constant pain," said Sindi.

"I'm obviously very happy with the verdict," Paul said.

How did Gabriel feel? "It was a good feeling because he was coming back and everything was over with and now he could like do a lotta stuff with me and it won't be so busy," Gabriel said.

He also says he misses his mother. "But I know I'm gonna be seeing her soon because we're working out visitations and now we're gonna talk on the phone every Thursday at four o'clock."

The story is not quite over. Since the trial ended, Sindi -- despite being granted supervised visits by the judge -- has yet to see her son. She intends to file a complaint against the judge for serious legal improprieties she feels occurred with her case and during the trial.