HELENA, Mont. » Investigators knew early on that three Montana children reported missing in August had been living with their father and stepmother on a sailboat in the Bahamas, but could do nothing because of an arduous extradition process, police in Montana said.
A break came with an anonymous tip that the children’s stepmother, Angela Bryant, had flown to Hawaii. Police there found Bryant staying with a relative in the Puna district, put the home under surveillance and then arrested her last Friday afternoon during a highway traffic stop.
She told police that her husband, James Bryant, and the children were in South Florida after sailing there two weeks ago. Border crews searched off the Florida coast for days, hoping to catch up with the 44-year-old man and the three children while they were still in U.S. waters.
They spotted a 40-foot boat Tuesday about 30 miles off the Florida coast, attempting to return to Bahamian waters.
"So they were making a run for it," Belgrade, Mont., police Detective Dustin Lensing, the lead investigator in the case, told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Lensing contacted the Coast Guard, which sent a vessel to chase down the boat, which had been renamed "to avoid detection," Lensing said.
The children — Megan Bryant, 15, Maxwell Bryant, 13, and Sebastian Bryant, 12 — were onboard, along with a dog, a cat, a lizard and a snake. Authorities said they had no reason to believe the children were in any immediate danger.
Their father was arrested on a felony warrant for not returning the children to their mother in Belgrade after a Florida vacation last August. The children were reunited Wednesday with their mother and legal guardian, Kelly Bryant, in Broward County, Fla., after being held at a Broward County shelter with toys, food and other comforts, said Mark Riordan, a spokesman for Florida’s Department of Children and Families.
"She’s very pleased," Lensing told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "She has been missing her kids. She has missed birthdays and holidays with them."
The National Center For Missing and Exploited Children has received parental abduction reports for 1,800 children since March 2011, said Maureen Heads, the center’s missing-children’s division supervisor. Of those cases, 490 children are believed to have been taken out of the U.S.
The center is following 1,200 total active parental abduction cases of children taken out of the U.S.
Court documents show Kelly and James Bryant were divorced in 2005 and had split custody of their children under a court-ordered parenting plan.
James Bryant had custody last summer when the children flew to Florida to visit him and were scheduled to return to Montana on Aug. 17, the court document shows. When the flight landed without the children aboard, Kelly Bryant contacted authorities.
Earlier in the summer, James Bryant had rented a boat slip for his sailboat at the Palm Bay Club and Marina in Miami. The boat left Miami around July 27.
The marina manager told Miami police that a man, woman and three children were onboard and that the man said they planned to sail to "the islands," possibly the Bahamas, according to an affidavit filed by prosecutors.
Angela Bryant suggested in a Sept. 26 email to her son that she and James Bryant were unhappy with the custody arrangement. She added that returning the children to their mother "isn’t acceptable," according to a second affidavit filed in November.
"By the time we got them for the summer, there weren’t many ways to fight the custody thing without going back to Montana," she wrote. "We were told we would have to send them back home, then start an investigation into Kelly before they could do anything to assist or change parental custody. That just isn’t acceptable."
It was not immediately clear what investigation Angela Bryant was referring to.
Lensing said they knew by tracing emails sent from a wireless router that the children had been living with James and Angela Bryant on their boat in the Bahamas. But they couldn’t be arrested outside of the U.S., and they faced delays in trying to arrange extradition.
Angela Bryant was arrested by Hawaii County police and charged with parenting interference. She posted $10,000 bond Sunday and appeared in Circuit Court on Wednesday. An extradition hearing is scheduled for April 4. She must remain in Hawaii until then.
James Bryant was ordered held in Florida on $100,000 bond and charged with interfering with parenting.
Each suspect faces three counts of parenting interference, a felony that carries a maximum penalty in Montana of 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.