Jacqueline Bontzolakes says an abusive relationship forced her to gather up her two kids, flee her Town of Tonawanda home and escape to faraway Barbados.
A federal court jury didn’t buy her story, however, and instead found her guilty in one of Buffalo’s first cases of international parental kidnapping.
On Friday, a judge sentenced Bontzolakes to 18 months in prison, well below what he could have given her.
“I ended up doing something I regret in order to protect my daughter,” she told U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson in a tearful plea for leniency.
Bontzolakes never denied taking her kids away from their fathers and leaving the country, but insisted there were sound reasons for what she did – the fear that her oldest daughter also was being abused.
Federal prosecutors tell a far different story; they claim Bontzolakes kidnapped her children because she had lost custody of the older girl.
“I would ask the court not to forget who the real victims are here, the two children she kidnapped,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Fauzia K. Mattingly told Wilson, a visiting judge from Arkansas.
With nearly two dozen of Bontzolakes’ family, friends and supporters looking on, Wilson stopped well short of the 10-year sentence he could have given her.
Prosecutors claim Bontzolakes took her daughters, ages 7 and 10, and fled to Canada and eventually to Barbados without their fathers’ knowledge.
Mattingly and Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric M. Opanga argued that her claims of abuse were nothing more than a smokescreen and that her real goal was to avoid the fathers’ court-approved custody of the girls.
During the trial, they pointed out to the jury that Bontzolakes applied for passports the day after a Family Court judge gave sole custody of her older daughter to her father.
“She didn’t flee because of domestic violence,” said Mattingly.
Bontzolakes’ lawyers argued that her case was not about kidnapping but rather the motivation behind what she did.
In her trial testimony, Bontzolakes said her troubles started when she was only 6 or 7 and was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, and continued years later when she was abused by her own boyfriend, the father of one of her daughters.
Bontzolakes said she became even more desperate when she began to suspect her daughter also was being abused.
Tracy Hayes, a federal public defender, asked Wilson to consider a nonjail sentence and reminded him that Bontzolakes has been separated from her daughters since her arrest in early 2010.
“She hasn’t seen her daughters in three years. Three years,” said Hayes. “When we talk about punishment, isn’t that punishment enough?”
Hayes also pleaded with the court to consider his client’s involvement in the community and pointed to the more than 50 letters of support from people such as Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant and Masten Council Member Demone A. Smith.
Grant, who was in the courtroom, said she has known Bontzolakes for five years and described her as a community activist who has a hand in a wide range of nonprofit groups dedicated to helping families.
“I know what she did was wrong, but a mother’s instinct is to protect,” Grant said of the sentencing. “Was justice served? I think it could have been better served.”