The best day of Lauren Jones’ life was the day her son, Rui, was born in February 2011.
The second best day was June 8 of this year, the day U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled her happy-go-lucky, smart, brown-haired boy would stay with her in the United States.
That ruling was the end of what Jones calls a living nightmare.
One that involved her husband, who is Rui’s father. And one that ended up coming out the Port St. Joe mother’s way with the help of the Jacksonville-based Gillis Way & Campbell law firm.
Hague Convention cases — those dealing with international child-custody disputes — are a rarity in the U.S. Northern District of Florida court.
They’re difficult, requiring an abbreviated turnaround. In Jones’ case, her husband filed a Hague Convention petition in early March and the non-jury trial was set for early May.
The time before that was hell for Jones. The time between was a coordinated scramble by attorneys Ethan Way and April Geer. And after it, the four weeks of waiting were agonizing for everyone involved.
Jones in that time would watch Rui play T-ball or swim in the pool, doing normal kid things many parents take for granted. She was hoping it wouldn’t be the last time.
The nightmare unfolding
Jones moved to Honduras in 2002 and ended up meeting her husband in 2007. They got married in 2009 and made the Central American country their home. Rui was born in 2011.
They traveled back to the U.S. a few times for visits, but Honduras was home.
It was until September 2012, when Jones’ husband became physical during a trip in the U.S.
Jones and Rui several months later returned to Honduras, where the parents started negotiations on a divorce.
The resulting agreement let Jones come back stateside with Rui while she studied nursing and returned to Honduras during breaks and holidays.
However, Jones’ husband abandoned the divorce petition without telling her. And he continued the verbal abuse from afar, enough to be called “long-distance stalking” in Hinkle’s order.
Rui never made it back from Honduras during a Christmastime visit in 2014.
Jones went to the airport, but Rui wasn’t on the plane.
Instead, his father had made up a story about sexual abuse by his stepfather and kept him.
Jones’ husband is an attorney with political ties in Honduraswho was awarded temporary custody there. Desperate, she went down to work it out. She’d move there if she had to. But she didn’t have to.
“She had to basically go down to make one final deal with the devil to get her child back,” said Way.
That deal included a video-recorded sexual encounter with her husband, at his request. She agreed out of desperation and the deal was amended. Jones and Rui left and didn’t return to the country per the agreement.
Jones’ husband filed the petition in March seeking Rui’s return.
Heading to court
Jones said her husband had threatened to use the courts as a way to get Rui back, but she was caught off guard when she was served.
Since the entire ordeal started in 2012, Jones said she had been in touch with at least 25 attorneys to look into the possibility. She had one, but when she was served it went from bad to worse — days before the initial hearing, she received an email saying the firm could no longer represent her.
It’s a day Jones said she’ll never forget. The Friday before Tallahassee-area schools released for spring break. She was referred to Way, who was on his way to Disney World with his family.
“’You have got to calm down’,” Jones recalls him saying, only now being able to laugh about it. “’You’ve got to help me help you’.”
Way needed information — so Jones went to a UPS Store with 400 pages of documents to send. Enough to fill two large two-ring binders.
He called an hour later and said he could help.
These cases, as Way describes them, are about power, dynamics and money. They’re not easy — and it was the first one he’d taken up after the case already was filed.
A short window became even trickier when the thousands of documents they received were in Spanish. That’s where Geer came in, poring over them to determine what could help them with the case. It was her first, too.
Yet, they did it. They made their case in time and a convincing one at that.
At first blush, Way said, a case like Jones’ would have lost “99 out of 100 times.”
The documents detailing their arrangement would have dictated the matter. Still, when the parties left the courtroom in early May, there was no indication whatsoever of what Hinkle was thinking.
All there was to do was wait.
Staying in Florida
A couple of days turned into a couple of weeks. A couple of weeks dragged into a month.
“It was terrifying,” said Way. “The consequence of failure is that this child is going back to a horrible situation.”
As much as it was on the minds of Way and Geer, it was on Jones’ much, much more.
“It was beyond terrifying,” she said.
Jones said she remembers the day the order came down, June 8. Her phone rang and Way’s number popped up. Typically he texted.
“You won,” she remembers him saying, recalling how “besides themselves” they were.
Hinkle’s order detailed how “exceedingly rare” the situation was, as Rui was born in Honduras but had lived most of his life in the U.S.
Both parents had intended for him to live with her. And as for the signed agreement that dictated going back to Honduras, “the mother was a battered wife acting under duress,” Hinkle said.
Jones is open with her story. She said she wants it to be an example for other women who are victims of violence.
And she’s beyond appreciative of the work Way and Geer did on her behalf in such a short time. Next up is to finalize the divorce.
If she had not won, Jones said she would have gone to Honduras to be with Rui. She’s kept him in the dark about all the problems.
He still knows and loves his father. But the situation has changed now — he’ll be staying in the U.S., the way he likes it.
Leaving Honduras the last time, Jones said Rui cried on the plane.
“I don’t want to go back,” she said Rui told her. “Can we just stay in Florida?”
Yes, she said. Yes, we can.
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