New Westminster man’s daughters abducted to radioactive Fukushima, Japan

By Brent Richter, New West Record June 27, 2011

It’s been 22 months since Bruce Gherbetti has seen his three children and it would be hard to pick a worse place for them to be: Fukushima, Japan.

The New Westminster man says his is a classic case of international child abduction but with the last known whereabouts of his daughters Rion, Lauren and Julia being about 45 kilometres from the disabled and still deadly nuclear reactor damaged in the March earthquake and tsunami, Gherbetti doesn’t just miss his children, he lives in constant anxiety over their safety.

Making the situation worse is the fact that in the world of international child abduction, Japan is referred to as a “black hole,” meaning once children go in, they never come out. According to the United States Department of State, of the approximately 400 cases of abduction to Japan since 2000, “no child has been returned to his/her country of habitual residence as a result of any action taken by the government of Japan.”

Gherbetti met his wife, Taiko Suzuki, in 2001 when she was visiting Canada on a student visa to study English. The two began dating but neither had plans to continue their relationship after Suzuki returned to Japan.

Then, Suzuki contacted Gherbetti in late 2002 to tell him that she was pregnant with the couple’s first child, Rion (Suzuki), who was born in Iwaki, Japan in May of 2003.

“Ultimately I decided at that time that I wanted to be with Taiko and raise our child and be a family and make a go of the traditional husband and father role,” Gherbetti said.

Suzuki and Rion moved back to B.C. and Gherbetti and Suzuki married in February 2004. Over the next two years the couple had daughters Lauren, born January 2005, and Julia, born April 2007, both at Royal Columbian Hospital.

During the economic turmoil of the spring of 2009, Gherbetti was laid off from his sales manager position at Sears in Vancouver and the marriage became strained. Gherbetti said Suzuki was depressed and struggling with the separation from her culture and family. Gherbetti said he offered to move the family to Japan but Suzuki dismissed the idea, saying he wouldn’t earn enough to support the family.

In September 2009, Gherbetti was blindsided by an accusation that landed him in jail.

“She went to the New West Police and leveled a charge that I had assaulted her and threatened to kill her. Completely fabricated,” he said. “Unfortunately, the way our system is set up, if you are accused of domestic violence, you are thrown in jail.”

Gherbetti, still in shock, spent six weeks at North Fraser Pretrial Centre, where he was alone and exposed to violence while awaiting his trial.

“(I was) with murderers, rapists, drug dealers; you name it. The very worst of the worst. I’ll admit, I was frightened and cold. I saw man get stabbed in the face,” he said.

Two days before his trial, he was called to court and learned Crown counsel was willing to offer him a deal – no more time in jail in exchange for a guilty plea.

“I was dragged to the New West court two days prior to my trial date, with no notice, very little to eat, not enough to wear, freezing my butt off in the sheriff’s cell, two blocks from my apartment and they were saying, ‘Just plead guilty and we’ll let you go home.’”

Despite maintaining his innocence to himself and his court appointed-lawyer, Gherbetti took the deal.

“I was under duress. Of course, I would have said anything to get out of that prison to go home,” he said.

After literally running home, the reality of what had happened set in for Gherbetti. He found the house “cleaned and scoured” of everything belonging to Suzuki and the children.

“Not a photo, not a drawing, nothing. Not a remnant left of my children,” he said,

He said his voicemail had 17 messages from Crown counsel attempting to get in touch with Suzuki, indicating she had already left the country.

He did find though, tucked under a chair, a drawing Rion had done and hid for him while he was in jail.

“It’s a drawing she made that says, ‘Free the rainbows’ and it’s a bunch of rainbows in the middle of a prison cell,” he said breaking into tears. “She knew what was going on. She knew what was going to happen to her.”

Gherbetti has only spoken with Suzuki once since they returned to Japan. The next time he called, the number had been disconnected.

“She indicated she wasn’t going to let me speak to the children nor ever see them again. It was her intention to ‘erase Canada from their memories,’ quote,” he said.

Hindsight being 20/20, Gherbetti said he should have known what was coming.

“What she wanted was to go back there with the children, without me, which is ultimately what she manufactured,” he said. “She didn’t want to be married to me anymore, which is alright. These things happen, but to abduct the children in the manner that she did, and to lie to the police… I’ve been crushed by this whole experience.”

Since then Gherbetti has become depressed and been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, which he said was helpful, but he’s run out of cash to continue paying for counselling. While looking for work, he has also taken to the Internet where there is a support network for mothers and fathers of abducted children. With them, he has found some badly needed support but more is always welcome, he said.

Then came the “triple tragedy” on March 11. Gherbetti was at home watching TV when news broke that a massive earthquake and tsunami had struck the coast of Japan.

“I saw it live. The next 18 hours were really the worst,” he said, struggling to hold back tears.

Gherbetti played the only card left in his hand to learn about his daughters’ fate.

“I had a phone number for my wife’s brother, which I saved and had not used because I did not want it to get disconnected. I had my brother phone her brother and he was able to tell us that they survived the tsunami and the earthquake. In his words, they were ‘fine’. That’s all he would say,” Gherbetti said.

Suzuki’s family home in Iwaki is just 500 metres from where the tsunami’s devastation stopped. An elevated highway slowed the waves from reaching Rion, Lauren and Julia.

But within days of the earthquake, it was learned that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was heavily damaged and leaking radiation several times higher than what is safe for humans. And as the weeks and months have rolled on, the news about the radiation leak has become worse, not better. In April, the International Atomic Energy Agency had rated the disaster at Fukushima as a seven, the same as Chernobyl. By June, it was revealed that all three reactors at the plant were in meltdown and there was no plan in place to deal with the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of radioactive water being pumped in to cool the reactors. The Canadian government’s official position on Fukushima is that all Canadians should stay at least 80 kilometres away from the nuclear plant.

Gherbetti contacted Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, which was able contact Suzuki’s brother to offer evacuation for the girls and Suzuki’s family, but so far, the family has not responded.

“What my contact there tells me is, ‘We can offer assistance but that’s it. That’s all we can do.’ If they choose not to accept, there’s nothing they can do for me,” he said. “The last thing foreign affairs did for me is send Taiko a registered letter requesting information about the children’s well-being and photographs.”

Today, Gherbetti cannot even be sure if Suzuki’s family is still in Iwaki but he suspects they are. That uncertainty, he said, makes matters worse.

Gherbetti has since taken to social media to raise the issues of international child abduction and the growing radiation crisis, and to post messages calling for an evacuation of all children and young mothers from Fukushima prefecture.

Gherbetti, like most other “left behind” parents, now does what he can, which isn’t much. The one hope he has of seeing his children, short of hiring a recovery agent to “re-kidnap” and transport them back to Canada, is the faint hope of gaining access to them under the Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, article 21, which states parents of children taken across boarders without permission, must have access to their children.

The trouble is, Japan is the only industrialized country that has refused to sign the convention.

But that chance, albeit slim, remains. The government of Japan announced in June that it would begin a legislative process this fall to sign the convention.

William Storey, a family lawyer and international child abduction expert who Gherbetti retained in 2010, said Japan is one of the toughest countries to deal with.

“I’ve had several cases over the years of children being taken to Japan and it can be an extremely difficult situation,” he said.

Storey said Japan’s announcement regarding the Hague Convention sounds good, but it is far too soon to say if will help any mothers or fathers outside Japan to see their children again.

“In theory, it should change the playing field a lot. Whether it will in practice or not, is another matter,” Storey said. “It’s one thing to sign the treaty and it’s something else to put the legislation in place and to put the judicial authorities and the bureaucracy in place to have the treaty enforced in a practical way.”

Despite Japan’s announcement, Gherbetti remains skeptical. Should Japan sign the convention, Gherbetti will need to go through a family court process in Japan just to see his daughters and given his previous experience and witnessing the Japanese government’s response to the Fukushima disaster, he has little faith. Because the abduction pre-dates any signing of the convention, Gherbetti will not be able to use the convention to bring the girls back to Canada.

Gherbetti has requested help from the Prime Minister’s Office as well as former and current foreign affairs ministers Laurence Cannon and John Baird but only received form letters in response.

Nevertheless, Gherbetti said he’ll pursue any chance he gets to be reunited with Rion, Lauren and Julia.

“I’m fighting this fight on my own and I’m prepared to just continue because I’ll never stop fighting for them,” he said.


David GoldmanMaria Shriver, interviewed David recently here is one question and answer:

What is your vision for the foundation? What do you hope it accomplishes in the long run?

We want to educate the public on the issue of international child abduction and work with elected officials to push for reforms which we hope will lead to meaningful change in the way our government works to ensure the safe and prompt return of abducted children. Right now parents whose children are abducted fight against overwhelming odds to even see their children in many cases, let alone bring them back to their home countries, and this needs to change. We expect to be a leading voice on this issue and to provide support to parents who need help. BSHF raises public awareness of individual cases and provides a support network to guide parents through this difficult time in their lives.

In the last three years alone there have been almost 5,000 American children abducted to foreign countries and the numbers continue to increase at an alarming rate. The BSHF is working hard to make a difference by preventing future abductions and pushing for legislation that will reunite families by bringing more abducted children home to their parents.

Go to to read the entire interview.


  Individual Abduction Case Updates

Several left-behind parents have shared recent updates to their cases — some of them encouraging, some of them disappointing, all deserving of your attention and in need of your support.

When reading the below case updates, please keep in mind the following:

  • These are not custody issues. These cases are abductions under The Hague Convention. It is clear under the terms and spirit of the Convention that the home state of competent jurisdiction determines ALL custodial issues.
  • Bringing an abducted child home does not separate the child from the abducting parent. It is the abducting parent’s choice to live wherever he or she chooses, but again, “The competent court of jurisdiction” meaning the Home State of the child prior to the abduction, which is the habitual residence of the child and under the law, determine ALL custodial issues.
  • To highlight Brazil: It’s unacceptable for a country to return an abducted child only when the abducting parent is deceased. The most recent decisions in the Birotte and Weinstein cases exemplify the systemic problem with Brazil and many non-complying countries; and do not go into other likely underlying factors such as nationalism and gender bias when the abductor is a mother. The initial ruling in the Birotte case, though much too long in the coming, was encouraging as it demonstrated that some judges in Brazil do understand the treaty law; however, as shown by Minister Andrighi’s ruling, there are still high level judges that either do not yet understand or refuse to comply with the treaty law.


BIROTTE (US)Brazil continued to demonstrate ongoing non-compliance for the Hague Convention on Thursday, April 29, when Minister Nancy Andrighi of the Superior Court of Justice (STJ) ruled that Kelvin Birotte, Jr. would stay with his mother, Hilma Caldeira, a former Brazilian Olympian, in Brazil until a final ruling is made on a yet-to-be-filed appeal to the April 14 ruling by the 19th district court in Bellarizante, Brazil, that the boy was to be returned to his father, Kelvin Birotte, Sr., in the United States. Kelvin Sr. was notified of the ruling on Monday, April 19, but before he even boarded the plane to Brazil, he was informed that Interpol was not able to locate Hilma or Kelvin Jr., who has been illegally retained in Brazil since July 2006.


  • Congressman John Culberson – Phone: (202) 225-2571, Fax: (202) 225-4381
  • Congressman Al Green – Phone: (202) 225-7508, Fax: (202) 225-2947
  • Senator John Cornyn – Phone: (202) 224-2934, Fax: (202) 228-2856
  • Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison – Phone: (202) 224-5922, Fax: (202) 224-0776

WEINSTEIN (US) After waiting nearly two years for a ruling on his Hague case, in late February a first-level federal judge ruled against Timothy Weinstein. Like so many other Brazilian judges, the judge in this case demonstrated little understanding of the Hague Convention and proceeded to treat Timothy’s case like a domestic custody battle. In March, Brazil’s Attorney General (AGO) filed an appeal to the first-level ruling and seeking the immediate return of Timothy’s son, Paul, and daughter, Anna, to the United States. Timothy has been fighting for their return since the summer of 2006.


  • Congressman Jason Altmire – Phone: (202) 225-2565, Fax: (202) 226-2274
  • Senator Robert Casey – Phone: (202) 224-6324, Fax: (202) 228-0604
  • Senator Arlen Specter – Phone: (202) 224-4254, Fax: (202) 228-1229


ATHUKORALA (US) In April 2009, then 20-month-old Kali Soleil Athukorala was abducted to the Dominican Republic (DR) by her mother, Sandra Zemialkowski. The DR became a signatory to the Hague Convention in June 2007. In Hague cases, the role of a country’s Central Authority is to represent the child in defense of the child’s right to return to the country of habitual residence. However, the DR’s Central Authority, having been approached by Kali’s mother immediately upon their arrival in the DR, seems to be handling this case as a custody battle instead of a Hague case and has twice flip-flopped in their position of representation for Kali. Dhanika Athukorala, Kali’s father, has been working tirelessly to gain his daughter’s return to the United States. An initial hearing was held in April, with a ruling expected this week.


  • Congressman Richard Neal – Phone: (202) 225-5601, Fax: (202) 225-8112
  • Congressman John Olver – Phone: (202) 225-5335, Fax: (202) 226-1224
  • Senator Scott Brown – Phone: (202) 224-4543, Fax: (202) 228-2546
  • Senator John Kerry – Phone: (202) 224-2742, Fax: (202) 224-8525


TOLAND (US) Paul’s daughter, Erika, was abducted in July 2003 by her mother, who subsequently died in October 2007. Since the death of her mother, Erika continues to be held in Japan by her maternal grandmother. Japan is a non-Hague country and has never returned a child to the United States. In March 2010, several left-behind parents with children abducted to Japan joined together and founded Bring Abducted Children Home ( For additional information on recent actions relating to Japan abductions, see below.


  • Congressman Jim Moran – Phone: (202) 225-4376, Fax: (202) 225-0017
  • Senator Mark Warner – Phone: (202) 224-2023, Fax: (202) 224-6295
  • Senator Jim Webb – Phone: (202) 224-4024, Fax: (202) 228-6363


BERMUDEZ (US) Carlos Bermudez has been fighting for the return of his son, Sage, from Mexico since the summer of 2008. On March 9, 2010, the 8th Federal District Court in the State of Guanajuato Mexico denied the appeals filed against the order ruling that Sage Bermudez be “immediately returned” to his father, upholding the decision of the State Supreme Court. Sage’s mother filed yet another appeal, which is expected to be heard by the second level federal courts within three months of the file date.


  • Congressman David Price – Phone: (202) 225-1784, Fax: (202) 225-2014
  • Senator Richard Burr – Phone: (202) 224-3154, Fax: (202) 228-2981
  • Senator Kay Hagan – Phone: (202) 224-6342, Fax: (202) 228-2563


HINDLE (UK) In the same week that Florida’s state congress and senate voted to pass into law the Child Abduction Prevention Act, Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeal ruled against Karl Hindle. The judge, although acknowledging the fact that Florida is not Emily’s “home state,” cited in the ruling Florida’s Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act (“UCCJEA”) and disregarded the United States obligation under the Hague Convention. Karl, who has been fighting for custody of Emily since February 2003, when her American mother brought her to the United States at 11 months of age, plans to appeal this latest ruling in U.S. Federal Court.


  • Senator George LeMieux – Phone: (202) 224-3041, Fax: (202) 228-5171
  • Senator Bill Nelson – Phone: (202) 224-5274, Fax: (202) 228-2183
  • Governor Charlie Crist – Phone: (850) 488-7146, Fax: (850) 487-0801

It has come to our attention that Paulo Lins e Silva will be speaking on another panel involving international family law, this time at a conference sponsored by the Union Internationale des Avocats (UIA) in Bucharest, Romania on November 2. Please see the comments section for contact information on how to make people aware of Mr. Lins e Silva’s appearance at this conference.

Note: New email address added Nov 3 for Reinmuller, President-Elect of the UIA


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