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When attorney Alan Kluger first saw Robert Allen Lopez, they were in a Miami courtroom during a custody hearing. In July 1995, Kluger was putting in a few do-good hours as a court-appointed guardian, looking after some children caught in the middle of Lopez’s divorce fight. He had an immediate reaction to Robert, the father in question. Here, he thought, was a good-looking, Armani-suited Hispanic guy. He was soft-spoken and talked lovingly about his children. “This is pretty easy,” concluded Kluger. “He gets the kids.” His paralegal Kris Kadlac had a different view. “He gives me the creeps,” she said. As it turned out, the two men would think a lot about each other in the next five years. Kluger, a prominent corporate attorney, has thought a lot about chasing Robert, 34. Robert has been more preoccupied with hiding. An adept fugitive, Robert has caused Kluger to make an unexpected charitable contribution to the justice system — $126,000, by his count, in time and money — to do a supposedly easy job. Kluger, 50, married to judge Amy Dean, bills $425 an hour when not going to Democratic Party fund-raisers. He’s the sort of guy who takes care of business, and does so without a lot of waste or waiting around. That reputation is one reason the U.S. government hired Kluger, Peretz, Kaplan & Berlin in the early 1990s to prosecute the owners of failed savings and loans. But sometimes he’ll take a break from such work and give a few hours to a case different from his normal diet, like looking after 7-year-old Vanessa Lopez and her brother Bobby, 5. That summer day, when Kluger took such a respite, Robert had de facto custody of the children. He had married a broad-smiling Nicaraguan exile named Karla Maria Benavides in 1990. They split in 1994. A divorce settlement the couple signed a half year later ostensibly gave Karla custody of the boy and Robert custody of the girl. But six months down the road, Judge Judith Kreeger, concerned about sexual abuse allegations, thought that a guardian ad litem was needed and recruited Kluger. At that first hearing, Kluger looked around the courtroom and saw shiny jewelry on both sides of the aisle. The judge said that he’d be paid his regular rate. As the summer drew to a close, Kluger quickly discovered that Vanessa had been out of the country for more than a year. He pieced together that Karla had agreed to let her daughter visit her paternal grandparents in Colombia. Once she was there, the grandparents said that she had fallen ill and couldn’t travel. More troubling, the lawyer found medical records suggesting that Robert’s uncle had sexually abused her while he was in Florida. Vanessa, reportedly, lived with him in Bogota. In July, after the first hearing, Robert had picked up a criminal problem. Prosecutors said that he had set up 11 companies that extracted $4.2 million from Medicare for fake liquid nutritional supplements. A smart guy, he pleaded out and agreed to testify against others. But instead, he fled the country. Before that, court psychologists had visited Robert, who had won temporary custody of Bobby because of the abuse allegations. Dr. Gary Goldapple described Robert as “hypervigilant, tense, and reluctant to provide information about himself. He was impatient and insensitive to interacting with Robert Jos�.” The psychologists concluded that Robert had coerced Bobby into inventing an abuse charge against Karla’s new husband, James Acuna, and had used that as a pretense to keep the boy from his mother. Robert admitted calling the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1994 to alert them to his wife’s undocumented status; Karla wound up being detained for two weeks before getting permission to stay in the country. After Thanksgiving, the judge ordered custody temporarily shifted to Karla but allowed Bobby to stay with Robert on weekends. Robert was ordered to bring Vanessa back to Miami. Thereafter, the ingratiating Robert came to visit Kluger, who told him that, based on the evidence he’d seen, he would recommend that the children be taken away from their father. “His eyes went stone-cold,” recalls Kluger. Subsequent visits happened on schedule as the final hearing approached. Robert picked up Bobby for his regular weekend visit Christmas Day. And then he, his girlfriend and the boy vanished. In the ensuing chase, Kluger had the feds on his side. Robert apparently had millions in cash on his. “I thought if we didn’t find him in the first 30 or 60 days, we’re in trouble,” says Kluger. The boy’s picture went on missing-kid databases, and in late spring, Karla’s woes were featured on a popular Hispanic newsmagazine show, Primer Impacto. A tip placed Robert and his son in Bogota, Colombia. Kluger got a local lawyer with clout to lend a hand. “She really worked the system,” he recalls. “She did stuff you could never do in America. She basically went in ex parte and got a judge to give her an order sending the police in to take the kid and put him on a plane.” The police missed their quarry by an hour or so. Robert, it seems, had hired a courthouse mole. Father and son were seen in Panama later in 1996. Kluger started interviewing local counsel again, encountering a pro-dad Hispanic mindset. “One lawyer said,” he recalls, “‘So the father has the son; what’s the problem?’” A friendly lawyer advised Kluger that the Panama police would rather sit through a hurricane than help him. The next year, there was a Nicaragua sighting. Nicaragua’s law enforcers were willing to search. But Judge Kreeger’s order for the children’s return, said Kluger’s local lawyer, looked insufficiently official. It lacked ribbons. The man at the consulate told Kluger, “Your lawyer’s absolutely correct; we keep ribbons here for just that purpose.” Ribbons or no, the Nicaraguans didn’t get their man. In May 1997, an unexpected call came in. The local bar association wanted to give Kluger an award for his pro bono work as guardian ad litem: “‘That’s ridiculous,’ I said. ‘I’m not done; I don’t have the kid,’” recalls the lawyer. The bar insisted that he would serve as a good example, and he sheepishly accepted an award for his abject failure. THE ENDGAME For much of this time, Karla went to work, looking concerned and anxious. (Karla was traveling with Bobby in Texas and was unavailable to comment for this story, said her new husband, James.) But finally, last August, Kluger got a breakthrough phone call. Miami police alerted him that on April 22, Mexican police had found Bobby walking in Cancun’s hotel district in the early hours of the morning. He and his papers said that he was Enrique Salazar, from Haiti. His “uncle” — Robert, it turned out — came to pick him up, then accepted a drink from the suspicious police, who lifted his fingerprints — and kept custody of Bobby. Robert’s luck was finally running out. Kluger felt elated: “What’s great about this [pro bono] stuff is, you call people up and they drop everything and do it. Most of the time, there’s two dirtbags, and they both deserve to be thrown under a bus. And there’s corporate America. Now, I love corporate America; corporate America’s made me rich. But there’s not always two good guys going at it. Sometimes they’re both not so great. But this is good and evil.” There was one big problem: Karla remains an undocumented alien after 15 years in the country. A trip to Mexico would have been one-way. “She’s spent more time working on getting her son back than straightening out her status,” notes her immigration lawyer, William J. Sanchez. He expects the INS to schedule her for a so-called adjustment conference within four months. Kluger and his associate D. Fernando Bobadilla sent off dozens of documents to Mexico, each translated and certified. The federal police in Cancun assured them that they could retrieve the boy. They flew to Cancun on Oct. 1. The official in charge mentioned that Robert had offered him a $60,000 bribe. He had dutifully reported it, he said. But that seemed to be the end of communication with his superiors. He didn’t have orders to hand over Bobby — he didn’t think. After a couple of hours, he concluded that he didn’t have the requisite signature of a superior in the capital. Kluger exploded and accused them of taking bribes. “Their English wasn’t so good, so I’m not sure how much of that they got. But I cringed,” recalls Bobadilla. “I’m never dealing with these fucking assholes again,” Kadlac recalls Kluger saying back in Miami. On Nov. 12, after another month of documents and couriers, Bobadilla flew down to Cancun to end the snafu. The police informed him that he was seeking to execute a foreign judgment, and sorry, but they had no authority to enforce it. Back in Miami, Bobadilla also swore he’d never deal with the Mexicans again. Finally, Kluger filed an application for the return of Bobby under the Hague Convention, normally a slow path. At a first hearing in Cancun, the judge said that she wanted a few more papers and then would release the boy. Then a forged amparo, a constitutional appeal, was filed, contending that this was an unlawful order because Bobby was to be deported to a specific country. Supposedly, Karla had signed this in Cancun on Feb. 1. It took two more hearings — in new courts, yet — to have it ruled a fraud. (Mexican police purportedly are investigating the Cancun law firm responsible, says a State Department officer.) On March 22, Bobby was at last on a plane home to his mother — and made the top of Miami’s local news. Grinning at reporters after hugging his mother, Bobby said that he wanted to go to school and eat pizza. “I am the most happy woman in the world to have my son back,” Karla said, through tears. “He’s changed a lot. He’s very big.” “You speak English?” she asked him, “No? What happened?” Bobby, now 10, told her that he preferred her natural dark hair to her new dyed-blond version. Kluger found himself fielding a lot of follow-up calls. “I had to explain that I don’t do this,” he says. “I am not Alan Kluger, finder of missing children.” A State Department official notes, “I know Alan and Kris don’t sufficiently appreciate this, but the only real surprise in this case was the speed that with which it moved.” The department has 1,100 other child abduction cases. Three other heartbroken parents this spring visited Bobby, hoping that he was theirs. Karla Lopez Acuna still does not have her daughter. The last week in April, Robert Lopez’s parents in Colombia, who have Vanessa, offered to arrange her return as long as they can retain the visitation rights granted them under Florida law. Vanessa, they say, is supposedly in good health. The whereabouts of Robert, who has had another child, are unknown.

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