Family attorney comments on Amber Alert case after father's lies come to light

By: Sophia Hernandez | WCTV Eyewitness News
February 11, 2020

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) – WCTV learned Tuesday that the father of 3-year-old Madeline Mejia was not initially truthful with local law enforcement before an Amber Alert was sent out for his daughter.

Lester Mejia admitted to authorities that he knew who Madeline's abductees were: Tania Fortin-Daurte, her mother, and Kevin Smith Olmedo-Velis, Duarte's boyfriend.

This case is not a typical one. Lester Mejia has sole custody of Madeline. Questions remain as to why that is, as well as why he lied to police about Duarte's relationship to his daughter.

Tom Schulte, a local attorney of the Second Judicial Court of Florida, says many would be surprised to hear how common abduction cases are between parents.

"Normally you would not think, well if the child is with the parent then that can't be an abduction, but actually in Florida it can be," Schulte says.

Schulte also says in the state of Florida the norm is 50-50 shared parental responsibility. It is not known if a court order was in place to give the father sole custody, or why the mother was not given parental rights.

"For a judge to order sole custody you would really have to show some serious detriment to the child being in the other parent's care," Schulte says.

Schulte shared some possible ways or reasons as to why Mejia might have full custody.

In Florida law, there is a Chapter 39 proceeding, which Schulte says comes from the Department of Children and Family Services. It calls for a shelter order, which says if you can show detriment to the child, they can be taken from one or both parents and given to a third party.

In custody cases, Schulte says you would not have a shelter order but maybe a custody order that would give one parent sole custody of the child, usually on a temporary basis.

Schulte says this typically pertains to parents who suffer from alcohol or drug abuse, or parents who are deemed as having a risk of fleeing (example: dual citizenship). Schulte also says in the Sunshine State, under the Interference with Parental Custody Statute, it is a third degree felony to abduct a child who is under lawful custody of a parent.

Schulte emphasizes that he does not know if that has been applied in this case. But he notes that while it is not referenced very often, it is there.

Again, WCTV does not know the circumstances as to why Mejia has sole custody of Madeline, or why Duarte was not given parental rights. However, Schulte points out while Duarte and Mejia live within blocks of one another, Duarte's boyfriend lives in Texas.

"Was there a concern at the time if there was a custody order in place, that gave the father sole custody to leave the jurisdiction of Florida to Texas?" Schulte asked. "And so that may have been why the child was placed in the father's care."

Another looming question is why Mejia lied in the first place.

Schulte says that in most abduction cases between parents, it ends quickly and peacefully, which makes Mejia's actions interesting.

"Usually a parent is quick to identify the other parent as the abductor if that did happen. I don't know if protect her is the right word but why he would not have given law enforcement her name," he says.

Schulte says that in these circumstances, parents go to the extreme.

"In family law cases, you see good people at their worst, and people do some out of character things," he says.

Although there remains much to be investigated, what is certain is the fact that in less than 24 hours, law enforcement brought Madeline back safe and sound to her father.

Apopka Police say while Mejia did lie, Duarte unlawfully removed Madeline from her home.

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