Leslie Delbecq's voice crackles over the line. "I never had a criminal record," she says with a nervous lilt to her Belgian accent. "I was in the military. I did my taxes on time."
In the picture of her on the FBI's most-wanted list, she has a warm and radiant smile. Five years ago, when the photo was taken for her driver's license, she was fit and pretty, with sun-kissed cheeks and a ponytail of thin brown hair. The FBI lists her nationality as American, which is true but misleading. She's a globetrotter, or at least she was. The daughter of Belgian expats, Delbecq was born in Michigan, was raised in central Africa, attended high school in Bahrain, and then lived for a year in Mauritius, a remote wedge of paradise in the Indian Ocean.
Despite having spent only a few weeks of her life on U.S. soil, Delbecq enrolled in the U.S. Army when she was 18 and served a year as a chemical operations specialist at Fort Polk in Louisiana. After an honorable discharge, she won a grant to play tennis at the University of Tampa and wrapped up a communications degree in three years. Next stop was Fort Lauderdale, where her peripatetic streak of success exploded into chaos.
Today, after a failed marriage, the birth of a daughter, and an escape to Dubai, the 31-year-old Delbecq and both of her parents are wanted on charges of international parental kidnapping. For every week she remains on the run, another $1,000 fine is added to a tab that's already topped $75,000.
This June, on a balmy Sunday night in Dubai, against the advice of her attorneys and parents, the fugitive presses a cell phone to her ear, takes a breath, and explains why she abducted her own daughter.
"I just want to make it clear that I left the U.S. for a very good reason."
Inside his Pompano Beach home, Christopher Dahm avoids introducing a lush blonde with an Eastern European vibe who's watching soccer in the living room. A waist-high German shepherd follows him down the hallway toward his daughter's room, where Dahm sinks into a small white couch. Masculine and built like a beach volleyball player, with a broad, bony brow, he looks awkward thumbing through a Tinker Bell book.
Dahm, 35, hasn't changed a thing in his daughter's room since the day she went missing two years ago. Tiny pink dresses still dangle in the closet; assorted stuffed animals line the crib. On each end of the changing table — a utility his daughter has surely outgrown — sit neatly displayed postcards featuring a picture of Dahm and his smiling, baldheaded newborn, Gabrielle. KIDNAPPED is stamped across the top in a bulky red font.
One night in March 2007, Dahm shuffled through the packed aisles of a Muvico theater. It was opening weekend of Zodiac, and the only seat open was next to an eye-catching 20-something who was accompanied by her parents. While Jake Gyllenhaal ran around San Francisco for two and a half hours trying to crack the case of the elusive serial killer, Dahm flirted his way to a first date with Leslie Delbecq. "She was quick to laugh," he recalls.
A few days later, the two hit it off over sushi. The relationship evolved quickly. Dahm wooed Delbecq with expensive meals and an impenetrable air of confidence. It didn't hurt that he was a successful business owner with money to burn. He could afford a $5,000-a-month beachfront apartment on Atlantic Boulevard and romantic jaunts to places like Vail, Colorado. But complications began surfacing four months into the relationship. "We started getting very close," Dahm recalls. "Although it became apparent that she was struggling with alcoholism and addiction, it progressively got worse."
Dahm says that after they dated for about seven months, Delbecq went to the United Arab Emirates, where her parents lived and her father was working as a pilot, and did two inpatient stays at the American Hospital Dubai, followed by an outpatient program. Dahm empathized; he had struggled with addiction and bounced through treatment facilities a few years earlier. The two talked frequently over Skype and cooked up plans for their eventual reunion.
After five months abroad, in April 2008, a sober Delbecq returned to the United States and moved in with Dahm. A month later, she was pregnant.
"She told me she was on birth control," Dahm says. "Afterward, it came out that she lied to me."
Despite his initial leeriness, the prospect of fatherhood appealed to Dahm. He attended birthing classes, read The Expectant Father, and listened astutely at every doctor's appointment. He wanted to be "superdad" to compensate for his own father's neglect. Dahm says that as a kid, he had been kidnapped by his dad and taken to Chicago for six weeks. A private investigator snatched Dahm back, and that was the last he saw of his father for more than 30 years. Having a stunning fiancée carrying his soon-to-be daughter was Dahm's path to the domestic normalcy he'd craved while growing up.
On September 28, 2008, Dahm and Delbecq married in a shotgun ceremony at Fort Lauderdale's St. Regis Hotel, a plush resort surrounded by jaw-dropping views of the Atlantic Ocean. They embarked on an exotic honeymoon that took them to the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, and Indonesia. Life as expectant newlyweds coasted along until Delbecq's mother, Jeanine De Riddere, came to stay at the family's South Florida vacation home in December 2008, Dahm says. The idea was that she would help her daughter through the last few weeks of pregnancy, spend some time with her newborn granddaughter, and return to the UAE.
Gabrielle was born via Cesarean section the day after Christmas. "It was the best day of my life," Dahm says. "She had the loudest scream and the strongest lungs right when the doctor took her out. She was a bundle of joy." Because she was premature and still had fluid in her lungs, baby Gabrielle stayed in the hospital for nine days. The hospital also kept Delbecq for four days so she could recover from the procedure.
"Unfortunately they gave Leslie so many drugs in the hospital — Vicodin, Percocet, and other things because of the surgery — that in a sense, it woke up some demons," Dahm claims. "As soon as they let her out of the hospital, after being sober for just over a year, she picked up the bottle again. I could smell the booze on her breath."
Dahm alleges that one night, a clearly bombed Delbecq came home around 9, put down the bassinet containing Gabrielle in the living room, and promptly passed out facedown on the bed, fully clothed. When he searched through her purse, he found a polychromatic array of pills and a baggie of cocaine, he claims. On another occasion, he says, she got into a fender-bender while drunk driving with her baby in the car. When he tried confronting Delbecq about these reignited habits, she got angry and stormed off to stay with her mother at her condo up the road. Meanwhile, Dahm says his father-in-law, the one person he hoped to reason with man-to-man, flat out denied that Delbecq had a postpartum drinking problem.
From Dahm's point of view, the mother-in-law masterminded this chaos. She didn't care that Delbecq was constantly inebriated because it cleared the way for near-around-the-clock access to the infant. One Sunday, he and De Riddere had a dispute over who would spend the day with the baby. Dahm reasoned that he had worked six days that week and deserved a peaceful break with his child. In response, the mother-in-law slapped him across the face and declared in her thick Belgian accent: "Americans are just classless savages." A few days later, Dahm says, De Riddere slapped Delbecq and delivered an ultimatum: Divorce Dahm or be disowned by the family and cut off from its roughly $3 million in savings.
Barely a month after giving birth, Delbecq filed for divorce. It would take nearly a year of judicial jousting to officially dissolve a marriage that had lasted four months. In the process, Dahm's criminal past would unravel for all to see.
On the phone from the other side of the world, Delbecq says her mother always had her back. "My mother was the only person who could stand up to [Dahm]," she explains. "She was defending me. He's accusing my mother because she was in the way; she was in the way of his plans of manipulating me."
The Delbecqs are a small, tight nuclear family forged together by tumult and travel. Leslie's parents met in Zaire, a former colony of Belgium that's now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. When their first child, a son, came along, they traveled to England so he would be born with UK citizenship. A few years later, when Leslie was about to be born, they traveled to Ann Arbor and birthed a U.S. citizen.
Soon after Leslie was born, the family returned to Zaire and stayed until the early 1990s. Although the country was beautiful and the family led a comfortable life, Delbecq says she contracted malaria and typhoid fever during her childhood. More dangerous than those diseases, though, was her status as a white emblem of Belgian colonialism in a country rife with upheaval. "It was a very dangerous place," she says. "I was at school, and the local army, which had not been paid, had the free will to go attack foreign schools, especially Belgian schools. We had the principal knocking on our door to tell the teacher to lock the door, hide the kids, and get underneath desks... We were the target."
When Delbecq was 11, the French Foreign Legion swooped into central Africa and rescued her family just as Zaire drifted into catastrophic violence. They escaped to Bahrain, a minuscule country near the Persian Gulf. There, her dad had lined up a good job as a commercial pilot. "Our lives got a little better," she says. Eventually her father accepted a job as a pilot with Etihad Airways in the UAE, where he continues to pull in a hefty salary.
The family remained close even when Delbecq traveled thousands of miles to join the Army and go to college in the States. When she moved to Fort Lauderdale for a job teaching English at a language academy, her folks purchased a condo at the nearby Bay Colony Club and planned on eventually retiring to sunny South Florida so they could bask in the golden years with their daughter. But these plans were jettisoned when the family galvanized its bond in a brazen display of lawbreaking.
Delbecq says she had always thought of Dahm as an upstanding citizen. She knew he had a business selling warranties for cars, and she saw him go to an office every day. However, "the second I got married, Chris changed into a different person entirely," Delbecq says. "I was eight months pregnant, and someone came to my house, and they were looking for him. They started throwing rocks. He locked me in. He put a gun, like a 9-millimeter, a loaded 9-millimeter, in my drawer. It was insane, and I started getting paranoid."
Soon after giving birth, Delbecq says, Dahm approached her and confessed that he had criminal charges pending against him. "The baby was just born — she was 2 weeks old — and here comes Chris saying, you know, 'I'm out on bond, and somebody is looking for me.'"
Dahm's criminal past has some color to it. Police records show that his first felony charge was in 1995, long before he met Delbecq, when he presented a fake ID to a cop. According to the arrest report, when Dahm was placed in the squad car, he went berserk and tore off an armrest. He was removed from the car and blasted in the face with pepper spray. Court records do not show the ultimate disposition of that case, but he progressed to crimes that required far more cunning.
From July 2006 through January 2008, Dahm and several associates created bogus real-estate companies and executed a profitable telemarketing con, according to court documents. They would call condo owners around the country and say the firm could sell the property in a few weeks for a $900 listing fee. Then, down the line, Dahm and his constituents would claim the condo was sold — it wasn't — but there were unexpected closing fees. After the person paid up a second time, the half-baked real-estate moguls vanished. The list of victims ran from California to Texas to Maine.
Delbecq says the unsavory characters who showed up at the house in search of Dahm weren't the victims of the real-estate scam. Rather, they were former partners and co-workers whom Dahm had ripped off. To play it safe, Dahm stashed loaded guns around the house and locked his pregnant wife in the apartment. On one occasion, Delbecq says, Dahm answered a knock at the front door with a loaded pistol in hand.
"He claimed people were looking for money," Delbecq says. "[He claimed] that he was not responsible, that Gus Geldman was responsible, who at the time was his business partner. It turns out that Chris just stole money from everybody." Dahm and Geldman ran a company called D&G Platinum Advertising from September 2008 through September 2009, according to records from Florida's Division of Corporations. What the company specialized in is unclear. Geldman could not be reached for comment, but court records show he has an extensive criminal record that includes at least five felony charges.
With Dahm's criminal venture collapsing and a retinue of pissed-off associates trailing close behind, Delbecq took her daughter and moved into her parents' condo. On January 30, 2009, Dahm was notified that Delbecq wanted a divorce.
In the child-custody negotiations that followed, Delbecq proposed that she and Gabrielle move to Dubai, where she had a $70,000-a-year job offer to teach English. Once a month, Delbecq would pay to fly Dahm to Dubai — an approximately 20-hour trip each way — and provide lodging for one week. She promised to arrange "liberal telephone contact, email contact, and interactive web conferencing."
In a court document, she summed up her desire to be far from Dahm thusly: "The lifestyle that my husband has chosen to lead places my daughter in harm's way. He has been charged with a felony, which, if he is convicted, could result in a prison sentence. His history of poor choices and decision-making has adversely affected both our financial wellbeing as well as our safety. By way of example, one of his prior business ventures resulted in former employees coming to the house and throwing rocks apparently in retribution for non-payment of salaries owed by my husband. The net result was that my daughter and I, for the brief time we resided with Christopher Dahm, literally were in a lockdown situation with limited transportation... Additionally my husband had loaded firearms which he kept in the bedroom where we slept with my infant daughter."
In depositions related to the divorce, Dahm refused to explain his financial situation, saying, "I've been advised from another counselor not to answer... anything to do with former businesses, former financials, former assets, former cases." Bank statements showed Dahm moving around $186,000, but he struggled or refused to provide context for the transactions. Another statement included a $68,000 cash deposit that Dahm said he "probably" remembered.
Throughout the questioning, Dahm's attitude drifted from evasive to jocular to angry to whiny. "I have a belching disorder, I have acid reflux, I have lactose intolerance," he stammered at one point. "What else do I have? I do have memory problems, so I take ginkgo biloba five times a day." Delbecq's attorney drilled into Dahm's past, quizzing him about a domestic-violence complaint filed against him by his own mother and his previous struggles with addiction.
Still, Dahm's erratic behavior, shady financials, and criminal history weren't enough for the court to award Delbecq sole custody. On January 27, 2010, a year after Delbecq had filed for divorce, the judge ruled that Dahm and Delbecq would share custody of Gabrielle and that Delbecq was not permitted to relocate with the child. In the final ruling, the judge noted that both the husband and wife had substance-abuse problems. The judge cited testimony from Dahm indicating that Delbecq breast-fed the child while drunk and that the mother-in-law "thinks the child is hers."
Six months after the custody agreement was finalized, Dahm pleaded no contest to organized fraud for his role in the condo scam, a felony charge that carries a maximum sentence of 30 years. When sentencing came around, the legal gods smiled favorably on him; he was ordered to pay $75,000 in restitution and sentenced to just ten months of community control followed by five years' probation, according to court documents. The judge also ordered Dahm not to engage in any activity that requires a telemarketer license.
Two months later, Delbecq fled with her daughter.
On a warm Wednesday in August 2010, Dahm paced up and down the sidewalk in front of his Pompano home frantically checking his watch. The knots in his stomach cinched tighter with each minute that passed. At 5:30 p.m., half an hour after Delbecq should have dropped off Gabrielle, he called his lawyer. At 7 p.m. he called the Broward Sheriff's Office. Then he began calling nearby jails, hospitals, morgues, and airlines.
"I didn't sleep all night Wednesday," he says. "Thursday morning at 7 a.m. I called the FBI... I was starting to get the feeling they left, but I didn't know how."
Dahm says that based on his own investigation and information relayed to him by the FBI, Delbecq made two trips to the Belgian consulate in Atlanta before she fled the country. The first was to obtain Belgian citizenship for Gabrielle without Dahm's consent; the second was to obtain a physical passport. Then, on a Monday in August 2010 — two days before she was to exchange her daughter with Dahm under the joint-custody agreement — Delbecq, her baby, and her mom flew directly to Belgium. They stayed there for two days and then caught a connecting flight to the United Arab Emirates.
According to the FBI, all three tickets were purchased by an Etihad Airways employee, Philippe Delbecq. Dahm says that Philippe, his ex-father-in-law, was often in charge of flights between Brussels and Abu Dhabi and might have been at the controls of the plane that took his kidnapped granddaughter to the UAE.
International parental kidnappings are far more common than most of us realize. In 2010, there were 1,022 such cases that originated in the U.S., or roughly 20 a week, according to data from the State Department. In 2011, there were 941. More than a quarter of the cases each year involved a parent fleeing to Mexico.
Experts have developed six personality profiles of parents who are likely to flee with their kids against court orders. Profile one includes "parents who have threatened to abduct or abducted previously." Profile four consists of "parents who are severely sociopathic."
Delbecq would seem to be an amalgam of profile five, which includes dual citizens in a failed marriage, and profile six, which includes parents who feel alienated by the legal system and have support from their family. She has both U.S. and Belgian citizenship, her marriage to Dahm didn't last half a year, and her parents provided ample moral and financial support.
The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs has an entire division dedicated to international abductions. It coordinates with the FBI, which often gets called in after a grand jury indicts the abducting parent and federal warrants are issued. How swiftly things move after a fugitive parent is found — or if they move at all — hinges on whether the country is a signatory of a treaty known as the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
"Because of the complexity with family abductions, they do take longer to resolve," says Maureen Heads of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "With international abductions, it largely depends on the country and the circumstances... When you're looking at countries that are non-Hague and don't have treaties, it becomes a real challenge. People ask me all the time what the return rate is, but it solely depends on the country."
Japan has never returned an abducted U.S. child as a result of civil litigation or law enforcement proceedings. Brazil has likewise refused to cooperate with U.S. authorities; the prolonged case of Sean Goldman captivated a worldwide audience in 2009 after his wife fled with their son and died shortly thereafter. Muslim countries governed by sharia law pose a unique set of circumstances. According to Heads, Morocco is the only such country that's attempted to become a member of the Hague convention.
The United Arab Emirates has no extradition agreement with the United States. Still, there was one case of the UAE's returning an abducted child to the rightful parent. But resolving the case cost the family four years, seven trips from a lawyer, and $250,000 in legal fees.
Ken Farnsworth, an assistant state attorney in Broward County who works on extraditions, says countries such as the UAE might decide to extradite on a case-by-case basis while taking into account cultural factors that are disregarded under U.S. rule of law. "Some countries make you lay out the whole case: the likelihood of conviction, how much time this person would be looking at," he says. "If it's the mother, some countries might say she has a right to her child and they wouldn't consider the abduction a crime... There are unwritten laws in some countries. Maybe one parent has more sway."
Presumably, Philippe Delbecq had a fair amount of sway with authorities in the United Arab Emirates. As chief training pilot for Etihad Airways, a multibillion-dollar airline created under royal decree, he's the man responsible for ensuring that every pilot knows what he's doing.
Delbecq says that near the end of August 2011, after she'd been in Dubai for a year, she, her daughter, and her parents were summoned to meet with authorities with the Criminal Investigation Department for a day of interrogation and fact-finding. They took a tense drive through the desert heat toward downtown Abu Dhabi, the capital city. "We felt a little bit nervous," Delbecq concedes. "Of course, we expected it."
Upon arriving at the facility, the family was split up and led to separate interrogation rooms. Because legal proceedings are conducted in Arabic, Delbecq did not understand what was being said, nor could she explain herself. Her lawyer was left to convey the angst his client experienced back in Florida. Delbecq says that although the day of questioning was nerve-racking, it didn't take long to convince the judge that the family was justified in violating the custody agreement and fleeing the U.S.
"At the end of the day, this judge of Interpol affairs dismissed us," she claims. "We were never apprehended. We were never put in jail... Within 24 hours, we were home, safe and sound."
Today, Dahm claims he's a financial consultant and runs a business called Von Dahm Consulting. A quick Google search also shows that he created a blog called Christopher Dahm Scam Tips, which hasn't been updated since September 2011. There's little useful information on the website, but it does suppress his criminal past in Google's search algorithm.
Dahm has also set up a trust in his daughter's name to help cover mounting legal fees, which he estimates at $50,000 to $100,000. On the website helpsavegabby.com, he emphasizes, "Under Federal Law EVERY dollar that gets donated... gets used for lawyers." The address to send donations is his home in Pompano. Because the trust is not registered with Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, nor is it registered in the IRS's database of tax-exempt charitable organizations, it is difficult to confirm how much has been donated and whether it has indeed all been put toward legal fees. Dahm says it's not technically a charitable organization and is thus not required by law to be registered.
And he continues to make enemies. According to court records, Dahm was involved in another legal skirmish recently. This past February, he and a woman named Esmeralda Dekaj were sitting in his car at a red light, supposedly on their way to the gym. Suddenly, Dekaj's husband, a bull of a man named Pjeter whom she had left the night before, pulled up next to them in a white Dodge Caravan. He turned the wheel and bumped Dahm's Mercedes sedan. Rather than risk an awkward situation with another man's wife, Dahm sped away, with Pjeter bumping Dahm's car a few more times.
Immediately after the incident, Dahm filed court documents alleging that Dekaj's husband had committed repeat acts of domestic violence against him. "I thought I was going to DIE," Dahm wrote in the report. "I fear this man will come to my home... and try to hurt me or KILL ME. I AM AFRAID FOR MY LIFE!!!"
Esmeralda Dekaj has since returned to her husband and describes Dahm as a liar who uses his daughter's plight to elicit sympathy. Pjeter Dekaj was charged with domestic violence, and Dahm intends to testify against him. Dekaj would face more than ten years if convicted.
New enemies and old felonies withstanding, Dahm is not the one who is the international fugitive. A Broward judge awarded him sole custody of Gabrielle about a month after Delbecq and her family skipped town. Asked directly about his criminal history, Dahm says, "Things that happened in the past are in the past and have no bearing on the situation. My daughter was kidnapped. I'm the victim of a horrible crime."
He continues to nudge the FBI and the State Department to take action to bring Gabrielle back to the U.S. Now, almost two years since Delbecq ran off with his daughter, he's frustrated with the pace of progress. An email from the State Department just a few weeks ago informed Dahm that the FBI would not be pursuing what's called an Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution warrant. A spokeswoman with the State Department explained to Dahm that the FBI does "not believe that this will add any additional benefit to the case as they already have out the federal indictment, arrest warrant, and existing Interpol red notices." The FBI declined to comment for this article.
Meanwhile, 7,000 miles away, Delbecq says she and Gabrielle lead relatively normal lives in the United Arab Emirates. Delbecq has friends, recently began dating again, and is on Facebook posting semiprovocative pictures in which she looks older and puffier than she does in the FBI's profile. For a wanted fugitive, she's remarkably easy to find.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Delbecq says a child psychologist diagnosed Gabrielle with separation anxiety but otherwise declines commenting further about her daughter beyond saying, "She's a very happy little girl." As for having once fallen in love with Dahm, Delbecq chalks it up to being a naive 20-something who was a tad too superficial. "Eventually, he cast a spell on me," she says.
For now, both sides carry on their daily routines. And wait. Dahm hopes that one day he'll receive orders to pack his bags and board the next flight to the United Arab Emirates so he can pick up his daughter.
Delbecq knows that if the U.S. and UAE strike a deal, she and her parents could be sentenced to at least three years in federal prison and have a good portion of their financial assets wiped out. Gabrielle would be handed over to Dahm and potentially never see her mother again.
"I'm wanted internationally. I have a federal warrant against me," she says, summing up her position before she hangs up the phone. "So, yes, I'm a little nervous. But I did what had to be done."