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.