SURF CITY | For the first time in four years, Don Seagraves of Surf City last month laid eyes upon his son. Even though it was just in an email from a U.S. state department official, the photo gave him hope.
Seagraves, 51, last held Urijah, now 7, when he dropped him off with his mother in Burgaw in 2012. Seagraves and his wife of six years had separated. The father was granted weekend visitation.
When Seagraves went to pick up Urijah a week later, everything and everyone was gone.
“I was hysterical,” he said. “I called everyone I knew to call, including the sheriff’s department.”
His estranged wife, Ivonne Seagraves, a native of Guatemala, fled with Seagraves’ only child to her home country.
This was the outcome he had feared. Prior to Ivonne taking off, Seagraves went to court to make sure he would have a say so if she wanted to leave the country, worried she would take off. The judge approved the order.
But Seagraves never got word when Ivonne filed a motion with the court to take her son on a four-month trip to the Central American country.
Because he failed to appear in court, her motion was granted. The judge ordered she had to be back by June 1.
The photo sent to Seagraves shows Urijah in an “Angry Birds” T-shirt standing in a doorway. The boy is looking back over his left shoulder. A woman — unknown to Seagraves — stands beside him. Seagraves admits it is a bit blurry and not a great facial shot. It was hastily taken by an official to document Urijah’s whereabouts.
A second photo shows a binder with Urijah’s name and class number, proving he’s in school.
“I’m not gonna lie, I cried when I saw those,” Seagraves said. It was his first major glimpse of hope in the four-year battle to see his son.
He has looked at the photo on his phone over and over again since he got them in an email. The last time Seagraves saw Urijah he was 2 and only saying a few words. That is pretty typical for children with autism.
“It shows he is a little bigger now, and now I know he is going to school somewhere,” he said. The clues are small, but he will take them.
The legal battle
Attorney Mark Williams was sitting in court for another one of his cases when he saw the heartbroken father on the witness stand. Seagraves was asking the judge what could be done to get his son home.
“He was just sobbing, couldn’t keep himself together,” Williams recalled, adding his heart went out to him.
As a father himself, he said he couldn’t imagine being kept from his children.
“I handed him my card,” Williams said. “But he said he couldn’t pay me. I said I don’t care, I just want to hear your story.”
Since then, Williams has worked pro bono on the case. The biggest hurdle was finding Urijah. After four years with help from Interpol and the Missing Children’s Defense Fund, what felt like the impossible to Seagraves has happened.
After Urijah’s mother violated the custody agreement and in the eyes of U.S. law kidnapped him, Seagraves was granted sole custody. Should Urijah’s mother return, she would face felony charges. But this all has little impact in Guatemala.
Since Urijah is a U.S. citizen, it is up to the Guatemalan authorities to return him. U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-NC, has pledged his support in pressuring Guatemala to return the child, though Williams said the country has a bad record of doing so in other cases.
A GoFundMe was created to raise money to send Seagraves to Guatemala and hire a defense attorney in the country and eventually bring Urijah home.
As troubling to Seagraves as the international custody battle is his internal debate on whether to take Urijah from his mom.
“Do I just let it go and hope he is being taken care of, and then somewhere down the line when I’m an older man, do one of those things you see on those Lifetime movies, or do I fight and deal with taking him away from his mother,” he said.
Seagraves isn’t sure of Urijah’s living conditions having never been to Guatemala himself. He feels his son is probably not being neglected, but he wonders if he could create a better life for him.
“I dream about him,” Seagraves said, sitting in his Surf City home. Seagraves describes himself as a guy’s guy and works in construction, but the kidnapping still brings him to tears. He dreams about the two being together on the beach again — that is where they spent hours on the weekends when Seagraves had him.
“He loved to go out there and when I would pick him up, he would start saying beach,” Seagraves said. “Some kids with autism have just really high energy levels and when we would get out on the beach, he would just go and go, and go.”
What he has avoided day dreaming about is seeing Urijah again. In the last four years there were so many ups and downs, so many times he said he would get his hopes up.
Some friends have suggested he just give the whole thing up and move on.
At first, Seagraves said that when he lost Urijah he went through a type of mourning. A counselor encouraged him to write emails and letters to Urijah — even if there was no place to send them. Every day Seagraves would write him, telling him goodnight and that he loved him. But that got to be too hard, he said.
Still, he kept all of the letters, just in case.