KALISPELL (AP) - Last July, Byron Nelson traveled to the Bahamas with his wife and baby on vacation. When he returned to Kalispell, his wife and child didn't. Nelson hasn't seen them since.
On May 7, officials from the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas were scheduled to perform a welfare check on Nelson's 18-month-old son, Hunter Nelson. The embassy located the baby in March living with Nelson's estranged wife, Chelsea Nelson, in a case that is being considered parental child abduction.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Byron Nelson has claim to custody over the child, as granted by an ex parte ruling from a local District Court judge. But Nelson, 30, is finding out that the process of returning his child back to the U.S. is complicated at best, nightmarish at worst.
Nelson's situation has shades of the well-publicized David Goldman case. There, Goldman's wife refused to come back with their son after a vacation to her native Brazil in 2004. Nelson said his wife is a native of the Bahamas.
For five years, Goldman fought to get his child back, wading through international law, writing endless e-mails to elected officials, calling anybody who would listen doing everything he could, just like Nelson is doing.
Goldman finally was reunited with his son, Sean, on Christmas Eve of 2009, a year after the wife died giving birth to another child. Nelson hopes his wait won't be nearly as long. Hunter is his only child.
"I write hundreds of e-mails every day," Nelson said from his Kalispell home recently. "My mom and I meet for breakfast and then start writing. I have a Facebook army.
"I'm just trying to make as much noise as I can. I've exhausted every avenue I know."
Both the U.S. Department of State and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) have taken up the case. Robert Lowery, executive director for NCMEC's missing children division in Alexandria, Va., said his organization filed paperwork in the Bahamas in November. It is the first case he's seen involving parental child abduction in the Bahamas.
"The jurisdiction falls on us to work with the parents and the child," Lowery said. "Our concern is really the welfare of the children. We'll work within the legal system of both countries to give custody back to the parent with claim to custody."
"Clearly, Mr. Nelson does have the claim in this regard by our estimation," he added.
Hunter Nelson is one of only eight cases from Montana listed on NCMEC's website. His is one of the most recently added cases, while some date back as far as 1976.
Byron Nelson has applied for the return of his child through an international treaty called the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. A court in the Bahamas must grant permission to hold a custody hearing in the United States. Both Nelson and Lowery said the order may come down from the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.
"It's to give me the custody hearing I deserve," Nelson said. "We bought a house here. We had a kid here. Custody should be here."
Nelson and his wife met in Kalispell and have a home together in Evergreen. They have been married for three years and are still married, as far as Nelson knows. He hasn't been served any papers. Chelsea, 24, was born in the Bahamas and on occasion the couple would visit her parents there. Her dual citizenship is a factor in the international legal process.
Chelsea Nelson did not respond to an e-mail or voice message left by the Beacon.
At the end of their Bahamian vacations, Nelson said his wife would often feel a tinge of sadness. Also, they hadn't been getting along great before their most recent trip. But he said he had no reason to believe she would decide to stay. Nelson insisted he wouldn't leave the country without his son. At that time, he said, Chelsea's father got involved.
"He made it clear that if I didn't leave his country, it would be bad for my health," Nelson said.
Upon returning to the U.S., Nelson continued speaking with his wife and said he was led to believe that they would work the situation out. But over time, he said it became apparent that she had no intentions of returning with Hunter. Nelson then initiated the legal process of getting his son back. He said he had previously hoped to solve the issue between them.
"I thought we'd handle it like adults," he said. "I've tried to tell her: 'This is felony parental abduction. This is irreversible litigation. This isn't a freaking game. This is about a kid's life.'"
He added: "I'm not trying to be vindictive. I just want my kid."
His wife cut off communication last fall and they haven't spoken since. Nelson said other members of Chelsea's family have quietly reached out to him on the condition of remaining anonymous, sending him photos and providing updates of his son's status. But those moments have been rare, Nelson said.
Nelson has contacted everybody he can think of, even high-ranking officials he expects no answers from, such as the U.S. Secretary of State and the Prime Minister of the Bahamas. He keeps in regular contact with representatives of NCMEC and the State Department. The office of Sen. Max Baucus has been helpful, Nelson said.
Rene Lynch, Byron's mother, said she understands that such a complex international issue takes time to sort out, but she still can't help feeling frustrated.
"They're all telling us the same thing: Hurry up and wait," she said. "At the same time, it's been nine months and that baby doesn't know who his father is."
Lowery said Nelson, if he chooses, could pursue parental kidnapping or other charges. But for now, the goal is getting Hunter back to the United States for a custody hearing. Lowery couldn't offer a timeline, but he did express confidence.
"We're not going to give up," Lowery said. "His chances are strong."
Nelson, who owns a siding business, said he's lost 40 pounds since the ordeal began.
"Sometimes it's too much, with this and trying to pay my mortgage," he said. "I just go into depression and I don't eat right. But I've come to terms with it, that I have to stay here and stay strong and healthy for my kid."