On his last day of summer vacation,Chris Gulbraa,15,rode his bike away from his home in Kasugai,Japan,without looking back – he had no intention of returning.
Instead,he planned to fly to a reunion with his U.S. father,five years after his mother took him and his brother to Japan. He is the only child known to have returned on his own from such a separation.
On that August evening,he told his mother,Etsuko Tanizaki Allred,45,that he was going for a short ride. But Chris took a train to Osaka. There,he felt better. He was far away from anyone who might recognize him.
Chris's secret escape stemmed from an earlier getaway,when he had to leave another home in Farmington,Utah,just as quickly and furtively.
On Nov. 28,2001,Allred awakened Chris and his older brother,Michael,before dawn,urging them to pack quickly. They were moving to Japan.
“She told me that we were going to go to learn Japanese there and help my grandma out because she hurt her back,” Chris said. “It was just kind of weird because it wasn't like her.”
Although Chris didn't realize it then,Allred was running from his father,Mike Gulbraa.
The couple had been divorced for several years,and Gulbraa,42,had asked for custody after hearing that Allred's second husband,Daren Allred,had been investigated for the abuse of his own children.
Gulbraa didn't know they had left until three days later,when their answering machine announced it was full.
He said to himself,”Oh,my gosh,they've bolted.”
Allred said in an e-mail that,at the time,she felt her move to Japan was permitted.
“My attorney told me legally I could go to Japan because the temporary restraining order has been expired,” she said. “The boys knew exactly where we were going and they were thrilled about going to Japan finally. … Even today I still believe it was legal.”
Once in Japan,the boys' contact with their father gradually dropped until it was “essentially nonexistent,” said Gulbraa,a Columbus,Ind.,businessman.
“I can tell you for many,many months,I didn't sleep,” he said. “I probably didn't eat. I lost a job over it. Devastating,I guess,is as simple as you can put it.”
Utah courts gave Gulbraa full custody of his sons on March 27,2002,and Allred was ordered to return the children to Gulbraa immediately. But the Allreds ignored repeated summons to do that.
The Allreds were charged with international parental kidnapping. International arrest warrants known as Interpol red notices were issued for both of them. Yet as long as they remained in Japan,the charges could not affect them. Japanese courts do not recognize parental abduction as a crime.
Allred said she was “shocked and discouraged” to learn of the charges,contending they otherwise would have returned to the U.S. two years ago.
Meanwhile,Allred told the boys their father had mistreated her. When Chris demanded to call his father,he said his mother would disconnect the phone and order him to “calm down.”
After Chris turned 15,his mother gave him a cell phone,which he eventually used to text message his father. After several lengthy phone conversations,Gulbraa informed Chris that if he went to the U.S. consulate in Osaka to request a passport,he would find paperwork that would allow him to leave Japan.
As Chris walked off the plane in Chicago,Gulbraa noted his son wore the same gentle half-smile he had always remembered.
They exchanged high-fives. Then they hugged.
“You're wearing a Minnesota Vikings hat?” Gulbraa teased his son. “What's up with that?”
As he got into his dad's car,Chris said he thought to himself,”OK. I'm safe,now.”
“They eat him up like chocolate,” said Gulbraa,who remarried in 1997.
The tables abruptly turned,Allred says she pines for a son who lives an ocean beyond her reach.
“It makes me feel like part of me has died,” she said. “But he's only 15 and I know he loves me. He said he will come back when he turns 18. I look forward to seeing him.”
Meanwhile,Gulbraa's concern has grown for Chris's brother,Michael,who still lives with his mother in Japan.
“With Chris being gone,I don't think Michael has that extra buffer,” Gulbraa said. “I realize in about a year he will be 18,and it doesn't really matter what I might want or think,but I want him to be safe.”
Chris said he's tried before to convince his brother to come to the U.S.,but he receives angry e-mails in reply.
“He's still on my mom's side,” Chris said. “He still believes everything my mom says.”