John Cotton Sr. married 34-year-old Silvia Chilombo Mulenga, a native of Zambia, in 2005, but the couple divorced in 2008. They had joint custody of their 4-year-old son, John Cotton Jr.
In 2009, Mulenga lost her job, was evicted from her home and her visa had expired. When she told the court she intended to return to Zambia, a court order was issued prohibiting her from taking the child. Mulenga allegedly ignored the court order and took the child to Zambia in December 2009 during her weekend visitation.
"The clothes were gone, most of the furniture was gone, and I knew then what most likely had happened," John Cotton Sr. said.
He says his ex-wife used a falsified passport to smuggle their son from Anaheim to Zambia. The abduction was reported to the Cypress Police Department on Dec. 4, 2009. To the father's horror, Zambia does not have any treaty that would help him get his son back.
"I almost lost it," he said.
After an investigation of the case, a family court awarded full custody to the father. The FBI learned in July 2013 that the child and the boy's grandmother traveled to the Netherlands to visit the boy's uncle, who is a professional soccer player. John Cotton Sr. rushed there with court orders from the Orange County D.A. and the state department.
"I would pray each night in hope that something positive would come out, and eventually, I would have my son," he said.
Dutch authorities took the child, and after more than three months of court proceedings in the Netherlands, John Cotton Sr. was allowed this week to retrieve his son, who is now 8 years old. The father and son returned to California Wednesday.
"It's like a dream come true," he said. "This place is no longer just a house. It's a home."
It's a new life that comes with new adjustments. John Cotton Jr. misses Zambia.
"Sometimes I would play on the grass, running barefoot; sometimes I would ride my bike on the road," the boy said.
Cotton says they will both get counseling from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, helping his son learn that above all, he is a boy loved by both parents. His dad is now making up for lost time.
The child's mother was charged with one felony count of child abduction, but she was never extradited because in Zambia, parental abductions are not against the law. If she should return to the U.S., she could face arrest for kidnapping and falsifying government documents.