For most Americans, a trip to Italy means a romantic getaway. But for Michael McCarty, who has made more than 15 trips to Italy over the past two years, these treks have been anything but an escape.
That's because he is desperately trying to bring back what means the most to him in the world: his 8-year-old son, Liam. McCarty's ex-wife, Manuela Antonelli, took Liam to her native country more than two years ago, and he's been fighting to get him back ever since.
After hitting continual roadblocks and runarounds in Italy, McCarty went public with his story this summer.
"This is the most serious business that one can undertake," said McCarty, 48. "I'm here to save my son."
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It was 1990 when Michael first introduced himself in New York to a beautiful woman from Italy. Her name: Manuela Antonelli.
"I sort of bucked up my courage and walked up to her and started talking, and asked her what her phone number was, which I still remember, because it was hard to forget," said McCarty, chuckling.
A first date led to a romance and, two years later, to an intimate wedding in Central Park.
"She was very vivacious, energetic. A lot of presence," said McCarty. "She was sometimes kinda kooky, and that was -- we were young. It was attractive."
McCarty was a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and a photographer with a passion for Italy who started his own fine-art printing studio. Manuela had experience as a television producer and reporter for an Italian television network.
Times were good. But times change.
"She went through some episodes of depression," said McCarty. "She started having bad anxiety attacks. We tried some couple counseling, we couldn't seem to get it together. She actually one day told me that she was in love with somebody else. So we were separated."
Manuela's fling didn't last, but the separation did. But just as their lives seemed to be drifting apart, fate drew the couple together again.
"We saw each other a few times and spent some time together," said McCarty. "She became pregnant. ... Once it happens, it happens. Then it's a little person and nothing else matters. ... I spent as much time as I could with him. I was fully available for anything to take care of him at any time."
McCarty's close friend Rachel Berg saw how he nurtured his son.
"All of his focus has been on, 'What can I do with Liam? What are we gonna do this weekend?'" said Berg.
"We always had a very tight bond, right from the beginning," said McCarty.
But McCarty's bond with Manuela Antonelli is now frayed beyond repair. The two tried to reconcile. It didn't work. By 2003, McCarty began to suspect that Antonelli might take Liam away for good.
"She started kind of shuttling him back and forth between Italy and New York," said McCarty. "Just spontaneously take him, and then spontaneously bring him back. And finally I got very concerned that she would take him there and not come back. So I finally filed for divorce here in New York, and sought joint custody."
Divorce is rarely a simple matter. But McCarty still hoped the courts would provide him a way to end his marriage and continue his relationship with his son.
"That was all that I ever wanted was an equal partnership in raising my son," said McCarty.