Dec. 17, 2009— -- 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."
Watch the full story Friday on "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET
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.
A Fantastic Vacation, Then Terrible Twist
McCarty said Liam's fifth year was one of the best periods of their life together. He has video of the boy's fifth birthday. For McCarty, the images are both precious and painful.
McCarty began making the home videos in 2003. He did so in part to preserve the moments for Liam.
"This will prove to him, when he gets older, what our relationship was like," said McCarty.
But it was also a matter of self-defense.
"This'll be good to have ... a valuable aid, documentation of my time with him," McCarty said.
Michael needed documentation of his good relationship because of circumstances that arose in the summer of 2006. It was just after a vacation McCarty had taken with Liam to upstate New York and the New Jersey shore.
"We just had a perfectly enjoyable, fantastic vacation," said McCarty. "It was the first time that I had spent that much consistent time with him. ... It was great."
But then, about a week after their return, he says he had a horrible surprise.
"I get served with an order, or a summons, to appear in court," said McCarty. "We go to court, and they tell me in court that she has accused me of sexually molesting my son.
"There's no way to describe what it's like to be accused of what I consider to be the most heinous act in the world against your own child. I don't think I slept for weeks. I mean, it was absolutely horrible."
"He was in tears," said Berg, the friend, "and I [was] just saying 'No. No, it can't be -- I can't believe this is happening to you.'"
Manuela Antonelli alleged that Liam had returned from the vacation a changed boy, behaving strangely at home and telling detailed stories of abuse from the trip. Following standard procedure, the New York County Family Court suspended Michael McCarty's visitation rights and ordered that the allegations be investigated.
"We had three reports submitted to the court," said Dr. Bernice Schaul, a clinical psychologist who has done custody evaluations for the New York Family Court for decades, and who has worked with McCarty on his case. "[They found] that the allegations were baseless. And there was no reason to assume there was any kind of abuse. ... There was no issue. There was no issue at all."
McCarty said he knew what had happened.
"I tried to talk to [Antonelli]," said McCarty, "and she wanted more money. We had a settlement, and she wanted more money."
The abuse investigations were an ordeal for Michael, and also for Liam.
"They were doing interviews, the way that they should in these cases, of course," said McCarty. "He was also subjected to all the physical examinations that go along with this."
But at least the court had barred Antonelli from taking Liam out of the country, and restored McCarty's visitations. So now Michael made a dramatic -- and fateful -- decision. He moved for full custody of Liam.
'I Was Shocked That His Mother Did That'
Ironically, the sexual-abuse investigations, initiated by Antonelli, turned up evidence that might have actually helped her ex-husband.
"[The evidence was] that there were serious problems that the mother had that would make it difficult for her to provide a healthy environment for this child," said Schaul.
While the court pondered the custody question, Liam was in school in Greenwich Village. McCarty was on his way to the school to pick up Liam when he got the news: Antonelli had taken Liam to Italy.
"It was like everything exploded at once. I could not believe that that had happened," said McCarty. "I was shocked that his mother did that. ... I mean, this whole thing has been like the Twilight Zone."
Antonelli has never returned to the United States.
"When he first was kidnapped, my whole apartment was filled with his toys and his things," said McCarty. "For the longest time, I couldn't move them. I just couldn't even touch them."
McCarty thought he'd have Liam back quickly. After all, by taking him in violation of a court order, Antonelli was committing a crime.
"And the FBI took it to the U.S. Attorney, and they issued an international parental kidnapping warrant for her, and that's why she is wanted," said McCarty.
After Liam was taken, a New York court awarded McCarty full custody.
But as McCarty learned the hard way, the U.S. justice system is one thing -- the Italian justice system is another.
He said the Italian authorities dismissed his appeal.
"They said, 'Well, what she did was not illegal under Italian law, so it's not illegal,'" said McCarty.
"She's a fugitive," said McCarty's attorney, Phil Segal. "It's outrageous ... that the criminal authorities in Italy don't arrest or take her into custody and extradite her to the United States."
One might think there's some kind of international law for settling these kinds of disputes and preventing parental kidnappings. There is -- it's commonly called the Hague Abduction Convention. But when McCarty tried to invoke that treaty to regain custody of Liam, the Italian courts ruled that they still had jurisdiction over the custody question.
"Instead of applying international law properly, they just dismissed and said it was OK to redetermine custody," said Segal. "They had no authority to do that."
That meant that not only was Antonelli allowed to remain free, she was able to file another criminal complaint repeating the allegations that McCarty had molested Liam back in 2006 -- allegations which had already been investigated and dismissed by the New York court.
"She couldn't take in the fact that these evaluations were saying, 'Your child's safe. Your child's fine,'" said Schaul. "That was intolerable to her."
No Italian tribunal ever found any basis for Antonelli's claims of abuse, either. But they did put McCarty through an entire criminal inquest. During that proceeding, McCarty submitted the videos he shot with Liam as evidence that their relationship was healthy and strong.
"Just in the week before she left, there's videotape of him jumping all over me, hugging me -- it's a fortunate thing that I have it," said McCarty.
Italian authorities exonerated McCarty -- but it took forever, and in the meantime, he was not allowed to communicate with Liam. In two-and-a-half years he has seen his son only five times.
And what about Liam? Aside from having his father ripped away from him, he was now subjected, again, to repeated questioning about being abused by his own father.
"It's devastating," said Schaul. "Suddenly his father disappeared from his life. A father he loved. ...His whole world is turned upside down."
But it was not all bad news. After years of investigations and motions, an Italian court recognized that what Antonelli was doing was not just wrong, but damaging to Liam.
"They took away her parental authority," said McCarty.
But instead of returning Liam to McCarty, the one parent who was deemed fit, the Italian courts made what McCarty called their most outrageous decision yet, placing Liam in an orphanage.
"Throughout all of this, I'm saying, 'Here I am, I've got an order of custody, give him back to me,'" said McCarty. "And they said, 'No, we're gonna put him in an orphanage.'"
"I have been to the orphanage," said McCarty. "It's not Dickensian, but it's not a resort. ... It's not home. I mean, I can't imagine what that must be like for him."
'He Hasn't Stopped Loving His Dad'
McCarty visited Italy more than 15 times, working with an Italian lawyer to get Liam back.
After placing the boy in an orphanage, the Italian courts stripped McCarty of his parental rights.
"They said that Liam was now rejecting me," said McCarty.
It was true, the loving father-son relationship seen in those videos was ruined. After years in Antonelli's custody, Liam was now hostile to his father. But experts say it's common for one parent to poison the child against the other in cases like this -- and it shouldn't have much bearing on the case.
"Just because Liam says he hates his father doesn't mean he does," said child psychologist Dr. Richard Warshak, author of "Divorce Poison." "You don't take it seriously when your child says that. And the Italian courts shouldn't take it seriously."
Warshak pointed out that Liam only started rejecting McCarty after he was abducted by Antonelli.
"He hasn't stopped loving his dad," said Warshak. "He just doesn't feel free to express those feelings and more than that, he's actually being rewarded for saying bad things about his dad. ... To give the 8-year-old child the authority and power to reject his father and to take that seriously, it's astounding."
But that's just what the Italian courts have done. And now McCarty is only allowed occasional, supervised visits with his son.
"It will be the first time I'm seeing him in five months," said McCarty before a recent visit. "A bit nervous about that, but I'm excited to see him."
The visit was supposed to help heal the father-son relationship. But when McCarty arrived, he got a nasty surprise.
"We arrived there and there was Liam, surrounded by six police officers. The mother was there, screaming," said McCarty.
Claiming the visit would be too stressful to Liam, authorities called the whole thing off.
"They canceled it," said McCarty. "So I've made this trip for nothing. I'm not gonna be able to see my son."
McCarty was allowed to go by the orphanage, not to see his son, but to pick up presents he and his family sent to Liam. They were never delivered.
"That just gets added to the pile. There is a giant pile of two-and-a-half years worth of Christmas presents that haven't been given to him," said McCarty.
McCarty, worried that Liam's condition was deteriorating with each passing day, decided to fight back in another way."I need to get him out of there," said McCarty. "I don't have a choice to give up."
The orphanage released Liam to stay with Antonelli's parents for what was called a vacation. McCarty suspected the boy would really be living with Antonelli again, although Italian courts had deemed her unfit.
"She's not supposed to be with him," said McCarty. "They took him away from her because she was damaging to him."
Even though Antonelli is wanted by the FBI and Interpol, "20/20" found Manuela Antonelli one morning leaving an apartment building and driving off with a young blond boy who looked like Liam.
"That's Liam with Manuela," said McCarty, looking at the images. "She's taking him by the hand."
Would this be the evidence that finally gets Michael McCarty his son back?
"It should be a game-changer," said McCarty. "She's in violation of Italy's own orders."
McCarty finally started an awareness campaign including numerous TV appearances, newspaper interviews, a Web site called saveliam.org and fundraisers hosted by his family. The goal was to bring the case front-and-center for the Italian government and the U.S. State Department.
Michelle Bond, a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, said McCarty was not alone in his fight. "We're frequently speaking to Mr. McCarty himself," Bond told ABC News. "We've been working very, very closely with him to assist."
But that assistance is limited. The U.S. government is letting the Italian judicial system handle the case. Aside from complaining about delays in the proceedings and denials of McCarty's visitation rights, Washington says there's not much it can do.
"The child is under the legal custody of the Italian authorities," Bond said. "This is a very difficult case. There's certainly no nonchalance. That would be completely the wrong way to characterize it."
The only Italian authority who agreed to speak with "20/20" was Amato Berardi, a member of the governing party in parliament.
Berardi said it's not a simple case of handing Liam to his father, despite the United States' issuing an international parental kidnapping warrant for Antonelli and the Italian courts' recognizing that Antonelli's actions were damaging to Liam.
"The Italian judiciary will favor an Italian citizen," Berardi said. "The mother is an Italian citizen."
Berardi admitted the Italian system has problems. "The Italian judicial system, as we stand today, might take up to six, seven, eight years to make a decision," he said. "It needs to be updated, it needs to be changed."
That may be nice for McCarty to hear but it doesn't really help. As McCarty's ordeal dragged on, the strain began to show.
"He lives with a constant level of pain," psychologist Schaul said. "And the sense of loss is just enormous."
McCarty said, "I'm just pissed off, outraged, for a lot of reasons. I have a little game that I play with myself. And I wake up in the morning, and I say, 'Is today the day that I'm going to give up?' And the answer has been the same every day: 'Not today.'"
'I Can Get Him Back'
After months of getting nowhere, McCarty was finally allowed to see Liam.
"It was incredible," McCarty said. "It wasn't jumping up and down on my shoulders, but it was my son, crying out for me to help him."
A new judge agreed that Liam had been psychologically damaged by what had happened. He ordered that the boy be removed from his mother immediately. The judge ordered Liam back into an orphanage, saying he needed to be in a neutral environment and that McCarty needed to rebuild his relationship with his son.
It was not ideal but, for McCarty, it was a big step in the right direction. "Finally, someone seemed to be an advocate," McCarty said.
McCarty left Rome last month optimistic about his chances of reuniting with Liam.
"I believe that I can get him back," McCarty said. "I can get him back to America."
The court ordered that Liam be removed from his mother's family so he can begin rebuilding his relationship with McCarty. But just as McCarty arrived back in New York, he got some devastating news.
"Somebody at the court made a mistake," McCarty said. "And released him to the grandparents who were there. And apparently his mother picked him up from the grandparents and they are now missing somewhere in Italy."
In violation of the court's order, Antonelli had re-abducted Liam. Italian police are looking for him but they remain at large.
"There must have been a miscommunication there," Berardi said. "The mother must have obtained Liam. And we don't know where their whereabouts is."
McCarty was incredulous. "My son is missing," he said. "His legal custody in Italy is in the hands of Social Services and they don't know where he is."
"20/20" has been trying for months to get Antonelli to talk to us.
We confronted Antonelli after an earlier court appearance and asked her why she took Liam to Italy.
"I had custody ... I had full custody," she said.
She refused repeated interview requests but we received a video from her days ago.
"I'm doing what I need to do," Antonelli says in the video. "I'm a mother and I'm doing what I can do at best. I'm protecting my son because that's what he wants."
Still in hiding, Antonelli continues to claim that McCarty abused Liam, despite his exoneration by courts in the United States and Italy. She insists she is a fit parent, saying that Liam wants nothing to do with his father.
"I'm happy because I'm with my son," she says in the video. "My son is happy because he's with me."
McCarty finds himself back at square one.
"I am tired," he said. "I just have to regroup and take it day by day. I am just trying to do what any responsible parent would do."
For more information, please visit www.saveliam.org