BILLINGS, Mont. – A Montana man who set off a months-long search for his three children when he took them to the Bahamas on a sailboat pleaded guilty Monday after reaching a deal with prosecutors that calls for a four-year prison term.
James Ray Bryant, 44, pleaded guilty to a felony count of parenting interference. Two other counts of parenting interference were dropped by prosecutors as part of the plea deal.
Sentencing was set for June 27.
Bryant was arrested in Florida in late March, seven months after the children's mother said he failed to return their children to Montana under a custody agreement.
Although state District Judge John Brown is not bound by the plea agreement, Bryant's court-appointed attorney said Monday that his client decided to take the deal rather than face trial. Under Montana law, parenting interference carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
"The agreement was presented by the state and reviewed by Mr. Bryant. Mr. Bryant decided he wanted to accept the agreement offered by the state, and it was done," said Bryant's attorney, public defender Peter Ohman.
Todd Whipple, chief deputy county attorney in Gallatin County, declined to comment on the details of the agreement, saying it would be inappropriate before Bryant is sentenced.
The children's mother had reported them missing in August. Investigators knew early on they had been taken to the Bahamas but said they could do nothing because of an arduous extradition process.
After receiving an anonymous tip that the children's stepmother, Angela Bryant, had flown to Hawaii, police there put the home where she was staying under surveillance, then arrested her during a traffic stop. She told police her husband and the children were in south Florida.
In March, border agents searching for Bryant and the children spotted a boat 30 miles off the Florida coast attempting to return to Bahamian waters. The children — Megan Bryant, 15, Maxwell Bryant, 13, and Sebastian Bryant, 12 — were on board, along with a dog, a cat, a lizard and a snake. Authorities said they had no reason to believe the children were in any immediate danger.
The children were reunited with their mother and legal guardian, Kelly Bryant, in Belgrade. Kelly Bryant's phone has since been disconnected and she could not be located Monday.
Neither side in the case has publicly offered insights into why James Bryant took the children in violation of his custody arrangement.
According to court documents, Angela Bryant suggested in a Sept. 26 email to her son that she and James Bryant were unhappy with the court-approved arrangement. She added that returning the children to their mother "isn't acceptable," according to an affidavit from prosecutors filed in November.
Angela Bryant is awaiting extradition to Montana from Hawaii on charges identical to those initially faced by her husband. She was scheduled to appear in court Wednesday, said Hawaii prosecutor Jason M. Skier.
Bryant was initially freed on $10,000 bail after challenging her extradition. After several delays in the case, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer last month sought Bryant's return via a request directly submitted to Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
Abercrombie approved the extradition request May 5 and Bryant was arrested again last week, Skier said. At a Friday court appearance on the governor's warrant, Angela Bryant was again released, this time on bail of $250, Skier said.
Skier said he asked that bail be set at $250,000 but the judge disagreed, saying Bryant already posted bail once and had shown up for prior court dates.
"I've never personally seen anyone set bail for a governor's warrant. It's a no-bail warrant," Skier said. "Obviously, the judge had another interpretation."