A teenager who learned last fall while applying for college that his life had been based on lies and deceit asked a judge in Cleveland on Wednesday to not send his father to prison for abducting him from his mother's Alabama home in 2002 when he was 5.
The father, 53-year-old Bobby Hernandez, received four years, but his sentence could have stretched for decades. He pleaded guilty last month to kidnapping and other charges for taking Julian, now a high school senior, to Cleveland where he created new lives and new identities for both of them.
With his mother sitting in the courtroom, Julian Hernandez acknowledged that growing up without her in his life was painful, but taking away his father would be "doing the same thing all over again."
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He said he was told his mother and father had broken up and he knew she lived somewhere else. "I never questioned it any further because I didn't really care. My father was there and he was all I ever needed," Julian said. "Even if other people can't, I forgive him."
Bobby Hernandez, wearing an orange jail uniform and his wrists cuffed, cried as Julian spoke. The two hadn't seen each other or even spoken since a judge issued a no-contact order in December.
Hernandez struggled to control his emotions when he spoke just before his sentence was announced. He told Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Cassandra Collier-Williams that he took "full responsibility" for what he'd done and apologized to his son and to the teen's mother.
By all accounts, Hernandez was a model father who pushed and supported Julian, an honor student, in his studies and pursuit of the martial arts. Julian still lives in his father's Cleveland home with Hernandez's fiancé, her three children and a 3-year-old step-sister.
"Whenever I needed something, he made it happen," Julian told Collier-Williams.
His mother was not as forgiving. In a statement read on her behalf by celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, she said not knowing where Julian was or whether he was safe had a physical and emotional toll. She didn't ask that Hernandez receive a specific sentence, which Allred said after the hearing was done out of respect for Julian.
Julian's mother, who asked not to be identified, still lives in the Birmingham, Alabama, area where Julian was abducted.
The day Julian was abducted, August 28, 2002, remains the worst day of her life, and in her "darkest moments," she contemplated suicide, she said. But she also never stopped looking for her son and left his room untouched for years.
"As the weeks went by, I felt completely and utterly alone," Julian's mother said. "I didn't know if he was gone forever."
Allred also read statements from Julian's maternal grandparents that detailed how they chased false leads about Julian's whereabouts across the South. The grandmother said she'd buy a Christmas ornament every year for Julian while awaiting his return.
Julian visited his mother and her family in Alabama at Thanksgiving and at Christmas after his father's arrest last November. Allred said after the hearing that Julian and his mother are building a relationship.
Most details surrounding the abduction and lives of Julian and his father in Cleveland remain unknown. Prosecutors continue to refuse to provide any details about how Hernandez managed to pull off his deceptions.
What was revealed Wednesday was how the FBI became involved in the case. After Julian discovered a discrepancy with his Social Security number while starting the college application process, he told a school guidance counselor that he'd been kidnapped. It's unclear how he learned of that. The guidance counselor contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which had listed Julian as missing since 2002.
Bobby Hernandez's legal travails may not be over. An Alabama prosecutor, Shawn Allen, has said authorities would meet with Julian's relatives to determine whether to extradite the father to Jefferson County, where he could face prison time for interfering with custody.
Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo contributed to this report.