A Russian judge convicted a Texas man on Tuesday of abusing his two sons between 2014 and 2018 in the United States, even though the law enforcement officials in suburban Houston who previously investigated the allegations never found cause to file charges.
David Barnes, 66, was sentenced to 21 years in a high-security Russian penal colony. His attorney, Gleb Glinka, said he is planning to appeal.
"Frankly, I'm horrified," Glinka told ABC News outside the courthouse. "There was almost no evidence that the court could base that verdict on."
Barnes, a native of Huntsville, Alabama, has been detained in Moscow since January 2022. His bench trial began in the fall of 2022, but occurred on nonconsecutive days and did not conclude until Monday. Barnes testified in his own defense near the end of the trial.
He was arrested by Russian authorities a few weeks after his family said he traveled to Moscow to see his children and apply for visitation rights in a Russian family court.
Barnes’ children had allegedly been taken out of the U.S. in 2019 illegally by his Russian ex-wife Svetlana Koptyaeva during a custody dispute, causing Interpol to issue global yellow warning notices to announce that the boys were missing.
"I didn't steal anyone," Koptyaeva said outside the courthouse on Tuesday. "I was just protecting my kids."
A warrant for felony interference with child custody against Koptyaeva was previously issued by Montgomery County prosecutors.
A criminal complaint said Koptyaeva "failed to comply with any condition for travel outside the United States with the children" and that an FBI agent believed that she initially flew with the children from Houston to Istanbul.
Barnes was subsequently designated by a Texas court as the children’s primary guardian, though the designation has been unenforceable due to the children disappearing from the U.S.
Koptyaeva had previously gone to law enforcement in Texas to allege that Barnes had abused the children there, but officials in the Lone Star State investigated the claims and found no basis to file charges against him.
In 2018, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services found insufficient evidence to support the accusations of abuse and closed the case, while in 2023, Kelly Blackburn of the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office told ABC News, "At this time, there are no accusations out of Montgomery County that we are aware of that would allow Mr. Barnes to be held in custody."
"I do know that everyone that heard and investigated the child sexual abuse allegations raised by Mrs. Barnes during the child custody proceedings did not find them to be credible," Blackburn said on Tuesday. "Mrs. Barnes’ Interference with Child Custody case is still pending, and the warrant for her is still active."
After Barnes arrived in Russia, Koptyaeva reported the allegations from Texas to police in Moscow. Koptyaeva later testified as part of the trial.
She told ABC News via email that the children were abused by Barnes, alleging they experienced "suffering and pain" and that she left the U.S. with them for their protection. Barnes has denied the allegations.
Unlike other Americans who have been held in Russia, all of Barnes’ previous court appearances were closed to the press and U.S. embassy representatives. ABC News was granted access to the reading of the verdict on Tuesday.
Barnes appeared in a cell in the courtroom, telling an ABC News reporter that although trips to court have been very exhausting, he feels that justice will triumph.
Although the trial in Russia centered around allegations from Texas, officials based in the state had no involvement in the prosecution.
"No one from Russia has ever reached out to our office regarding David Barnes," Blackburn said.
A State Department spokesperson told ABC News that U.S. Embassy officials were able to visit Barnes in custody on Feb. 5.
"We have seen reports of the sentencing of Mr. Barnes and are in communication with Mr. Barnes, his family and legal team," the spokesperson said in a statement.
Barnes' sister Carol told ABC News by phone that she has not heard from the State Department since the verdict. She says she was expecting a guilty ruling and lengthy sentence, given the rarity of not-guilty verdicts in Russia, but she worries about what will happen next.
"I was not surprised," Carol Barnes said. “I was devastated, of course, but I was hoping I’d be surprised the other way.”
She hopes her brother could be included in a prisoner exchange similar to the ones that allowed Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner to return to the U.S. from Russia after they were each convicted.
Unlike the cases of Reed, Griner, Whelan and Gershkovich, the State Department has not announced whether they consider Barnes to be wrongfully detained.
"The Department of State continuously reviews the circumstances surrounding the detentions of U.S. nationals overseas, including those in Russia, for indicators that they are wrongful," the State Department spokesperson said. "When making assessments, the Department conducts a legal, fact-based review that looks at the totality of the circumstances for each case individually."
Now that Barnes has been convicted, his family is hoping that officials in Washington will designate his detention as wrongful and work to secure his release.
“We don’t know where else to go," Carol Barnes said. “This is the most surreal thing I’ve ever experienced in my life."
David Barnes, American detained in Russia, found guilty by Moscow judge originally appeared on abcnews.go.com