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Charges of abuse denied

The father of a young Las Vegas girl said he disappeared because he wanted to protect her emotional health and not because he is guilty of molesting her.

In a telephone interview last week from a location he would not disclose, Malakai "Sonny" Kaufusi said he loves and misses his daughter, who recently turned 9.

"I do hope that one day after she turns 18 that we will be able to have a father-daughter relationship again," he said.

Kaufusi, 44, contacted the Review-Journal after reading an In Depth story the newspaper published Oct. 19. The story provided details of a lengthy custody battle between Kaufusi and his ex-wife, Tiffany Barney.

For four years, Barney accused Kaufusi of sexually abusing their daughter, while Kaufusi accused Barney of using the allegations to alienate his daughter from him.

Kaufusi last saw his daughter in May 2006, when Family Court Judge Jennifer Elliott put an end to his visitation with the girl and ordered him to remain 12 feet away from all children.

The judge made the ruling after receiving a letter from psychologist Melissa Kalodner, who had been treating the girl for 16 months.

"The bottom line and the main reason for my writing of this letter is to let you know that this six-year-old girl’s mental disorders will not be mended any time soon if she is continuously forced to visit the man who violently raped her and threatened to kill her mother and herself," Kalodner wrote.

According to the letter, the girl had "begged" Kalodner to make the visits with her father stop, "because she is scared of him."

Last week, Kaufusi insisted that either Barney or her relatives coached the child to make such statements to Kalodner and others.

When asked why they would have done that, Kaufusi replied, "Hatred? Racism? I don’t know."

Barney scoffed at the suggestion of racism, saying, "How can I be racist if I married a Tongan?"

She also pointed out that a black boy lived in her family’s home intermittently during her childhood and called her parents "Mom" and "Dad."

Kaufusi’s parents emigrated from Tonga, and Barney has evidence that he fled to the archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean after he disappeared. He has not faced criminal charges in connection with the sexual abuse allegations.

"I am completely denying that I ever molested my daughter. Of course not," he said last week. "I did not. Everything was completely appropriate. I did not touch my daughter in any way sexually. No. Absolutely."

Kaufusi also denied that he has faced any other criminal charges, but Idaho records show that he was charged with malicious injury to property, a felony, and battery, a misdemeanor, in 1986.

A criminal complaint accused him of destroying a car by hitting it with a tire iron and grabbing a girl "around the neck."

Court records show that he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of malicious injury to property, in addition to the battery charge.

The records also show that after Kaufusi lived up to all the conditions of his probation — paying restitution, completing community service, and serving three days in jail — the charges were dismissed, and he was allowed to withdraw his guilty pleas.

In June 2006, Elliott held an emergency hearing in the child custody case after receiving evidence indicating that Kaufusi had been intercepting e-mail messages between Barney and her lawyers.

The judge ordered Kaufusi to turn over his computer by 5 p.m. that day. He did, but he never returned to court, and Elliott issued a warrant for his arrest for contempt of court.

Kaufusi said he learned about the warrant after he disappeared, but he has no plans to turn himself in.

Although he has a job, Kaufusi said he has no money to continue the court fight. Kaufusi, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, would not say what type of work he does. He previously worked with children as a social worker.

"I don’t have money like they do," he said.

Barney, 33, became a lawyer in 2006. She and her brother Tony, also a lawyer, estimate that the custody case has cost them $1.5 million, a figure that includes the time they have spent on it.

They have filed lawsuits against Kaufusi and various professionals involved in the Family Court case. Barney insists the negligence of those professionals, combined with Elliott’s bias in favor of Kaufusi, exposed her daughter to years of sexual abuse.

Barney said her lawyers, Tony Barney and Lisa Rasmussen, filed an ethics complaint against Elliott three years ago with the Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission. The complaint, which is confidential, is still pending.

Elliott, who sent Barney to jail for two days in 2005 for denying Kaufusi a visit with his daughter, denied she had a bias in the case.

Barney and Kaufusi met in April 1998 and married eight months later. Barney said relatives tried to dissuade her from marrying Kaufusi, whose previous marriage ended in divorce, because they considered him selfish.

Kaufusi said Barney’s family disliked him because he was Tongan and because he was older than she.

"I just wasn’t in their preconceptions of who she should have married," he said.

In June 1999, shortly after learning she was pregnant, Barney left Kaufusi. Barney said the choice was solely hers.

Kaufusi said Barney wanted to give their child up for adoption, but he opposed that choice.

Barney said she considered that option during her pregnancy, after the couple’s separation, because it would have allowed the child to grow up in a two-parent home.

"I wanted the best for this little girl that I would be having," she said.

The couple’s divorce was final in October 2001, and Barney was granted primary physical custody of their 1-year-old daughter.

Kaufusi was allowed visitations with the girl each week from Friday evening until Sunday morning. Both parents said the arrangement worked until July 2002, when Barney told police she feared Kaufusi was molesting their daughter.

In March 2003, Kaufusi filed a court motion seeking increased visitation time with the child. He said he did not file the motion to retaliate against Barney for contacting police. "I just wanted a little bit more time to be able to go to church with my daughter."

Kaufusi said he now regrets taking that action, which initiated the lengthy court battle. While presiding over the case, Elliott removed the child from both parents for two years and limited both of them to supervised visits during that time.

To support his claim that Barney alienated his daughter from him, Kaufusi pointed out that she referred to him by his first name when talking to their daughter. In a recording Barney made of her daughter in 2004, both of them referred to Kaufusi as "Sonny."

"Why are you scared to go to Sonny’s?" Barney asked her daughter.

"I don’t want him to touch my cootie," the child replied, using the last word to describe her genitals.

Barney denied that she used her ex-husband’s first name to alienate her daughter from him.

"I just didn’t talk about him as a father, because he didn’t live with me," she said. "He was never a part of my life. We were separated even before she was born."

Barney said she gave Kaufusi visitation time before their custody case began and, until the sexual abuse allegations arose, never intended to prevent her daughter from seeing him.

In January 2007, several months after Kaufusi disappeared, Elliott terminated his parental rights.

Kaufusi said he is now happily married and has a 6-month-old son.

"I just want peace," he said. "Tiffany can live her life. She should go and get married, have a family."

Kaufusi said he was dismayed that Barney talked about their court case to the Review-Journal.

"It’s just so maddening and just not right that she would do all this in a public forum," Kaufusi said.

The girl’s name was not used in the story at the request of her mother.

Elliott unsealed the case in July 2006 and lifted a gag order. Barney said she hopes her story will help improve the court system.

Kaufusi said he believes his daughter loves both her parents and wants to participate in both of their lives, but he also believes she would not feel comfortable saying that in front of Barney’s family.

In September, the girl told the Review-Journal she was happy that her father had left and added, "I feel more safe."

Barney said her daughter is old enough to express her feelings and will choose, when she’s an adult, whether she wants to resume contact with her father.

"She will decide whether that relationship will go or not," the mother said. "I believe she won’t want it."

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135.

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