In August 1968, ten days after Soviet tanks crunched into Czechoslovakia, an electrician named Bedrich Gabriel fled the country with his two young children, leaving his wife behind. He settled with his mother in Yucaipa, Calif., 15 miles from San Bernardino. It seemed a poignant displacement of the cold war, nothing more. Gabriel's wife Vlasta, a component designer for a construction firm, opted to stay in Czechoslovakia, where she won a divorce and legal custody of the children. When Bedrich died in 1969, Vlasta, who had remarried, decided to ask U.S. courts for custody of the kids. The father...

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