Carrick man Hopkins finds son who vanished with mum in US three years ago but faces legal battle to get him back
He's all alone and we just want him home, says anxious father
In July 2013, John Hopkins stood waiting at the airport for his wife and nine-year-old son to return from their holiday in America. But they never came back.
After three years of searching, the 40-year-old found his little boy, Cody, but he now faces a battle to bring him back home to Carrickfergus.
John met Cody's American mother, Jackie, on the internet in 2002. They fell in love, and John went to Wisconsin to meet her. A few months later, he went back to get married in Las Vegas.
Cody was born on September 10, 2003, and although the family enjoyed life in the US they decided to move to Northern Ireland in 2006 after John's mother suffered two strokes.
In 2013, Jackie began to feel homesick, so John arranged a trip for her and his son to visit her family in the States.
Throughout the two-week trip, Jackie sent messages keeping John up to date with what they were doing and finished each one with the words "love you".
The pair were due to fly back on July 13, but they never arrived and all contact ceased.
"My wife couldn't make friends and couldn't get a job," John said. "I knew she was struggling, but it was a complete shock when she just didn't come back."
Worried about what had happened, John contacted police in Wisconsin, where Jackie was staying, and was told she was fine and would be catching the next flight to Northern Ireland. A few days later, however, officers said they did not know where the mother and child were and had listed Cody as missing.
"I was always expecting her to come home," John said. "It was hard when I realised. I've left Cody's bedroom as it was. I couldn't go into it for the first year, but it's basically untouched.
"Cody is my only son and for the last three years I've been contacting someone nearly every day to try and get information."
"I did almost give up at times, but I've had a lot of support from groups on Facebook and the charity Reunite, who all told me never to give up.
"There have been children who have been found after five or six years. I had to keep working at it."
Over the weekend, John finally received the news he was waiting for: Cody had been found.
It transpired that Jackie had suffered a massive heart attack and died in Tennessee on May 7.
The authorities discovered she had been on the run for three years, using a false name to avoid detection.
Following her death, they were able to identify who she was and contact John to tell him his son was safe.
"I have been suffering with severe anxiety because of this, but the moment I found out that Cody was safe, it just dropped away - it was a sense of pure relief," he said.
However, his elation was short-lived because Cody is now in the custody of child protection services in Tennessee - and his doting father faces a lengthy and expensive court battle to bring him back to Northern Ireland.
While John knows his son is in no danger, he has so far been unable to contact him.
"When I heard the news, I just wanted to be with my son," he said. "But I'm not allowed any contact whatsoever until it goes through the courts, which will be by June 8 at the latest.
"I just can't wait to see him. I haven't even seen photographs of him, so I don't even know what he looks like now."
John has set up a petition in a bid to show the courts how much support Cody will have in Northern Ireland.
"He's pretty much on his own over there and we just want to show that we want him back," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"He lived here for seven years and he has loads of friends around here.
"We want him to come back to his life here."
The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs said: "We are aware of reports of an international parental child abduction from the United Kingdom to the United States. The 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction is in force between the United Kingdom and the United States.
"The Bureau of Consular Affairs, along with our Embassies and Consulates, works with parents and foreign governments to try to resolve these difficult cases. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment."
To sign John's petition to bring Cody home, visit http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/bring-cody-hopkins-home