exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

Court rules family must turn over 'Baby Sam'


The boy's biological father welcomes the news that his son might be home before Christmas.


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Christopher Vietri's 4-year-old son has been raised by adoptive parents since he was born. Vietri has always wanted him back. The two sides have waged a legal war for "Baby Sam" for nearly as long as he's been alive.

Now it appears that Vietri might bring his son home by Christmas.

"I know it's going to be perfect. My family is going to be complete," said Vietri, 31. "I think he'll be traumatized in the beginning, but he'll be just fine."

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled Friday that Joseph Samuel "Baby Sam" Johnson's adoptive parents must hand the child over to Vietri, his biological father.

The court reversed an Alabama judge's ruling from April 1998 that severed Vietri's parental rights and awarded custody of the child to his adoptive parents, Mark and Tracy Johnson of Tuscaloosa, Ala. The boy was 2 at the time.

It was not clear Saturday when the court expects the Johnsons to hand over the boy. The Johnsons could not be reached for comment. But one of their lawyers made it clear that they won't want to give up their adoptive son without another legal fight.

"This child is 4 years old," said the Johnsons' Tampa attorney, Anthony Marchese. "These are tough cases. I've been in situations before where we've had to return children, but not at 4 years old.

"It would be horrible. It would be devastating."

The lives of Vietri and the Johnsons intertwined in March 1996, when Sam's 19-year-old biological mother, Natasha Gawronski, gave him to a Tampa adoption agency at birth and said she didn't know who the father was.

Gawronski and Vietri had lived together in a Palm Harbor apartment but split up during a fight in mid pregnancy. After the boy was born at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs, Gawronski told Vietri the baby had been stillborn.

The 3-day-old boy was given to the Johnsons. All they knew was that the Adoption By Choice agency had found them a healthy baby, their dream after years of fruitlessly trying on their own.

Vietri began to suspect his son hadn't died. He filed for custody. It took him and Pinellas Judge Richard Luce two months to unravel what had happened. By then, the Johnsons were thoroughly attached and refused to give up Sam.

Two years ago, an Alabama judge ruled that Vietri had effectively abandoned his son by mistreating Gawronski during her pregnancy -- a charge that Vietri denied.

Also, the judge ruled that Sam's best interests lie with the Johnsons because they were the 2-year-old's "psychological parents."

Marchese hasn't seen the Alabama Supreme Court's opinion.

"I'll be eager to find out how they came up with such a squirrelly opinion. It baffles me," Marchese said. "We'll comply with the law, but we're not just going to let this go without challenging it."

One of Vietri's Clearwater-based lawyers, David Sharp, had a different take:

"We told them up front that this would happen. We told them that when this kid was 6 months old," Sharp said. "Justice prevailed. This is the right thing to do, and it should have been done three and a half years ago."

The way Vietri sees it, the next challenge will be bringing a 4-year-old boy into a home that he's never seen with a strange woman he's supposed to call Mom and a half-brother with whom he's supposed to share a bedroom.

"Yes, it is going to be difficult for him," said Erika Vietri, who married Christopher more than four years ago -- a week before he discovered Sam was alive. "But you can't put a time limit on it and say, "You're this age, so we'll stop fighting now.' You can't stop your feelings."

While Sam has grown up more than 600 miles away, Erika, 28, and Christopher have been ready for his arrival. They bought a crib for him, then replaced it with a bed when he got older. They have two dressers -- one for their son and one for Sam. And they have a blurry, enlarged newspaper picture perched in a cherry frame on the shelf overhanging his empty bed.

The Vietris have not read the court's decision and know little of how they will get Baby Sam. They said they don't want to add to the boy's trauma by ripping him out of the adoptive parents' hands in front of a media horde.

Christopher Vietri would prefer to spend a week with Sam and his adoptive family.

The Vietris hope their 3-year-old son, Nicholas, his Matchbox cars and his swing set will ease Sam's transition to their two-bedroom, one-story New Port Richey home.

"It would be different," Christopher Vietri said, "if he came here and it was just us and there were no toys around. He doesn't have to feel secluded."

Nicholas has been waiting for his brother to arrive. He looked out their front window Friday night and asked when Sam was coming home.

The news shocked the Vietris. Until a newspaper reporter called Friday afternoon, they had no idea the court had ruled in their favor.

"I just busted out crying," Christopher Vietri said. "I dropped to my knees. I couldn't believe it. I've been waiting nearly five years for this day to come."

He sympathizes with the Johnsons -- to a point.

"I know they want a child," he said. "I feel bad they can't have a child. But don't take a child who has a family who wants him.

"They could have avoided the heartache they're going to go through right now by giving him to me before."

2000 Nov 19