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Dad, adoption agency settle Baby Sam suit


Adoption By Choice avoids a trial in Tampa as the father continues talks with the Alabama couple trying to keep his 4-year-old.


TAMPA -- Christopher Vietri settled his case against the Tampa adoption agency he accused of mistakenly giving away his son, bringing an end to all the lawsuits filed against Adoption By Choice after the boy was born almost five years ago.

But the most crucial decision in the so-called Baby Sam case -- who will raise Sam Johnson -- has yet to be made by the two families trying to work out an agreement with the help of the Alabama courts.

Vietri of New Port Richey settled with Adoption By Choice and two of its employees over the weekend, just before the trial was set to begin in a Tampa courtroom on Monday. Sam's adoptive parents, Mark and Tracy Johnson of Tuscaloosa, Ala., also settled a claim against the agency about a year ago.

Attorneys say the amounts of the two settlements are confidential.

Court records show Vietri settled a similar lawsuit against the agency's attorney, Gregory Boyer, for $1.1-million last February.

It's unclear whether Adoption By Choice, still in business despite the additional financial burdens, and Boyer have paid any of the settlements.

Anthony Marchese, the Johnsons' Tampa attorney, said his clients were told that the agency could not pay them until it received payments from new couples willing to adopt. The Johnsons paid about $20,000 to adopt Sam in March 1996 when he was 3 days old.

Sam's biological mother, Natasha Gawronski, gave Sam to the agency and said she didn't know who the father was.

She told Vietri, her former boyfriend, that the baby had been stillborn, but Vietri didn't believe her and has been fighting to reclaim the child since he was 11 weeks old.

Court records show that Vietri planned to show during this week's trial that the agency knew that he was looking for his son when they filed a petition seeking to terminate the parental rights of an "unknown father" so that the Johnsons' adoption could proceed.

Affidavits signed by attorney Boyer and the agency's executive director, Debra West, named in the lawsuit, asserted they had made "diligent efforts" to determine the identity of the father and that the baby was not subject to any litigation.

Vietri, who is now married and has another son, referred calls to his attorney on Monday. Clearwater lawyer Larry Liebling declined to comment.

Adoption By Choice, at 4102 W Linebaugh Ave., started in 1990 as a branch of an Ohio agency, Gentle Care. With extensive Yellow Pages and billboard advertising, it quickly became the busiest agency in the Tampa Bay area, sometimes handling more than 100 adoptions a year.

The agency's state license expires May 1.

Through an employee, West referred calls to an attorney on Monday. Henry Nobles, who represented the agency in the case, did not return a phone call.

Boyer and Nancy Nagelhout, the agency's former director of adoption placements who was named in the lawsuit, could not be reached.

The Alabama Supreme Court awarded custody of Sam to Vietri in November. But the Johnsons immediately asked the justices to reconsider their decision, and the court responded by telling the two families to get together and talk.

After just one session, mediator Mark Kennedy said that the discussions between the two sides had been successful and that he thinks they could eventually come to an agreement about custody if they have more time to talk.

Kennedy asked the state Supreme Court to stop reviewing the case -- at least temporarily -- but the justices have not responded. Four of the nine justices left office two weeks ago and the new court meets today for the first time.

A second mediation session has been set for next month.

- Times staff writer Collins Conner contributed to this report.

2001 Jan 23