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Ballplayer Jose Tabata says he held stolen baby all night long, thinking she was his

Rosa Sirilo-Francisco and Andres Cruz’s daughter, Sandra, shown in March, was taken from Sirilo-Francisco by Amalia Tabata Pereira, authorities say. The baby was later returned.

Saundra Amrhein | Times

Rosa Sirilo-Francisco and Andres Cruz’s daughter, Sandra, shown in March, was taken from Sirilo-Francisco by Amalia Tabata Pereira, authorities say. The baby was later returned.

TAMPA — The first time he saw the 2-month-old girl, Jose Tabata kissed, hugged and held her all night long.

For months, the minor league baseball player had looked forward to greeting the daughter his wife claimed to have delivered while he was in Venezuela.

But his was a fleeting joy.

Tabata learned within hours that the little girl introduced as Nicole wasn't his. Nor was she his wife's. It's unclear whether Amalia Tabata Pereira had been pregnant. Authorities said the 43-year-old woman stole the baby from an undocumented Mexican couple in Plant City while posing as an immigration official.

"I held the baby as if it was my daughter," Tabata, 20, told investigators. "Do you understand? I held her all night long as if she was mine."

Those details became public Tuesday in more than 100 pages of investigative materials released by the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

Pereira has remained in jail — bond set at $750,000 — since her March arrest. The Bradenton woman faces charges of interfering with custody, impersonating a public officer and kidnapping. If convicted, she could face life in prison.

The Hillsborough Public Defender's Office, which represents her, declined comment.

Prosecutors say Pereira posed as an immigration official and threatened Rosa Sirilo-Francisco and her boyfriend, Andres Cruz, with deportation if they didn't give their baby girl to Pereira.

The parents told police that Pereira called herself "Janet" when she met Sirilo-Francisco at the Plant City Health Center, where the child had been vaccinated. The woman promised to "fix" the couple's immigration problems and save their daughter, Sandra, from deportation if they turned her over to Pereira.

The baby's parents migrated last month to the tomato fields of Georgia.

Before leaving, they cooperated with immigration officials in the case against Pereira and are awaiting another phone call from immigration about whether they need to return to offer more testimony, Cruz told the St. Petersburg Times Tuesday, when reached by phone. Otherwise, they'll be back in the fall to work in Plant City's strawberry fields.

During their time with immigration officials, questions focused entirely on the case against Tabata Pereira, not their own status as undocumented workers, Cruz said.

Legal experts have told the Times that the couple could be eligible to apply for a U visa, available for immigrants who are victims of violent crimes, including kidnapping.

"We'll see what happens," Cruz said. "I don't know what's going to happen in the future."

He said he could sympathize with ballplayer Tabata.

"He was fooled, just like us," Cruz said.

But mostly, Cruz said, he's relieved to know that Pereira is locked up.

"I don't want anything like this to happen to anyone else," Cruz said.

Asked about Pereira's husband — and how he tenderly held the baby all night — Cruz said he was happy to know his daughter was treated well and not abused.

Pittsburgh Pirates spokesman Brian Warecki praised Tabata's performance on and off the field.

"The fact that Jose is doing remarkably well considering the circumstances he had to overcome speaks to this young man's character as a person and player," Warecki said in an e-mail to the Times.

An outfielder with the Pirates' Double-A affiliate, the Altoona Curve, Tabata strained a hamstring this year and missed 37 games. This month, he's batting .329.

"We will continue to assist him in moving past this situation and are encouraged by his progress," Warecki said.

As for the investigation into Tabata's wife, other details emerged through Plant City police and Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports released Tuesday, including how Tabata and Pereira met.

He noticed her at Club Mirage on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa in August 2006 and asked her to dance. He was 18 at the time and had recently signed to play baseball with the New York Yankees. They kept in touch by phone and he later invited her to Venezuela to visit.

In November 2007, she gave birth to stillborn twins at a Tampa hospital two days after Tabata returned to Venezuela to play winter baseball, Plant City police and FDLE reported. The Yankees arranged for Tabata to return to Tampa to be with Pereira.

Pereira announced that she was pregnant again in July 2008, police said. A month later, Tabata was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He trained at Pirate City in Bradenton.

When the couple traveled to Venezuela together, Tabata took Pereira to two doctor appointments. He noticed she gained weight. The FDLE reported that she did that on purpose.

She soon returned to Florida and, on Jan. 21, told Tabata that she'd given birth to a little girl named Nicole, he told police.

While he traveled with the team, she sent him photographs of a baby delivery, though they only showed the waist down, an FDLE report says.

Then this news: Pereira told Tabata she had received death threats against the baby from someone in Venezuela. He told his wife to hide the child with a nanny until he returned to Florida, police said.

When Tabata came home, Pereira told him the danger wasn't over and that the baby would remain with the nanny, while the two spent time together.

Then, on March 23, he met the stolen baby.

That same day, Sirilo-Francisco told Plant City police about her encounter with a woman matching Pereira's description.

An Amber Alert went out. Pereira soon surrendered to authorities in Manatee County and the baby was returned unharmed.

Pereira's public defender told a judge in April that she intended to adopt the baby she's accused of stealing. Prosecutors said they had no such proof.

Pereira's next court date is Aug. 4 before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet.

Times staff writer Saundra Amrhein contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Ballplayer Jose Tabata says he held stolen baby all night long, thinking she was his 07/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 6:18pm]
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