Amalia Tabata-Pereira, who kidnapped a migrant couple's baby to trick her baseball-player husband into thinking he was a new father, was sentenced to 24 years in prison Thursday.
"One year for each hour you separated this child from her parents," Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet told Tabata-Pereira at a sentencing hearing attended by the girl and her parents.
"You stole a child, ma'am. You forfeited the right to live among us."
Tabata-Pereira, 44, pleaded guilty in July to three felonies: kidnapping, interference with custody and impersonating a public officer. On March 23, 2009, she approached a young mother outside a Plant City clinic, pretending to be a social worker. She told the mother to surrender the 2-month-old girl or risk deportation.
The woman consulted the father and the frightened couple gave up their infant. Within hours, they realized they had been duped. Authorities found the baby the next day in Bradenton.
Sleet handed down the sentence after listening to about three hours of testimony from Tabata-Pereira, her family, a psychologist and Andres Cruz, the baby's father.
Pittsburgh Pirates baseball player Jose Tabata, 22, whose divorce from Tabata-Pereira is nearly final, did not attend.
Tabata-Pereira sobbed as she read a prepared statement.
"I take full responsibility for taking the baby. I feel shame and remorse," she said. "I didn't give thought to what the parents would suffer."
At one point she turned to Cruz and apologized. The little girl, Sandra, had grown restless, and her mother had taken her out of the courtroom.
"I meant no harm and I am truly ashamed and remorseful for trying to kidnap Sandra," Tabata-Pereira told Cruz.
A victim's advocate translated for Cruz, whose face remained stoic.
Tabata-Pereira said she took the baby because her young husband wanted to be a father, and she thought she would lose him if she didn't give him a child.
She never told him she was physically unable to give birth because of a 1995 hysterectomy.
Psychologist Eldra Solomon, a defense witness, testified that she had evaluated Tabata-Pereira four times in jail and found signs of post traumatic stress disorder. She said Tabata-Pereira would often lose touch with reality.
"I do not believe she had the ability to realize the criminal nature (of her actions)," Solomon testified. "She doesn't think clearly. She simplifies events and experiences. She doesn't think ahead about consequences."
But prosecutors and the judge pointed to Tabata-Pereira's 2000 conviction on charges that included arson, forgery and grand theft. She spent two years and nine months in prison.
"Your previous incarceration should have been able to tell you your conduct is criminal and has consequences," Judge Sleet said.
He could have sentenced Tabata-Pereira to life in prison.
In addition to prison time, he ordered her to complete 100 hours of community service upon release — all aimed at helping immigrants.
Cruz and the baby's mother, Rosa Sirilo-Francisco, did not have legal status when Sandra was taken.
Sleet said it was apparent that Tabata-Pereira targeted them, assuming they wouldn't contact authorities.
On Thursday, their victim's advocate said they are eligible for a U-visa, given to immigrants who are victims of crimes.
Before the hearing started, little Sandra ran around the courthouse lobby in pigtails, squealing and laughing. Cruz watched it all from a bench, fidgeting with his hands.
He said he was nervous. He had never been to court before. They traveled to Tampa for this.
Inside the courtroom, his statements were brief. Through an interpreter, he told the judge of the couple's anguish after the kidnapping.
A prosecutor asked the father if he had anything more to tell the judge.
Cruz's answer came in a humble tone.
"The judge knows what he has to do," Cruz said.
As Cruz spoke, Sirilo-Francisco stood nearby, holding the smiling, dark-eyed little girl, who happily played with the advocate's ID badge.
That was the only time Tabata-Pereira looked at the child that was almost hers.
Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.