BRANDON — It had been a bad week in Baghdad. Erika Piasecki, an Army supply sergeant, had spent hours sorting through bloody equipment after a roadside bomb killed a soldier in her unit.
She had learned to deal with war. But soon came news that brought her to her knees. It arrived in an e-mail and told of the unthinkable 7,000 miles away in Brandon.
With no notice to Piasecki, a judge had signed an order removing her 12-year-old daughter from her home. One day Ashley was living with Erika's husband, Matt, the only father she had ever known. The next, she was handed over to a man, James Everson, who had never been part of her life. Everson is thought to be Ashley's biological father, but even that is not clear.
By the time Erika read the e-mail, her daughter was already gone.
How to explain the move? Stepfather Matt is a registered sex offender because of a case 13 years earlier involving his ex-wife. It didn't look good that Ashley was in his care.
In Baghdad, Erika Piasecki spent most of that day in April in the hot sun on a satellite phone trying to get reception. With each fuzzy conversation, she felt more helpless. She collapsed and woke later with an IV in her arm.
"It's already hard being away from family during a deployment," she wrote the Times in an e-mail. "But to add this stress on top of that is excruciating."
A world away, there was nothing she could do.
• • •
Erika Piasecki's relationship with James Everson goes back years. They are the parents of an older daughter who lives with Everson. And they were together when Erika became pregnant with Ashley, but they split up before the girl was born.
Erika says Everson is Ashley's father, and Everson has gone to court claiming that he is. But there is no father listed on the birth certificate and paternity has not been established.
By the time Ashley was born, Erika was in a relationship with Matt Piasecki. From the beginning, they say, Matt was Ashley's daddy. He took Erika to prenatal appointments. He was there for Ashley's first birthday. He tucked her into bed every night.
"One of the arguments was, 'Why didn't you ever tell her (about Everson)?' " Matt said. "Was I supposed to put her to bed every night and say, 'I'm not your dad'? Wake her up every morning and say, 'I'm not your dad'? Those were choices we made. I'm her dad."
Ashley has a relationship with her older sister, so she was aware of Everson. But the Piaseckis say Everson had nothing to do with the girl, now a dark-haired preteen who has hints of her mother's Japanese roots.
In January, Erika, 34, left for a deployment in Iraq. Since then Matt, 34, has been the lone parent on Green Juniper Lane. The Piaseckis have two other children, Matt, 10, and Alexis, 7.
Not long after Erika left, the Piaseckis say, Everson started hinting that he wanted custody of Ashley.
• • •
The Piaseckis had talked of Matt adopting Ashley for years, but it wasn't until March that he began the process. It was then that he explained to the girl that Everson was her father but, as he put it, "he's not your dad."
Days after Matt submitted adoption papers, Everson filed a motion in Hillsborough Circuit Court for temporary custody.
Everson argued that Erika had left Ashley in the care of a convicted sex offender, endangering her. He requested a paternity test and eventually, sole custody.
It was an ex-parte motion, meaning the Piaseckis knew nothing about the proceedings. Circuit Judge Catherine Catlin removed Ashley from Matt and Erika's home, citing Matt's record as one reason.
Everson picked up Ashley that day after school. A few miles away, Matt waited at the bus stop for a girl who would not be coming.
Later he learned where Ashley was and called police. They said there was nothing they could do.
• • •
According to court documents, Everson sought custody because he was concerned for his daughter's safety. He did not return multiple calls for comment, and his attorney, Eileen Griffin, declined to speak with the Times because the case is considered sealed.
Matt Piasecki does not dispute his record, but offers this explanation:
In 1996, he was married to another woman. They were in the middle of a divorce but slept together one night, he said. She accused him of forcing sex. He says it was consensual.
Piasecki's ex-wife did not return calls for comment. The case file refers to three charges of sexual battery with slight force, in which the defendant "did not use physical force and violence likely to cause serious personal injury."
Matt says he went against the advice of his lawyer and pleaded guilty to get out of jail. He had already been in for three months, and couldn't fathom remaining locked up while the case moved through the system.
In the end, the judge departed from guidelines to give him a lower sentence. He served one year of house arrest and five years probation.
"I was 21 at the time, and thought if I pleaded guilty I could appeal it," Matt said. "But it doesn't work that way with that kind of charge. I had no idea this would follow me like it has."
Since 1996, his Florida record has been largely clean. He was charged with failure to register as a sex offender in the state, which was later dropped. And his lawyer said Thursday that he just learned he has a suspended license for failure to pay child support to his ex-wife, which he is attempting to resolve.
• • •
As the court battle continues, each man hopes he can make the bond between father and daughter official.
Matt has asked to move forward with the adoption. Everson wants proof he's the real father.
At a hearing this week, both sides argued for nearly four hours. In the end, Judge Caroline Tesche ordered Everson to return Ashley to Matt.
But the case is far from over.
Tesche continued the hearing until later this month, when Erika will be home on break. Because Matt had power of attorney, the Army would not allow her to leave earlier to fight for custody.
Matt picked up Ashley from school Tuesday. He said she sprinted across the parking lot to greet him with a big hug.
They hadn't seen each other in two months.
At home, she has been catching up with her brother and sister, the two beagles and the new kitten, Dexter.
When asked if she was glad to be back, Ashley's eyes widened. She nodded "yes" and smiled.
Erika said in an e-mail, "I get by, day by day, trying to keep myself busy so I don't have to think about what is happening. I know Matthew is home taking care of things the best that he can."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at [email protected], or (813) 661-2454.