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Florida custody fight awaits Alabama decision

Toddler Joseph Samuel Johnson donned a cat costume last week and ventured out in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for his first real Halloween.

For the various adults who want to be his parents, the unspoken question never strayed far: Where will next Halloween find him?

"Baby Sam," the object of a Florida-Alabama custody fight, remains in legal limbo.

An Alabama trial intended to determine his fate last week was delayed indefinitely. It seems that Sam's birth mother, who lives in Tampa, had yet to provide blood for genetic testing, and Alabama Judge Philip Lisenby wouldn't proceed without it.

Perhaps the trial will take place in February or March, Lisenby said. Sam will be turning 2 about then.

"As long as Sam is with us, we can weather anything," Mark Johnson, a 33-year-old construction supervisor in Alabama, said Friday.

He and his wife, Tracy, have raised Sam since birthand have filed for adoption in Tuscaloosa.

"We're not in a pleasant situation. We have a lot of grief. The sooner the trial happens, the sooner that will be over. . . . But that's out of our control."

Palm Harbor resident Christopher Vietri also wishes the courts would move faster.

"He's 19 months old now and getting older," Vietri said. "The only people he knows are the Johnsons, and he should be getting to know who I am."

Vietri, 27, is Sam's biological father. In late 1995, he moved out of his pregnant girlfriend's apartment during a fight, taking most of the furniture with him. Vietri says he tried to rekindle a relationship with Natasha Gawronski, but she wouldn't take him back. When their baby boy was born in March 1996, Gawronski gave him to a Tampa adoption agency, which placed him with the Johnsons.

She told Vietri the baby died.

When Vietri discovered the truth two months later, he asked the courts for custody _ a thorny issue that four state court judges and two appeals courts in Florida and Alabama have since pondered but not resolved.

Recent events have sharpened the dispute's focus.

Jurisdictional conflicts eased when Circuit Judge Richard Luce rotated out of Pinellas County's family division and was succeeded by Circuit Judge Dee Anna Farnell.

Luce had awarded Vietri temporary custody a year ago. Lisenby, the Alabama judge, refused to honor that ruling and proceeded with an Alabama adoption case instead. Luce, in turn, ignored Lisenby's case and pushed the Pinellas litigation toward a determination of permanent custody.

When Farnell took over, she put the Pinellas case on hold until the Alabama courts rule. Either state can legitimately claim jurisdiction, she ruled. Pinellas courts can't force Sam's return. So what's the point of parallel litigation?

Last month, lawyers had their first chance to grill the two key witnesses: Vietri and Gawronski. The questioning was closed to the public.

The Johnsons want to strip Vietri of his parental rights by arguing a concept called "pre-birth abandonment." He didn't support Gawronski financially during her pregnancy and he beat her, their lawyers contend. So, in effect, he neglected his unborn son.

Vietri denies that he abused Gawronski, who was 17 during the pregnancy. He planned the baby with her, put furniture in the apartment, gave her money and took her out a lot, he said.

Vietri repeatedly lied during his deposition and Gawronski held up well, said Tampa lawyer Anthony Marchese. Gawronski acknowledged that she lied to Vietri and told the adoption agency, under oath, that she didn't know who the father was. "But she also admits the reason she did it," Marchese said. "He left her no money, no food, no support whatsoever. She felt it was the only thing she could do for herself and her baby."

Martha Jane Patton, Vietri's Birmingham, Ala., lawyer, said Gawronski also said she would still lie under oath to keep Sam with the Johnsons. "I can't begin to tell you how many times she got turned around and contradicted herself," Patton said. Vietri, on the other hand, stayed cool as Marchese screamed at him, Patton said.

Gawronski could not be reached for comment.

Vietri, who supervises cable-laying for a Tampa telecommunications company, has since married. He and his wife, Erika, have a 7-month-old son, Nick.

"Nick is totally cool," Vietri says. "He pretty much stands up by hanging onto the couch. He says "Mama' and "Dada' all the time. He's just starting to crawl."

In Tuscaloosa, Nick's half brother, Sam, talks in sentences, plays with trains, loves his cat and puts square blocks into square holes, Mark Johnson said.

Sam went to a fall festival Thursday in his spotted feline suit, with furry tail and whiskers painted on his face. "He stood in the mirror and looked at himself and just laughed," Johnson said.