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Ruling boosts quest to win baby

Florida courts have handed Palm Harbor resident Christopher Vietri another victory in his 18-month-old quest to retrieve the baby son he has never seen.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday that two Hillsborough Circuit judges were correct last year when they refused to let an Alabama couple terminate Vietri's parental rights through Florida courts.

The couple, Mark and Tracy Johnson, of Tuscaloosa, acquired Vietri's son from a Tampa adoption agency a few days after he was born. They named him Joseph Samuel, called him Sam, and happily made plans to adopt.

What the Johnsons didn't know was that Sam's biological mother lied to the adoption agency _ saying she didn't know who the father was _ and lied to Vietri, telling him that the baby died.

Vietri filed a lawsuit a few weeks after the birth, trying to find out what happened to his baby. When his lawyers finally tracked down the Adoption by Choice agency, Sam was 2 months old, and the Johnsons refused to return him.

Since then, the case has bounced among four judges in two states. Wednesday's unanimous ruling may shut the door to further action by the Johnsons in Florida, said their Tampa lawyer, Anthony Marchese.

A judge in Tuscaloosa, however, is allowing the Johnsons to seek adoption in Alabama for now, ruling that Florida judges lacked jurisdiction and never gave the Johnsons a chance to be heard.

"It's full speed ahead to trial in Alabama, if I can get a trial," Marchese said. "It appears that Florida is providing no relief, not even a court hearing. There's nothing else I can do. I have to seek justice in Alabama."

Clearwater attorney David Sharp, who represents Vietri, said the Alabama adoption case, tentatively scheduled for February or March, will be thrown out before it begins.

The Johnsons argue that Vietri effectively "abandoned" the baby before birth by abusing and neglecting the mother-to-be. Vietri denies those allegations.

Under Florida case law, a father's rights can be stripped in extreme cases of such "pre-birth abandonment."

Alabama law, however, requires the biological father's consent for adoption and has no precedent for a "pre-birth abandonment" argument.

"There are no grounds under Alabama law . . . to terminate Chris' parental rights, when he's out there saying, "Where's my baby? Where's my baby?' " Sharp said. "He hasn't abandoned him, he hasn't abused him, he hasn't neglected him or even seen him."

Baby Sam turns 2 in March.