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Adoptive parents win custody of "Baby Sam'

Breaking new legal ground Tuesday, an Alabama judge allowed Joseph Samuel "Baby Sam" Johnson to be adopted by the couple who raised him since birth.

While awarding full custody to Mark and Tracy Johnson of Tuscaloosa, the judge simultaneously severed the parental rights of Palm Harbor resident Christopher Vietri, the biological father who has fought for more than two years in seven courts to retrieve a son he has never seen.

Vietri effectively abandoned his son by mistreating the biological mother during her pregnancy, Circuit Judge Philip Lisenby ruled. Also, Sam's best interests lie with the Johnsons, who are now the 2-year-old's "psychological parents," Lisenby wrote.

"To remove the child at this point in time would be tantamount to the psychological trauma he would experience from the death of both of his parents."

Vietri, who has since married and fathered a second son, vowed to appeal if he can afford it.

"Why should these people go through life bringing up my son when there is not a reason?" he asked. "I'm not a bum. Let me bring up my kid."

Attorneys on both sides estimated that appeals through the Alabama Supreme Court would take two more years.

Until Tuesday, the Johnsons faced an uphill battle, said their Tampa attorney, Anthony Marchese. The concept of a father "abandoning" a child during pregnancy had never before applied to an Alabama adoption. Now, Vietri must fight Lisenby's findings of fact as well as the Johnsons.

"It's going to be wonderful to wake up in the morning and not have the first thought of the day be: Will Sam get to stay with us?" Mark Johnson said. "We went through many months where we thought someone was going to come to our front door and take him away from us."

The lives of Vietri and the Johnsons intertwined in March 1996, when Sam's 19-year-old biological mother, Natasha Gawronski, gave him to a Tampa adoption agency at birth and said she didn't know who the father was.

Gawronski and Vietri lived together in a Palm Harbor apartment but split up during a fight in mid-pregnancy. After birth, Gawronski, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, told Vietri the baby had died.

All the Johnsons knew was that the Adoption By Choice agency had found them a healthy baby, their dream after years of fruitlessly trying on their own.

It took Vietri and Pinellas Judge Richard Luce two months to unravel what had happened. By then, the Johnsons were thoroughly attached and refused to give Sam up.

When Florida trial and appellate courts consistently ruled against them, they proceeded with their adoption case in Alabama. And Lisenby refused to honor an order by Luce last year that gave Vietri temporary custody.

Under Alabama law, parents can lose rights to children they abandon. Until now, that law was always applied to children after birth. Lisenby extended the abandonment concept to a parent's conduct during pregnancy.

During a four-day trial in March, the Johnsons presented clear and convincing evidence that Vietri physically abused Gawronski and stripped their apartment of food and furniture, even a Christmas tree, Lisenby wrote. He didn't pay rent, utilities, prenatal medical bills "and the basic necessities of life of the mother of his unborn child."

At one point, the judge said, Vietri wrote Gawronski a check for an abortion.

Vietri and his mother testified that he paid plenty of support, often in cash. He acknowledged writing the abortion check because "she kept bugging me about it." But he wasn't serious, he said. He grabbed it back in less than 30 seconds and tore it up.

Lisenby "took everything Natasha said as gospel," said Vietri's Clearwater attorney David Sharp. "Despite the fact that she lied to ABC, she lied to Chris, she lied to the courts here in Florida. Never mind that, he decided to jump on their pre-birth conduct bandwagon."

Vietri also abandoned his son by not sending money to the Johnsons for medical bills and other financial support, Lisenby wrote. Vietri, his mother and wife, Erika, said they sent birthday presents to Sam a year ago but the Johnsons returned the gifts unopened.

In Florida, the Supreme Court decision that established the pre-birth abandonment concept specifically forbids trial judges to consider the child's best interests in such custody fights. To do so would open the door for adoptive families to drag out litigation for years and then claim that the child is irretrievably bonded.

Lisenby, however, relied heavily on a determination of Sam's best interests. Early on, he appointed a guardian ad litem to protect the child's interests. She recommended that the Johnsons keep Sam.

Mark Johnson supervises construction work; Tracy Johnson works in a medical record section of a hospital. They were high school sweethearts who adopted Sam in their 30s. A home study found them "delightful individuals who exhibit warmth, compassion, and a strong desire for children. They have strong family values and are down-to-earth."

No one from Alabama studied Vietri's home. Vietri, 28, supervises a crew that lays communications cable. His wife works in a hospital.

Lisenby found that moving Sam would be very detrimental "regardless of how good Mr. Vietri's home is."

The Johnsons said they will let Sam get to know Vietri when he is older. "Sam will be able to decide for his own self his opinions of his biological parents," Mark Johnson said.

Vietri has similar plans.

"One way or another, I'm going to meet my son and he is going to find out about his real family and he isn't going to thinking too kindly about (the Johnsons)," Vietri said. "What kind of person are they going to bring him up to be? Someone like them? Someone who takes something that's not yours? That's exactly what they are doing."

_ Information from the Tuscaloosa News was used in this report.

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