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Politics

A girl wonders: Is Crist my dad?

A 17-year-old girl wants to know if the governor is her biological father. Crist: No way.

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published January 25, 2007


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photo
[Times photos]
The governor says there's no way he's the father. Rebecca O'Dell Townsend said the girl was fathered by Crist after a one-time encounter in 1988.

The parents who adopted a girl 17 years ago have reached out to Gov. Charlie Crist about the possibility that he is their daughter's biological father.

Marshall and Cecilia Tucker of St. Petersburg acknowledge that they don't know for certain Crist is the father, and the governor says it's impossible.

But since a paternity dispute involving Crist came to light during the gubernatorial primary last fall, the family and their daughter have suspected Crist might be the father.

The Tuckers said they want nothing from the governor. But driven by a fear of getting snared in a political controversy beyond their control, the Tuckers made many discreet overtures to Crist.

Crist and those close to him ignored their calls.

"There is absolutely nothing to this whatsoever, and I will not dignify these questions with further comment," Crist said in a statement to the St. Petersburg Times.

The Tuckers adopted a seven-pound, 8 1/2-ounce girl who was born on June 23, 1989. That's the same day Rebecca O'Dell Townsend then named Wharrie gave birth to a girl, whom she said was fathered by Crist after a one-time sexual encounter in the fall of 1988.

When Townsend, who was going through a bitter divorce at the time, accused Crist of being the father, he steadfastly denied it. Yet he signed legal papers waiving parental rights, which helped pave the way for Townsend to place the child for adoption.

"Parenthood by myself is not possible as I never consummated the act necessary for parenthood," Crist stated in an affidavit signed in May 1989. The next month, Crist, then 32, signed paperwork consenting to the girl's adoption and stating, "I deny paternity of this child and claim no parental rights in relation to the child."

Now, 17 years later, a pretty, brown-haired girl who recently started college is going through the pangs that many experts say are normal for adopted children. She wants to know more about her biological mother and father - and maybe even meet them.

"It's not that I want anything from him, but if he is my birth father I think my curiosity is justified," said the girl, whom the Times is not identifying because she is a minor. "I think he seems like a cool guy."

Like many adoptive parents, the Tuckers long ago told their daughter she was adopted. They say that since about the time she was 10, their daughter talked about meeting her biological mother. As recently as June, just after turning 17, they said their daughter talked of finding her biological mother once she turned 18.

Neither the Tuckers nor their daughter had any idea where the birth mother lived or how they might contact her.

At least not until September, when Crist's political opponents began faxing and e-mailing news reporters documents suggesting a possible scandal in his past.

'Could be devastating ...'

Cecilia Tucker, 55, is a family therapist who once wrote a teen-oriented column for the Times. She is an associate pastor in her church and a registered Republican. She said she voted for Crist.

She was on her back porch rocker Monday, Sept. 4, reading the Times when a story on Page 1B stopped her cold. Headlined "Crist confronts paternity claim," the article discussed Townsend's 17-year-old paternity allegations against Crist.

The story offered details reminiscent of what little Mrs. Tucker knew of the woman who gave birth to her daughter: She was from Pinellas, was going through a rough divorce and had suffered from depression. And of course there was the fact that Townsend's baby was born at Bayfront Medical Center on the same day as the girl they adopted.

The article noted that Townsend supported Crist's opponent Tom Gallagher and that the paternity issue was being fanned by Crist's political enemies.

"The first thing that went through my mind was this could be devastating to (our daughter)," said Mrs. Tucker. "Because, if Charlie Crist is the biological father, there's going to be some backlash. And I took from the article that (the biological mother) might be a loose cannon. ... It's amazing that of all the children that are available our daughter appears to be this child who could end up being caught up in a political quagmire."

Mrs. Tucker talked with her husband, Marshall, 50, a regional sales manager for a health care company about the article. While they talked anxiously about the story, their daughter called from college. They shared the story with her, too.

"Nothing about her adoption has ever been a secret," said Mrs. Tucker.

Six years earlier, their daughter and another adopted girl helped Mrs. Tucker write a newspaper column about the questions and feelings that adopted children often have about their biological parents:

"Are they glad they let me go so I could be cared for in a more positive environment?" they wrote. "What are my birth parents doing with their lives? Would they like to meet me? Will I ever meet my blood and history?"

The records

Are the Tuckers sure that Rebecca Townsend is the birth mother of their daughter?

Copies of confidential state adoption records that named the Tuckers were delivered anonymously to the Times last month. The Tuckers said they did not provide the records and had no intention of taking their story public until approached by the Times.

The Times showed the Tuckers and Townsend its copies of the records. They independently confirmed their authenticity and concurred that it must be the same baby.

Among the details in those records:

- The unnamed biological mother's birth date and hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio, match that of Townsend.

- The date of the adoption, two days after birth, matches.

- The Tuckers' adoption lawyer is the same one who handled the baby Townsend placed for adoption on June 25, 1989.

- The unnamed birth mother filled out forms listing her occupation as biologist, which is what Townsend was at the time.

- The birth mother wrote on the records that the father was a lawyer, and the paternal grandfather a doctor. Townsend acknowledged her handwriting on the record and said she was referring to Crist.

What's more, Townsend told the Times that the only thing she knew about the couple that was seeking to adopt her baby at the time was that they had lost a young child.

The Tuckers' first daughter died at 16 months old.

Reaching out to Crist

The day after the story appeared, Crist defeated Gallagher in the Republican primary. The Tuckers decided to tell their friend and fellow adoptive parent Ken Fullerton, a prominent municipal bond adviser and acquaintance of Crist, about their suspicions.

With Crist now heading into a general election campaign against Democrat Jim Davis, they worried their daughter would be dragged into campaign mud-slinging.

Fullerton decided to call St. Petersburg lawyer Peter Wallace, a friend and adviser to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis. Fullerton told Wallace of the family's concerns and Wallace, after checking with the Davis campaign, assured him that Davis did not intend to make an issue out of Crist's old paternity dispute.

In October, the girl pressed her parents to make contact with Townsend.

"I've always wanted to give my birth mother a hug and say, 'Thank you,' " the girl told the Times. "I just think that's such a selfless thing to do - to give a baby up for adoption."

The Tuckers warily agreed to try for a meeting with Townsend over the Christmas holidays, but they worried that she might make political hay out of it. After all, she had been depicted in the press as a Gallagher supporter, and the story raised questions as to whether she was mentally stable at the time she accused Crist of fathering the child.

Talking it over with Fullerton, they agreed that before contacting Townsend, they needed to let Crist know of their plan to meet Townsend, in case she went public to damage Crist.

"We never wanted it to be public. All we wanted to do was to give him a heads up as a professional courtesy and give him an opportunity if he thought he needed to say anything to clear this up. We didn't want anything from him," Mrs. Tucker said.

Fullerton called St. Petersburg lawyer Phil McLeod, a neighbor of Crist's brother-in-law, Emory Wood.

McLeod agreed to make a discreet call to Wood. McLeod said he broadly explained the situation to Wood and suggested he get specifics directly from Fullerton.

Fullerton spoke to Wood on Oct. 29, 10 days before the general election. Fullerton told him the family had no interest in turning the matter into a campaign issue, but wanted Crist to know the girl was about to contact Townsend. Fullerton said he stressed that this was a credible St. Petersburg family with no ulterior motives.

"The message I tried very hard to convey was that other than the possible desire to meet with Charlie at some point, the family wanted nothing from Charlie," Fullerton said. "I know I emphasized over and over they were trying very hard to keep this confidential, but at some point might want to meet with Charlie if he was willing."

Fullerton said he understood Wood would let Crist know - but not until after the election - and then would get back to him. After the election, however, Wood did not respond to several messages, Fullerton said. Wood did not return calls from the Times seeking comments for this story.

On Nov. 17, Mrs. Tucker said she phoned Gov.-elect Crist's office in Tallahassee and said she spoke to the assistant to George LeMieux, Crist's chief of staff. Mrs. Tucker left a fairly specific message and the assistant said someone would return the call. She made several subsequent calls in the following days, but did not hear back.

Still trying to get word to Crist, on Nov. 18 Fullerton told the Tuckers' story to Pinellas Republican chairman Tony DiMatteo, who happens to be his longtime home exterminator. A couple of days later, Fullerton talked to Pinellas GOP counsel Tommy Minkoff. Minkoff said he would get back to him, but didn't.

DiMatteo told the Times he passed the message on to someone who worked with Crist, but he wouldn't identify the person.

On Nov. 20, someone in Crist's office contacted Mrs. Tucker, and assured her that someone would be calling her back about the matter.

No one ever did.

Contacting Townsend

With the efforts to reach Crist seemingly fruitless, Mrs. Tucker went ahead and called Townsend. She reached her by phone on Dec. 4.

The conversation was awkward, Mrs. Tucker said, but they exchanged enough details that made it clear to them both that Townsend was the birth mother. Townsend tentatively agreed to meet the girl shortly before Christmas.

But the meeting never came off. In e-mails to a pastor friend of the Tuckers, Townsend said she was wary and "still reeling" from the attacks she faced after the Crist paternity dispute hit newspapers in September.

Townsend told the Times she was stunned to learn the girl was in Pinellas County and said she had nothing to do with giving the newspaper the adoption records it recently received. She noted that she had signed a document at birth asking not to be contacted by the adopted girl.

Townsend said she is still open to meeting the girl, but urged the family to be cautious, because she believes Crist's political allies are out to destroy her reputation and could do the same to the Tuckers.

In decrying Townsend's paternity allegation when it came to light last September, Crist's supporters cited, among other things, a 1989 police report that showed a doctor had required Townsend to undergo an involuntary psychiatric evaluation because she was suspected of taking a sleeping pill overdose.

Townsend acknowledged that she suffered from depression at the time, partly related to the divorce, but said that psychiatric tests showed she was not mentally ill.

The Crist campaign last fall also produced a witness, longtime Pinellas Republican activist Dave Zachem, who said Townsend had personally recanted her allegation that Crist was the father. He later swore to that in an affidavit.

Townsend denies that. Since the adoption, she went on to become a lawyer and has been active in Republican causes. She was Gov. Jeb Bush's appointee to the state Film Commission in 2003.

Townsend said she advised the Tuckers to find someone to coach the girl in dealing with the publicity and political fallout she could face by reaching out to Crist.

"I said she is politically important just by her birth, and she needs to be old enough and mature enough to be able to handle this," Townsend said.

Meanwhile, the Tuckers continued to reach out to Crist. Holly Marshall, a St. Petersburg doctor who uses the Tuckers' daughter as a babysitter, phoned Crist's father in mid December. She told Dr. Charles Crist Sr. that she knew the girl to be a bright, attractive kid and that he might want to talk to the family, who wanted to keep matters private and protect their daughter.

"What he said was, 'None of the story is true. You can just tell them they don't need to worry about it,' " Marshall said.

By inauguration day, news of the possible link between Crist and the girl had spread to at least a dozen prominent professional and political figures in Pinellas and Tallahassee. The Tuckers still had not heard a word from Crist.

'It's ... just curiosity'

Gov. Crist has been all over the news, and it's hard not to notice him. The Tuckers' daughter acknowledged she's become more interested in meeting him.

"It's not that I have something missing in my life, it's more just curiosity," said the girl. "If Charlie Crist wasn't Charlie Crist, if it was just some guy who might be my birth father, I don't know I'd be as interested. But I'm interested in politics and law, and that he's involved in politics and law, is just really interesting."

The Tuckers say their daughter is willing to take a DNA test, but won't directly ask Crist to do so. The Times did ask Crist about a DNA test, but through his staff, the suggestion was rejected as inappropriate.

The Tuckers continue to acknowledge that they don't know whether Crist is the birth father of their daughter. In many ways, they say, they hope he is not; their lives would be much simpler.

While they never sought publicity, they say they cooperated for this story feeling that inevitably somebody would try to score political points against Crist with their daughter's adoption. They said they fear that as long as Crist is a national political figure, they won't be free of the question.

And for that reason, Mrs. Tucker is annoyed that she never received even a token response from the governor.

"(My daughter) wants some closure, that's what she wants, and I think she deserves that. She didn't open up this can of worms," Mrs. Tucker said. "I know Crist is supposed to be very close with his family. If you're so family oriented, why not have the compassion to help get closure on something like this?"

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241. Times researchers Caryn Baird and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified January 25, 2007, 05:53:10]


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