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    'Baby Sam' meets another father

    The Pasco man's telling of the visits angers the boy's adoptive mother in Alabama.

    By ANITA KUMAR

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2001


    Almost five years after he learned his biological son was alive and living with adoptive parents in Alabama, Christopher Vietri last month finally met the child known to the world as "Baby Sam."

    "Everybody thought it would be traumatic," Vietri said Wednesday of meeting with the now 4-year-old boy, Sam Johnson. "But it was great. He didn't want me to leave."

    Vietri said he and Sam formed a close bond during his trip to Alabama, which included four meetings under the eyes of a child psychologist. Vietri's wife, Erika, and their 3-year-old son, Nicholas, accompanied him on the trip. The couple wouldn't say when they made the trip.

    "It was great -- a long time coming," said Vietri, of New Port Richey. "It finally happened."

    But Sam's adoptive mother, Tracy Johnson, angrily refuted Vietri's statements Wednesday and criticized him for speaking to the media.

    "That's not true. There was no bond," Mrs. Johnson said from her home in Tuscaloosa, Ala. "Sam has not mentioned him once since (Vietri) left."

    Mrs. Johnson, who along with her husband, Mark, have been fighting to retain custody of the boy, said the two families signed an agreement in January to not speak publicly about the case. She said she is furious that Vietri released a photo of him and Sam to a Tampa Bay TV station and talked publicly about the visit.

    "We had an agreement," she said. "We are very, very disappointed."

    Vietri said Sam, who knew he was adopted, was told during the visit that Vietri is his biological father and that Nicholas is his half brother. The two boys spent much of the time playing together with a Gameboy and remote-controlled cars that Vietri bought for them, he said.

    "They played real good," he said. "They were just running around like two brothers should."

    Vietri and the Johnsons, who have been battling for custody of Sam since he was 11 weeks old, concluded court-ordered mediation last month.

    Mediator Mark Kennedy is expected to submit a report to the Alabama Supreme Court this week -- perhaps as early as today -- informing the justices that mediation has ended.

    Kennedy, a retired justice, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He said in January that he hoped the two sides could reach a deal outside of court. The families and their attorneys met with Kennedy behind closed doors twice in Montgomery, Ala., in January and February.

    Mediation took place after an unusual order of the Alabama Supreme Court, which in November awarded custody of Sam to Vietri. The Johnsons asked the justices to reconsider their decision, and the court responded by telling the two families to get together and talk.

    Now that mediation has been concluded, the court could consider whether to take up the case for a second time. In the interim, four new justices have been elected to the court, which had voted 5-4 to give Sam to Vietri.

    "Mediation is over," said Anthony Marchese, the Johnsons' Tampa attorney. "I don't know what (the justices) expect to do."

    Sam, who turns 5 this month, has lived with the Johnsons in Tuscaloosa since he was 3 days old. Sam's biological mother, Natasha Gawronski, and Vietri broke up in the middle of her pregnancy. She gave the baby to a Tampa adoption agency and said she didn't know who the father was. She told Vietri the baby had been stillborn. But Vietri suspected his child hadn't died and filed for custody.

    Attorneys for the Johnsons and Vietri either could not be reached Wednesday or declined to comment, citing the confidentiality agreement.

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