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Custody feuding for Sam resumes

The battle for custody of the 4-year-old boy goes back to the Alabama Supreme Court.

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


Talks between two families vying for custody of Sam Johnson have collapsed, forcing the Alabama Supreme Court to once again decide who will raise the 4-year-old boy.

The retired judge presiding over the mediation sessions, Mark Kennedy, is expected to report to the court that discussions ended with no agreement, and that the justices must make the next move.

That means the court would have at least two options: reaffirm its November ruling to give Sam to his biological father, Christopher Vietri of New Port Richey; or take up the case a second time, a request made by the adoptive parents, Mark and Tracy Johnson.

"We are clearly disappointed that the mediation broke down," said Mary Stephens, a child advocate with the non-profit group, Hear My Voice, who has worked closely with the Johnsons for years.

"Without mediation," she said, "it is clearly going to be a court decision,"

Kennedy, a retired Alabama Supreme Court justice who was confident two months ago that the families could reach an agreement outside of court, declined to comment Thursday. He said, through an assistant, he will issue a statement today about the so-called Baby Sam case.

The case appears to be back at square one.

In interviews this week, Vietri and the Johnsons each reiterated their desire to have full custody of Sam -- the reason they have been feuding since Sam was 11 weeks old.

"I could be a dead-beat dad and not care, but I do," Vietri said. "If the law does what it is supposed to, Sam will be with me."

Tracy Johnson of Tuscaloosa, Ala., insists that Sam should be with his adoptive family -- the only family he has ever known. She said Sam showed no special connection with Vietri when the two met and that the little boy has not mentioned Vietri since then.

Vietri and the Johnsons met twice behind closed doors in January and February in mediation sessions that were described as cordial. Since then, the feuding appears to have resumed.

The latest allegation: The Johnsons claim Vietri violated an agreement that the two families signed in January to not speak publicly about the case.

Vietri spoke to the Times and a Tampa Bay area television station Wednesday, and then to Alabama media Thursday about meeting Sam for the first time last month at a child psychologist's office in Alabama.

Vietri was accompanied by his wife, Erika, and their 3-year-old son, Nicholas.

"We had an agreement that everything was confidential," Mrs. Johnson said. "We entered into the agreement in good faith."

Stephens, the child advocate, said she expects the Johnsons' attorneys to speak to Kennedy about the potential violation and what that could mean about who will get custody of Sam.

Kennedy told The Tuscaloosa News on Thursday that the interview could violate the confidentiality agreement.

"If any party or attorney made public comments about Sam Johnson during this mediation and until I file a report with the Supreme Court, then it could be in direct violation, not only of the agreement they entered into, but also be in direct violation of my directive in this mediation," he said.

Contacted Thursday, Vietri said he did not violate the agreement. His attorney, Martha Jane Patton of Birmingham, said she did not know what Vietri revealed in the interviews and could not comment.

"I advised him about the mediation rules," Patton said. "Unless somebody tells me otherwise, people are not supposed to reveal information gained during mediation."

The Alabama Supreme Court took the unusual step of ordering mediation after the Johnsons asked the justices to reconsider their original 5-4 decision awarding Sam to Vietri. Since that order, four new justices have been elected to the court.

While Alabama law allows the court to consider only the Johnsons' and Vietri's rights, Sam's best interests can be considered during mediation.

"This was an opportunity to work with both the families," Stephens said. "The thing that is heartbreaking is that if the court decides, there will be a winner and a loser . . . and the person that stands to lose the most is Sam."

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 either could not be reached this week or declined to comment, citing the confidentiality agreement.

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