Child missing 7 years is found
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2001
Lazalia Urick knew the back of a van was no home for a baby.
The 17-year-old Hernando mother turned to family friends, asking them to care for her 6-month-old daughter, Crystal Ann, until she could make some money and find a place to stay.
Weeks later, Urick told the family she wanted the baby back. In July, Urick was to be reunited with Crystal Ann in a meeting at a North Carolina courthouse.
Urick showed, but no one else did.
On Wednesday, more than seven years later, Katherine Romero was arrested at a Burger King she managed in Raleigh, N.C. Crystal was taken into protective custody.
The arrest revealed a yearslong odyssey involving fake identities, false birth certificates and a wandering lifestyle that took the girl and the woman to Mexico and several states.
It also revealed the troubling dilemma of a 7-year-old girl: the only mother she knows is behind bars.
How it happened
On the day Crystal was born in December 1993, Urick was a single mom with a 1-year-old son.
She and Crystal's father had decided to go separate ways.
Evicted from a rental home south of Brooksville, Urick asked her mom to watch her son and the Romeros to take care of Crystal until she could get on her feet.
Urick, who has dyslexia, said she couldn't read well when the Romeros asked her to sign documents. She thought the papers granted them permission to take Crystal to the hospital if she became sick. Now, she says, she unknowingly surrendered power of attorney for the girl.
Leads with police went nowhere.
"I was going through hell, not knowing whether my daughter was alive or dead or how she was being taken care of or if I'd ever see her again," Urick said. "I pray to God no one ever goes through that."
Not a day passed, Urick said, that she didn't think about Crystal.
Through the years, Urick would drive past the Romero home. Four or five times she thought she saw Crystal. A young girl with sandy brown hair looked just like Urick's other children. Urick would drive to the nearest pay phone and call police.
But each time, they never found Crystal. Urick was tempted to take action, but friends' advice stopped her.
"They told me if I snatched the wrong kid, I would be held for kidnapping."
Years on the run
Romero and Crystal moved about for years, including two years in Mexico, investigators say.
Detectives found a fake Mexican birth certificate dated Aug. 19, 1994. Court records show Katherine Romero is alleged to have abducted the girl on July 25, 1994.
Police say she also changed the girl's first name and her last name to Gaytan, one of Romero's aliases.
Authorities in North Carolina say they don't know how long Romero was back in the area, but utility records show her living at her current address for about a month. Investigators say they were told that Romero had worked at the Burger King in Raleigh for about two years.
About a month ago, Urick heard that Romero might be living in Alabama. They contacted Hernando sheriff's deputies.
That reignited an investigation that led to North Carolina.
Earlier this week, deputies arrived at Urick's home to let her know that Romero was in jail and Crystal had been found.
"Oh, thank God," she said. "It's about time."
Crystal's return would be an extra special reunion.
Two years ago, she and Crystal's father, Ernest Barnett, bumped into one another on Valentine's Day in a Winn-Dixie on the east side of the county. Within days, they reunited.
They moved together to a home in Sumter County.
But tragedy struck the young mother again about a year ago. Her 21/2-year-old son, Justin Westfall, drowned in a neighbor's swimming pool.
The couple now live south of Brooksville with Barnett's 5-year-old son. Urick's son lives with her mother, while her 5-year-old daughter lives with family friends.
Urick says she didn't want to drag her children with her while her life was unsettled.
"My mom moved me from house to house and I wasn't going to put my kids through that," said Urick, 24, who sees her children regularly.
Barnett, 29, who works for a home demolition company, says they are a cohesive family unit.
Since moving into their home, they've kept one bedroom empty in anticipation of Crystal's return.
Now, they hope the wait is over.
The two plan to borrow a friend's car to drive to North Carolina on Monday. A hearing on Crystal's fate is scheduled for Tuesday.
They plan to meet Crystal with "open arms" and a big stuffed animal, Barnett said.
"She's not going to know me at all, I know that," Urick said. "I'm going to have to get to know her.
"It's going to take time," she said. "I'm going to do anything I can to get her to trust me and let me take care of her. That's all I wanted to do ever since she's been born."
- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which includes information from the Raleigh News and Observer.
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