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    Detectives tell of girl's odyssey

    A dormant child abduction case suddenly heats up, sending investigators to Alabama and North Carolina before an arrest is made.

    By JOY DAVIS-PLATT and SAUNDRA AMRHEIN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2001


    In a red file folder, Lazalia Urick carried immunization records, birth certificates, police reports and an ink impression of a baby's footprints.

    For seven years, she thought that was all she would ever have of her abducted daughter, Crystal.

    Last week, though, a fresh sign of the girl emerged: a recent photo seen at a Hernando County home.

    On Sunday, two Hernando detectives told how that tip helped them make a case in four days that others hadn't been able to make in seven years. They tracked Crystal's odyssey from Hernando County to Mexico to North Carolina, and they arrested the woman they say took the girl as an infant.

    Now, Urick could be reunited with her daughter.

    A court hearing is scheduled Tuesday in Raleigh, N.C. to determine what is next for Crystal.

    "I can't get the seven years back, but I can get her for the next part of her life until she is 18," said Urick. "I want to make that as wonderful as I can for her."

    At 17, Urick asked the Romero family to care for 6-month-old 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 1994, Urick was to be reunited with Crystal in a meeting at a North Carolina courthouse, but the Romeros never came.

    On Wednesday, Katherine Romero was arrested at a Burger King she manages in Raleigh. Crystal was taken into protective custody and is in foster care.

    It was a sudden turnabout for a case that had long been cold. The key: Urick told officials that Crystal's father, Ernest Barnett, had seen recent photos of Crystal during a visit to the east Hernando County home of Romero's mother, Katherine Ryan.

    "It looked like a picture from one of those Kmart photo places," said Barnett of a photograph he saw hanging on the wall above an entertainment center. Crystal appeared to be about 5.

    Other information gleaned by Barnett led detectives to Alabama, then to North Carolina, where Romero was arrested Wednesday.

    "It's a good feeling to solve a case that's been going on for a long time," said Hernando County sheriff's Detective Bill Beetz. "I only hope Crystal will be able to go on from this point and have a normal life."

    Beetz and Hernando Detective Stacy Rodriguez, who both are parents, are concerned about what comes next for the child.

    "I've put myself in Crystal's position a couple of times and I try to figure out how I would react and adapt to a whole different life," said Beetz, who has three children. "I don't know if my 7-year-old would be able to adapt if she were taken from me."

    "She is also losing the only father she has known," said Rodriguez, who has an adopted 2-year-old son. "Just like with my boy, that is the family she knows and loves."

    To adapt to a new family, Crystal -- who has spent most of her life in a Spanish-speaking home -- will have more than the usual obstacles to overcome.

    "Her English is poor, so there will definitely be a language barrier," Beetz said.

    Both detectives are scheduled to meet with prosecutors in Brooksville today to discuss charges against Romero, who has been charged in North Carolina with felony child abduction. Romero might not be the only person charged, they said.

    The detectives would not comment on Romero's contention that she was not trying to elude officials despite a temporary move to Mexico and her changing the spelling of Crystal's first name and giving her the last name of Romero's husband, Jorge Gaytan.

    Romero has also stated that she lived in Hernando County for about a year after returning from Mexico. Detectives say that is false. "She only had two addresses: Mexico and North Carolina," Beetz said.

    Romero craved nothing more than to have a baby of her own, friends said Sunday after visiting her in the Johnston County Jail in North Carolina.

    But plagued with tumors in her uterus, Romero told the St. Petersburg Times, she eventually was forced to have a hysterectomy.

    "She always wanted a baby but couldn't have one," friend Berta Lopez said Sunday. "She's a good mama. She loves Crystal very much."

    Though Romero did not ask to raise Crystal, she welcomed the chance, friends said.

    "The real mother was not good for Crystal," said Juan Martinez, of Selma, N.C. who met Romero two years before she moved to Mexico.

    "She was afraid to give her back," Lopez said.

    Lopez met Romero about 10 years ago while both lived in Selma, about 3 miles east of Smithfield, N.C. where Romero now sits in jail on $1-million bail.

    But she did not hide Crystal in Mexico, friends say. Romero moved there for Crystal's and her own health. Crystal suffered an ear infection as an infant and needed surgery, they said. After an operation in North Carolina for Crystal, Romero found she could obtain needed medicine cheaply in Mexico, birthplace of her husband, Jorge Gaytan.

    Her friends said Sunday that Crystal's Mexican birth certificate, that police say was falsified, was needed to obtain an identity card for the girl so she could get medical attention. As for aliases and name changes, friends said, Romero spelled Crystal as Cristal, the more common spelling in Mexico. Gaytan, they said, is simply her husband's last name.

    Now the legal system will try to sort it all out. Urick and Barnett, who share a home in Brooksville, have borrowed a silver Ford Escort for the 10-hour trip to North Carolina for the hearing Tuesday.

    "It's worth it," Urick said Sunday, standing in the room newly decorated with stuffed animals and a striped bedspread in anticipation of Crystal's homecoming. "After all of this, the trip up there will be the least of it."

    Urick said she will carry her folder of documents for the court appearance.

    Gazing at the baby footprints, she remembers the day the imprints were taken and ink stained the bottoms of her newborn daughter's tiny feet.

    "Her feet were just so small," Urick said. "I just remember them being so, so small."

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