Woman's abduction charge is dropped
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001
SMITHFIELD, N.C. -- Abduction charges were dropped Thursday against a woman who was asked seven years ago to temporarily care for a Hernando County woman's child, then did not return the girl.
But after a probable cause hearing Thursday, Katherine Romero remained in jail on $25,000 bail on a pending charge of felonious restraint. The bail will return to $1-million if either Romero or her family contacts the girl or her birth family, Judge Andy Corbett ruled.
Tensions were high when Romero's attorney cross-examined Lazalia "Sissy" Urick, the mother of the 7-year-old girl, Crystal, at the center of the dispute.
The attorney, Bob Denning, and Urick yelled at each other, and Denning showed Urick a handwritten document giving Romero's brother, Chris Ryan, power of attorney involving Crystal.
Urick testified that she signed the document but could neither read nor write and thought it only gave Ryan the right to take the girl to the doctor.
Urick and Ernest Barnett, both of Brooksville, are the parents of Crystal, who until last week lived outside Raleigh, N.C., with Romero.
An attorney for Barnett said that while the remaining charge against Romero doesn't sound as harsh as abduction, it is still serious.
Both are class F felonies. Potential sentences following a conviction on either charge range from probation to about four years in prison, said Robert Lane, the attorney.
"It may sound like a worse charge has been changed, but there's really no change," Lane said.
Officials with the Johnston County district attorney's office said after the hearing Thursday that the evidence against Romero was better suited to the restraint charge.
Urick has said she asked Romero's brother to care for Crystal temporarily in 1994 until she could get on her feet financially. Romero's sister then drove the girl to Romero in North Carolina.
Soon after giving the child to the Romeros and signing a power of attorney, Urick came to Johnston County, North Carolina -- where Romero lived at the time -- to get the baby. Romero didn't meet her, and Urick filed an abduction charge, attorneys for the parents have said.
A tip from a mutual acquaintance led Florida investigators to Romero, who for a time had lived with the child and her husband in Mexico. Romero, 39, was working as a manager at a Raleigh fast food restaurant when she was arrested last week.
A Wake County judge ruled Wednesday that Urick, 24, and her fiance, Barnett, 29, can take Crystal home to Florida, which most likely will happen this weekend.
At the hearing Thursday, with her family sitting behind her, Romero's attorney argued forcefully that his client should not face criminal charges.
"There is no evidence this child was any more than well cared for throughout this whole ordeal," Denning said.
Urick testified under questioning from Denning that she has four children. She became infuriated when he asked her about a son who drowned at the age of 2.
"My son has nothing to do with this or their family," Urick said. "My son is dead and leave him out of this."
An 8-year-old son of Urick's lives with Urick's mother, while a 5-year-old daughter remains in the custody of one of Urick's friends.
Katherine Romero, as she was identified at the time of her arrest, was identified as Katherine Gaytan, the surname of her husband, in court Thursday.
Meanwhile, the decrease in Romero's bail Thursday is likely connected to the facts in the case and not the change in the charge, said Lane, Barnett's attorney.
"You had Florida involved, you had Mexico involved, so they set the bond high enough to ensure she was going to stay in custody until this thing was investigated," Lane said.
- Times staff writer Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report and information from the Raleigh News & Observer was used.
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