But Katherine Gaytan, who kept Crystal Urick from her birth parents for seven years, is still fighting for custody.
By JAMIE MALERNEE
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 7, 2001
BROOKSVILLE -- The woman who for seven years raised another woman's child as her own, leading authorities on an international search, will not face criminal charges.
Prosecutors have dropped their case against Katherine Gaytan, a North Carolina woman whom police caught up with in April after receiving a tip that she had returned from Mexico with 7-year-old Crystal Urick. Crystal's biological parents are a Brooksville couple that seven years earlier had asked Gaytan's brother to temporarily watch over their infant. They hadn't seen their baby since.
Gaytan, 39, initially faced child abduction charges, which were then changed to felony child restraint and dropped last week.
"It just didn't seem to be in the interest of justice to pursue the charges," said Tom Lock, district attorney for the 11th District of North Carolina. "I'm not sure we could establish criminal intent."
Gaytan says Crystal's birth parents, Lazalia "Sissy" Urick and Ernest Barnett, abandoned their daughter, who she then took to Mexico and several states while seeking a better life. The biological parents maintain that Crystal was stolen from them.
Urick says she was 17 and had been living in the back of a van when she asked Gaytan's brother to look after her baby until she could get back on her feet. Barnett wasn't in the picture at the time, although the parents are now back together.
Although Gaytan no longer has to fight the criminal charges, she said Monday that her legal battle is far from over. A judge has sent Crystal to live with her birth parents, but Gaytan is fighting for permanent parental rights.
"That's my baby, that's my daughter," Gaytan said. "I just want her to come back home where she belongs."
After a lifetime of living with another family -- a family she wrongly thought was her own -- Crystal is slowly adjusting to her new home in Hernando County, where she has lived for almost three months. Her birth parents say they are getting to know the little person their infant has become.
"She's got her own personality, and she doesn't take nothing from nobody," Sissy Urick said Monday with a small laugh. "She's seeing a counselor, and she's doing a lot better than I expected."
Gaytan and Crystal have seen each other only once since May, during an hourlong supervised visit held in a local child welfare office. Gaytan said the meeting broke her heart.
"She was really withdrawn. She had lost weight," Gaytan said. "I don't think she understands (what's happening). She wasn't herself."
Terry Milner, Gaytan's civil lawyer, says the meeting is another sign that Crystal is suffering under Urick's care.
Urick counters that her daughter is adjusting as well as can be expected. She said Gaytan was upset by the visit only because Crystal did not want to speak with her.
Urick said the three months Crystal has been back home have been happy ones. During that time, Urick has learned that her daughter loves pizza and tacos for dinner, just like her. Crystal also has a stubborn streak, like her father. She plays and squabbles with her new brother, who is 5. She enjoys living in Florida, where she can skate and fish any time she wants, Urick said.
Still, there are awkward moments and difficult times, she acknowledged. Sometimes, Crystal calls her new parents Mommy and Daddy, sometimes Sissy and Edward. Partly because of all the school Crystal has missed during the initial custody tug-of-war, she will attend kindergarten this fall until teachers can assess her learning level.
Urick added that, although she remains angry with Gaytan, she would like to resolve their fight over Crystal. For her daughter's sake, Urick says she would be civil to Gaytan and allow her a larger part in Crystal's life if the two sides can agree not to put Crystal through more conflict.
"(Crystal) came to us and asked asked us why we can't all get along," Urick recalled. "We thought about it, and we think she is right. Why can't we all get along? If it's going to help my daughter, I'll bite my tongue."
If a resolution cannot be agreed to, everyone could be in for a protracted battle. Milner said Crystal's situation is unprecedented in the world of child custody cases and could easily stretch on for a year or more.
Gaytan says that she wants what's best for Crystal but that the two woman haven't been able to agree on what that is.
"We both want the same bottom line, we both want her," Gaytan said.
Yet she indicated a resolution may be in sight.