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Birth mother enters fray in custody fight for Sam

The mother's attorney says she thinks it would be best for the boy to stay with his adoptive parents.

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000


If Sam Johnson's biological father wins custody of the 4-year-old boy over the adoptive parents, he will have to fight for the child with the birth mother.

Natasha Gawronski filed a petition Wednesday in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court asking that she be allowed to reclaim the child she gave up for adoption as a way to keep him from the biological father she accused of abuse.

"She'll do it if it's necessary," said Ted Millison, Gawronski's Tampa attorney. "She's ready to step up to the plate . . . She thinks it is best for Sam."

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled last month that Christopher Vietri, of New Port Richey, should get Sam, who has lived with Mark and Tracy Johnson in Tuscaloosa, Ala., since he was 3 days old. But the Johnsons have asked the state's high court to reconsider its decision.

A custody fight between Vietri and Gawronski probably would occur only if the Alabama court refuses to reconsider the case and Sam is sent to Florida, attorneys for all sides say.

Millison said Gawronski always has believed Sam should stay with the Johnsons. But, he said, if that adoption does not work out she has the right to get the child back.

Gawronski, 23, has declined comment repeatedly over the years. Millison said she continues to live in the Tampa Bay area but declined to reveal other details about her, such as whether she has other children. Court records show she married Travis Lee Sostillo in 1998 in Tampa.

Millison said Gawronski believes she would be a better parent to Sam than Vietri and that it would be in Sam's best interest to stay with her because he would be able to have contact with the Johnsons. She is asking the court for sole custody, but would allow Vietri to visit, said Larry Liebling, Vietri's Clearwater attorney.

Liebling called Gawronski's petition "suspect" because he believes the Johnsons have influenced Gawronski and that the timing of the petition was designed only to repeat abuse allegations against Vietri in the media and influence the Alabama court. "She did not need to file the petition at this time," he said.

Gawronski testified in March 1998 that she told Vietri their baby was stillborn because he had beaten her and abandoned her and she wanted a better life for her son. At the trial in Tuscaloosa, she identified police photographs showing her with bruises and a fat lip that she said she received when Vietri abused her.

Anthony Marchese, the Johnsons' Tampa attorney, said he doesn't think Gawronski's petition will help or hurt their case.

"A birth mother plans her adoption," he said. "If the adoption doesn't go through than she should get the baby back."

Vietri and the Johnsons could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Johnsons have said they probably will appeal further -- to the U.S. Supreme Court -- if they are unsuccessful at the Alabama Supreme Court, but only if Sam can stay with them while the legal wrangling continues. Vietri said that he will fight if the Alabama court reverses its decision.

While the state Supreme Court considers the request to reconsider, the law allows Sam to remain with the Johnsons.

The Johnsons and Vietri have been battling over who should have custody of Sam since he was 11 weeks old.

Gawronski, then 19, gave him to a Tampa adoption agency at birth and said she didn't know who the father was. Vietri had broken up with the woman in mid-pregnancy.

When Vietri filed the paternity suit, she finally acknowledged that she had given the baby away.

Two years ago, a Tuscaloosa judge ruled the Johnsons should have him.

An appeals court upheld the decision, but last month, after having the case for more than 18 months, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the decision.

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