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I have sat back and read all the stories in the newspapers and have seen all the television shows about these two little girls. I am concerned that the whole story has not been told. I often wonder about Paula Johnson and her motives of trying to get this money she is sueing for and why did not take the offer she was given by the UVA Hospital. I will be changing this site from time to time as the story keeps unfolding.
By Tamara Jones and Michael D. Shear Washington Post Staff Writers Sunday, March 5, 2000
When she looks at the videotape of that hour when her life irrevocably slipped from private to public, Paula Johnson cannot remember anything at all. Not what she was thinking, or feeling, or even saying. "Shock," she concludes. It is a stranger on the television screen, a paper-doll cutout of herself, a bewildered face destined to forevermore carry a caption-Mother of Switched Baby.
The August 4, 1998, press conference in a nondescript hotel ballroom in Charlottesville promised enough high drama to briefly upstage live coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal that too-torrid summer. Center stage was Johnson, a 30-year-old single mother of four who had dropped out of high school and supported her family by holding a traffic sign at construction sites. From the dais, she surveyed the impatient reporters, photographers and camera crews with an uneasy smile. She had dressed for the occasion, wearing a demure suit that matched her pale green eyes. A permed tumble of blond hair cascaded down her back. Her ex-boyfriend, Carlton Conley, sat wordlessly at her side, an uncharacteristic tie noosed around his neck, his outdoorsman's face ruddy and weather-beaten. Their attorney beamed proudly as she introduced her clients, who waited, like nervous game-show contestants, for the questions to begin.
By chance, the pair had recently discovered that the University of Virginia Medical Center had sent them home three years earlier with the wrong newborn-that the bubbly daughter they called Callie was not, in fact, their flesh and blood. Complicating matters even further, the young couple mistakenly given Johnson and Conley's baby had just died in an automobile accident, unaware of the switch. Rebecca Grace Chittum was being raised by grieving grandparents who at that moment were sitting terrified in front of their television sets, wondering if they might now lose her, too. In the Shenandoah Valley hamlet of Buena Vista, 75 miles and a mountain pass away, they found themselves heartened by what Paula Johnson had to say.
"My main concern is the welfare, you know, and the well-being of both these children," Johnson carefully explained. No one was talking about lawsuits or custody fights or trading children. She wanted to meet with the grandparents, and privately they would find a way to share their lives and their love for Callie and Rebecca.
For a litigious society, the very notion that anger and greed might not prevail was immediately seductive, offering on a stifling August afternoon in Virginia a collective sense of renewal and redemption: strangers blending to form an extended family for the sake of innocent children, happily sharing Christmas dinners and summers at the beach and graduation days. It sounded like a fairy-tale ending.
Which it was.
Because none of it came true.
Nineteen months later, the Virginia baby swap has plummeted from the high ground into a legal and emotional sinkhole. The families have divided both against each other and among themselves, with all four men who have fathered a child with Paula Johnson at one point expected to testify against her as an unfit mother. The case has spawned at least half a dozen lawsuits or custody battles, and more are almost certain to follow. Entrenched as everyone is now in the bloodiest kind of war, it is almost impossible to remember that this all began with the happiest of events: the birth of a child.
Floodwaters had been cresting in the valley after days of torrential rain, and a city truck had to clear a mudslide from the road leading out of Buena Vista so Kevin Chittum could pass. He was in a hurry. His girlfriend, Whitney, a 16-year-old high school cheerleader, was in labor. Unsure that he'd be able to get her to Charlottesville in time, Kevin stopped first at the hospital in Lexington, just a few miles from home. Assured that delivery was still hours away, Kevin decided to try for what he considered the better hospital.
Whitney Rogers was admitted to the Women's Place at the University of Virginia Medical Center at 3:30 a.m. on June 30, 1995. Later that day, as she walked the halls trying to hurry along her labor, Whitney paused to chat with another patient. Paula Johnson had given birth to Callie Marie Jewel Conley the night before. The obstetrician's forceps had left a noticeable red mark on the baby's temple, but other than that, Callie was in perfect health. Weighing 9 pounds 6 ounces at birth, Callie was a voracious eater from the get-go, Johnson would later recall. Her live-in boyfriend had been there for the birth, and Paula harbored hope that the baby might bring them closer together. They'd had their share of problems.
Whitney Rogers gave birth at 2:43 p.m. on June 30. Rebecca Grace Chittum weighed 7 pounds 12 ounces. She had her mother's dainty features and her picky appetite, too. Rebecca showed little interest in the bottles Whitney tried to give her.
The time Callie and Rebecca spent in the hospital nursery overlapped for just a matter of hours. On July 1, Johnson took her new daughter home around lunch time, but five hours later they were back in the emergency room. Johnson was worried because Callie was refusing to eat. When doctors weighed her, she was nearly two pounds lighter than her recorded birth weight. Paula asked why-repeatedly, she claims-but the head pediatrician, Robert Boyle, brushed aside her concerns.
"Sometimes this just happens," she recalls him saying. (Boyle declined to be interviewed.) Rebecca Chittum left U-Va. with her proud parents and cluster of fawning relatives at 7:30 a.m. on July 2. She was plump and thriving. Over the next three years, the two girls and their families led their separate lives. Kevin and Whitney had a second daughter, Lindsey, and bought a rundown house in Buena Vista. Kevin was a construction worker who could fix just about anything. Whitney wanted real marble counter tops, and a swing set out back for the girls. Linda Rogers, Whitney's mother, let them live with her while they spent evenings and weekends renovating their dream house, with friends and family members pitching in. Whitney and Kevin planned to get married but were in no rush. They had all the time in the world: She was just 19, and he was 25.
An hour's drive away, Paula Johnson's life was considerably more complicated. She and Carlton Conley had split for good before Callie's first birthday, and their relationship since then had become so volatile that Johnson had taken out a restraining order against him. Conley declined through his lawyer to be interviewed. But Johnson claims she even pulled a loaded gun on him at one point to defend herself from his blows. "The only reason he's still breathing today," she allows, "is because he grabbed Callie and put her between us."
Johnson was struggling to make ends meet. She moved frequently, sometimes sharing a house with other single mothers and their children. In the summer of 1998, Johnson took Conley to court to enforce the $75-a-week child support payments he owed. Conley responded by denying paternity, and the Greene County family court ordered DNA testing.
On July 3, Johnson came home from work to find urgent messages from the court clerk, telling her to come to the courthouse immediately. Johnson called, and begged the judge to tell her what was going on. "I'm already upset," she said, "just please tell me now." Did she have AIDS ? The judge told her Carlton Conley was not Callie's father. "Bull," Johnson replied. "I was ranting and raving," she recalls, when the judge broke in. "Ms. Johnson, Ms. Johnson, you need to listen to me," she remembers him saying. "The tests are 99.9 percent positive that you are excluded from being the biological mother." "What the hell do you mean? No way!" Those closest to Paula, as well as the lawyer she immediately consulted, all assured her that this had to be some mistake, a stupid mix-up at the lab. The very next day, Kevin Chittum and Whitney Rogers were heading to the county fair to watch the fireworks. The back seat was full of excited children-Kevin's youngest sister, 13-year-old Bridget, his 11-year-old niece, Sheena, and two of their playmates, brothers Joshua and Jonathan Conner, 13 and 10. There hadn't been enough room for 3-year-old Rebecca, and she was throwing a crying fit when they all left. Her parents stopped twice along the way to call and check on her. They told her they loved her and would be back soon. "We'll bring you a candy apple," Kevin promised. A violent storm swept through the valley that afternoon. Kevin's car hydroplaned on a rain-slick stretch of Interstate 81 and slammed head-on into a fuel tanker. No one survived. The night after the crash, Whitney's benumbed mother took Becca into the back yard.
"Where's my mama and daddy?" Rebecca wanted to know. Linda Rogers searched the summer sky and pointed out the brightest pair of stars. "The Lord looked down and said he wanted two beautiful angels, so he took your mama and daddy," she explained. "I wanna go, too," the little girl begged. "You can't," her grandmother replied. "You have to wait." There were 42 pallbearers at the funeral, and the six young victims were buried side by side on a grassy ridge. The horrific holiday crash drew statewide media attention. Mourning family members had to chase cameramen from the grave site. Meanwhile, five grandparents-Linda Rogers, her ex-husband Tommy and his wife Brenda, and Rosa and Larry Chittum-faced the question of how to raise Kevin and Whitney's two orphaned daughters. Paula Johnson was aware of none of this. That same week, she had been wrestling with her own disbelief and denial. By law, the DNA results were confidential; Conley was entitled to his own test result, but not hers. "I still had the option at that point not to say a word to anyone," she says. Everything could just stay the way it was, if Paula so chose. "I don't think I slept all week long," she remembers. "I went to work, but I wasn't there mentally. It's one of the hardest things in the world: Do you want to know where your child is, or don't you? Do you want to know why you have someone else's child, or don't you?"
MOM GETS WRONG BABY … HOSPITAL PROBING SWITCH OF NEWBORNS … DISCOVERY OF BABY SWITCH STIRS CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION … Broken by a local paper at the end of July 1998, the story made headlines around the globe. Reporters camped at the foot of Paula Johnson's driveway, followed her to the dentist's office, and called at all hours from as far away as London and Japan. Talk shows courted her like lovesick stalkers, sending expensive flower arrangements and pleading cards. "The press was relentless," Johnson recalls, "in my bushes, coming to my job." She sent her children to stay with friends and temporarily moved in with Cynthia Johnson (no relation), the Charlottesville attorney she had hired.
At U-Va., a siege mentality likewise was taking hold. On July 13, Cynthia Johnson had called hospital CEO Robert Cantrell, sketching out the few details apparent at that point. Once it hit the papers, top hospital officials would imply that the switch had been a criminal act, insisting they were "99.9 percent certain" that it could not have been an accident or honest mistake because of the many safeguards the hospital had in place. Administrators and lawyers met late into the night and pored over records while investigators from the state police and health department began their own probe, interviewing staff members one by one. With only fading memories and cursory logs to work with, they sought to reconstruct who might have handled which baby, if even for a few moments, on a busy but unremarkable day more than three years past. Half a dozen baby girls had been delivered at U-Va. during the critical time frame, and officials quickly zeroed in on Rebecca Chittum. Learning that Whitney Rogers had just been killed, the hospital contacted her mother and dispatched its head pediatrician and a nurse to Buena Vista on July 21. Robert Boyle groped for words as he faced Linda Rogers. "Just tell me!" she finally implored.
Rebecca might not be yours. Linda stared back, uncomprehending. "Excuse me," she finally said, "can you repeat that?" And then, over and over again: "I know you can't be right." The doctor took a sample of Rebecca's blood back to U-Va. to match against birth records. By morning, they had the results: Whitney Rogers had delivered a baby whose umbilical cord blood was type B-positive, but Rebecca now tested as type O-negative; Paula Johnson had given birth to a daughter with type O-negative blood, and Callie's was now type B-positive. Blood type doesn't change. Doctors felt confident they had solved the puzzle, but still needed genetic testing to be absolutely certain. Those results would take weeks. Citing patient confidentiality rules, they told neither family about the other. There were other reasons to keep quiet: Clearly this case could spawn huge lawsuits and embarrassing publicity for a state institution proud of its vaunted reputation. The medical faculty included two recent Nobel Prize laureates, and the school of medicine attracted more than $100 million a year in research grants. The 591-bed hospital with its staff of 4,450 had been cited for excellence in several national publications.
Paula Johnson was told that her biological baby had likely been located, but the hospital steadfastly refused to reveal her name or whereabouts. Linda Rogers was likewise given the results of Rebecca's blood test but no information about her missing grandchild. Rebecca's maternal grandfather, truck driver Tommy Rogers, wept when he learned of the switch. "What else is going to happen? What else can happen?" he cried. Determined to find Paula's missing child on their own if they had to, Johnson and her attorney began scouring birth announcements in local newspapers from the summer of 1995. Her attorney leaked the story of the switch to the local press. The strategy paid off: Within a few days, a reporter from USA Today tracked down Paula's daughter. Johnson tearfully begged him for details: What does she look like, does she have my eyes, is she healthy, is she happy?
When she saw Rebecca's picture on the front page the following morning, August 3, Johnson had no doubt it was her child. Paula's mother, Jewel Condrey, felt like she was looking at Paula as a toddler again, so strong was the resemblance. The families in Buena Vista experienced the same jolt of recognition upon seeing Callie's picture in the paper-there was Whitney's rounded chin, Kevin's twinkling eyes. The media immediately converged on the sleepy town of 6,000. The families went into seclusion, waiting and wondering what Paula Johnson's next move would be. A tabloid offered a local photo lab $200 for any prints it might have of Kevin and Whitney with their little girls. Curious strangers made pilgrimages up to the cemetery, where the dirt was still soft and fresh on the six graves in a heartbreaking row. Through their attorneys, the shellshocked families arranged a meeting.
Paula sat in her car outside the house where Larry and Rosa Chittum waited. "I was scared to death when I pulled into that yard," she recalls. She worried that the Chittums would hate her for going public, for adding to the pain they already were suffering. They had lost a son, a daughter, a granddaughter and a future daughter-in-law in that crash. Yet Paula found herself welcomed with open arms. "When I got out of the car, they gave me a dozen long-stemmed red roses, and they were all hugging and kissing." Everyone had agreed to leave the children behind for this initial gathering, but they shared photo albums and anecdotes. Rebecca loved ice; Paula had absolutely craved ice during her pregnancy. Callie was a baby beauty queen; Whitney had been a pageant girl, too. A Chittum aunt says she was surprised when Paula launched right into the subject of money. "I'm going to sue for $50 million," she remembers Paula announcing. The next day, the Rogerses met with Paula. Still hoping that genetic test results might rule Rebecca out as the switched baby, they were more wary than the Chittums. "We've got something Paula wants," Linda remembers thinking on the way to the church where they were supposed to meet. "What are we going to do? We can't give up Rebecca." The get-together proved cordial and reassuring, and Paula invited everyone to a full-fledged reunion at her mother's house the following weekend in Stafford.
Paula's first glimpse of her biological daughter was of a little girl with curly brown hair in a blue Tweety Bird bathing suit, playing in the swimming pool. Paula had brought a plush toy puppy as a gift. "I didn't want to scare her, and at 30 years old, I had no clue what to say to this child." She approached casually. "I said, 'Hi, Rebecca, I'm Paula.' I gave her the stuffed animal and she ran off playing. And I didn't push the issue a whole lot. If she came near me, she came near me, and if she didn't, she didn't." Linda Rogers was fighting similar impulses to scoop Callie into her arms. Callie was a living, giggly reminder of the daughter Linda had just lost. Even the way Callie tossed back her hair-"that's Whitney all over," Linda marveled. "The first time I saw her, I just wanted to pick her up and hold her and love her and never put her down."
The Buena Vista families were taken aback, however, when they were introduced to photographers and a legal assistant "documenting the day" for Johnson's attorney, and they were further disconcerted when footage of the supposedly private reunion appeared on the "Today" show. The personal photographs Paula and her mother kept of the event show kids swimming and riding a neighbor's ponies, the adults laughing and eating and getting to know one another. They don't show the moment of panic Linda Rogers felt when she looked up and saw Paula's ex-boyfriend Carlton Conley walking off into the woods with Rebecca, or how Linda quickly followed them, because she feared suddenly and irrationally that this was all a setup to kidnap Rebecca. She tells the story now as a joke on herself; Carlton was simply showing his daughter some baby chicks. Also unapparent that day was the tension simmering between the Chittums and Rogerses over who should have primary custody of Rebecca and 18-month-old Lindsey. The Buena Vista families had already hired separate lawyers. For now, there was an informal agreement that the girls would spend four months a year with each set of grandparents. At the cookout that day, Callie had such a good time with her newfound relatives that she clung to them as they got ready to leave and begged to go home with them. Paula readily agreed. No mention was made of a reciprocal visit by Rebecca, who had never spent the night away from home and was still trying to cope with the loss of the only mother and father she had ever known. Jewel Condrey remembers glancing out her window once the Buena Vista caravan had pulled away. Her daughter Paula was sitting by herself at the picnic table, looking very much alone. Jewel had had a bad feeling about all this from the very start. When Paula had called her in hysterics after finding out about the switch, Jewel tried to tell her then to just leave it alone, let things be. But Paula never did listen. She had made her choice. The aftershocks hit hard at the Women's Place, the eighth-floor U-Va. maternity ward with painted pinwheels adorning its beige walls. "The first few days were almost surreal," recalls Christine Matt, a longtime nurse who was on the team the hospital assigned to investigate the switch internally. Nurses were weeping in the lounges. Colleagues began grilling one another about familiar, routine procedures. Parents nervous about possible misidentification were dabbing fingernail polish onto their newborns' toes. People whose children had been born at U-Va. around the time of the switch called in panic, wondering if they had the right child.
Crisis counselors held debriefing sessions for doctors and nurses in a conference room. "There was a sense of being violated," says Alan Cohn, who led the sessions. "Their lives began to revolve around this particular incident. There was a sense of shame for people identified as being part of that place, or part of the baby switching." No one was ever reprimanded, suspended, disciplined or fired in connection with the mix-up, but a handful of employees would leave the hospital nonetheless, unable to cope with the pressure. A few left nursing altogether. No one was willing to take a polygraph exam. Even now, discussion of "the incident" with any member of the hospital staff or the attorneys defending them is a matter to be delicately negotiated, over a period of weeks, with the Virginia attorney general's office, which serves as the legal defender of the state-run institution. For Attorney General Mark Earley, with an eye clearly on a future run for governor, the baby-switch case is fraught with danger. His spokesman, David Botkins, seeks assurances that Earley's name will not appear in connection with the case, and frets that even so much as a description of the state seal might cast his office in a cold and heartless light in comparison to a distraught single mother of four. Officially there are expressions of dismay that such a switch could have ever happened, and carefully worded statements of sympathy for the families involved. Yet through it all runs an unmistakable ripple of contempt for Paula Johnson. State officials go off the record to trot out seamy details of her private life-the number of boyfriends she has had, the concealed weapons she carries, the domestic violence, a drunk-driving arrest.
Police questioned Johnson about the switch twice for a total of four hours, and she left with the distinct feeling that she was considered a suspect, not a victim. Was there anybody who didn't like her? Sure, do you want a list? Why had she taken her baby home if she was concerned about the weight loss? The doctor said nothing was wrong. Was she willing to take a polygraph examination? No, if the nurses won't, why should I? Sitting in her lawyer's office on the outskirts of Charlottesville, Johnson still spews indignation. The university, she charges, was more concerned with its image than with the truth. "The Paula Jones-ing of Paula Johnson," she declares. "Because I didn't have initials behind my name, because I wasn't a middle-class citizen and up to par with them. I was a lonely single mother with four children by four different men working at a construction job. "I was nothing."
With the university's vague hints of criminal wrongdoing, media scrutiny of Johnson intensified. Published accounts of the case began to mention Johnson's scrapes with the law and her turbulent relationship with Carlton Conley. Conley already had spent four days in jail the previous year for misdemeanor assault and battery of Johnson, and another assault charge was pending. Johnson had two restraining orders against him, and had taken out a permit to carry a concealed weapon-denying on the application that she had ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. Her record, in fact, includes misdemeanor convictions for curse and abuse (she admits she called her son's school bus driver a fat bitch for leaving without him), defacing public property ($688 worth of unspecified damage to a bridge) and driving on a revoked license. All carried fines and suspended sentences. "They don't report that I organized a T-ball league, or that I'm a notary public," Johnson complains. But if Johnson bristled at the unfavorable coverage, she also began to embrace certain elements of her sudden fame. There were all-expense-paid trips to New York City. She chatted on-air with Katie Couric and Barbara Walters. She was one of Glamour magazine's "Women of the Year," posing with a bevy of luminaries – Olympic skier Picabo Street was so down-to-earth, Mariah Carey couldn't be any teensier, and the widow of Medgar Evers clasped Paula's hand and told her to call if there was anything she could do. Paula got to keep the designer clothes from the Glamour photo shoot. Maury Povich sent playhouses to both Callie and Rebecca, and a German television station paid $20,000 for an interview – a deal Johnson and her attorney don't mention when they insist that Johnson has made "not one dime" off the case. "Right from the beginning, they were maximizing their national coverage," complains a state official close to the case but unwilling to have his name attached to his criticism. "That's part of the effort to turn this into a TV movie."
Although the Buena Vista families didn't find themselves under the same cloud of suspicion, they also felt mistreated by the university. After being told that Rebecca was not the child her daughter Whitney had given birth to, Linda Rogers remembers head pediatrician Robert Boyle telling her U-Va. would send a team back to Buena Vista to talk with her the next day if she had "any further questions." Linda assumed Boyle himself would come out again. "No, I've spent too much time on this," she remembers him replying. "I've got to get back to my patients." The university offered free counseling to the families, but no explanation or theories about the switch and no personal condolences. A public relations strike force was flown in from Atlanta to help bolster the hospital's image, and a month after the story broke, U-Va.'s president took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post and other newspapers: "Our sadness and concern will be catalysts for action," John T. Casteen III promised. "Where security can be better, it will be … And where we can help to heal those who have been touched by this tragedy, we will employ every available option." After a four-month investigation by state and campus police, Charlottesville's top prosecutor concluded that "there is no evidence constituting probable cause to believe that a criminal offense was committed in connection with the switching of these two children." Although investigators had narrowed the number of hospital personnel in the nursery during the critical time period to eight, they were unable to determine who was responsible for the mistake. Separately, the state health department issued a damning report that reprimanded the hospital for lax procedures and inattentiveness in the maternity ward. In response, the hospital improved security, switched to adjustable, slide-lock ID bands and began clamping identification tags to the babies' umbilical cords. The difference in the babies' weights, their formula intake and the time they overlapped in the nursery suggests that the swap occurred between 6 and 7 on the morning of July 1, probably after Callie had been taken from her bassinet to have blood drawn and a fussing Rebecca had been picked up and comforted or fed. How the identification bracelets on each baby's wrist and ankle had come off and reappeared on the wrong baby remains unexplained. Once fastened, the bracelets cannot be adjusted for size. They are supposed to fit so snugly that snipping the plastic with scissors is the only way to remove them. Johnson still has Callie's bracelets, which she saved for her baby album; both were snapped shut on the seventh of 14 holes in the plastic, forming a circle large enough for two adult fingers. The manufacturer, Precision Dynamics Corp., says the third or fourth hole is standard for a newborn.
Once the mistake had been made, it is clear that the hospital missed more than one chance to catch and correct it. In addition to Paula Johnson expressing alarm over her baby's dramatic weight loss, members of Rebecca Chittum's family had raised concerns, too. Kevin's sister Roxane Cullen remembers Kevin and Whitney asking that Rebecca be rebanded after her ankle band slipped off and the remaining one around her wrist appeared to be too loose. The next day, the wrist band was so tight that Kevin worried it was cutting off circulation and asked to have it removed; he was told that would be against hospital policy. That same day, Cullen also remembers seeing a deep red forceps mark on the baby's temple, far more pronounced than a faint fingernail scratch she had noticed the day before. Nor did Rebecca's apparent weight gain of nearly two pounds virtually overnight go unnoticed. When Whitney remarked on the increase, Cullen, a mother of three herself, laughed. "That's physically impossible," she insisted. The scale must have been broken or misread. She told Whitney to have Rebecca reweighed. Medical records show the weight circled, with a question mark next to it and the word "double-check." Whether anyone did is not noted. Responding to Cullen's account, hospital lawyers questioned her memory. "One also wonders how, if this were all accurate, the Chittums could have been so surprised when they were first told of the switch," they said in a written statement.
logs also should have raised a red flag. After birth, Callie had been taking in 60 ccs of formula, but a day later, she had inexplicably dropped to 15 ccs. At the same time, Rebecca's intake had increased from 15 ccs to 60. Paula Johnson had spent little time with Callie immediately after her birth. The baby had been whisked away to be tested for diabetes and Paula had undergone surgery to have her fallopian tubes tied and was woozy when she was reunited with her newborn. She was pleased to notice that the forceps mark had already faded. Once the shock of the switch began to wear off, anger quickly took its place. The families began talking about compensation from U-Va. Paula Johnson and her attorney both stressed the need to stick together to fight their common enemy. As a state institution, the university would be protected by a medical malpractice cap of $1 million per incident, but Cynthia Johnson was already looking for ways around that. Settlement negotiations tentatively began. Their lives spliced together by a fateful moment in a hospital nursery, strangers struggled to become family. And no one, perhaps, worked harder at this than Rosa Chittum. During Callie's frequent visits to Buena Vista, some of which lasted for weeks at a time, the 50-year-old homemaker showered her granddaughter with gifts, clothes and attention. She gave Paula cash and groceries to help make ends meet, according to family members, and the two chatted often by phone. "It was the best I felt in a couple of years," Paula recounts. "I was thinking I was going to have this extended family. Rose was my lifeline. I talked to this woman 20 to 30 times a day." There were parenting differences from the start, though. The Chittums would privately disapprove of Paula spanking Callie, while Paula worried that Rebecca was spoiled and undisciplined. The families also confronted the switch itself in entirely different ways. Paula tackled the delicate matter with characteristic bluntness. "Callie kept seeing herself in the newspaper and asking me why I was crying all the time and I just told her it's because I love her so much, and then I thought, I can't do this for much longer," she says. She decided to track down Kimberly Mays, a young Florida woman whose own switch at birth had come to light when she was 11. "I needed that reassurance that Callie was going to be okay, that Kim was not living in some psycho ward because of this," Johnson says. "She told me to be open and honest with Callie and don't keep anything hidden." Callie learned that she had a Mama Whitney and Daddy Kevin who were angels in heaven, and that she had come home with Paula because someone put her in the wrong crib at the hospital. The revelation had no noticeable impact on the precocious preschooler, but Johnson's older children were upset, worried that Callie would be taken away. No one was going anywhere, Paula assured them. Rebecca was still too fragile from the deaths of Kevin and Whitney to hear about the switch.
A psychologist the grandparents consulted cautioned that the emotional impact would be tantamount to losing her parents for a second time. Johnson was referred to as "Mama Paula" without explanation, and her occasional visits were family affairs. Rebecca is sheltered even now from newspaper and television reports about the case, and when she once happened to glimpse her face on the evening news, it was quickly explained away: She was on TV because she was so beautiful. The families have sought more counseling, and Rebecca will be told when and how the child psychologist advises them. "My biggest fear," says Linda Rogers, "is the day Rebecca Grace comes home from school and says, 'Granny, why was I switched?'"Despite their differences, Johnson felt accepted enough that she contemplated moving to Buena Vista. The Chittums began looking for a place for her to rent, and there was even talk of putting the final touches on Kevin and Whitney's unfinished dream house for Paula and her children. "It seemed so perfect," a Chittum aunt remembers almost wistfully. "Rebecca would have another shot at having a mother who cared for her." When the families learned that Paula had already moved-not closer but twice as far away – the same aunt grew suspicious; she began to quietly start digging into the past of this stranger that fate had sent barreling into their lives. Paula Johnson was beginning to have her own doubts about the Buena Vista families, and was growing impatient to have Rebecca to herself sometimes, as she often let them do with Callie. With the three factions of grandparents already quarreling over permanent custody of Rebecca, Johnson was an unwelcome factor in the equation. "The other three families I had to deal with never could come to agreement,"
and the other would say, 'Well, she's not ready.'
'Well, yes she is,'
'Well, I have custody,'
'Well, it doesn't matter, so do we.' And that's the kind of thing I had to go through constantly with these people."
The Chittums, who had forged more of a bond with Johnson, began sneaking Rebecca to see her behind the backs of the Rogerses. And with their custody petition preparing to go to court, Paula says, the Chittums began pressuring her to take sides. One day, Paula remembers, Rosa Chittum called from the car to talk about the pending case. The conversation ended cordially, but after hanging up, Paula's phone rang again. She picked it up and could hear Rosa talking with her grown daughter; the connection hadn't been broken. Her eyes fill with tears when she recounts how she overheard Rosa telling her daughter they had to "be nice to Paula" because of the impending court date. "I saw I was being used as a pawn," Paula concludes. "I had just found out the last three years of my life were a lie. And now the last three months I'd been living were a lie, too." A Chittum family spokesman insists that they were the pawns, and that Paula herself fueled the family feud by separately telling both the Rogerses and the Chittums that if they didn't go for custody of Rebecca, she would. The Buena Vista families ended up resolving their differences amicably out of court. Rebecca and her younger sister, Lindsey, would spend Monday through Thursday with the two sets of Rogers grandparents, and the weekend with the Chittums. They called Paula and offered her one weekend a month with Rebecca. Not enough, Paula replied. There was no counteroffer, and the visits back-and-forth became more sporadic. "Callie started coming home from visits there telling me her name wasn't Conley, it was Chittum, and that Carlton wasn't her dad, Daddy Kevin was," Paula says. Kevin's birthday had been the same day as his youngest daughter Lindsey's, and the family had always celebrated them together. Callie was in Buena Vista when the date came around for the first time since Kevin's death. "They had a birthday party for their children who are deceased," Paula says. "I did not think it was appropriate for Callie to be there. I think Rose used Callie to get through it. That's Rose's connection to her deceased son. She uses Callie as a bridge to get over." Rosa and Larry Chittum routinely decline all interview requests; friends and relatives say Rosa is terrified of Paula Johnson and the power she now wields over her family. Relations so deteriorated that on one visit to Buena Vista, Paula stuffed a tape recorder down her blouse and members of the Chittum family videotaped her every move. They blocked her car in their driveway for fear she might snatch Rebecca and flee. When the Buena Vista families accepted a settlement worth approximately $2 million from U-Va., Paula was livid. She went to court in a futile bid to block the agreement on grounds that, as Rebecca's mother, any settlement on Rebecca's behalf must be approved by her. "It was divide and conquer," lawyer Cynthia Johnson would lament. "All the university has to do now is sit back and watch everyone fight." U-Va. made the same settlement offer to Paula Johnson, but she rejected it, and added another lawyer to her team: John Blakely, the Florida attorney who had helped negotiate multimillion-dollar settlements for Kimberly Mays and her biological parents. Johnson filed suit against U-Va. for $31 million, claiming in part that her civil rights had been violated when she was deprived of the opportunity to raise her own child. She sued the manufacturer of the baby identification bracelets for another $12 million. She named herself, not Callie, as plaintiff. Johnson vows never to accept any settlement on Callie's behalf, because Callie herself has until her 10th birthday to file a medical malpractice claim and until she is 20 to pursue any other suit related to the switch. "Then and only then can Callie get up and say what the impact of this has been on her life and what it would take to set it right," Johnson insists. Two weeks after the Buena Vista families settled with U-Va., Johnson informed them that she was cutting off all contact on advice of counsel. If she couldn't see Rebecca, they couldn't see Callie. The Chittums petitioned for visitation rights. By summer, the only place the families would see each other was the one place they had promised to avoid: a courtroom. Last July, after losing a bid to change the venue of one of the hearings from Buena Vista to Stafford County, where she now lives, Johnson emerged from court in tears, red-faced and raging. For the first time, she publicly vowed to reclaim Rebecca: "That's my child and I want her home with me!" "Well, you've got our child," a Chittum aunt ventured back. "No!" Johnson screamed. "Your [expletive] children are [expletive] dead and it's time you [expletive] came to grips with that!"
She is both likable and hateful, a victim with serrated edges. "Yeah, I'm a greedy bitch," she says, mocking the many foes who believe her every move is designed to maximize the monetary damages she hopes to collect. Gregory Lucyk, the senior litigator in the attorney general's office defending U-Va., refers to her anguish as "this charade." Johnson is unfazed. "They can say whatever they want, but they still switched my baby."
There is what amounts to an underground network of Johnson detractors, most (but not all) of them in some way related to her and none willing to speak on the record for fear, they say, of retribution. Sworn testimony in court documents details the worst of their accusations: Johnson walked out on her two oldest children when they were just babies a decade ago, leaving them with her then-husband, who was not the father of the older boy but continued to care for him for nearly three years. Johnson claims her husband abducted the boys, and that she did not file criminal charges because he threatened to kill the children and himself. "I did not kidnap them. She walked out," the ex-husband, Frank Moore, says, declining to comment further. After taking back the older boy, she disregarded medical advice to have a small hole in his eardrum repaired, despite a doctor's certified letter warning her of the consequences. The child eventually had to have his eardrum replaced. Johnson says she had sought medical attention for the child with another doctor. The same boy-diagnosed at various times as learning disabled, hyperactive and emotionally disturbed-was placed in weekend foster care for several years after Greene County child services workers determined that Johnson physically abused him. Testimony indicated that the boy had been slapped, bitten, and whipped with a belt so hard it left welts. Johnson says she clapped a hand over the boy's mouth during a tantrum to prevent him from spitting on a teacher, and she acknowledges using a belt to spank him. But she denies leaving welts and says she does not know anything about the biting allegation. Johnson completed parenting classes under the threat of having him permanently removed from her home by Child Protective Services. Johnson not only ended up filing for custody of Rebecca, she also petitioned to formally adopt Callie. The Chittums countered with a bid to adopt Callie themselves, and a judge is scheduled to determine Callie's fate next month. An adoption would effectively sever anyone else's rights to see the child. The judge also has the option of simply leaving things as they are, with Paula as Callie's legal guardian. The Chittum aunt who began to distrust Johnson soon after their initial meeting had once studied to become a police investigator, and her amateur sleuthing over a period of months unearthed all three fathers of Johnson's sons. Along with Carlton Conley, whom DNA tests had proved to be Rebecca's biological father, the exes were subpoenaed to testify as character witnesses against Johnson when she filed for permanent custody of Rebecca. One of the men was fresh from battling Johnson in court himself, over custody of their adolescent son. Teachers and caretakers described the boy in testimony as illiterate, zombie-like on 65 milligrams of Ritalin a day, and prone to violent outbursts. The judge ruled that his father could provide a more stable environment, and Johnson lost custody-a decision she is appealing and blames on U-Va. for the upheaval caused by the baby switch. Privately tutored and off medication, the boy is now able to read and attend regular classes, his father and grandmother say. Last fall, Johnson's petition for custody of Rebecca was heard. Her exes – including the former husband she hadn't seen in several years – were all sitting in the Buena Vista courtroom with the Chittums and Rogerses. Linda Rogers had an arm draped fondly around Carlton Conley's broad shoulders. Rosa Chittum looked sad and gaunt, dressed in black as if for a funeral. And the grandparents had added a new lawyer to their team: the attorney who had recently won the custody case that cost Johnson her son. With him came the files of Paula's buried past. "Any time a judge is called upon to decide what is in the best interest of a child, he needs to know what kind of person he's trusting with the privilege of raising that child," contends the attorney, Jon Shields. "Her experience, her track record, pretty clearly indicates what kind of parent she's going to be with any other child. It's also very difficult in custody cases to separate lifestyle choices from the example that parent is going to pass along to their children." Paula Johnson thought she would win. An uncle was building bunk beds in Callie's room in anticipation of bringing Rebecca home, and Paula's other children already referred to her as their sister. Shuttling Rebecca among the grandparents' three households in Buena Vista each week was disruptive and unfair, Johnson felt.
And, like the other side, Johnson was prepared to fight dirty. "No one ever talks about Kevin's criminal past," her attorney Cynthia Johnson said conspiratorially in an interview before the trial. "He was a rapist. Whitney was under age." (Virginia law considers 15 the age of consent, and Whitney was 16 when she gave birth).
The atmosphere in Buena Vista was almost unbearably tense. An anonymous letter signed by "Family and Friends of the Rogers and Chittum family!" was posted on the court-house door, until the sheriff spotted it and took it down. "What is Ms. Johnson's loss?" the letter demanded to know. "For almost a year now all we've seen and heard is Paula Johnson and her tears of her loss. We want to know, just what has she lost? She has a beautiful little girl with her and another little girl whom is very happy with the only family she has ever known … Does Paula have to go to a cemetery to be able to talk to her children? … A family isn't who you are born to – it's who raises and cares for you." Blue ribbons – Rebecca's favorite color – were distributed around town in solidarity. The case by then had fallen out of the limelight, and only a handful of reporters turned out to cover the custody fight. During breaks, Paula paced the hallway and chain-smoked outside. The Buena Vista families huddled in a separate hallway with Paula's exes.
But the expected bloodbath never came to pass behind the court's closed doors. Judge John B. Curry decided that the only defense witness he wanted to hear from was Nadia Kuley, a child psychologist from Mary Baldwin College who had evaluated Rebecca. Kuley testified that removing her from her grandparents could cause incalculable harm to a child already traumatized by the loss of the only parents she had ever known. But it was also important, the psychologist added, that Rebecca come to know Paula Johnson and be allowed to build a bond with her biological mother. The judge denied Johnson's bid for custody, but granted her one weekend a month visitation, plus holidays and three weeks in the summer-the same offer Paula had rebuffed when the grandparents had made it on their own. The families were also ordered to undergo biweekly counseling with Kuley, who would work to build the bond between Paula and Rebecca. The psychologist would also prepare Rebecca to hear the truth about the switch, a process Kuley believes could take years. After it was over, the families crowded into the center of the courtroom, most of them shedding tears of relief. Linda Rogers approached Paula, and they hugged and cried in each other's arms. "All I wanted was to be a part of her life," Paula murmured. "I know, I know," Linda answered. Other members of the Chittum and Rogers clans gathered around to clasp Paula's hand or pat her back or embrace her. Rosa Chittum hung back at first, her arms crossed, until finally Paula approached and wrapped her arms around her. Paula pulled out Callie's new school pictures. Everyone agreed to go down the street to Pizza Hut to celebrate the reconciliation. Rebecca was fetched from home, along with little Lindsey. Travis Rogers, the brother who had been at Whitney's side when she gave birth, dabbed at his eyes and said, "Everything's going to be all right now." And for a while, at least, it was. Having been given the wrong child, Paula Johnson today finds herself defending the right to have any child. At home with Callie, nearly 5, and her 9-year-old son, Cody, Johnson presents an image far removed from the cold manipulator her adversaries see. The house is filled with pictures of her children, including Rebecca, and the den is reserved for her collection of angel figurines. On the wall hangs a large portrait of Callie dressed in white, wearing angel wings, her blond head bowed as if in prayer. It is Callie who Johnson calls "my heart," Callie who is the "girly-girl I secretly wanted to be." They dress up together as M&Ms for Halloween. When there's an audience, Paula coaches Callie to recite lines from their favorite movie, and laughs in delight when she drawls in her tiny voice, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Ask Callie where she came from, and she replies by rote: "Mama Whitney's belly." Ask Callie who Kevin and Whitney are, and she responds: "Angels in heaven." Ask Callie why she is on TV or in the newspaper, and she chirps, "Yep, I'm the switched baby." Ask Callie who she looks like, and she will say: "I look like Callie." Ask Callie who Rebecca is, and she falls silent and walks away. "Who's Becca?" Paula calls after her. So far, Paula Johnson has lost every legal battle resulting from the baby switch. Her $31 million suit against U-Va. was thrown out of state court, and if she wants to pursue damages against the university, she will likely have to refile with Callie as the plaintiff-a move she has previously insisted should be only Callie's to make. Her attorneys withdrew the suit against the baby bracelet manufacturer from federal court for strategic reasons, and have six months to refile in state court. The company maintains that the ID bands were not defective, just negligently applied by nurses who routinely fastened them too loosely by slipping a finger between the clasp and the baby's flesh. Emotionally, Johnson says no suit can recover the price she has paid. She feels haunted by Kevin and Whitney's deaths, and guilty that the love she feels for Rebecca is not the same as the bond she feels with Callie. "This child I carried doesn't know me as her mother, and that is the most hurtful thing in the world," Johnson says. The switch and its aftermath have plunged her into a depression so debilitating that she sometimes spends days in bed, she says. Now the new truce shows signs of faltering. Rebecca became so hysterical when she was sent to spend a recent weekend with Paula that she threw up when her grandmother tried to hand her over, the Chittums say. Their visits with Callie are in jeopardy, too. Paula has appealed the judge's order that would require her to give up just 12 days a year with Callie. "There are transportation restrictions, time restrictions, a lot of stuff," Paula says vaguely by way of explanation. The same witnesses and potentially damning testimony that were never heard in Buena Vista are being prepared for the battle over Callie next month. Paula privately hints that she will also continue fighting for custody of Rebecca-something she has the power to do for the rest of Rebecca's childhood, because the Buena Vista families cannot legally adopt her unless Paula signs away her rights as the mother. Everyone longs for closure now. Paula tracks down the nurses who cared for her on the maternity ward that summer of 1995, and she calls them at home, at night, and implores them to tell her whatever they can remember. Named as individual defendants in her suit against U-Va., they invariably hang up. The Buena Vista families "really and truly haven't had time to grieve for the children because we had to stay on our toes to save Rebecca," says Linda Rogers. "I couldn't save Whitney, but maybe I could save Rebecca." She blinks back tears before adding softly, "To this day, I don't know what I'm saving Rebecca from." Despite the prosecutor's conclusions, university police still consider the baby switch an "open, active criminal investigation," and when pressed, say that Paula Johnson has not been ruled out as a suspect. No detectives are actively working the case, but the files are closed to scrutiny by the media, the public, and even the victims themselves. The one thing, the only thing, that all players in this tragedy agree upon is that the truth, whatever it is, will probably never be known. When Paula Johnson sees the videotape of her press conference that hot summer day in 1998, she sees a dazed mother in a mint-green dress promising a happy ending to a sad story. There is something the tape doesn't show, though, the part that television viewers never saw, either. After the press conference was over, Johnson had stepped down from the dais and was heading for the exit when camera crews and photographers mobbed her. She looked for an escape but miscalculated, and cowered in a corner. Besieged, she began to sob.