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  Baby Switch Leaves Disparate Lives Forever Entwined

  family photo Attorney Cynthia Johnson, right, and Paula Johnson answer questions in August about the 1995 switching of Callie Johnson and Rebecca Chittum. (AP)

By Tamara Jones
and Michael D. Shear

Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 8, 1998; Page A01

CHARLOTTESVILLE – They met in the maternity ward at the University of Virginia Medical Center on a summer evening in 1995, two patients walking the halls with heavy steps, trying to hasten labor. Paula Johnson was a 27-year-old single mother about to give birth to her third child. Whitney Rogers was a terrified high school cheerleader about to have her first. They paused to chat, the lives of two strangers glancing off each other, just for a moment.

Paula Johnson gave birth at 11:12 that night. Whitney delivered her baby the next day. Both would leave the hospital with healthy newborn girls.

But somehow, initial tests now suggest, their babies were switched, raised these last three years by the wrong parents. And today, their very different lives are entwined in a melodrama that will redefine two American families in untested ways, either in the courtroom or on their front porches, over storybooks or over legal briefs, with compassion or heartache.

What happened after the births of Rebecca Grace Chittum and Callie Marie Johnson is under investigation by university and state police, yet it is under scrutiny by anxious parents everywhere. Paula Johnson's attorney issued the wrenching challenge on national television the other day:

Go home and look into the eyes of your children and ask yourself what you would do.

"Something's happening." Kevin Chittum's call from the hospital was calm - he and Whitney had had a couple of false alarms already - but on June 29, 1995, they were sure this was the real thing. Back home in tiny Buena Vista, Va., relatives were alerted and piled into cars for the hour-plus drive to Charlottesville.

Whitney's only sibling, Travis Rogers, found his younger sister in the hallway with another patient. Walking hadn't done much to hurry labor: Rebecca didn't make her debut until 2:55 the next afternoon. The family says the videotape taken by Whitney's stepmother in the hospital room clearly shows a pink identification band on the newborn's tiny wrist.

What Travis remembers best, though, is the tableau moments after Rebecca was born, how Whitney held her so tenderly, how Kevin leaned across the bed so he could embrace them both, how complete and contented they looked, this brand-new family.

Whitney was just 16 when she became a mother, a sophomore in high school with crystal blue eyes and a waist-length tumble of naturally blond curls. Kevin was six years older, a dark-eyed former football player working as a carpenter in his father's business. Whitney's mother, Linda, had hit the roof when she first learned that the couple had been secretly dating, but Kevin managed to win her over with his obvious devotion. When Linda warned the couple that they would have to break up if Whitney's grades dropped, friends remember, Kevin spent evenings at the Rogerses' house helping Whitney with her homework.

The two of them had big plans for the future. They would marry, and Kevin would build them a dream house with his own hands. Whitney wanted marble counter tops in the kitchen; Kevin wanted a cozy attic office. There would be a swing set in the back yard, and they would raise their children in the happy embrace of an extended family, with cookouts at the park and heaps of toys on Christmas morning and carnival afternoons at the fairgrounds come summer.

When they learned that Whitney - only 15 at the time - was pregnant, the big dreams were put on fast-forward. Kevin did odd jobs in addition to his construction work, and they went to a department store in Roanoke to buy everything for the baby. Kevin, Travis Rogers recalls, "was a person who hated used." The autumn after Becca's birth, Kevin insisted that Whitney return to school, pointing out that there were plenty of relatives eager to baby-sit. Whitney even rejoined the cheerleading squad. But she told friends that she missed her baby too much, and didn't return after winter break.

Kevin, Whitney and Becca were living in Linda Rogers's small yellow bungalow. Linda had moved in with her widowed sister to give the young family some privacy. They flew a Winnie the Pooh banner from the front stoop. Whitney worked occasionally at the Wal-Mart in nearby Lexington, and Kevin promised that they would have a home of their own someday. With real marble counter tops.

"He loved Whitney, and she loved him. They were meant for each other," recalls a close friend of Whitney's, an 18-year-old named Laura who asked that her last name not be used. Rebecca was her parents' heart, a scamp with copper hair and blue eyes who loved putting pennies in gum ball machines, playing with her Dalmatian puppy, Boomer, and being tickled by her daddy. She was about 7 months old when Whitney learned she was pregnant again. Kevin began building an addition to the bungalow.

One day, Kevin and Travis Rogers were driving down a leafy street when Kevin pointed out a run-down stucco house. "I think I could do something with that," Kevin mused aloud. The memory makes Travis, 24, smile. "Kevin could see potential in everything." Kevin bought the house and promptly enlisted friends and family members in the grand project, tearing down walls, ripping out plumbing, building stairs to the attic, putting real marble on the kitchen counter tops. There was a lot of work to do, but he figured they would be able to move in by this coming Christmas, then get married. Linda Rogers bought a blue swing set for her granddaughters, and Kevin put it up in the back yard.

The last time the family all got together was for Becca's third birthday on June 30. There were hamburgers on the grill, and birthday cake and happy children running wild. It was the best time ever, Travis thinks. He thinks of it now as a farewell party.

Two hours north, in a hilly subdivision of Ruckersville, Va., Paula Johnson was raising Callie Marie and her brothers in a rented A-frame on Morning Glory Road. Paula worked with a construction crew, standing in the road with the orange flag warning motorists to slow down or stop.

Callie's father, Carlton Conley, had been in the hospital room when she was born. Relatives describe him as a doting daddy, but the 34-year-old Sheetrock installer has had a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship with Paula. He spent four days in jail last year for misdemeanor assault and battery of Paula and has a court date next month on an assault charge stemming from another encounter with her. She has gone to court twice for restraining orders and took out a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

Things had gotten particularly bitter between Paula and Carlton at the start of the year, when she asked him to increase child support for Callie. Carlton responded by denying that he was the father of the flaxen-haired little girl with a mischievous smile. Greene County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court ordered all three of them to undergo DNA testing.

Fairfax Identity Laboratories completed its report on Case 9802925 on June 23, and on July 2, the court notified Paula Johnson. Not only was Carlton not the father, she was told, but it was biologically impossible for Paula to be Callie's mother.

The next day, Paula reached her attorney. Cynthia Johnson, who is not related to her client, recalls that Paula was "very distressed." Once the lawyer had obtained copies of the single-page reports, she sat down with Paula.

"You've really got to think about what you want to do next," she told her. "There are a lot of lives in balance."

Doing nothing at all was an option, she knew. But it was one that Paula could not bear to take. Her child was out there, somewhere, and she wanted to know that she was safe and secure. As for Callie Marie, the stunning news only drew Paula closer to the little girl that she now realized had never been hers.

"As much as I love Callie, I didn't think it was possible to love her even more," she would later tell reporters through her tears. "But it is possible."

That holiday weekend, though, Johnson had her chilling test results, but no real answers. If Callie wasn't her daughter, who was?

The university heard from Paula's attorney on July 13. "How did this happen?" Cynthia Johnson wanted to know. And where was Paula Johnson's biological child? The university launched an investigation. A team of doctors and nurses sat down and tried to figure out possible scenarios.

They concluded that hospital policies had been followed to the letter - both babies and mothers promptly banded with identification tags whose numbers matched. Paula Johnson later would dispute this, insisting that the baby was whisked away to be tested for diabetes and was not tagged in her presence, as policy requires. Still, administrators swiftly concluded that an accidental switch was virtually impossible.

They were looking at a crime, the university publicly asserted, not a mistake.

But who would do such a thing, and why?

Although it has not released any complete chronology, the hospital says records show that Paula Johnson was admitted June 28, 1995, gave birth the next night and was discharged at 1:30 p.m. July 1.

Six hours later, Paula brought Callie back to the emergency room because she wasn't feeding, and the baby was readmitted. The original identification tag would have been removed and a new one put on at readmission, the hospital says. The Johnson baby was discharged again on July 4. Whitney Rogers gave birth on June 30 and went home with her daughter the morning of July 2.

Now, the hospital pored over its records and soon narrowed to six the list of baby girls who might have been switched with the Johnson baby. Callie's records showed her having one blood type at birth, but another when the court-ordered DNA test was performed. Blood type doesn't change. Apparently looking for babies whose blood type at birth matched Callie's now, the hospital zeroed in on one child. Citing confidentiality rules, they refused to give the name to Paula Johnson.

News of the reported baby switch hit area papers July 30. Journalists converged on Charlottesville and began searching birth announcements for June 29, 1995. Last Monday, USA Today bannered the news across the front page: They had found the other baby.

In Buena Vista, relatives of Rebecca Grace Chittum confirmed that the hospital had sent a doctor and nurse to draw blood from Becca's arm and tell her family that she might not be theirs.

The news came barely two weeks after Kevin and Whitney's funeral.

They were going to the carnival. On the Fourth of July, Kevin Chittum and Whitney Rogers filled the back seat of Whitney's used Honda with excited children and set off for the state fair. Becca and Lindsey stayed behind with grandparents, but Kevin's little sister, Bridget, who was 13, and his niece, Sheena, 11, came along with Bridget's friend Joshua Conner, 13, and his younger brother, Jonathan, 10. When Linda Rogers imagines them all driving down Interstate 81, she told the minister recently, she sees the children all happily arguing about which rides to go on first and her daughter Whitney, ever the cheerleader, leaning over the seat, egging them on.

It started to rain after they left about 5 that afternoon, a heavy summer rain, and the Honda suddenly hydroplaned into oncoming traffic. It hit a tanker truck, and both careered off an overpass onto Route 11 below. Police believe the accident took four seconds.

Everyone was killed.

Joseph Grow, first cousin of Linda Rogers and pastor of Belle Grove Chapel, where the Chittums attend church, performed the funeral. "There were 42 pallbearers," he recalls, "six hearses." More than a thousand mourners filled the biggest church in town and spilled over into the fellowship hall and parking lot.

"Such a tragedy," a family friend said to a Richmond reporter covering the service. "Whitney's mom is doing okay, I guess, but it's hard, very hard.

"At least every time she looks into those babies' eyes, she'll see her daughter."

Less than a month later, when the dirt on the graves was still too fresh and soft and the silk flowers too bright and new, Linda Rogers found herself begging the medical team U-Va. had sent to her door. "Take mine first." She held out her arm. She wanted them to draw her blood, so Rebecca would see that it didn't hurt. They plunged the syringe into the 47-year-old grandmother's arm before approaching Rebecca, but the toddler, her uncle recalls, still was frightened and screaming.

U-Va. spokesmen say that the hospital was aware of the car wreck when they contacted the family about the likelihood that Rebecca had been switched at birth and that the doctor in his suit and tie and the nurse in her pink dress knew to be especially sensitive.

But Travis Rogers, who was with his mother when she got the news, paints a different picture.

"They lied to us," he says bluntly. When they initially called Linda Rogers to ask permission to come draw Rebecca's blood, he says, hospital officials were vague. "Is she sick?" Linda wanted to know. "Is this news going to upset me?" The answer, Travis maintains, was a reassuring no. And when told what it was all about, he adds, Linda demanded to know whether there was any evidence that pointed to Rebecca in particular as the missing Johnson baby. Again, Travis insists, the hospital said no, saying, "This can rule out Rebecca."

Linda gathered the grandparents together to break the news. Her ex-husband, Tom Rogers, and his wife, Brenda, were there, along with Kevin's parents, Rosa and Larry Chittum, still shellshocked from the accident that had claimed the lives of two of their children and a grandchild.

U-Va. officials today insist that Linda was told from the outset that "their baby was the strongest candidate." They note that she just kept repeating the same words over again:

"I know you can't be right."

When he returned to the hospital, the doctor described the visit as one of the most difficult things he had ever had to do.

Members of the families of Rebecca Grace Chittum and Callie Marie Johnson met face-to-face yesterday evening at an undisclosed location in Charlottesville, moving up a meeting originally scheduled for Sunday. The two girls at the center of the case were not present, said Michael S. Irvine, an attorney for the Chittum family.

"We decided we thought it would be good to get together without the lawyers, and just get acquainted, have a cola," Irvine said. "Everything went well."

Photographs of the two little girls are examined now with searching eyes - does Callie have Whitney's winsome grin, does Becca have Paula's soaring cheekbones? "She looks just like me," Paula said after seeing a picture of Rebecca. "She's beautiful."

Dressed in a mint-green suit with her highlighted hair a long tumble of permed curls, much like Whitney's, Paula Johnson held an emotional news conference this week in Charlottesville. The most important thing to remember, she pleaded, is the welfare of these two children. She recalled meeting Whitney Rogers on the maternity ward that summer evening, how friendly she was, how warm. When she first found out that she was not Callie Marie's birth mother, Paula recounted, she wondered why God would do such a thing. "When I found out Rebecca didn't have parents," she concluded, breaking into sobs, "I assume that's why."

Nobody is talking about a lawsuit yet, and attorneys for both families insist it's premature to discuss custody battles. Both sides say they could not bear to give up the child they have raised, and believe at this point that the matter can be privately resolved without harming either little girl.

Since their parents died, Rebecca and Lindsey Chittum have been cared for by adoring grandparents who share them in four-month turns while they try to figure out a more permanent solution.

In the empty peach house on Birch Avenue, the new swing set stands empty in the back yard, and paint cans rust on the unfinished porch. One night, when they were working on the place, Whitney took a break from sanding the floors. Her brother remembers how she went to the front window and stood there, looking out. With her finger, she traced a lopsided heart on the dirty glass, then wrote their names in her girlish script: Whitney, Kevin, Lindsey, Rebecca.

They're still there, together, a family in dust.

Staff writer Justin Blum contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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