For 15 days, she was the mystery child, an adorable 3-year-old girl abandoned in Baltimore, a puzzle to social services officials who tried for days to find her family.
Now, with a man and a woman having emerged to say they are the girl's parents, the unusual case has become less mysterious but more complex. In the last two days, almost everything that social workers thought they knew about the girl -- that her name was Courtney, that she was from Brooklyn, N.Y., and that her father left her May 5 with a stranger -- has been cast in doubt.
A District woman, Patricia Harper, 21, came forward Thursday claiming to be the girl's mother, saying she had not seen her daughter in more than a year. Harper alleged through an attorney that the girl's father had abducted the child.
Although the girl had told authorities that her name was Courtney, Harper said the child's name is Akasha. Harper's attorney, Gary H. Gerstenfield, said he would file court papers seeking to have the girl, who has been in foster care since May 5, returned to his client. He said Harper will be allowed to see the girl in a supervised visit Tuesday in Baltimore.
Harper's estranged boyfriend, Robert Persons, 37, who says he is the girl's father, also surfaced Thursday. He told reporters that the girl had been with him all her life. He said he did not purposely abandon her. He said he left her with a sitter, then could not return because he was wrongly arrested in a drug raid. He was freed on bail this week.
Persons said yesterday on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America": "I was locked up, caught in an unexpected house raid. Happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
However, records in District Court in Baltimore show that Persons's arrest occurred May 7, two days after the child was abandoned. The New York Post reported yesterday that the sitter was a stripper and that she said she had met Persons six weeks earlier.
Late yesterday, Maryland officials said they were unsure whether the girl in their custody is Harper's child. "Right now, we're not at a point to say with certainty that we've found the birth mother," said Norris West, spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources.
Gerstenfield said Harper and Persons became romantically involved when she was 14. She gave birth to Akasha at age 17, in 2000, Gerstenfield said. He said Persons and Harper never married.
Persons filed an assault charge against Harper in July 2002, according to court records in Prince George's County. In his court complaint, Persons accused her of abusing him, having a drug problem and working in amateur porn movies.
Also that year, a custody dispute began over Akasha. Gerstenfield said a judge granted custody of the child to Persons after Harper did not appear for a court hearing. He said the judge later gave custody of Akasha to Harper after the mother convinced the judge that she had not been notified of the earlier proceeding.
At some point -- it is not clear when -- Persons took Akasha and vanished, Gerstenfield said yesterday. He said Harper reported the incident as an abduction to the sheriff's offices in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. "Warrants were served, and searches were executed for them unsuccessfully," Gerstenfield said.
Baltimore lawyer Jay Wyndal Gordon, whom Persons retained yesterday, disputed that Persons had taken the girl from her mother.
"He did not kidnap anyone," Gordon said. "Mr. Persons is definitely a fit, capable father and has been so for all his daughter's life. He has taken care of her, fed her, clothed her, bathed her, stayed with her and even does her hair."
Gordon also disputed that Harper has been granted visitation rights and said that he will hold a news conference Monday.
Harper's "history will be coming into the case," Gordon said. "We are not going to lie down on this one. Everyone's history is subject to disclosure."
The child came into the custody of the Baltimore Department of Social Services after a woman called authorities to report that a stranger had left his daughter with her. The stranger, she said, had said he needed to cash a check but then never returned.
The girl was immediately put in a foster home, the agency has said. When officials were not able to quickly locate the girl's parents, the agency asked a judge for permission to publicize her picture. She said that her name was Courtney and that she was from New York. When a reporter at a news conference asked her a question, she cried and said, "I want my mommy."
Harper saw the girl's picture on television this week, according to Gerstenfield.
"She's been crying a lot," Gerstenfield said of his client. "She doesn't quite know what to feel. She's a little numb. She's just waiting to see her baby. There's going to be a lot of healing to do."
Persons told reporters this week that Courtney is the name of one of his daughter's friends. As for the girl having told authorities that she was from Brooklyn, Persons said the sitter he left her with lives on Brooklyn Avenue in Baltimore.
Police and court records show that two days after the girl was abandoned, Persons was among four people charged after police searched a residence on Stoll Street in Baltimore. Persons was charged with possession of cocaine and conspiracy to sell cocaine. He remained jailed until he was released on bail this week.
Ramon Korionoff, spokesman for Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, said authorities would examine the custody issues before deciding whether to file abduction or other criminal charges against Persons.
"No, I didn't take the child two years ago," Persons said yesterday in the ABC interview. "The child has been with me since birth. . . . I never, ever took the daughter out of the state or otherwise."
Staff writer Tim Craig and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.