The father accused of abandoning his 3-year-old daughter in Baltimore said yesterday he wants his child back because he never intended to leave her, and he warned officials that the girl's mother, also fighting for custody of the child, is an unfit parent.
Flanked by his attorneys and preacher, Robert Persons said he was a single father struggling to earn enough to provide a decent living for his daughter, Akasha Tommarray Persons.
Persons, backed by officials from Baltimore's public defender's office, also said he was a victim of an overzealous police raid that landed him in jail for 13 days on a drug charge because he was unable to post bail.
Attorney J. Wyndal Gordon, reading a statement from Persons, said that once in jail, his client was unable to contact his daughter. As a prisoner, Persons was allowed to make only collect calls, but the occupant of the house where he had left her had only a cell phone, which cannot receive collect calls.
Persons said in his statement that he had no other friends or family in the area whom he could contact.
After several days, however, he managed to trade other inmates some food for a stamp so he could write a letter to Sherry Loudermilk, the Baltimore woman who had been baby-sitting for his daughter.
"My daughter is my best friend," Persons said at the news conference at his attorneys' office in Baltimore. "I would never abandon my daughter. I am a family man. I'm about the family."
Natalie Finegar, a chief attorney in the public defender's office, showed up to support Persons even though he also has private counsel. Finegar said his case symbolizes a criminal justice system that is overburdened and unable to quickly process inmates arrested for relatively minor offenses. Persons's bail was set at $20,000 but eventually reduced to $2,500. He was released Thursday.
"It is a classic situation of a man overcharged, overbooked and over-jailed. He is the working poor," Finegar said.
Persons's comments are the latest twist in the story about Akasha's plight, which drew international attention after the girl appeared on television and pleaded for her "mommy" after she was reported abandoned to Baltimore officials last Monday.
Baltimore authorities discovered Akasha on May 5 after Loudermilk went to a local Department of Social Services office and said the girl's father had left the child with her and not returned.
Initially, Akasha told authorities that her name was Courtney and that she lived in Brooklyn, N.Y.
But on Thursday, a District woman stepped forward and said Akasha is her daughter, kidnapped several years ago by Persons. Patricia Harper, 21, is now trying to regain custody of the child.
The Baltimore Department of Social Services is trying to decide which parent -- if either -- should gain custody. An initial hearing is scheduled for today.
Harper and Persons became romantically involved when she was 14 and he was 30, Harper's attorney said last week. During the same year, he was arrested and charged with a third-degree sex offense stemming from that relationship.
But the relationship continued, and Harper gave birth to Akasha at age 17, in 2000.
Last week, Harper's attorneys accused Persons of kidnapping Akasha during a custody dispute in Prince George's County in 2002.
But Persons and Gordon disputed the kidnapping charge yesterday and accused Harper of abandoning Akasha in May 2002 while caught up in a lifestyle of drugs and prostitution.
"When Mr. Persons discovered Ms. Harper's illicit activities and drug abuse, he requested that she get help," Gordon said. "Ms. Harper refused to change her lifestyle and shortly thereafter deserted her family in exchange for her riotous life."
At an early evening news conference in Silver Spring, Harper's attorney, Gary Gerstenfield, did not directly address Persons's allegations. He did say, however, that Persons "influenced her in all kinds of ways that weren't good and weren't healthy."
Gerstenfield said Harper submitted a DNA sample yesterday and expected results by the end of the week. He said she is married and living in the District with her husband and 4-month-old child. "Today, she is a different person." he said.
Staff writer David Snyder contributed to this report.