The terrible news traveled 10,000 miles to reach to Steven Garcia.
The 24-year-old U.S. Army sergeant was on deployment in Seoul, a patrol supervisor with the 142nd Military Police Company. As the days crept on in January, another role was coming: that of father. Garcia waited for his wife, Marina, to deliver their child in Arizona. But when the report came from home, it was bad. Garcia’s sister called to say that the baby, a girl, had died during birth.
“When my sister called me about that, it was pretty emotional,” Garcia recently told Tucson’s News 4. “We cried quite a bit together over the phone. It was devastating.”
The shock and grief were quickly sidelined by more complex feelings the next month, when the soldier learned the truth. Not only was the baby alive — and a boy — but the focal point of a bizarre criminal investigation. The child also was not his.
“I was under the assumption the entire time that she was pregnant that I was the father,” he told the station. “When I found out I wasn’t, I was pretty upset, I was kind of in denial. I couldn’t believe what was going on.”
According to authorities, Marina Garcia lied about the baby’s death to her husband’s family to cover up infidelity. To hide the evidence, she allegedly concocted a plan to give the newborn to a couple in Texas, allegedly forging the necessary paperwork so she could keep the adoption below the legal radar.
“The only thing on her mind was getting rid of this child — this ‘problem’ in her life,” Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre said recently.
The baby’s whereabouts came to light on Feb. 5 on Interstate 10 in Arizona, the Arizona Range News reported. About 10:15 a.m., an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer clocked a tan sport-utility vehicle traveling eastbound at 90 miles per hour. After pulling the car over, the officer found three people inside — Alex Hernandez, 33, his wife, Leslie Hernandez, 41, and a newborn boy.
According to the Herald/Review, the officer became suspicious. Upon questioning, the couple admitted that the 3-day-old baby was not their biological child. The Hernandezes told police that Marina Garcia had given them the baby, and that they had “conspired with the birth mother (Garcia) to forge the signature as the father to take possession of the infant child,” according to court documents quoted by the Range News.
When investigators examined the couple’s cellphones, they found that Leslie Hernandez had set up the handoff with Garcia through text messages and Facebook Messenger.
The same day, police traveled to Sierra Vista, Ariz., to interview Marina Garcia. She was living with a boyfriend, an Army specialist, and acknowledged conspiring with the Texas couple. According to Stars and Stripes, Marina Garcia told investigators that she planned to travel to Texas to sign away her parental rights once she had recovered from the birth. She also said she had given birth at 37 weeks, and didn’t know who the father was. It wasn’t, she contended, her husband.
Back in South Korea, Steven Garcia was contacted by investigators, who told him the newborn was alive, and a boy. The sergeant took an emergency leave to visit the child, who was taken into state custody. The baby — named Leo, according to Stars and Stripes — is now with foster parents. Paternity tests determined that Garcia is not the baby’s father. He has since filed for divorce.
Although money does not seem to have been exchanged for the child, Marina Garcia and the Hernandezes all faced criminal charges for their role in the scheme.
“What scares me is that if it hadn’t been the Hernandezes, if the couple hadn’t been willing to step forward, then what person off the Internet might have been next?” McIntyre, the Cochise County attorney, told News 4.
In April, Alex Hernandez pleaded guilty to committing forgery, and Leslie Hernandez pleaded to conspiracy to commit forgery, the Herald/Review reported. Each received four years of supervised probation.
Marina Garcia pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempted scheme to defraud, according to News 4. She declined to comment on the details of the case when a News 4 reporter knocked on her door recently. When asked about the baby’s paternity, she said, “It’s unknown.” Her sentencing is scheduled for next month.
But that is not stopping Steven Garcia from trying to stay in the baby’s life. He already has visited Leo eight times and plans to petition for custody. Garcia told News 4 that his own experience as an adopted child directed his moral compass.
“My [adoptive] father completely changed my life,” Garcia said. “Without him, I would not be where I am today. And for the opportunity to do that for someone else — I believe it’s important. It could change the child’s life and give him a better future, and I believe that’s the right thing to do.”
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