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Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007 01:07 pm

Lightning strikes again

More proof that you can’t believe everything you read, even when it’s a DNA test

Untitled Document Everybody knows what “DNA” stands for — not just deoxyribo nucleic acid but also “do not argue.” It’s a conversation-ender, the kind of irrefutable proof that sends criminals to death row and springs the innocent from decades of imprisonment. So earlier this year, when I met Cheyenne Siebert — an 11-year-old cutie whose dad was trying to make up for 10 years lost when a DNA test said Cheyenne wasn’t his child — I felt like I was writing about something like a lightning strike, something so rare it couldn’t happen again [see “A parent’s intuition,” Feb. 15]. But there’s a sequel to that story – a sequel with a particularly cruel twist. Cheyenne, meet Carly. You two have a lot in common.
Carly’s mom is Sara. Just like Cheyenne’s mom, Sara knew for certain, the very moment she found out she was pregnant, who the father of her child was. His name is Gerry, and he was a police officer at the Illinois college where Sara was a student. They asked that their surnames and location be kept confidential.  Sara and Gerry had “dated” for about four years, though Gerry was 10 years older than Sara and only separated, not yet divorced, from his wife. Theirs obviously wasn’t a stable relationship, and the unplanned pregnancy didn’t help. “There was a lot of drama going on,” Sara says. But when the Illinois Department of Public Aid required them to undergo a paternity test, Gerry went along, wanting to find out for sure whether Carly was his daughter. Sara went with no doubts, looking forward to the much-needed child-support payments she was sure would soon come to Carly.
Sara remembers being in a crowd of perhaps 30 other public aid recipients in the county courthouse basement, with each couple called individually to have a Polaroid picture taken and a cotton swab scraped across the insides of their mouths. Sara says the technician who administered this official test gave only one instruction: “Hold still!”
A month later, results arrived in the mail, stating that Gerry was not Carly’s dad. Gerry, livid about the apparently unwarranted emotional ordeal that he had been through, went to Sara’s residence, muttered something about “I can’t believe this bullshit!” and stomped off. “I never talked to them again for years and years,” he says. For Sara, the news was devastating. Not only was she bereft of financial support, but she was also tarnished. “I thought after this test, everybody’s going to know I’m not lying, and I’m not this trampy whore he’s making me out to be. And lo and behold, it did just the opposite. It was embarrassing and humiliating,” she says. For the next decade, Sara struggled to understand what had happened. The only possible explanation she could ever think of was that Gerry – being a cop, friendly with courthouse personnel – had somehow managed to have a colleague tamper with the test. The notion that he would go to such trouble to avoid his responsibilities as a father made Sara furious. Eventually, though, her anger turned to concern about what she would tell her daughter. “I felt like a failure as a parent,” Sara says, “How was I going to explain this to Carly when she got older?”
She decided that her only hope was to persuade Gerry to agree to take a second test. But he had moved away from the small town where they grew up, had quit law enforcement and joined the military, and was living in Chicago. She had no idea how to contact him. Then, a few months ago, Sara got a break. A joke being circulated among friends via email contained Gerry’s address. She sent him a message. “I said, ‘Can we please just do this like adults? I know you’re her father.’ I told him that if I was wrong, I would take out a full-page ad in the local paper saying I’m a lying slut,” she says. Sara, see, had an urgent need to get proof of Carly’s parentage: One year ago, Sara — who just turned 34 — learned that she had ovarian cancer. Now, doctors have told her there’s a “high possibility” that she has breast cancer. “I do not want to die and leave her not knowing who her father is,” Sara says. In June, Gerry took a second paternity test. This time, it proved what Sara had known all along: that Carly is his daughter. Now Gerry — like Cheyenne’s father — is busy trying to make up for 10 years of lost time. He and Carly talk on the phone daily, send each other text messages, and visit whenever his work schedule allows. He has signed a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, paid for her orthodontist, her school lunches, her asthma medications, her school clothes, and even her meals from White Castle when she decides she’s hungry at midnight.
“Being a parent is not a problem for me,” Gerry says. “I take care of my children. I’m a damn good father to all my children.”
Both original tests were handled by National Legal Laboratories. I’ve tried contacting that lab, as well as the lab that the previous NLL honcho now directs. I’ve received no response.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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