What began as my Master's project at Columbia's Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting quickly evolved into a complex investigation of $30,000 U.S. dollars, four Guatemalan "orphans," one nonprofit evangelical Christian adoption agency, a family-run child-trafficking ring, one infant cut from her unconscious mother's womb, two tiny missing sisters, and a nine-member Tennessee family who believed wholeheartedly in Christian love and faith -- until the dark side of international adoption shattered their trust.
This excerpt from my debut book Finding Fernanda (November 2011, Cathexis Press; re-released in paperback: May 2012, Beacon Press) is from the heart-wrenching true story of how two very different women, Guatemalan Mildred Alvarado and American Betsy Emanuel, unravelled "the perfect crime"-- and, in the process, realized that their lives would never be the same again.
Excerpt: Finding Fernanda
On the afternoon of September 6, 2006, Mildred Alvarado began hemorrhaging. She was immediately concerned; this was her fourth pregnancy, and the new baby wasn't supposed to arrive for several more weeks. When the bleeding started, Sabrina and Rony, her new friends, helped her into their car and drove to the Sanatorio San Antonio de San Miguel, a private medical clinic about thirty minutes away.
The clinic's drab brown storefront was no wider than a single garage door, with a reinforced doorway opened directly onto the crumbling sidewalk. A small blue badge from an alarm company, Grupo Golden, sat on the building's face. It wasn't a particularly good neighborhood. An old sign showing a mother and child dangled precariously from the clinic's roof, looking as though it had hung there for decades. Another pale blue sign stretched above building's entrance, advertising X-rays, pediatric care, and ultrasounds. The sign had a realistic graphic of three masked surgeons in blue scrubs operating on a body. Between them stood Jeusus, tall and calm. His arm was draped around one doctor's shoulders. With his free hand, Jesus motioned towards the patient's opened midsection, as if guiding the way.
A security guard eyed Mildred and Sabrina as they entered. A black shotgun hung lazily at his side. The reception area was an institutional pale green. A single naked bulb illuminated the reception window, which looked thick enough to be made of bulletproof glass. A few folding chairs to one side stood empty. There were no other patients.
A physician emerged from the back of the clinic, introducing himself as Dr. Miguel Paniagua. He was a stout man with a casual manner. They walked into a small examining room, and Dr. Paniagua asked a few questions and looked at Mildred's belly. "I can't feel the baby," she said, worried. She felt fortunate that Sabrina and Rony had been around to help her.
"Everything's fine," Dr. Paniagua reassured her. The clinic smelled sour, like vomit. "I can hear a heartbeat," he said. "I'll give you something for the pain."
He left the room, and Sabrina followed. They spoke for a moment outside in the corridor. To Mildred's surprise, she thought she saw Rony's father and stepmother, Toño and Lily, outside. It's so kind they came to check on me, she thought, watching the group talk. After a few minutes, a nurse came in and gave her injections. She blacked out within seconds.
A day later, when Mildred cracked open her eyes, she struggled to recognize her surroundings. The walls were pale blue, and morning light filtered in through a set of blinds. Her head pounded as she tried to lift her chin. It was the medical clinic; she was in a hospital room. A sharp pain spidered across her waistline. Glancing down, she realized she was no longer pregnant. Surgical tape bound her hands and feet to the bed frame.
"What's going on?" she called out weakly as a nurse in blue limped past. "Where's my baby?"
No one answered. Sabrina arrived to her bedside, offering three tiny pills and a cup of water for the pain. Mildred took them and became comfortably numb and dizzy. She asked after her baby. "The doctor ordered for her to be kept apart," Sabrina told her casually. She left the room.
A different nurse walked by the doorway, and Mildred called out again, trying to suppress a feeling of panic. "Where's my baby?"
"You've had an operation," the nurse replied. She motioned towards Mildred's bound ankles. "It's for your own good, so you don't hurt yourself. Don't worry, you had a girl. She's fine."
But after Mildred asked, yet again, for the child, the nurse admitted that the baby was sick. One of her lungs was bad.
"Why did they take her out?" Mildred pressed. "It wasn't her time." The pills she'd swallowed made her feel as if she were floating away. The nurse ignored her and left the room.
In the hallway, Mildred glimpsed a woman who looked like Coni walking by, carrying a pink bundle in her arms. Maybe that's her, she thought. My girl. She didn't trust her eyes. She closed them and drifted back into sleep.
The small discharge receipt from the Sanatorio San Antonio, dated September 9, 2006, lists "Lilien de Bautista" as having paid 4,200Q, or $538 dollars, for "medical services" rendered to the patient Mildred Alvarado. The woman, known by Mildred as Lily, had the same name as Rony's stepmother. The field on the receipt meant for the doctor's name had been left blank.
Sue Hedberg, the director of the Florida-based Christian international adoption agency Celebrate Children International, was in Guatemala at the time of Mildred Alvarado's C-section. Three days later, on the morning of September 10, 2006, Sue emailed pictures of the newborn to the Emanuel of Gallatin, Tennessee.
Betsy Emanuel opened Sue's email excitedly, eager for snapshots of Fernanda, the little girl her family wa trying to adopt from Guatemala. The last batch of photos Sue had sent to her, taken a week before, showed the child playing in what appeared to be someone's home. Betsy wasn't sure if Fernanda lived in an orphanage, a private nursery, or in foster care. In the pictures, the little girl appeared to well cared for, in a smart new jean jacket with frilly pink trim. Fernanda was gazing into the camera, clutching a stuffed animal and grinning in delight. She's just darling, Betsy thought, smiling to herself. She couldn't wait to bring her home to Tennessee.
But the new images in Sue Hedberg's latest email weren't of Fernanda. Instead, the 32 pictures were of a newborn. The infant was wrapped in a pink fleece blanket, her pink and white onesie dotted with tiny flowers. She was too young to crack her eyes open. Sue's email was just three sentences. A new baby had been born, and she was Fernanda's little sister. The infant, too, needed a home.
Betsy's heart lurched. The thought of separating Fernanda from her baby sister made her cringe. Sue's brief email offered little in the way of detail. But when CCI's director quoted her a price for baby Ana Cristina's adoption -- an additional $25,000 -- Betsy realized the situation's futility. The cost of adopting one more child had already strained her family's budget. Two would be all but impossible.
Ridden with guilt, she declined Sue's offer. That week, CCI went on to refer the newborn to another family, the Thompsons. Neither the Emanuels nor the Thompsons had any idea that three days before, the tiny newborn wearing pink daisies had been cut from her mother's womb as the young woman lay unconscious in a private medical clinic on the dusty outskirts of Guatemala City.