Arizona - The terrible news travelled 10 000 miles to reach to Steven Garcia.
The 24-year-old US Army sergeant was on overseas deployment in Seoul, a patrol supervisor with the 142nd Military Police Company. As the days crept on in January, another role was coming in fast: that of a dad. Garcia waited for his wife Marina to deliver to their child back in Arizona. But when the report came from home, it was bad. Garcia's sister called to say the baby, a girl, had died in childbirth.
"When my sister called me about that, it was pretty emotional," Garcia recently told Tuscon'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 hand the newborn over to a couple in Texas, allegedly forging the necessary paperwork to keep the adoption below the legal radar.
"The only thing on her mind was getting rid of this child," Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre said recently. "The only thing on her mind was getting rid of this child. This 'problem' in her life."
The deception began unraveling on February 5 on Interstate 10 in Arizona, the Arizona Range News reported. At around 10:15 a.m., an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer clocked a tan sport utility vehicle shooting eastbound 90 miles per hour. After pulling the car over, the officer found three people inside - Alex Hernandez, 33, his wife Leslie, 41, and a newborn baby boy.
According to the Herald/Review, the officer became suspicious. Upon questioning, the couple admitted the 3-day-old baby was not their biological child. The Hernandez couple told police they had been given the baby by Marina Garcia, 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 searched through the couple's cellphones, they saw Leslie Hernandez had set up the handoff with Garcia through texts and Facebook messenger.
The same day, police traveled to Sierra Vista, Arizona, to interview Marina. Living with a boyfriend, an Army specialist, she admitted to conspiring with the Texas couple. According to Stars and Stripes, Marina told investigators she planned to travel to Texas to sign away her parental rights once she had recovered from the birth. She also said he had given birth to the child at 37 weeks, but actually didn't know who the father was. It wasn't, she contended, her husband.
Back in South Korea, Garcia was contacted by investigators, who told him his child was actually still 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 the Stars and Stripes - is now with foster parents. Paternity tests determined Garcia was not the father. He has since filed for divorce from his wife.
Although money does not seem to have been exchanged for the child, Marina and the Hernandez's all faced criminal charges for their role in the scheme.
"What scares me is that if it hadn't been the Hernandez', if the couple hadn't been willing to step forward, then what person off the Internet might have been next?" Cochise County Attorney McIntyre told News 4.
In April Alex Hernandez pleaded guilty to committing forgery, and his wife Leslie pleaded to conspiracy to commit forgery, the Herald/Review reported. Each was given four years of supervised probation for the charges.
Marina Garcia pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempted scheme to defraud, according to News 4. She refused 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, Marina would only say, "It's unknown." Her sentencing is scheduled for next month.
But that is not stopping Garcia from trying to stay in the child's life. He's already visited Leo eight times and plans to petition for custody. Garcia told News 4 his own experience as an adopted child directed his moral compass.
"My adopted 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."
The Washington Post