Baby Peter is saved, well done Mum and Dad. A child is a gift from God.
A father's search for the truth
Brandon Henry didn’t believe his baby had died. A quest for truth took him an ocean away.
By CINDY HORSWELL
Feb. 15, 2010,
Brandon Thibodeaux Chronicle
Brandon Henry didn't meet his 6-month-old son, Peter, until the boy was 3 months old. His girlfriend had abandoned Peter in an Italian church but told Henry that the baby died during childbirth.
Candles and stained glass windows cast a dim light as nuns placed a wide-eyed baby boy with dark tufts of hair on a white cloth covering an ornate altar in Florence, Italy.
The nuns had gathered to pray over the newborn. The infant amazed his audience by not squirming or uttering a peep.
Since his first day of life on July 28, when the Carmelite sisters of St. Teresa discovered the newborn laying on an alcove floor of their church, they have prayed that the abandoned child would not grow up alone. The nuns named him Pietro, or Peter, after the apostle Peter, whose name came from the Greek word for rock. They knew he would need strength to deal with the many unanswered questions about his identity.
Across an ocean, 28-year-old Brandon Henry was on a quest for answers of his own. He no longer believed his girlfriend's story that their baby died at birth last summer at a Sugar Land hospital.
So Henry embarked on a quest for the truth, an odyssey that took him to that cloistered monastery in Florence and completely changed his life.
Love and a pregnancy
Henry, a 1999 Cypress-Fairbanks graduate, spent three years in the U.S. Army, where he became a private first class. After his discharge, he tried to parlay his collection of 6,000 CDs and music knowledge into becoming a DJ at Houston dance clubs.
Then in 2007 he thought he'd met the girl of his dreams, Stephanie Chavarria. He went so far as to give her a diamond ring and obtain a marriage license that would later expire.
“She had a wonderful smile. We just clicked,” recalled Henry, flipping through photos of him with his arm around his dark-haired beauty, whose family came from Mexico.
They continued dating — but secretly against her parents' wishes — for 2½ years.
Chavarria and her parents, both dentists, live in an affluent neighborhood in Sugar Land. Henry said Chavarria's family never embraced him.
“I went to my girlfriend's house once, but I was not welcome,” he said. “I wasn't good enough. They wanted her to be with a doctor or lawyer.”
Then one day he noticed her stomach protruding, and a test showed she was pregnant. “I was excited about it,” he said.
But he said she concealed her condition with baggy clothes and kept delaying telling her parents.
A month before her Aug. 8 due date, she announced her doctor had given her permission to travel to Mexico for her grandmother's birthday.
“I didn't begin to worry until a three-day trip turned into 2½ weeks, and I could no longer reach her by phone,” he said.
When she finally returned, she told him a doctor was having trouble detecting the baby's heartbeat. She later called to say she was at a Sugar Land hospital and they'd lost their son, who had strangled on his umbilical cord.
“After that, I took off work. I did not want to miss my son's funeral,” Henry said.
But before arrangements could be made, he couldn't reach his girlfriend. So he called her parents, whom he said called him “sick and crazy” and threatened to file harassment charges.
He then contacted the hospital, which found no record of Chavarria being there. That was when he turned to the police.
At first, Carmen and Lazaro Chavarria told Sugar Land police their daughter was never pregnant and that Henry was trying to harass her. But that story quickly changed after Henry produced a copy of the baby's sonogram.
That's when Stephanie Chavarria confessed to leaving the child in Florence while vacationing with her parents, police said. “She told me she gave birth in the hotel bathroom,” Henry said. “Then, not knowing what else to do, she'd gone into a church to pray. She wanted help but nobody spoke English. So she just left him there.”
Chavarria and her parents declined to comment for this story. Their attorney, Robert Fickman, said an international probe into possible charges of child abandonment prevents them from speaking.
“We want to be very respectful of Italian authorities,” Fickman said. “But I can tell you the Chavarrias are a very nice, loving, caring family. They are not people without feeling.”
The moment Henry learned that his baby was alive, he vowed to do anything to find him.
“It would have been easy to walk away,” said Henry's mother, Sherrye Andrews, a teacher in Duncanville. “But he never wanted his son to think nobody looked for him.”
Internet guides search
For two weeks, Henry scoured the Internet and fired off e-mails to any Florence church he could find until locating one nun who spoke English. She recalled widespread publicity in the Italian press about the neonato abandonato, or abandoned baby.
When he Googled that phrase, the stories popped up. He e-mailed Florence police, and they called him at 3 a.m. Aug. 20 to confirm his claim on the abandoned baby that six Italian families were already trying to adopt.
Henry had no idea how to navigate Italy's justice system until an Italian attorney, Edgar Vincent Lualdi, offered assistance. Henry lived for two months in the attorney's weekend villa for free while the case was pending. “But in return I helped him with some chores, like picking olives,” he said.
After a DNA analysis proved Henry was indeed the father, he was finally permitted to see his son, who was 3 months old by then.
“Wow! That's my baby!” he said, recalling the moment. “It was like being at the hospital when he was first born, but he was big.” His son was being kept at an orphanage in a nearby seaside village called Viareggio.
Then Henry was required by Italian authorities to spend a week learning how to bathe and feed his son and honing his diaper-changing skills. The orphanage workers were impressed by how quickly he adapted to fatherhood and connected with his son. “Peter would grin whenever he saw me coming,” Henry said.
Making plans for future
Until he and his son can function on their own, they are living at his mother's home in Cedar Hill, near Dallas, and receiving lots of support from relatives. Henry devotes all his time to caring for his son while making plans to attend school to become an X-ray technician this summer.
His mother is glad to help. She remembers being overwhelmed when she saw her first grandchild arrive at the Dallas airport: “He was smiling, and I just started bawling,” she said.
In his new nursery filled with toys, Peter plants a big, wet, pucker-less kiss on his father's cheek.
Henry remains grateful for every kiss — and the nuns' prayers that he credits for helping to get his son home.