Brandon Henry was 27 and a photo lab technician when his girlfriend, Stephanie Chavarria, told him she was pregnant. Despite his shock, he embraced his role as father-to-be. "I was like, 'Wow, I'm going to be a dad!''" he recalls. He delighted in pictures of baby clothes Stephanie texted from a mall and held her hand at the eight-month sonogram. Then, just days after her August 2009 due date, she called with devastating news: Their baby had strangled on the umbilical cord and died inside her. "I was hurting, but it almost didn't register," Brandon, now 28, says. "It didn't seem real."
It wasn't. Within days Brandon would learn the story was made up and that his baby-a son, he discovered-was very much alive. But where? The answer would take him on a transatlantic odyssey from his home in Dallas to a convent in Florence. For 49 days, as he battled red tape, Italian authorities and a tight budget, Brandon at times felt desperate-but never defeated. "That was my baby, and I wasn't going to give up," he says. "I was going to get my son back."
He never could have imagined such heartache in June 2007, when he met Stephanie, a single mom with a 4-year-old daughter. Charmed by her warm personality, he moved from California to Texas to be near her and to pursue work as a deejay. The relationship was rocky and, according to Brandon, Stephanie never even told her parents she was pregnant.
Nor did it make sense, with the due date imminent, when Stephanie took a trip to Mexico. When she returned, she said she couldn't feel the baby move and was going to the hospital. A short time later, she called. "She was crying," says Brandon, "telling me we'd lost our baby." But something didn't add up. A relative of Brandon's who had seen Stephanie doubted she'd lost a baby. Puzzled, Brandon called the hospital and was told she'd never been there. Prompted by his family, he contacted police.
At the station house, Stephanie confessed the shocking truth: She'd gone to Italy with her parents, where she'd delivered the baby in a hotel room, then left him at a church. Police let her go as no crime had been committed in the U.S. "My child could be dead!" Brandon said. As to where he might be, an officer offered one clue: The baby had been born in Florence.
Over the next two weeks Brandon scoured the Internet for the city's churches, making phone calls and writing e-mails. "He became superdetective," says his uncle Paul Jones. Finally, Brandon made contact with an English-speaking nun, who advised him to Google neonato abbandonato (Italian for "abandoned baby"). Up came Italian news of an infant, in a gray Converse hoodie, left at the Church of Corpus Domini in Florence. "I was with Stephanie when she bought [the hoodie]," Brandon says.
On Oct. 3, just three days before his parental rights would be terminated under Italian law, Brandon flew to Florence, where six families were ready to adopt the now-famous American baby who'd been left in a church. Over the next seven weeks, Brandon went to the courthouse in Florence, where his attorney offered DNA proof that Brandon was the dad and presented photos of his mom Sherrye Andrews' neatly kept home in Cedar Hill, Texas, where Brandon planned to raise his son. He stayed rent free at the summer house of his Italian lawyer, Vincent Luladi. Says Luladi: "In my profession, men usually try to keep away from the child. I was moved he wanted his child back."
Every day that passed, Brandon would wake up with the same question: When could he meet his son? Twice he made the two-hour trip, got to the door of the orphanage where the baby had been transferred and was turned away: The paperwork hadn't been processed. During his stay, Brandon met with the nuns who'd first cared for the boy they'd found wrapped in an old blanket in the church foyer. They named him Pietro (rock), they told Brandon, for the strength he'd need to survive.
Finally, on Nov. 11, word came down: Brandon could claim his son. Early the next day, he paced nervously in the waiting room with his aunt Tamara Dattola, who had come to support him, until an orphanage worker walked in with a 3-month-old boy. "I just picked him up and looked at him," Brandon says. "I said over and over, 'Daddy's here.''" He called Andrews back in Texas, where it was 4 a.m. "Mom," Brandon said, "wake up and talk to your grandson." They decided to keep the name the nuns gave him and call him Peter.
The first months back home, Brandon rarely left Peter's side. All the daddy-duty things he'd worried about-giving bottles, changing diapers-he mastered quickly: "It was second nature. I dove right in." Now working as a customer-service rep for a credit company, he often calls Peter's child-care provider several times a day. "I ask, 'What's he doing? Is he okay?'" Brandon says, laughing. "I probably get on the lady's nerves."
Brandon struggles to understand why Stephanie, now 27, left their baby behind. Stephanie's lawyer Robert Fickman says he can't comment because of an ongoing criminal investigation in Italy. "There's a long history of young mothers in crisis leaving their new babies in convents in Italy," he says. "She loves her baby very much." Stephanie has visited Peter twice and calls almost every day, but Brandon knows the parenting responsibility is all on him. And that's just fine. "He's awesome," Brandon says. "He was worth all the wait and the pain and the suffering. He's a part of me."
- Wendy Grossman/Cedar Hill.