When This Mother Saw Her New Baby’s Face, She Immediately Knew That He Wasn’t Hers

Image: Facebook/Bebe Cushworth Casanellas

When Richard Cushworth and Mercedes Casanellas welcomed their first child – a little boy – in May 2015, the couple were understandably over the moon. And after Casanellas had given birth in her home country of El Salvador, she returned to the United States with her baby in tow – ready for the start of a brand-new chapter in her life. But what should have been a happy period for the mom ultimately became a nightmare. As she watched her son grow, she became convinced that he wasn’t hers.

Image: Facebook/Pastora Mercy Casanellas

Both Cushworth and Casanellas had experienced struggles before this point, though. Cushworth, for one, had spent some 20 years battling substance abuse, including a reliance on alcohol, cocaine and heroin. But he had finally turned things around after attending Teen Challenge – a rehab program with a Christian focus.

Image: Facebook/Pastora Mercy Casanellas

Then, after finding God, Cushworth had gone to Bible school at the Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas, Texas. It was here that he first met Casanellas, who was attending the evangelical organization as a foreign student. And after the couple married in 2012, they traveled to Casanellas’ native El Salvador to work as missionaries.

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Yet although Cushworth had both managed to conquer his addictions and find love, his troubles were far from over. You see, while he was in El Salvador, the apartment he’d been renting in Dallas was gutted by fire – and decimated his possessions. Casanellas, meanwhile, had had to come to terms with being attacked by a gang with guns shortly before her move to the United States.

Image: Facebook/Bebe Cushworth Casanellas

Then, finally, Cushworth and Casanellas returned to the U.S., settling in Dallas once more. When the birth of her first child was imminent, however, the mom-to-be went back to El Salvador. She would welcome her son at a hospital that was thought of as one of the best private health facilities in the country.

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And after Casanellas delivered her baby Jacob via emergency Cesarean, she was handed the newborn briefly. Recalling that special moment in a 2016 interview with the BBC, the mother said, “[Jacob] was just passed by me, and I gave him a kiss. And then he was taken to the nursery, and that was the last time I saw him.”

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The following day, nurses returned Jacob to Casanellas. Then, when the little boy was four days old, Casanellas left the hospital and reunited with Cushworth, who’d flown in from Texas. The trio went on to spend three months in Central America before returning as a family to their home in the States.

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But while Casanellas bonded with her baby as the weeks and months passed, she still struggled to shake a niggling doubt from her mind. In particular, she felt that Jacob didn’t look like either her or her husband, and this led her to wonder whether her son was really theirs.

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Casanellas’ first suspicions had emerged in the hospital, when Jacob had been handed to her the day after his birth. She later told the BBC, “When I saw [Jacob], the first impression was, ‘This is not the same baby that I saw last night.’ I looked at him, and I remembered that the baby that I saw was just like my husband – and this baby did not look like my husband.”

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Yet while Casanellas had raised her concerns to the hospital staff, they had assured her that the baby she’d been given was definitely hers. To further ease the new mom’s worries, nurses told her that she’d been heavily medicated when she’d briefly seen Jacob for the first time. In other words, she couldn’t rely on the first memory she’d had of her child.

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So with the medical professionals telling Casanellas that she definitely had the right child, she had little choice but to believe them. Even so, she continued to ask her friends if they thought there may have been some kind of mix-up with her baby. And, yet again, everyone assured the mother that Jacob was hers.

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For a little while, then, Casanellas tried to put her worries to the back of her mind. But they didn’t stay buried for long. In Casanellas’ interview with the BBC, she said of Jacob, “The days started to go by, and his features, his skin, everything started to change. And he started to not look anything like either one of us.”

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At this point, Casanellas’ feelings for Jacob were confusing. She explained, “I was nursing the baby. I was taking care of him, loving him like ours, and I started to fall in love with the baby… You love this baby like your baby, but then inside, I had the thought, ‘What if this is not my baby?’”

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Painfully, Casanellas tried to ignore the doubts about whether Jacob actually belonged to her and Cushworth. She even kept her worries from her husband, who had no idea that his spouse was wrestling with the idea that their son may not be theirs. Instead, the new mom secretly took a DNA test to get to the bottom of the matter once and for all.

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And when the DNA results came back, Casanellas discovered that there was absolutely no genetic link between her and Jacob. Tragically, she’d been right all along. Describing her reaction, Casanellas told the BBC, “I just fell on the floor.” Fighting back tears, she added, “[There was] the pain – the thought that the baby I had been nursing, taking care of, loving him, bathing him… that he was not mine.”

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Then, as the missionary tried to process the news, her thoughts turned to the child she’d given birth to back in El Salvador. What had happened to that baby? An emotional Casanellas later told the BBC, “I had two thoughts: what is going to happen with this baby, and where’s my baby?”

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When Cushworth found his wife crying on the floor at home, though, he had no idea what had happened. And to begin with, Casanellas didn’t know how she would break the news to him about Jacob. She told the BBC, “I couldn’t even speak for minutes and minutes.”

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Finally, Casanellas told Cushworth about the DNA test and what it had uncovered. And revealing his reaction to the news, Cushworth told the BBC, “I was just overwhelmed and confused. I didn’t even know how to process [it]. I remember the first trauma to me was, ‘Oh my goodness, I have a child, and my child is somewhere out there in the world. Where is he?’”

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Prior to the bombshell DNA test, Cushworth had no inkling that Jacob may not have belonged to him and Casanellas. He explained, “I just accepted [him] as my child. Now I look back at the pictures – right around the time that we came to Dallas when he was three months old – and I’m shocked that I never suspected, because you can see that it’s just obviously not my child.”

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Using the benefit of hindsight, Cushworth continued, “I don’t know how I didn’t ask myself… You just, you don’t think about these things.” His wife added, “We were in love with the baby. Even when I did the DNA test, I thought that I was betraying him.” She noted, however, that she simply couldn’t have lived with the doubts she’d had over Jacob’s parentage.

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And like Casanellas, Cushworth had a multitude of questions regarding his biological child’s whereabouts. Recalling some of these to the BBC, he asked, “Where is he? Who’s taking care of him? What happened to him? Why did this happen? Am I ever going to see him again?” The father went on, “I just felt like a panic that my only child was lost or stolen. I didn’t know what it was, and that was the concern.”

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Cushworth pondered, too, whether the baby they were raising may be taken away from him and his wife. And while he and Casanellas had initially had faith that they may be able to keep both boys, the couple knew in their heart of hearts that this was probably impossible.

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The new father explained to the BBC, “Our hope, in the beginning, was that we would find our real child [and that] we would also be able to keep the one that we had raised for three months. [In that way], we would have two children… But I remember that I was the first one [who] started saying, ‘You know, if this child has a legitimate family, we’re going to have to give him away.’”

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It seemed likely, too, that Jacob had been mistakenly given to Casanellas the morning after his arrival. So, to get to the bottom of the mix-up, DNA tests were carried out on the children who’d been born at the hospital in El Salvador on the same day as Jacob. And that’s how Casanellas and Cushworth found their biological child.

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But the couple’s joy at being told their son had been found was mixed with feelings of grief that they would have to give up Jacob, whose biological parents had also been identified. And Casanellas recounted how she handed over the child she’d grown to love in her emotional interview with the BBC.

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As tears fell down her face, Casanellas recalled, “We got there, and we had to rush. We were rushed in. We have to go quickly, just bring the baby, and we barely got time to say goodbye. I got all his clothes, and we took him in the office, and we handed him in. And that was the most difficult part, I think, of [the whole] situation.”

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Still, while the pair were heartbroken to be handing over Jacob, they were also overjoyed to finally reunite with their real son. Recalling that moment, Casanellas told the BBC, “We finally saw him, and when he saw us he was smiling; he was laughing.” There was a moving coincidence that the parents couldn’t explain, too.

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When the couple had swapped Jacob for their son, both babies seemed to slot right into their real families. Casanellas explained, “We didn’t know [the other parents], we don’t know anything, but the babies, when we took them and we switched, they each were dressed like their fathers. It was really nice.”

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Casanellas and Cushworth subsequently named their biological son Moses – a nod to the Hebrew prophet who is said to have also been missing for three months. And the couple insisted that their faith had helped them get through the whole episode. Cushworth told the BBC, “God has helped us and comforted us through the process.”

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Still, the parents’ ordeal wasn’t over. You see, before Casanellas and Cushworth could leave El Salvador and return with Moses to the States, they needed to first produce a birth certificate for their son. And obtaining this documentation proved to be a lengthy process for the family.

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In order to locate the correct records, then, Cushworth – who was born in the United Kingdom – turned to the British Embassy for help. He was assisted by ambassador Bernhard Garside, who would later tell the BBC that the swapping of the babies was “the easy bit” in comparison to what had followed.

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Garside explained, “When we first got involved, it looked very much like an uphill struggle… My fear was [that] we weren’t really going to see a happy conclusion to this.” However, with some “old-fashioned diplomacy,” he was able to help the couple navigate the Salvadoran court system.

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In 2016 Garside revealed to the BBC, “What took time was unraveling the legality of all the birth certificates – and making sure the right parents were recorded with the right children.” Ultimately, though, the parents’ efforts finally paid off, and the ambassador was happy to have helped. In fact, Cushworth would go on to refer to him as “an angel.”

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Speaking to British newspaper The Independent in 2016, Garside further explained the trickiness of the situation. He said, “From a family perspective, this has been very, very tough. This is every parent’s nightmare. The bureaucracy of the El Salvadoran system always seemed to conspire against them, but with the help of the Supreme Court judge and some good old-fashioned diplomacy, we finally managed to get leverage, and we got the result we wanted.”

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Image: Facebook/Bebe Cushworth Casanellas

So, while the process had taken three-quarters of a year and almost all of Casanellas and Cushworth’s money, they finally got to take Moses back to the States in summer 2016. And as Jacob’s family received his birth certificate at the same time as the American citizens got hold of Moses’ official papers, the two sets of parents used the opportunity to meet once more.

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Cushworth revealed to the BBC, “We spent about two hours with the other family, took a lot of pictures and videos.” Then, when he and his wife were asked whether they’d like to remain a part of Jacob’s life, the dad responded, “I think so, and I would certainly hope so.” Casanellas added, “We would like that.”

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In the meantime, the parents continued to bond with their son, making up for the time they’d lost in his first three months. Casanellas later revealed of that period, “It was beautiful, it was a blessing of God. I got to nurse [Moses], too, without any problems. He adjusted, he never cried… [He was] very peaceful and happy and smiling.”

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All the while, the couple were still awaiting answers as to how their child had been mixed up with another in the first place. Garside has revealed, however, that the Salvadoran authorities “have concluded their investigations and found there was no criminal element involved in any of this. It was simply a mistake.”

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This conclusion did little to address Casanellas and Cushworth’s many unanswered questions. Cushworth told the BBC, “I really would love to see justice in this situation… I’d like to know what happened. How did this happen? Because I don’t want to see it happen to another person.”

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And as the truth behind the mix-up still eluded Casanellas and Cusworth, all they could do was to assess the difficulties they’d faced and try to move forward. Cushworth explained, “It’s done terrible financial damage and emotional damage to us. But we’re here, we survived… Everything is turning out okay.”

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Laura Van Ryn’s nearest and dearest also struggled to deal with the aftermath of an accident that nearly claimed the college student’s life. And when the young woman began uttering strange statements from her hospital bed, her family members were only puzzled further. As Van Ryn finally began to recuperate, though, the stunning truth came out.

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When a road crash in Indiana killed five people affiliated with Taylor University, the local community naturally mourned the tragedy. And while there were fortunately survivors of the appalling accident, their loved ones all had to wait anxiously to see whether their family members would pull through. That was the case with Van Ryn’s relatives, as they faced a grueling period watching the young woman slowly recover from her injuries. After the student came round, though, she had a shock in store – and it was one that made headlines all over the world.

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On the evening of April 26, 2006, five students and four university staff were traveling from Taylor University’s campus in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The former base was located about 55 miles north of Upland – the town where the Christian college has its main presence today.

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And the group’s van made its way south along Interstate 69 as the clock ticked past 8:00 p.m. The vehicle was just a couple of miles shy of the exit for Marion, in fact, meaning the nine people on board were now not far from their destination. It was at that moment, however, that tragedy struck.

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For reasons that only became apparent after the event, a truck crossed the central reservation and headed straight for the Taylor University van. And, horrifically, there was nothing that the van driver could do to avoid a collision. Tragically, this crash would prove fatal for five of the nine passengers on board.

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Among the dead listed was a member of the Taylor University staff, Monica Felver, as well as four young students: Brad Larson, Laurel Erb, Betsy Smith, and Whitney Cerak. Three further members of staff had survived the impact, however, along with one student, who was named as Laura Van Ryn.

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Naturally, the scene that emergency responders came across that fateful night was heartbreaking. It was also chaotic, with the contents of the van and its passengers spread out across the road. And while the survivors were given life-saving care, the response team also tried desperately to identify the victims of the crash.

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It turned out, moreover, that Van Ryn, of Caledonia, Michigan, had suffered life-threatening head injuries. These were quickly bandaged by emergency workers, who also located her identity card. And soon after that, the university senior – who was 22 years old at the time – was taken to hospital in an unconscious state.

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Then, after the deceased were removed from the road, their family members were informed of the horrible news. ID cards and eyewitness statements had been taken at the scene, too, meaning there was no need for grieving loved ones to confirm the identities of those who had passed away. And Whitney Cerak’s family declined to see their daughter in person – perhaps distraught at the prospect of looking at her injuries first-hand.

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Cerak had been 18 years old and a freshman at Taylor, and her parents were naturally devastated to hear that their daughter had been killed in the crash. Their loss was mourned outside of the family, too. Days on from the crash, an estimated 1,400 people attended Cerak’s funeral, with the teenager’s sister providing a eulogy.

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Meanwhile, Van Ryn’s family were summoned to her hospital bed. The young woman had suffered terrible injuries that had left her in a state akin to a coma, and this meant she was unable to communicate with those around her. In addition, her face was bandaged and badly swollen, making it difficult even for her closest loved ones to recognize her.

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And, understandably, the crash itself sent shockwaves through the Taylor community. Responsibility fell on the shoulders of the university’s president Eugene Habecker, then, to lead his staff and students through the traumatic aftermath of the accident. He offered support, too, to the families of the deceased and injured.

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As a consequence, Habecker went to the hospital to visit Van Ryn – who remained unresponsive – and comfort the girl’s parents, Don and Susie. “[Van Ryn’s] head was fully bandaged, and she of course was still unconscious,” the college president recalled to TV news station Fox 59 back in 2016. He added, “I asked Don if I could hold Laura’s hand and pray for her.”

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Yet one question remained: what had the semi-trailer truck been doing on the wrong side of the road? Well, crash investigators interviewed the driver of the vehicle, Robert F. Spencer, and soon ascertained that he had fallen asleep at the wheel. That was the reason why Spencer had veered off course on I-69.

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It turned out, too that Spencer had provided false details in the lead-up to the crash. In particular, he had been driving for nine hours longer than permitted under federal law without taking a significant break and had doctored his time logs to disguise that fact. As a result, then, Spencer was subsequently charged with five counts of reckless homicide.

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The victims’ families were further devastated by this news. “One second of [Spencer] falling asleep, and we will suffer for the rest of our lives,” Felver’s daughters later said in a joint statement. But – in what may have been very small consolation for the relatives – Spencer did show remorse for his actions. “I know I’ll have to deal with this the rest of my life,” the truck driver said at his sentencing.

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Spencer was handed four years in prison for his role in the accident, ultimately spending half of that time behind bars. And years later, Jeff Larson – whose brother Brad had been killed in the crash – said that he didn’t hold any ill-will towards the driver. “Over the last several years, my heart has been drawn to respond with forgiveness,” Larson told Fox 59 in 2016.

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Yet while the families were able to discover the reason for the crash, it didn’t change the fact that their loved ones were gone. And Van Ryn in particular still had a significant fight on her hands: to recover from the sickening injuries that she had sustained in the crash. Fortunately, though, as time passed, the young woman began to slowly improve.

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Meanwhile, Van Ryn’s sister Lisa decided to keep a blog that was intended to update friends, family and other Taylor University students of her sibling’s treatment and progress. The online space was also somewhere that well-wishers could offer their prayers for the stricken university senior.

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And on May 29, 2006, Lisa offered an encouraging update. “While certain things seem to be coming back to [Laura], she still has times when she’ll say things that don’t make any sense,” she wrote. Slowly but surely, then, the student was regaining consciousness and the ability to communicate – which was of course wonderful news for her family.

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The recovering crash victim was also beginning to be able to whisper, although some of the things she said continued to baffle her carers and her own family. Then, five weeks after Van Ryn was admitted to hospital, an unbelievable discovery was made.

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You see, although hospital staff had been calling Van Ryn by her name, she had been responding in a barely audible whisper with another. Then, when the patient was asked to write down her first name as part of her recovery process, the truth came out. The young woman in the hospital bed was not Van Ryn at all; it was Whitney Cerak.

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And while the two women had looked remarkably similar, this seemed a particularly egregious case of mistaken identity. For one, the individual laid to rest all those weeks earlier at the memorial service had not been Cerak at all; Van Ryn had died, instead.

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How did this horrible mix-up occur? According to Fox 59, the wrong ID had been affixed to Van Ryn’s body at the crash scene, leading the authorities to believe that she had been Cerak. In addition, the woman in the hospital’s head injuries were so severe that she had been unable to voice her true identity for weeks.

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In the aftermath of the discovery, then, Cerak’s sister Carly took over Lisa’s blog to offer her family’s side of the events. “I did not believe my sister was in the hospital; I thought for sure this was a mistake. When I walked into the hospital room, I was shocked and overcome with joy,” Carly wrote. It was an incredible moment for the family.

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Yet it was a situation also heavily tinged with sadness for the Van Ryns. “Soon after we saw Whitney, our family met with the Van Ryns, and our joy for ourselves was pushed aside by the pain we felt for them. It is hard because our joy is their pain,” Carly added.

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And Van Ryn’s mother, Susie, summed up her feelings when talking to Dateline in 2008. “Well, it was hard,” she said. “But we knew where our daughter was… and we knew that [Cerak’s parents] Newell and Colleen needed to know where their daughter was.”

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But while losing their daughter and sister was naturally hard for the Van Ryns, they still had to deal with the possibility of people questioning them. How, after all, did they not recognize that the woman in the hospital bed was a complete stranger? Well, a psychiatrist has explained how, under the circumstances, such an event could play out.

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“The family members – they’re being told by the authorities that it is in fact their daughter,” Harvard professor Richard J. McNally told The New York Times in 2006. “The person in the hospital is rather badly banged up and bruised, and [the relatives] might conceivably accept that verdict from the authorities.”

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Meanwhile, others have asked why Van Ryn’s body was never positively identified. Yet this practice isn’t uncommon, as Dr. Tim Palmbach, a forensic scientist, told the New York Times. “Sure, in hindsight, we can say that an autopsy should have been done,” Palmbach said. “But usually, if it’s clear that the deceased wasn’t the driver, an autopsy isn’t done.”

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And, unsurprisingly, the incredible story received widespread media attention. The crash and the subsequent identity mix-up were covered in a special episode of Dateline as well as on both The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Today. They have also acted as the inspiration for episodes of both CSI: NY and House, M.D..

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But as terrible as the accident and the misidentification both were, lessons have since been learned. Back in 2006, state coroners in Indiana used a system known as presumptive evidence to identify bodies. And according to Tony Ciriello, who is the training director at the Coroner’s Training Board in the state, this step was then followed up by scientific findings.

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That meant that only regular forms of ID – such as drivers’ licenses – were used to identify bodies at the time of the crash. Van Ryn had then been paired with the wrong ID at the crash site, and this mistake hadn’t been flagged up by the Ceraks, who had declined to view who they thought had been their daughter. In addition, further steps to confirm identity – such as DNA testing, for example – were only performed at the coroner’s discretion.

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In this case, the coroner involved decided against this course of action. And, of course, Cerak was so badly injured that Van Ryn’s family couldn’t discern that the person lying in the hospital bed was not their daughter. As a result, this system of coroner’s discretion has been abolished in Indiana, with either family identification, scientific evidence or a mixture of both now required for all suspicious or unnatural deaths. The two girls’ home state of Michigan has enacted similar changes.

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And while these developments may be of little comfort to the Van Ryns, hopefully another Indiana or Michigan family need never go through the same emotional turmoil as they did in the aftermath of the terrible crash on I-69. But mix-ups continue to happen elsewhere. In Canada in 2018, the identity of two junior hockey players was confused after a crash. It took 48 hours for the error to be recognized, too, and this warranted an apology by the Saskatchewan Office of the Chief Coroner.

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Plus, for Cerak in particular, the mix-up has led to some surreal moments. And she spoke about some of these at the ten-year memorial service for the crash victims at Taylor University. “A lot of people wonder what will people say about you at your funeral. I know,” Cerak told the gathered audience.

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Cerak also recalled some of the things that people had said at her funeral. It turned out that her sister had revealed she didn’t shower enough; another eulogizer had added how Cerak hadn’t been very good at sports. But despite these light-hearted revelations, the young woman has remained deeply affected by the crash and the subsequent misidentification.

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Poignantly, the crash survivor also spoke about the family of Laura Van Ryn at the event. “The Van Ryns – they loved me like I was their daughter because they believed that I was their daughter,” she said. “And even after I wrote ‘Whitney’ and their world changed and they knew that I wasn’t their daughter, they still treated me like I was their family.”

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Unsurprisingly, then, a bond has formed between the Ceraks and the Van Ryns. “I love the Van Ryn family. They’re so great,” Cerak was reported as telling Today. In fact, the Cerak and Van Ryn families even collaborated on a book called Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope, which was published in 2008.

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In the years since the crash, then, Cerak – now a married mother of three – has grasped the chance at life she was afforded. In fact, in 2010 she said her wedding vows in the very same church where her funeral had been held just four years before. It was yet another surreal twist for the young woman and her family.

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“[The wedding] was such an unbelievable moment for us because we were at a moment in our life when we thought this would never be a possibility,” Cerak’s father, Newell, told HuffPost in 2012. And in the face of such tragedy and loss, it’s important to celebrate any happiness that survives.

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