By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
"I still felt I had a kid in me," she says bravely, and feels that way even after going through the tragedy of miscarriage and the frustration of fertility treatments. So it was a hopeful turn of fate when the phone rang at her Phoenix flower shop late last November. It was her good friend Brigid Dwyer, who works for Apple Computer in Seattle, and who was practically shouting into the phone.
"Wendy, Wendy, you'll never guess what just came over my Applelink," she said, referring to a company-wide computer bulletin board she'd just read. A woman in Columbus, Ohio, had collected food and clothing and medicine for Russian orphans, and out of gratitude for her charity, the Russian government would allow 40 American families to adopt Russian babies without the usual mind-numbing paperwork.
Wendy called her husband, Tim, and he wanted to think about it. "There isn't time to think," Wendy answered decisively; there were only a few seats left on the charter flight. By the end of the day, Wendy, her mother, and Brigid were all confirmed for the December 6 flight from Columbus to Moscow.
"Project Russia," as the trip was dubbed in the Columbus press, turned into a nightmare mission for the 100 or so people who, along with Wendy, blindly traveled halfway across the world to find children they had never met but thought they would know instinctively. It was a painful collision of naivet‚, desperation, pure emotion and wishful thinking.
But when it was all over, Wendy Sheedy got her baby.
@body:Over the next three weeks, Wendy was so busy trying to put her flower shop in order for the rush of the holiday season that she had little time to think of her trip to Russia.
Besides, she didn't need to think about it, because everything seemed to be arranged. Rebecca Davis, the Columbus woman who had initiated the trip, had sent extensive notes to everyone explaining where and when they would be for the whole week's tour.
"Rebecca led us to believe that everyone from here to Boris Yeltsin knew we were coming," Wendy says. "She even told us to bring a pretty outfit to wear the night we were going to meet with Yeltsin, and one for another night we'd be going to the Bolshoi."
Indeed, Davis' note about proper attire cautioned, "Please, nothing fancy, Mr. Yeltsin wears a nice suit to these affairs, we don't want to outdress the host."
The letters were handwritten and not typed, a format that clashed with their stately promises. If anyone took that as a clue to what would follow, he kept it to himself. And what followed was a disaster.
Although Russian bureaucracy had confounded generations of skilled American statesmen, the trip leader, Rebecca Davis, thought she could bluff her way past it armed with little more than her Christian good intentions. Her sincerity, feigned or imagined, filled a charter-plane load of enthusiastic people, thrilled with the prospects of parenthood.
Wendy's preparations were joyous, like Christmas come early, and when she drove to the airport, she says, "I brought with me three suitcases full of toys I'd collected from friends."
The hardest part of the trip, she thought, would be making a choice among babies. On the plane from Phoenix to Columbus, she composed the fantasy of her return from Russia. She would breeze up the jetway at Sky Harbor Airport to doting friends and relatives, carrying the most beautiful baby girl any of them had ever seen. Everyone would be reduced to tears.
Wendy's wonderfully romantic; it shows in the floral arrangements of strikingly exotic and long-stem blooms that come out of her shop on 24th Street at Campbell Avenue. She's a tall and big-boned beauty with frosted hair and a preference for dramatically red lipstick, which seems all the more surprising next to her pale skin. Though she claims to be the world's most anxious person, outwardly she's ebullient, a woman who could work the room at a party--joke about this, relate to that, amuse when conversation gets slow--and ultimately, make everyone feel good.
Though her parents separated when she was quite young, Wendy led a privileged childhood in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, and went to Catholic school, where she met Tim Sheedy. They didn't date until she was out of college and working as a stylist in the local film and television industry.
Tim is tall and lean, a steady counterweight to Wendy's emotion. "We fell in love in eight seconds," Wendy says. They moved in together almost immediately, and married after two years. Three years later, when Wendy's flower shop was running well and Tim had built up his construction business, they started to think about babies.
@body:One of the sad ironies of modern life is that after years of hearing parents quote Ann Landers about how they can become pregnant almost from the sound of a zipper opening, women suddenly hear their gynecologists hemming and hawing and suggesting that conception depends on a precise set of chemical and physical circumstances. What the doctor doesn't want to say is that after years of being "responsible," women reach their 30s--financially mature, emotionally prepared--only to discover that evolution meant for them to have babies ten years earlier.
Wendy discovered she had endometriosis, a fairly common abnormality in which the lining of the uterus does not properly slough off during menstruation. It can cause great discomfort and, ultimately, infertility.
She underwent surgery to correct the endometriosis, became pregnant almost immediately afterward, and then happily started planning for imminent parenthood. Three months later, Wendy miscarried, twice, because she had evidently been carrying twins.
She describes the loss matter-of-factly, trying to keep her voice from cracking, but she won't elaborate on her feelings. Tim was heartbroken. "I felt like something was coming down on me that I didn't deserve," Tim recalls. Wendy mourned at home for a week, then put on a brave face to go back to work. She needed more surgery, first to correct the damage caused by the miscarriage, then because the endometriosis returned. She consulted a fertility specialist who put her on a budget-breaking medication to prepare her for a procedure in which the patient's egg is fertilized with the husband's sperm in the lab and then transplanted into the womb. Her ovaries did not respond to the medication, however, and she was unable to undergo the procedure, which is iffy at best.
The fertility treatment was frustrating and demoralizing for Wendy. "You take your clothes off, get an ultrasound up the whatever, and then he says come back in a month," she says. She and Tim had already spent more than $10,000 trying to get pregnant, much of which was not covered by their health insurance, and they could easily have spent another $10,000 and still been childless.
Instead, they decided to rest a while and think about what to do next.
Tim was willing to accept defeat. "I wanted to have children," he says, "but Wendy is dead set on getting something going." She was determined, but she kept her emotions well-hidden.
"Wendy's a good gal at masking things to people who wouldn't treat that longing well," says Brigid Dwyer, her friend who called from Seattle. And indeed it's hard for people who have children to easily understand the power of maternal instinct, a force so great it can drive women with less impulse control to snatch babies from maternity wards. Even Wendy's mother, Margo Smith, was puzzled by it; but she had five children.
"You can't fight the feeling," Wendy says. "It's like a sickness. I have it about half the month, but some women have it all the time."
Logically, she could rationalize. She had a nice house, a good living, plenty of friends, a wonderful husband. "I know women who have four kids, and I wouldn't give a dime to have their husbands," she says. Still, she stacked the birth announcements for her friends' babies on a shelf in her kitchen, almost as self-mockery. Margo, her mother, and Brigid, her friend, both say that Wendy would go home and cry after delivering flowers from her shop to baby showers, especially to showers for friends. Wendy denies it. "I swear to God that my friends wanted me to be pregnant more than I did."
She and Tim had not yet considered adoption. Tim's father was adopted, in fact, and, as Wendy comments, "He never spent one minute trying to find out who his real parents were." Then she continues, "We weren't in a hard-up adopting position--yet."
When Rebecca Davis' pied-piper message came over the phone lines, they were split on what to do. Tim was cautious: "I was trying not to get excited, because I knew it might not happen." Wendy felt it was worth a try. At the very least, the $1,500 price of the trip would be an inexpensive way to see Russia, and if a baby came out of it, fabulous.
Tim let Wendy's optimism seep into him. He knew he wouldn't talk her out of it, anyway. "Wendy does what she wants," he says, and he loves her and trusts her enough to let her follow her instincts.
@body:Wendy and her mother landed in Columbus at three in the morning and checked into a hotel. They woke to gray, cloudy skies, rented a car, and drove to K mart, where they happily stocked up on stuffed animals and support hose, lotions and perfumes, the gifts they'd use to smooth the way in their dealings with Russian functionaries.
Late in the afternoon, they returned to the airport to find their friend Brigid, to meet their fellow travelers and to check in with Rebecca Davis. Given the scope and ambition of the trip, they had expected Davis to be a woman of great presence, someone who would tip a suitcase on its side, climb on top, welcome everyone to Columbus, and brief them on what would happen next.
They were surprised instead to find that she was a middle-aged woman of unremarkable appearance, schoolmarmish, perhaps, with glasses and long ringlets of blond hair. Davis was a nanny by profession, but she had a God-given talent for getting people to open their hearts and wallets. In years before, she had gathered enough food and funds to "adopt" a poor local school district and see that each household had a Christmas turkey and gifts under the tree for the children. Inspired by that success, she pulled off a similar small miracle for an Appalachian community. Project Russia was her first international venture, and, at first glance, promised to be successful.
Davis had been saddened by media reports on the plight of Russian orphans, 300,000 to 400,000 living in institutions, and she wanted to help. She convinced the pastor at St. Mark's United Methodist Church, where she was a parishioner, to let her open a checking account using the church's tax-exempt status. Using her past charitable works as a r‚sum‚, Davis introduced herself to the Columbus mayor's office and the Ohio governor's office, and alerted the newspapers. Mike Harden, a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch, wrote a series of articles about her crusade, and soon the donations were rolling in.
Ultimately, Davis collected nearly 400 boxes of clothing and diapers and Bibles and toothbrushes and food and soap and toilet paper, all of which she intended to present to the Russian authorities before the lights of TV news cameras and photographers' flashes. She invited Harden, the local stations and a Chicago video production company to come along for that purpose.
Davis also enlisted Roberta Grimm, a local rep for Apple Computer, who put out the alert over that company's computer bulletin board; though Apple had no official role in the trip, it did donate the services of Russian-English interpreters to the group in Moscow. The mere mention of the company's name, however, lent even more credence to the undertaking.
Neither Rebecca Davis nor Roberta Grimm would agree to be interviewed by New Times, so it is unclear how or why the prospect of adoption arose. Wendy's friend Brigid Dwyer had read the initial stories about Davis' humanitarian drive on the Applelink, and they said nothing about babies or adoptions until late November, but still and all, everything seemed respectable enough.
In the days before they were to leave for Columbus, Rebecca appeared several times on the local TV news. Each time she wore the same frumpy, red sweat shirt--another omen of her lack of professionalism, perhaps--but she spoke in knowing tones about the political situation in Russia. "They tell me Boris is very secure," she said at one point. The news anchors listened transfixed as she described the particulars of the expedition: A U.S. government plane would transport the medical supplies. Aeroflot would bring its largest cargo plane from Russia for the rest of the load, and the adoptive parents would ride a third charter jet. The station followed with footage of boxes stacked high in Rebecca's garage and in the rooms of her house. At the end of its report, the station flashed an address for the bank accepting cash donations across the screen.
Davis' instructions to the adoptive parents--even if they were handwritten--exuded the same confidence and authority. In one, she asserted that she would be met at the airport by the Russian Ministers of Health and Education--the two departments that had to approve foreign adoptions--and by Ludmilla Fimina, the director of Russian orphanages. Davis always referred to the latter simply as "Ludmilla," as if the two knew each other well. At any rate, the four of them would work out the adoptions.
The travelers were a diverse mix of people strung along a wide spectrum of longing and desperation. Wendy viewed them with quiet detachment, because she was still relatively new to the world of infertility and adoption, which has its own subculture and support groups. "People who have children don't hear these stories," she says plaintively.
Some of the travelers had natural children and felt they had enough love left over to provide for the less-fortunate orphans they'd read about in Russia. Others were childless couples at wits' end with fertility specialists and adoption agencies.
"The reason we looked to foreign adoption," says Jamie Combs, a prospective father from Alabama, "is the amount of money you have to pay in the U.S. for legal fees." He and his wife were terrified by accounts they'd read about children being wrenched from their adoptive families because their natural parents had a change of heart.
Whereas anyone, fit or unfit as a parent, can give birth to a child, adoptive parents have to meet strict qualifications, and some of the people on the trip did not: They were older than the norm, or single, or gay. One woman from Utah already had ten children, most of them adopted, and she wanted another. Several had adopted children from war-torn Rumania, where Americans had scoured the countryside two years earlier, sometimes literally buying children from their parents. (As one mother, Lynne Dundon from Columbus, said, "If I saw a parent trying to sell a child, I'd certainly buy it to get it away from that kind of parent.")
Russia loomed as the new adoption frontier, so new that the U.S. State Department has no record of adoption from the Soviet Union before October of 1991. In the last three months of that year, there were only 24 from the entire Soviet Union; then, in the first nine months of 1992, there were 724 from Russia alone, and 55 from Ukraine.
Despite the opening of the adoption window, the Russians imposed strict restrictions. The only children eligible for international adoption were those who had been "passed over" by Russian families because they were older, ill, or of mixed race. To bring them to the United States generally meant employing an adoption agency approved by the Russian government at a cost that can exceed $10,000, and then going through six months to a year of mind-numbing red tape and paperwork. To sidestep all that seemed a major miracle, but one that Davis' prospective parents were willing to believe in--though not without some doubts.
Davis had shown up late at the airport in Columbus and she was ominously reserved. The night before, she and her family and Roberta Grimm from Apple had called everyone to tell them that the initial $1,500 they had paid was not enough, and that they needed to ante up another $500 apiece. Some bailed out right there, either out of suspicion or because they had already spent the last of their savings to get that far.
Then Davis explained that because of another screw-up, the boxes and crates of humanitarian aid--the initial impetus for the mission--were not going with them. Davis had apparently assumed that Aeroflot and the U.S. military would graciously pick up the tab for shipping the boxes. Jamie Combs delayed checking his luggage until the last moment, troubled by other ominous details: Davis had promised that doctors and lawyers would accompany them to check the medical and legal status of the children. But, he says, "Everybody I talked to was there to adopt." When he learned that the fare he had paid was not refundable, he suspended his better judgment and he and his wife, Melissa, got on the plane.
Wendy, on the other hand, has a tendency to paint rosy pictures until the evidence to the contrary is insurmountable. "I was Miss Eternal Optimist standing there and saying, 'It'll work, it'll work.'" That evening's TV news captured Wendy bending over to hug a little girl in the airport. "You're so precious," she cooed as the cameras rolled. "I hope I find one just like you."
Once in the air, Davis left her seat in the first-class section of the plane and assured everyone that since she wouldn't be distributing the relief packages, she'd be able to devote her attention full-time to the adoption process.
@body:The Aeroflot airliner droned on into the night, stopping early the next morning in Shannon, Ireland. Though it was supposed to be a nonsmoking flight, that restriction was ignored by the Russian passengers who puffed as the other travelers fumed. They landed in Moscow at five o'clock the next afternoon, and if wintery Columbus had been gray, Moscow was "like an outside prison," as Wendy remembers it. There were no officials there to meet the plane as Davis had promised.
But their accommodations at the Kempinski Hotel were sumptuous and comfortable, and so close to Red Square, as Wendy says, "that back in my softball days, I could have hit it with a pitch."
They spent the first day recovering from the flight and adjusting to the time zone. Wendy was still optimistic; she wrote in her journal, "Thoughts about adopting keep me looking at the Russians for future thoughts about how a child may look. Women are beautiful, as well, very glamorous. People look much healthier and happier than I ever dreamed."
Day two passed without any visits to orphanages. Everyone huddled in the hotel, waiting for Davis to take care of everything. There was nothing else to do. "You couldn't even go to the Kremlin," Wendy says, "because it was surrounded by guys with guns and people screaming, having 'manifestations.'" President Yeltsin was fighting for his job and hard-line Communists were demonstrating outside the government buildings. Disenchanted with Russian cuisine, the travelers ordered pizzas from Pizza Hut and ate them in the lobby, then further enraged the German hotel manager by putting their feet up on the elegant furniture. "This is not a youth hostel," he would shout in Colonel Klink tones.
By Wednesday morning, when there was still nothing, the prospective parents started grumbling among themselves. "I think Rebecca is doing a great job and some people are bad-mouthing her," Wendy wrote in her journal. "I won't listen."
Davis' "friend" Ludmilla was nowhere to be found, but Davis forced a meeting with the Minister of Health, one of the officials in the chain of command regarding adoptions. The reporters followed.
Davis had asked Gary Levens, the camera operator for a Chicago production company filming a video about adoption, if he would lend the services of its translator. When they got to the minister's office, the translator turned to Levens in surprise and said, "They didn't know we were coming."
When the minister was tracked down and told he had company, he was civil and courtly. "I don't know what he'd been promised, but she didn't have any of it in hand," says Columbus Dispatch columnist Mike Harden, who also attended the meeting. Harden said he thought the minister was trying to figure out what to make of Davis.
"She put all the stacks of [adoption] applications on the table and never referred to them once during the meeting," says Levens. "The meeting consisted of her trumpeting herself to the minister, what a nice person she was, and how in the future, she expected to do many more nice things, and this is what she did for a living. He just sat there the whole time."
When Levens came back from dinner that night, the parents were milling in the lobby, excited because Davis had told individuals that they had all been approved for adoption, and word had spread. Levens told the prospective parents it wasn't true.
And so shortly afterward, when Davis tried to slip past the agitated crowd without saying anything to anyone, a clothing designer from Clarksville, Tennessee, named Pamela Bowman stopped her. Davis tried to put off her questions until the morning, but Bowman was firm: "You will meet with us now," she said.
"I don't have to discuss this with you," Davis said.
Bowman persisted, because Davis had told her personally that all had been approved. Davis waffled and then said that she had, in fact, discussed it with the Minister of Health that very day.
All eyes turned to Levens, the photographer, and someone asked if Davis had talked about adoption. "No," he said.
Davis blew up, told Levens that he didn't know what he was talking about, that she had had a private conversation in the corner. The tone of her voice confirmed everyone's worst suspicions: Davis was bluffing.
The room was spinning; parents called Davis a fraud and a liar; frightened and indignant, she turned to walk away. Roberta Grimm, from Apple, who had been friendly and cordial until this moment, jumped to Davis' defense and tried to shout the crowd down. "You all have extreme baby lust, and you ought to step back and take a closer look at this," she yelled, then jumped on an elevator and was whisked away.
The parents exploded with anger; the "baby lust" remark mocked their deepest emotions, the love they wanted to lavish on a child, and the very thing that had kept them from questioning the mission in the first place. Finally, a Protestant minister from Columbus calmed the people by asking them to kneel in the lobby and pray for divine guidance.
@body:That night, someone left dead fish wrapped in newspaper, a symbol of Russian enmity, at the door of Davis' hotel room.
Margo Smith, Wendy's mother, called home to stop payment on the check for $1,000, the additional fares they'd paid in Columbus; several other trip members did the same.
Wendy called husband Tim to tell him of her disappointment and disillusionment. He was angry and said that she had been taken advantage of. That night Wendy wrote in her journal, "Rebecca has really let us down."
Five months later, many of the trip members still wonder what possessed Rebecca Davis to make promises she couldn't guarantee, and why she continued to bluff them when everything fell apart. And they wonder how they ever believed her.
"These were not people off the farm," says Mike Dundon, a parent from Columbus, "but they never would have taken such a risk in their professional and social lives on such spotty information." He, like others, had harbored secret doubts, but still was shocked by the moment of revelation in the hotel.
Wendy and Margo had avoided the meeting in the lobby, but engaged in a screaming match of their own later that night. "I kept questioning Wendy as to what was going on," says Margo, "and she didn't have any answers. We don't usually fight, but she got really angry." Wendy counters: "She told me I was spoiled rotten, that there was no hope, and to admit to myself that this whole trip was a joke, and she knew it and everyone else knew it. But I said, 'There's something here to be had, and I don't know what it is, but I'm going to find it.'" Both women were right in the end.
@body:In Brigid Dwyer's little book of phone numbers was the name of a Russian businessman named Peter Vassilev. Recently, she had sat next to a fellow on a flight from Denver to Seattle who told her if she were ever in Moscow to look up his friend Peter. She had accepted the number in that way one accepts invitations to "do lunch sometime," but with no other card to play, she called it.
They met Peter over a lunch of peanuts and vodka. He was an intense and handsome young man with cropped black hair and Slavic features. He had studied in Colorado, had worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., but now was an international business consultant in Moscow. Graciously, he offered the three women the use of his office, his typewriters, fax machine, telephones, car and driver. And he started to set up meetings for them.
The first was with a minor functionary whom Wendy described in her journal as "the minister of mental and handicapped something or other." And so while Margo rode a bus out of town to tour an orphanage--a trip put together by the other trip members--Wendy and Brigid went to see the minister. He could not help them, but he politely brought them food.
"We were sipping the strongest, foulest coffee I had ever tasted and eating funky-assed biscuits that we had to eat because he offered them," Wendy recalls. They whispered to each other through tightly clenched smiles. "Brigid was chowing down on them. I asked, 'Are they good?', and she whispered, 'No.'"
When they returned to Peter's office, they found that he had arranged a meeting with a Dr. Nina Tchernyavskaya, head of a children's hospital, where they might see some babies. "The next morning," Wendy says, "we put together our suitcases with our stuffed animals and perfumes and lotions, soaps and pantyhose--those women go nuts over those things, remember that." Loaded down with trinkets, like Dutchmen looking to buy Manhattan, they commandeered a translator arranged for by Apple--Violet, a large and compassionate woman whose smile was a flash of gold dentistry--and raced off to the hospital in Peter's car with Peter's driver.
Brigid has since described the hospital as resembling One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest "minus the modern conveniences," but both women were charmed by the doctor, a kindly, smiling woman in late middle age, with painted-on eyebrows and a paper hat. In her journal, Wendy wrote of Dr. Nina, "She's worked hard in life, you can tell, and she has a very distinct and loving way about her."
Through years of authoritarian government and into the current political chaos, Russian citizens have been loath to stick out their necks (especially for strangers), lest they be cut off. Dr. Nina was no exception. She and Violet explained with much shrugging of shoulders and wringing of hands that they were powerless.
Brigid seized the moment by exploding into make-believe tears. She turned to Violet and demanded she translate her every word, then wailed, "Where is your compassion? We can't have babies," she lied--she is single and has no plans of becoming a parent in the near future, but the act was having its desired effect. "You have all these babies who need parents," she continued. "We flew across the world to help you and you don't care."
Wendy and Violet sobbed from the intensity of the performance, and so did a pair of nurses who witnessed the theatrics. Dr. Nina closed her eyes in pained understanding and gave a quiet order to the nurses, who then left for the nursery and returned carrying babies.
Of the seven or eight orphans they brought, some were clearly crippled from fetal alcohol syndrome, others had correctable cleft palates or other infirmities. Brigid held an Azerbaijani boy with a thatch of hair as thick as a Russian fur cap.
Then everyone turned to the sudden vision coming through the glass doors from the baby ward. A nurse cradled a tiny, blond infant--the child Wendy had dreamt about--and handed her to Wendy. "She was barely through the door and I said, 'Oh my God, this is the most beautiful baby I've ever seen in my life!'" Wendy recalls. As if waiting for that moment, the baby came alive in her arms, giggled and cooed, reached out for Wendy's face, and grabbed fistfuls of Wendy's hair.
"All of a sudden, she started laughing," Wendy continues, and she thought, "Why would anyone give up this beautiful child? She looks like a porcelain doll." She fell instantly in love. "It was unbelievable the way we connected, and who would ever believe I would adopt her?"
Tears flowed down every face in the room at the surge of serene energy emanating from the tall, blond American woman and the tiny Russian baby doll.
The child's name was Diana--though Wendy didn't know that--and she had been born with a mild heart defect. Her mother was an unwed 16-year-old girl who wasn't sure she wanted to raise a child, but had not officially given her over for adoption.
Wendy handed the baby back to the nurse, handed over the gifts she had brought to the doctor and nurses. Dr. Nina shoved pantyhose into her desk drawer.
"I will try to help you," she said.
That night, as she recorded the day in her journal, Wendy wrote, "I have named her Andrina," which was the respectful name that Violet used to address the doctor. "She's beautiful, and one day I hope to adopt her. But for all practical purposes, the red tape is as thick as it can get here in Russia, and it will take a very large act of God to get her home."
Wendy had correctly predicted the future.
@body:The next day, Wendy and Violet and Brigid met with Dr. Nina and made a deal, not a formal contract by any means, but rather one of those verbal agreements that one doesn't dare put into writing. Wendy was to obtain an ultrasound machine for the hospital, and in exchange, Dr. Nina would arrange for three infants--Andrina, another baby girl named Albina, and a boy named Vladimir--to be made available for adoption. Dr. Nina would do what she could to skirt the usual legal obstacles, which entailed signatures and approvals at two ministries, Ludmilla Fimina's office and the local government.
Dr. Nina dictated a letter granting power of attorney to Violet so that she could legally manage the Russian red tape after Wendy returned to Phoenix. The letter had to be translated into English, typed in both languages, and notarized at the U.S. Embassy. Violet did the translation, Peter's secretary did the typing, and the three women piled into the car to try to get to the embassy before six o'clock, when, as a voice on the phone at the embassy had warned her, the "building closes up like a prison."
According to the clock on the car's dashboard, it was 5:45. The streets were clogged beneath falling snow, but the traffic was dark and silent, as Russian drivers use neither horns nor headlights. Peter's driver was aggressive, veering out into oncoming traffic to pass cars, then swerving back at the last moment. "People were driving up trees to avoid us," Wendy says.
They reached the embassy at two minutes before the hour, but at a door two blocks from where Wendy needed to be. She asked the way from embassy personnel at the door, then started running, flustered and frantic, in the direction she had been pointed. The driver followed alongside in the car, rolling down the window and calling out to find out what was wrong. When she reached the door, she found it locked, and she burst into tears.
A U.S. Marine on duty noticed her through the window and let her in. She ran to the office she needed. The clerk she had spoken to on the phone turned out to be the cousin of a friend. They chatted, they munched on brownies, they stamped the papers. Then the clerk told her there would be a $20 fee, and Wendy realized that she had left her purse in the car. He let it slide with a promise that she pay him back later.
@body:Davis hid in her room for the remainder of the trip, either because she was rightfully mortified by the scope of the charade she had been acting out or physically afraid of the justifiably irate people she had duped. She has refused to explain her motives or admit any failure of her own. On the flight back to the United States, Davis sat with her family, all color drained from her face and sullen in the first-class section. The more verbal and less inhibited of the adoptive parents would angrily point her out to anyone who would listen, berating her as a fraud and a fool. She sat silently.
"In plain Alabama terms," Jamie Combs says, "when the wheels came off the wagon, she just went into a shell. [Her actions] were the worst judgment I've ever seen--but she would not concede defeat." She still won't. On her return from Moscow, Davis wrote a letter to the trip participants saying, "Russia's promises fell to pieces." Months later, when contacted by New Times, all Davis would say is that "the Russians refused to accept my papers." Later she told anyone those who complained how lucky they were to have gone on the trip.
When Tim met Wendy at the airport, he found her in tears, strung out and exhausted from the ordeal. He didn't think of saying "I told you so," and since she seemed so resolved that she would eventually return to Moscow to bring back Andrina, he didn't try to talk her out of it.
Wendy was understandably confused about what she had been through, and she was not alone. In that way of strangers who are thrown together in adventure or misadventure, the trip participants kept in touch, exchanging snapshots and videos and little newsletters detailing who was following through on adoption plans. More than anything, the letters asked what the hell Rebecca Davis had been up to, and detailed every tidbit uncovered about her. The participants speculated whether Davis was a publicity-hungry egomaniac or a naive do-gooder. How she convinced 100 people to act against their better judgments is another question. When the prospective parents got back to Columbus, the local newspapers denounced them as stupid, which only exacerbated the pain they felt at being duped. Hindsight is cheap. Trip members who had already adopted children from abroad in general and Russia in particular say Rebecca Davis knew the right names to drop--Ludmilla Fimina's, for example. Apple put Rebecca's story on its bulletin board, the church let her take out a checking account. She had pulled off previous charitable drives. Even people with no emotions at stake were fooled. "She came fully credentialed," says Sandi Bartley, an administrator in the office of Columbus mayor Gregory Lashutka. When Davis presented herself to the city, she had photocopies of newspaper stories about her past works and was very convincing. Bartley even went on the trip.
"She was the most convincing person in the world," Wendy echoes.
Some are more angry than others. As Lynne Dundon, a trip member from the Columbus area, says about going, "What the hell else are people supposed to do, ask for a polygraph?" Dundon has children of her own, was by no means desperate to adopt, but rather was willing to take in a child in need. She had been to Davis' house several times before the trip, and had never felt cause for alarm. And so the deception came all the more painfully.
Yet many of the participants carried a feeling of foreboding into the trip. The handwritten notes might have been a clue. "You saw it coming," says Lynne Dundon's husband, Mike. "So why didn't you see it coming?"
Jamie Combs, who had hung back from boarding the plane until the last minute, keeps a philosophical attitude. "I was fool enough to think all that stuff was true and I took the trip," he says. But as for Davis' conduct, he says, "That's called lying and that is not right."
Indeed, Davis lied.
Over the course of planning the trip, Davis would frequently tell people she had just gotten off the phone with Ludmilla Fimina, her contact with the orphanages in Moscow. But Jan Edelen, of Park City, Utah, who had already adopted a Russian child, shared a mutual friend with Ludmilla Fimina, Davis' alleged contact. While Edelen was in Moscow for Project Russia, she even met with Fimina--who was not aware Davis was in town. And strangely, Fimina told Edelen that she hadn't heard from Davis since October, that she had repeatedly called and faxed Davis as to her intentions, but never got a response. Fimina thought she would be accepting donations to give to the orphans--but nothing was ever said about adoptions.
Davis kept up the charade even after the trip. She wrote in a letter to a disgruntled trip member who had asked for a refund that Fimina, "the head of the orphanages, was under investigation for selling people babies." Lynne Dundon called the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and was told that this was not remotely true.
In the months preceding the trip, Rebecca had apparently been so absorbed in the celebrity of fund raising that she had neglected the trip logistics. Heather Bomberger, Davis' contact in the U.S. State Department, who was supposed to help arrange the airlift, says that she was contacted by Davis in late October, and told Davis how to go about applying for an airlift for her humanitarian aid. Though it takes weeks to arrange for a military plane, Davis didn't complete the application process until two or three days before departure. Furthermore, as Bomberger says, "We weren't really excited about the type of commodity they were shipping. We only airlift critical materials," not Bibles and teddy bears and furniture.
Rather than admit her mistake there, Davis became desperate. "All hell broke loose," Bomberger says. Davis tried unsuccessfully to bluff an airlift by calling her congressmen, but it didn't work.
Bluffing had worked well for her before. Courtney Baird, who handles overseas humanitarian missions for the Ohio governor's office, says, "The night before they were to leave, the visas still hadn't come through. Davis called the Russian ambassador and said, 'The media is in my kitchen, and I'm going to tell them you're biting the hand that feeds them.'"
According to a lawsuit filed by Just Travel, the travel agency that set up the flights and accommodations for Project Russia, on November 28, Davis wrote the agency a check for nearly $72,000 to cover the costs of the trip. The check bounced. Still, Davis didn't throw in the towel. Instead, she convincingly promised to cover the shortfall--which may have prompted the last-minute fee adjustment that Davis said would pay for meals. The travel agency let the trip go on. In Moscow the trip members discovered they still had to pay for their own meals.
In its lawsuit, Just Travel is trying to recover a remaining balance slightly greater than $19,000 to cover the cost of the hotel in Moscow. St. Mark's United Methodist Church was also named in the suit, because its name was on the Project Russia checking account. The church plans to file a cross claim to have its name removed from the suit.
Davis filed some suits of her own in small-claims court to try to collect from those people who had stopped payment on their checks from Moscow. She later dropped the claims after a conversation with her Methodist bishop, who was understandably upset that she had dragged the church into her scandal. The Reverend Louise Williams, pastor at St. Mark's Church, loses her temper at the mere mention of Davis' name.
One newsletter Wendy received asked if anyone was filing a class-action suit against Davis, but got no takers. Mike Dundon and others reported Davis to the Ohio Attorney General's Office and the FBI, and though the Ohio attorney general will neither confirm nor deny anything, the Columbus office of the FBI admits that it is concluding an investigation as to whether Davis committed wire fraud, and if she did, whether she had criminal intent.
Roberta Grimm sent a letter to everyone shortly after their return, stressing that Apple Computer had no official role in Project Russia and that her participation was as a private individual and not as an employee of Apple. Lynne Dundon recently ran into Grimm in a supermarket check-out lane, introduced herself as one of the parents still smarting from the "baby lust" remark. Grimm invited her out to the parking lot, saying she wanted to "beat the crap" out of her. Dundon declined the invitation.
Not all news traveling among the Project Russia veterans was negative, however. At least two couples from Utah did succeed in adopting children they saw in orphanages in Russia, and others were working on it through agencies.
@body:For Wendy, it was a long, damp winter in the flower shop, wading through the paperwork she needed to adopt Andrina, whom she now referred to as "my baby" in her letters to Peter Vassilev. She wired $800 to a Denver bank on Peter's behalf to carry on the negotiations. In a letter, he accepted that payment as the first week's pay--not a bad salary, especially for Moscow--and after that he would work for free. Secretly, she wondered if he was really doing the work he promised, if the humanitarian aid would end up on the black market. She wanted to trust her instincts, but they had been wrong before. "You can obviously tell I'm not a good judge of character," she jokes.
The letters plodded back and forth across the Atlantic for weeks. "A Russian 'no' is a 'yes' tomorrow and a 'maybe' the day after," she learned. The baby was eligible for adoption--and then perhaps not. Dr. Nina would hand her over even without an ultrasound machine, and then maybe not. And who was to say if such decisions were even within Dr. Nina's breadth of authority? Always she would know in two weeks, then two weeks more, then two weeks again.
Wendy wondered if the baby was really healthy--she had had some heart condition, never specified. Dr. Nina was going to say she was still sick so that she could be adopted abroad, but she really wasn't--or was she?
"I thought, 'Am I nuts for wanting to go to Russia to pick up this baby?'" Wendy says, the pain coming through in her voice. "She could have a bad heart. I could be opening up a can of worms."
In dribs and drabs, Wendy assembled the myriad adoption documents that she refers to as "14 piles of bullshit, butt rash, and paperwork." She discovered a new one with each phone call: a home study conducted by a social worker to decide if she and Tim were fit parents; a declaration of income; HIV and other medical tests; wedding certificate; passports; state and federal notarizations and certifications. Dr. Nina finally put her in touch with a Russian adoption agent in New York, who could smooth the documents through the Russian system.
@body:Dr. Nina intended to turn over three babies. On the plane home from Russia, Wendy had asked Jamie and Melissa Combs, the couple from Alabama, if they wanted one. The Combses had gone through four fruitless years of fertility treatments, so they accepted, though at first they weren't sure it was for real. The conversation was overheard by Jean Brown, the woman from Salt Lake City who already had ten children, four of them adopted from Rumania and four adopted from within the United States. Brown asked for Wendy's name and then approached her at the baggage station in the Columbus airport. She struck Wendy as "the kind of woman who gets what she wants"--a description that later took on negative connotations--and Wendy agreed to let her have the third baby.
Brown called Wendy one afternoon and said, "Guess what?"
Wendy answered, "You're pregnant?" But no. Jean Brown had found an ultrasound machine to complete the transaction. Then in March, Wendy says that Brown called again, but this time she said, "I want two children," and too bad about Jamie and Melissa. It was her ultrasound machine.
"These are children, not objects," Wendy sputtered after the conversation. "She comes up with the ultrasound machine, which is payola to her. She does not give a flying shit about these other people. She uses people like stones across a stream." Wendy was so upset that she broke out in shingles. She decided to cut Jean Brown out of the deal.
Brown denies that she and Wendy had any disagreement over children, but refused to comment otherwise for fear that her remarks--or anyone's--would put Dr. Nina at risk and jeopardize the adoptions.
"I have no hard feelings against Wendy," Brown says. "But she does not realize that what she says can possibly impact the adoption. The adoptions in Rumania stopped in large part due to the journalism in America saying that people were buying babies, and it embarrassed the government. "I'm thinking about the children who could be adopted," Brown continues, "and the people here who are dying to adopt. If you're going to put Dr. Nina's name in print, we don't have a further conversation."
The Combses claim that an agitated Brown has continued to try to call them, and Wendy, and Dr. Nina, still trying to get in on the exchange. But none of them will talk to her.
And so Wendy searched for another ultrasound machine until, early in April, she found a friend of a friend whose gynecologist had one she could take and refurbish. Monday, April 5, Wendy went to pick it up. As she joked with the receptionists at the doctor's front desk, she realized that her period was late. A nurse half-jokingly suggested she take a pregnancy test.
After so many miles and so much work, suddenly a new obstacle, albeit a joyous one, stood between Wendy and Andrina.
Wendy was pregnant!
@body:At first Wendy kept the rosy picture before her eyes. She would still go to Russia for Andrina, she thought, until her obstetrician told her she is at high risk of losing the child she now carries--even if she stays home--given her medical history.
Tim has said he would rather have his own child than an adopted one--a normal reaction. Wendy feels strongly that she only wants one child and fears she might not be able to cope with two.
Her mother pooh-poohs that notion and has offered to go to Russia for Wendy to pick up Andrina. "If she were to get this little baby, it would take away the pressures," Margo says. "She'd be so busy taking care of this little girl that she'd have no time to worry. Instead, she's thinking 24 hours a day, 'Am I going to lose this baby?'"
The logical decision was to stay home, to give up the dream of Andrina. But none of this was ever about logic. It's about instincts and emotions far more powerful. So when Tim and Wendy both describe the great financial weight of adopting Andrina lifted from their shoulders, it rings false.
Still, Wendy decided that the Russian baby will go to the Combs family. Jamie Combs has already taken delivery of the ultrasound machine, and taken over dealings with the adoption agent in New York. Vladimir, the baby boy, will go to another couple in Texas that the Combses chose; the third child will stay in Russia. Jamie Combs hopes that everything will be complete by the first week in June and that he and Melissa will go to Russia a week or two later to bring Andrina home.
"If," he says with a tentative catch to his voice, "if it all goes through." There remains a chain of Russian bureaucrats that the adoption agent must have sign the final papers, and nothing is certain until Andrina is on the plane to her new home.
Wendy, too, sits anxiously waiting for her own baby to arrive without a hitch. Her home garden looks forlornly neglected and overgrown for a florist's. Her mother Margo worries that she's not taking care of herself. She's already wearing maternity clothes as if to hang on by positive force of will. But she has made it through the first three months, the point at which she miscarried on her first pregnancy. It was a major psychological milestone.
God willing, she'll get her baby, and love it with the same passion with which she approaches everything in life, with the optimism that kept her after Andrina. In Moscow, there's a baby that she fell in love with. "If I don't get her, fate will take care of her and of me," she had said before she knew she was pregnant. If Andrina makes it to Alabama, Wendy will still get to hold her in her arms, and the Combses will love her as dearly as Wendy would have.
But still, as her own child grows inside her, there's a nagging hint of heartbreak, and she says, "I feel like I need to go get that baby.