Baby Ingrid Johnson made national news when Miccosukee tribal police seized the newborn from her Indian mother — at a Miami hospital more than 30 miles from the reservation. Four days later, under intense public pressure, a tribal court relented and returned the child.
The baby's parents on Friday filed a lawsuit against tribal members and employees, including the Miccosukees' lawyer, as well as Baptist Hospital for allowing the "armed kidnapping" of the child "out of the arms of her mother."
The lawsuit filed on behalf of father Justin Johnson seeks damages for the emotional distress caused to baby Ingrid and her parents during the ordeal.
"We believe a horrible crime has been perpetrated against out client," Miami lawyer Richard Wolfe said during a Friday afternoon press conference. "This was a kidnapping, an abduction done at gunpoint."
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Said Johnson, who is not Indian: "I'm fearful that the Miccosukee tribe would try this again."
The removal of the baby drew harsh criticism from officials such as Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who believed the tribe overstepped its authority by seizing the newborn outside the confines of the reservation.
The small Indian tribe, which numbers about 600 members, is considered a sovereign nation and has its own court system and police department, which generally do not have jurisdiction off the federally designated reservation deep in the Everglades. Over the years, the tribe has squabbled with state authorities repeatedly over jurisdictional issues.
The tribe has insisted its court had the legal authority to take the baby, saying federal law mandates their orders be given "full faith and protection" by state authorities. Indian-law experts, however, have told the Miami Herald that the Miccosukee order needed to be first reviewed and endorsed by a Miami-Dade state court judge.
A lawyer for the tribe did not return a request for comment. Earlier, the tribe issued a statement saying it “took appropriate action in this case.”
The baby's removal from the hospital was first reported by the Miami Herald. The child was born at Baptist Hospital in Kendall on March 16, to a Miccosukee mother named Rebecca Sanders, and Johnson, who is white.
The parents told the Miami Herald that the maternal grandmother, an influential tribe member named Betty Osceola, had always disliked Johnson and grew angry that he was at the hospital. She responded by asking a tribal court for an “emergency order granting temporary custody” of Baby Ingrid to herself and the mother of Sanders' former tribal-member husband.
The tribal court agreed. The order did not say Sanders posed a danger to her newborn, instead describing Johnson as a domestic-violence threat who had been ordered to stay away from the reservation.
Baptist staff kicked Johnson out of the hospital. The following morning — two days after Ingrid was born — two Miccosukee police detectives responded to the hospital, with Miami-Dade police along for backup to carry out the "pick-up" order, to take away the child.
Miami-Dade Police said their officers were initially told it was a “federal court order” — not a tribal court order. Baptist Hospital acknowledged it received a “court order,” but said it cooperated because the county police were on the scene.
The lawsuit said that tribal court had no jurisdiction to seize the baby, who does not have enough Indian blood to qualify as a Miccosukee tribal member.
The seizure of the baby sparked frantic action by the State Attorney's Office and Miami-Dade police as they sought to figure out whether the tribal order was valid. Police began a missing-persons investigation, which closed when the Miccosukee court allowed the child to return to her mother.
"The abduction and false imprisonment of Baby Ingrid occurred during a critical imprinting stage of that child's life," according to the lawsuit. "Baby Ingrid, because of this traumatic experience, now refused to breastfeed. This deprives her of important nutrients and the other positive benefits of breastfeeding."
The suit does not go after the tribe itself; as a sovereign nation, the Miccosukees are generally immune from lawsuits.
But it does name Osceola, Miccosukee Police Detective Michael Gay, tribal judge Jane W.O. Billie, tribal attorney Jeanine Bennett and tribal social worker Jennifer Prieto. The group "worked together to defraud" the hospital and spread bogus and concocted allegations of domestic abuse against Johnson to remove the baby, according to the lawsuit.
A tribal court in November had banned Johnson from the reservation after Sanders filed a petition alleging he was abusive toward her, a claim she says is false and her family pressured into filing. He said he never got served the tribal restraining order.
Also, the hospital allowed Gay into the hospital with his sidearm. "He is not allowed to have a gun off tribal territory," Wolfe said.
The suit also names Baptist, nurse Sherri Varela and other hospital staffers who allowed the baby to be taken by honoring a supposed tribal court order that was not valid. It remains unclear what court documents staffers actually saw that day.
"This abduction, aided and abetted by Miami-Dade Police and the employees of Baptist Hospital, then precipitated a four-day fiasco that separated two loving parents from their newly born child," according to the lawsuit filed by Wolfe and Maximilian Steiner.
A Baptist spokeswoman said in a statement: "We feel for everyone involved in this challenging circumstance. It is our policy to be in compliance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations and to work in accordance with the highest ethical and moral standards. We are unable to comment on the specifics of pending litigation."
The Miami-Dade Police department could also be targeted in a lawsuit, according to Johnson's lawyers